Panicking Trump tries to change the subject

Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.

The deadly pandemic is surging in the United States. Efforts to stop the spread have largely failed, with more Americans than ever becoming infected every day. In the face of the growing calamity, the leader of the country announced via Twitter he has taken decisive action — to protect statues. President Donald Trump tweeted late Friday afternoon that he signed a “very strong” executive order protecting monuments and statues, with “Long prison terms for these lawless acts against our Great Country!”

Trump wants Americans to look at the anti-racism protesters tearing down statues of Confederate generals and other historical figures they don’t deem worthy of monuments, and he wants them, the voters, to be afraid, and believe he can protect them. He has ordered the restoration of a toppled statue of a Confederate general — a wink to far-right supporters — and is hoping that his shouts of “law and order,” conjuring an amorphous menace from “arsonists, anarchists, looters, and agitators,” will turn the tide threatening to sweep him out of office.

Trump is desperately trying to change the subject from the death and disease spreading across the country, sticking his fingers in his ears and shouting as loudly as he can so that Americans will look away from the catastrophically mismanaged national challenge. The President — who early on made it his distasteful habit to compare the US’ performance to other countries’, disparaging Europe while it was in the grip of the pandemic — has led America into a tragic, humiliating position. The world’s wealthiest country, rich in expertise and resources, has been unable to bring the virus under control.

The European Union is preparing to reopen, having brought the rate of new infections to a small fraction of what it once was. The EU is reopening next week and will not allow Americans to enter. There’s your border wall.

With the prospect of losing reelection by a landslide, Trump views any acknowledgment of the pandemic disaster as another mark against him. So, he not only lies about it himself, he sent Vice President Mike Pence to do a more elegant version of his misleading claims. Pence, appearing Friday for the first time in almost two months with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, claimed against all evidence, “all 50 states,” are “opening up safely and responsibly.” He told Americans, “we’ve all seen encouraging news as we open America again,” misleadingly saying the upsurge in cases is “a reflection of a great success in expanding testing.”

That was an equally false but less preposterous-sounding claim than Trump’s assertion that, “If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases,” a claim that has unleashed an international torrent of mockery all the way to the other side of the world. It’s a sad thing for many Americans to see the world laughing at their President.

But Trump’s behavior is increasingly astonishing. In the middle of the worst health crisis in a century, Trump’s team asked the Supreme Court to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. If the court agrees, 23 million Americans could lose their health insurance. Trump proposes no replacement. The economy’s nosedive has resulted in more than 47 million people filing for unemployment. The move would leave the unemployed potentially without access to insurance at a time when their health is most endangered. The move is so vile it looks like something from the mind of a mustache-twirling cartoon villain.

Similarly cartoonish was Trump’s peculiar Thursday night interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. The predictably friendly questioning included the most expected softball to a presidential candidate. “What are your top priority items for a second term?” Hannity purred.

The rambling answer went around in circles of nonsense — including a mention of “an idiot like Bolton,” referring to his former national security adviser who has written a devastating first-hand account of what went on the Oval Office — without ever saying what he plans to do.

Trump is interested in power, in adulation, not in governance.

If he were interested in governing, in guiding the country forward, the US would not be in this horrific mess. A moderately responsible leader would have allowed the country to take the needed actions to fight the pandemic with a unified message and a serious strategy. Former CDC director Tom Frieden told BuzzFeed news that the US probably could have managed to do as well as Germany, which has a fraction of the deaths the US has, and is reopening its economy safely along with most of Europe.

Instead, Trump and the Republican governors who admire him continue sending mixed messages, acting as if wearing a mask — which is proven to sharply slow the number of new infections — were a political statement against the President.

As a result, the virus is surging in most of the country. Arizona has lost control of the pandemic, with more per capita cases than New York in its worst day, more than any country in Europe, and even more than Brazil, one of the hardest-hit countries. Tough-guy Republican governors in Texas and Florida are struggling with record numbers of daily cases and a sharp rise in hospitalizations. At least 30 states are fighting against the climbing contagion.

Trump wants to get the economy going in time to help him in the November election, but even the inured stock market took a plunge on Friday, alarmed at the resurgence of Covid-19 cases across America. Even Wall Street is getting uncomfortable with the numbers. A more disciplined approach, following the government’s own guidelines for reopening, would have likely allowed infections to decrease followed by a safe, steady return to economic growth. But Trump was in a hurry. Trump didn’t want to be seen wearing a mask. Trump wanted the MAGA faithful “liberated,” even if it sent thousands to their deaths.

Now, the President sees the anti-racism protesters as his last chance. He wants to paint them as the “American carnage,” he claimed existed when he took office, when he promised that only he could fix it. But it was he who helped usher it in. Restoring statues and shouting “law and order” won’t change that.

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