As I write, I’m sitting with my daughter while she zooms into fourth grade. We’re about 40 minutes into class time. It’s taken this long to take attendance amid the sounds of dogs barking, ambulances blaring and infants crying. It’s taken this long, because every detail of teaching more than thirty 9-year-olds is magnified many times over. (If you’ve never had to navigate Google Classroom, consider yourself lucky.) It’s a microcosm of the maddening complexity of life in the time of the novel coronavirus.
This isn’t the half of it. The pandemic hasn’t hit my family nearly as hard as others, but we’re feeling pain. Universities and arts nonprofits, which had been the spheres of our employment, were not designed to weather a once-in-a-century virus. (Thanks to you, our largest source of income is now the Editorial Board!) Universities are grasping wildly in the dark. Arts nonprofits are the walking dead. We’re not among the 22 million filing jobless claims (yet)—and we’re not among the 6.5 million suffering from Covid-19 (yet)—but this pain is the norm now. It will be for the foreseeable future.
I’m not the kind of person who blames presidents for everything. I’m the kind of person who thinks presidents don’t have as much power as we tend to think they have. I didn’t blame George W. Bush for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance. I didn’t blame Barack Obama, furthermore, for the desiccation of the Democratic Party during his tenure. Sure, he played a role, but other factors played greater roles (the white supremacist backlash against the first Black president being first and foremost). Nor did I credit him solely for the longest economic expansion in American history. I subscribe to the Lars-Erik Nelson school of thought in that presidents have a lot of power, but let’s not fool ourselves with “illusions of presidential omnipotence.”
And I didn’t blame the pandemic entirely on the current president. To be sure, I have accused Donald Trump of greed, cowardice, narrow-mindedness, and breathtaking irresponsibility. I have asked why the pundit corps is not talking more about negligent homicide. But these accusations were based on effects, not intent. A part of me has wondered whether he truly understood how deadly this thing is, even though he’s surrounded by people explaining how deadly this thing is. The Washington press corps, moreover, cites unnamed current and former White House officials claiming he just doesn’t get it, and that he probably never will get it. That seemed to jive with comments by former administration officials who claimed that he’s an idiot’s imbecile, that he’s got a gnat’s knack for focus, and that his ego is a clown car bursting with bile.
I blame him now. Thanks for Bob Woodward’s reporting, published Wednesday in the Post, there is no more ambiguity. In an audio recording, the president told Woodward he knew how deadly the pandemic was going to be. He knew it was going to kill more people than the flu kills. He knew, and yet he failed to take appropriate action to warn and prepare the country for a death toll exceeding that of all foreign wars since 1950. Not only did he fail to take appropriate action, the action he did take was “almost criminal,” as Joe Biden put last night in an interview with CNN. More than 200,000 will be dead by Election Day (or sooner). Two hundred and fifty thousand will be dead by Inauguration Day. Half a million may be dead by mid-2021. Normal, ordinary life meanwhile is upside down, backward and prolapsed. There’s just no end in sight.
He knew, and because he knew, my mind is reeling with questions. How many times has he put his own supporters in danger, as they gathered by the thousands without protection, while knowing he was putting them in danger? How many times has he golfed while knowing the pandemic was killing so many people city officials had to dig mass graves? How many times has he ridiculed people for wearing masks, thereby insulting the memory of the dead, while knowing the virus was airborne. How many times has he attacked public officials, whose job is serving the public’s interest, while knowing their service prevented the death toll from being even bigger? Most important of all, how many Republicans understood that a man who commits treason is the kind of man who stands by while Americans die in droves—if that’s what it takes to win?
The answer is all of them. On Feb. 3, 2020, the Senate Republicans acquitted Trump of an attempt to extort a foreign official into an international criminal conspiracy to defraud the American people. That’s a long-winded way of saying acquitted of treason. On Feb. 7, after having gotten away with betraying his country once, the president laid the groundwork for betraying his country twice. He told Woodward in exacting detail how much deadlier the new coronavirus is compared to influenza. “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu. This is 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent. You know? So, this is deadly stuff.”
For months after, Trump in his own words “played down” the pandemic, saying that warmer weather would drive it away, that flu season is worse, that the Democrats and the “fake news” press corps were making a big deal out of it for political reasons, and that governors trying to save lives by shutting down their states were tanking the economy on purpose to sink his chances of getting reelected. (He’s now saying he played the pandemic down to avoid inciting a panic, which is so ludicrous as to be insulting.) And for the last six months, every Republican in the US Congress took his side. If he didn’t know better (being an idiot’s imbecile, after all), they knew better, surely. But now we know he knew better, too, making their complicity more disgusting. They, too, were willing to stand by while Americans died en masse, all in order to win. And now, as they did at Trump’s impeachment trial, they have the gall to defend the indefensible. First, they sent people to their graves. Now, they’re pissing on them.
I don’t normally blame presidents for everything. This time is different, though. We now know the president’s goal was deception with deadly consequences. This is more than negligent homicide. This is criminal intent. And yesterday, he confessed to the crime. Where can normal Americans turn for justice? I wish I knew the answer.