When it was clear by mid-March that absolute denial of the coronavirus was no longer a strategy, President Trump tried to pull “a 180” and instead channel his inner Winston Churchill. No matter that the source of the global COVID-19 pandemic was a non-sentient virus that’s measured in something called nanometers. Now, America would fight the coronavirus on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets and in the hills — and we shall never surrender.
On March 17, Trump started calling the response to America’s greatest public-health emergency in more than a century “a war” that was being waged against “an invisible enemy” that clearly was every bit as evil as the Nazis during World War II. "One day we’ll be standing up here and say, ‘Well, we won,’ the president told one of rambling White House briefings, seemingly fantasizing about an eventual ticker-tape parade down Wall Street’s “Canyon of Heroes.”
In the two weeks since then, the president and his men have doubled down on the military symbolism, even as it seems the only real similarity between the 2020 pandemic and actual combat will be the Vietnam War-sized body count of the casualties. Whether it’s launching a military hospital ship on its voyage toward the front lines in New York City or appearing, as he did Wednesday, flanked by top Pentagon brass in uniform, Trump wants it known that he’s not the bumbler who told Americans that coronavirus cases would soon go from 15 to zero, but rather “a war president.”
Let’s face it, this crisis would be a lot easier for President Trump if he could simply order his generals to bomb an abandoned Syria airstrip (the day “he became president,” according to some of the lazier TV talking heads) or even ride a nuclear warhead waving a cowboy hat all the way down like the actor Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. When you’re a carpenter, every problem looks like a nail, but when you’re the American president, every world crisis calls for cruise missiles, even when the target is too tiny for the human eye.
Look, Donald Trump is not the first American president to see a political benefit from invoking the rally-'round-the-flag effect that many everyday citizens feel when the nation is “at war,” real or imagined. In 2004, in fact, George W. Bush pulled the exact same maneuver of declaring himself “a war president” — and kept his job with 51 percent of the vote, even though the war that he’d lied the United States into had already become a quagmire.
And today, the coronavirus crisis has become an all-hands-on-deck situation in which the world’s most expensive military actually does have a lot to contribute, from its hospital ships and stockpiles of other key materiel to people power in constructing new temporary field hospitals. But that shouldn’t obscure the bigger point that America’s addiction to militarism in the years since the Cold War has ultimately spent and — it now seems clear — wasted trillions of dollars to defend against hypothetical threats while leaving us practically helpless for the real ones.
Trump didn’t create this mess, but psychologically it’s hard to imagine a worse commander-in-chief to step into it. The president clearly has a crush on “the generals” — bringing in a whole platoon at the start of his administration — and has in the process managed to expand America’s “forever war” that he promised 2016′s voters he would end.
But even worse, his narcissistic personality disorder and other weird phobias have stripped Trump of any empathy, a quality that would come in handy at a moment when already far more Americans have died than in 9/11. Some Trump watchers note that the president only developed a somber tone matching the moment when a Manhattan developer pal — “a tough guy,” the president noted — became gravely ill. That’s Trump’s world — he always knows how to praise men in uniform or other “tough guys,” but can’t even comprehend the simple language of sympathy for the sick or grieving — and yet it’s really just an extreme, farcical version of the America that he inherited as president.
For years, we’ve shunted aside or even ridiculed a so-called “mommy party” of Democrats wanting sissy stuff like hospitals to nurse the sick or pre-schools for our little toddlers, while worshiping a “daddy party” of Democrats keeping us safe with their tanks and drones, not realizing that Dad was actually out every night blowing the budget to get drunk on worthless, exploding gadgets.
Think that’s an exaggeration? In February of this year, when the coronavirus was already rampaging through Wuhan and the first handful of cases had arrived on American soil, Trump signed off on a congressionally approved $740.5 billion Pentagon budget that, even when adjusted for inflation, was the nation’s largest since World War II. Driving that growth was an obscenely huge spike in the amount of our tax dollars toward our web of nuclear weapons, including — according to this excellent summary in Slate of a story that most of us ignored — “money for expanded weapons-production facilities as well as a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile, a new long-range bomber, a new cruise missile, and a new nuclear-missile submarine.”
Now, here we are just six weeks later with the president realizing that you can’t nuke our “enemy” when it’s only 120 nano-microns wide. And think about it: America has spent more than a trillion dollars since 2001 to wage an incomprehensible war in Afghanistan and to rain Predator missiles down on nations that most citizens couldn’t find on a map, all justified under the stated purpose of preventing a second 9/11 on U.S. soil. Instead, we cut spending and ignored the blinking red lights warning of this invisible attack that’s already far more deadly than what happened at the World Trade Center.
Meanwhile, as the New York Times put out there in a remarkable investigative piece the other day, the same federal government that was throwing dollars onto a Defense Department bonfire totally dropped the ball on a program to develop and then mass-produce a more affordable ventilator to respond to those (ignored) warnings about a mass pandemic. This was partly an infection of capitalism (the firm with the initial contract was bought out by a rival protecting its profit-making line of more expensive ventilators) but the feds also lost interest even though the cost of its ventilator contracts was less than $20 million, or a few new toilet seats over at the Pentagon. (In fairness, the Pentagon itself warned of a ventilator shortage, and was also ignored.)
Of course, since 2017 America has been governed by a White House that, with some help from Capitol Hill, hates science as much as it loves nukes. It’s not even clear why the Trump administration dismantled the National Security Administration’s task force that dealt with pandemics, or why the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to cut two-thirds of its staff in China in the two years before the coronavirus, or why Trump’s budgets repeatedly called for cuts in CDC spending while the Pentagon got its blank check. Maybe it’s because taking science seriously would mean acknowledging the other invisible enemy — climate change — or maybe just because Trump’s disdain for eggheads with stethoscopes is equal to his man-crush on men in uniform. All I know is that the nation with the world’s largest defense budget has been rendered utter defenseless.
And yet the crude politics of Trump trying to ride out this storm — which surely could have been greatly minimized — as “a war president” doesn’t alarm me as much as the thought that he’ll be tempted to become a real war president as the public-health crisis deepens. Indeed, the saber-rattling with Iran, an adversary now weakened by the deadly virus, is already starting. With the world already practically at its breaking point, the only thing worse than wasting $740 billion on our toys of mass destruction would be actually using them somewhere.
That’s why it would also be a great idea for our president to shut up with all the militaristic rhetoric and tell the Pentagon brass to stay on their side of town while the men and women in the shiny white coats run the show for the time being. America needs the language of healing right now, not Operation Overlord, nor do we need another Churchill, or to pin down the virus on the sands of Omaha Beach. We just need the two qualities that our 45th president seems so incapable of summoning — empathy, and an abiding faith in the power of science.