Let it be noted, at long last, that on the final day of March in the year 2020, the 45th president of the United States finally told the truth. Not all of the truth, or even most of the truth, but enough truth nonetheless to stop the presses in dramatic fashion.
“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” a somber Donald Trump said at what has been, until yesterday, another useless White House COVID-19 briefing. “We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks, and then hopefully as the experts are predicting, you’re going to start seeing some real light at the end of the tunnel. But this is going to be a very painful, a very, very painful two weeks.”
Professional Trump watchers (hand raised) were genuinely astonished at his change in demeanor. He seemed, to my eye anyway, to be some half-baked incarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge after the Ghost of Christmas-yet-to-come slapped him on the ass. “I’ve never seen President Trump like this,” said CNN’s Jim Acosta. “He is scared right now. This was a different Donald Trump tonight. I think he gets it.”
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Well, don’t get too far over your skis there, Jim. The Donald is still The Donald, and “you’re going to start seeing some real light at the end of the tunnel” after two weeks is galvanized steel-reinforced bullshit. The reason Trump looked like a man who stared into the abyss yesterday is because he did precisely that, and finally finally finally, he got the damn message.
“The grim-faced president who appeared in the White House briefing room for more than two hours on Tuesday evening beside charts showing death projections of hellacious proportions was coming to grips with a reality he had long refused to accept,” reports The New York Times. “At a minimum, the charts predicted that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans would die — and only if the nation abided by stringent social restrictions that would choke the economy and impoverish millions.”
A quarter of a million people could die of COVID-19 even if we do everything right, which we aren’t, and many are saying that number is optimistic. Some projections place the potential death toll in the U.S. at over 2 million people. Also, the profiteers are on the case, and there is flat-out mayhem in the medical supply chain. Whatever this is right now, it is not bad. Not really. Not yet. Bad is very much yet to come.
Not one single part of this will be over in two weeks. In fact, it will be Trump’s most devout supporters who will begin to experience the wrath of this thing within the arc of that two-week timeline. Thus far, COVID-19 has been a city-dwelling monster, reaving in densely populated urban areas like New York City. But the monster is on the move, and Trump’s presidential campaign is scared.
“One former White House official said Trump’s reelection campaign advisors are terrified that the coronavirus outbreak, which so far has hit largely Democratic coastal cities hardest, will soon scythe across the rural areas that remain deeply loyal to Trump,” reports The Los Angeles Times. “The advisors have warned Trump that the political consequences at the ballot box in November will be even worse if he is seen as too lax. ‘Pay attention. You’re going to lose the election,’ the former official said, summarizing the intervention.”
So, yeah, Trump remains Trump: He is the man who admitted on Monday that letting more people vote would be bad for Republicans, the man whose administration blew off pandemic warnings in September, the man who still refuses to help hospital workers who are wearing garbage bags out of alarm over their rapidly dwindling supplies of protective medical gear, the man whose dismissive bluster over the severity of the COVID-19 crisis allowed it to run loose upon the land.
Has Trump finally had the light bulb moment the country has been waiting for? Has he “grown into the office” at last? Or was yesterday’s display of muted humility in the face of avoidable calamity merely a burp, like his moment of contrition after Charlottesville that didn’t last a news cycle?
We shall see, I suppose. It would be helpful if the president of the United States found it within himself to be coherent. There are already bodies in bags because of Trump’s failures to date. If a corner has been turned, that is only a good thing, and we shall have our reckoning in the long aftermath to come. Upon this moment, our business must be protecting the health workers who are protecting the rest of us. For most of us, our business must be at home. Our business now is patience, and diligence, and soon enough, sorrow.
This is an age of sudden heroes, ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances who are rising to the challenge in the vivid absence of national leadership. The dying has only just begun. “April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot. The poets are too often right.