On the very day that the media rightly slammed President Trump for his claims to “Total Authority,” many in the press continued their now month-long run of stories condemning him as the primary source of the perceived mishandling of Covid-19. David Frum, for example, argues that,
The utter unpreparedness of the United States for a pandemic is Trump’s fault … The refusal of red-state governors to act promptly, the failure to close Florida and Gulf Coast beaches until late March? That fault is more widely shared, but again, responsibility rests with Trump: He could have stopped it, and he did not.
While these arguments may be sound, such critics can’t have it both ways. If Donald Trump bears sole responsibility for Covid-19 unpreparedness, since he alone could have stopped the pandemic, then to date he has enjoyed a monarch-like authority. Either the president had such authority and thus deserves total blame, or he didn’t.
Donald Trump is far from innocent. The president was warned about the potential for a pandemic long before the virus reached US shores, but internal divisions, lack of planning and his relentless focus on economic output and on winning an election in November led to a delayed and thoughtless response. Then, instead of owning up to his obvious mistakes, Trump doubled down. He has spent the past month fighting the media at every turn, criticizing governors who oppose his ambitions to reopen the country, contradicting his own team and—perhaps most damaging of all—offering no reassurance to the American people that he might be the man for the immense task at hand.
But to pin the blame on one individual—even the most powerful individual in the country—is to misunderstand America’s form of government and ideals. Americans have never been shy about upholding the values of self-government and the distribution of powers that goes with it, and, despite the convenience of a simple scapegoat, it is hypocrisy to attribute the entirety of the blame to one facet of that government. Donald Trump does not and never has had total authority and therefore Donald Trump is not the source of all America’s problems in its mishandling of the virus outbreak. There was a shared responsibility that implicates state governments, local municipalities and various governmental organizations. All have varying levels of authority in operating the country and thus should share varying levels of accountability.
On 25 January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi encouraged the people of San Francisco to go out and celebrate the Lunar New Year. A month later, only days before the national shutdown began, she toured Chinatown and commented, “That’s what we’re trying to do today is to say everything is fine here.” On 8 February, New York Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot tweeted that people should go about their lives and “not change any plans due to misinformation spreading about #coronavirus.” And, as recently as 13 March, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was telling New Yorkers to “go on about their lives.”
Perhaps the most egregious example of the hypocrisy on display is the treatment of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. While many—myself included—have found solace in his leadership and daily press briefings, none of this should excuse the media from applying the same critical approach to Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic as they do to Trump’s. There have been relatively few questions asked of the Governor since he initially dismissed de Blasio’s call for a shelter-in-place policy for New York City, only to implement almost exactly what the mayor had asked for just days later. On Monday, 16 March, Cuomo said that he would not impose a requirement similar to San Francisco’s, which called for people to stay home and businesses to close, but, by Sunday 22 March, he had issued a statewide order doing just that. In both situations, Cuomo received praise for his decisiveness, and little criticism for the lag time that may have cost countless lives.
In an attempt to rebuke the president’s intrusion on his authority, Cuomo quoted Alexander Hamilton at a press briefing: “The state governments possess inherent advantages, which will ever give them an influence and ascendency over the national government, and will forever preclude the possibility of federal encroachments. That their liberties, indeed, can be subverted by the federal head, is repugnant to every rule of political calculation.” Cuomo argues that we should respect the power and responsibilities delegated to the states, while managing to steer clear of the scrutiny that should accompany those responsibilities.
When the time comes to hold our elected officials accountable, we should ask many of the same questions of our state leaders as we do of our president. Why weren’t you more prepared? Why didn’t you enact bolder policies in response to the first Covid-19 case on 1 March? Why was the severity of Covid-19 denied by various local and state officials? Why were the hospitals and nursing homes so woefully short of critical equipment and ventilators? And why did it take so long to get a viable and scalable testing program up and running?
This media double standard not only leads to the incorrect assignment of blame, but is dangerous because of the divisiveness it stokes amongst Americans. In the midst of a crisis, finger pointing just worsens the situation. Right now, our priorities should be to continue to flatten the curve, help our medical communities and keep people afloat financially, while starting to reopen businesses in places that have surpassed peak infection rates. The time will come for a post mortem and, when it does, it would be wise to remember that America is a country that distributes power and authority broadly—so, when things go wrong, blame and accountability should be widely distributed as well.
Why is it so hard for citizens in a democracy to understand that their leaders aren’t dictators or benevolent monarchs?
Excellent article, thank you!
Its called the “Great Man” theory of history that is being criticised here and I agree with the criticism. It is amusingly predictable how political leaders like to blame negative developments such as economic recessions on forces beyond their control yet claim credit for positive developments – such as economic booms – on their own political acumen and good will. In reality its got nothing to do with the character of the pollical leadership at all. Boom and slumps are a normal part of the capitalist trade cycle.
Plekhanov in famous essay written in 1898, “The Role of the Individual in History” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1898/xx/individual.htm) described this obsessive focus on the significance of famous individuals as being based on an “optical illusion”. His essay is still worth reading today