Ever since Donald Trump came into office, speculation has been rife as to how a US-government led by him would fare in the event of a major domestic or international crisis. The coronavirus crisis is now providing answers to that question. His government’s crisis management has been a disaster so far, because Trump seems incapable of putting aside his destructive personal instincts. He is following three basic tendencies, which have served him well in the past as a populist, but which will cause severe damage to the US population in this situation and may usher in the end of his political career.
Narcissism, delusion and lies
Firstly, due to his boundless narcissism, every statement he makes remains all about him, even now. He has argued, for instance, that coronavirus is a nasty trap set for him by China, Europe or the Democrats, depending on how he feels on any given day. Everything is always someone else’s fault, never his own. The primary objective of his crisis management is, and remains, his own position and re-election. This is accompanied by an astounding lack of empathy, leading him to see and deal with the pandemic almost solely from the point of view of economic crisis rather than as the public health crisis it is.
This narcissism is accompanied by Trump’s second modus operandi, delusion. He sees the world as he would like it to be. In this alternative reality, the virus is no big deal, or will disappear in no time at all due to his unsurpassed political leadership. This goes along with a disdain for and often a rejection of expert opinions and any form of independent scientific advice.
Last but not least, he continues to be a serial liar. Since taking up office, Trump has publicly lied on well over 15,000 occasions. And he continues to do so. He distorts case numbers, asserts without any basis that there are millions of corona testing kits available for everyone, says that a vaccine or treatment is just around the corner and in any case, it’s really not that bad.
A wake-up call for Trump’s followers
It is this kind of behaviour that has allowed Trump to get large numbers of Republican voters to support him throughout the various internal crises his administration has ridden out over the years. So it’s no wonder he’s sticking to his time-honored playbook. Making the most of Fox News, social media and right-wing conspiracy theorists, he has built a Republican parallel universe in which around 40% of the American population appear to be living blissfully. The consequence is that six out of ten Republican supporters until very recently did not believe that the corona crisis is going to have much of an impact on their lives.
But this Trumpian model of success will only work if it does not blatantly clash with the reality of citizens’ lives. And in the case of coronavirus, it might reach its limits. A contagious virus that has the potential to directly affect the majority of Americans cannot be simply wished away, or lied away. The increasing restrictions on public life, school closures and the consequences of the lack of public service infrastructure are impinging upon the reality of almost all citizens. The plummeting stock market is reducing the value of most people’s savings. The recession that is likely to follow will hit almost everyone. And the feared high numbers of fatalities won’t spare Republican districts.
The US will be particularly hard hit
Despite all this, it is likely that Trump will continue in this vein, with motivational speeches that bear no relation to reality, and with a government apparatus that he has rendered largely dysfunctional. It will be made even worse by the fact that unlike the early years of his administration, Trump is now completely surrounded by yes-men. Long gone are the days when relatively impartial individuals had a seat at the Cabinet table, headed up critical ministries and either openly contradicted Trump or took pragmatic action behind his back. Even in Congress, there are now hardly any Republicans left with the backbone to stand up to him. Instead, the Republicans continue to follow an ideology that is per se antagonistic to state institutions and any kind of welfare state.
It is therefore highly likely that the crisis will hit the US particularly hard. The country is caught in a toxic combination of a dysfunctional healthcare system, inadequate social security, a major loss of public faith in public institutions and a federal government unwilling or unable to effectively manage it.
The harder the country is hit, the faster Donald Trump’s web of lies will disintegrate. There are limits to the abilities of demagogues and populists to distort the truth. This might make Trump less likely to be re-elected. Over the months to come, many people might come to appreciate the importance of functional and trustworthy institutions, reliable politics, a strong welfare state and effective multilateralism. In the meantime, however, the US faces a crisis the societal and economic effects of which will be extremely damaging.