Coronavirus in the age of Trump or a case study in stable genius crisis mismanagement

13-3-20

Dear Partners in thought,

We are all living through an unexpected and rare pandemic which has required challenging decisions taken by many if not all countries, starting with China and then Italy but now involving the globe. Some countries have declared regional or national quarantines, others closed down schools and universities. Many countries like in the Czech Republic, where I live, have closed borders for now 30 days to incoming visitors while their schools, cinemas and shops are closed or can only accommodate no more than 30 people while cafés and restaurants also have to close after 8 pm. These measures are not nice but are probably the only ones to stop the spread of the virus together with following common sensical hygiene like washing one’s hands.

Without dwelling on the particulars of the Coronavirus and whether it is only a super-flu and whom it affects most, it is fair to say that the measures taken are the best to stop the spread of the virus. Most if not all these decisions, which are hurting the economy and social lives, are not taken with a political agenda in mind. Well unless in the U.S. where President Trump, having initially played down the threat and clearly distanced himself from medical experts (too elite no doubt), has given us a series of reminders as to the excellence of his leadership and sanity not to mention the competence of his advisers who should have done their jobs better and contain the natural presidential impulse to try taking political advantage of any situation including pandemics. However, this time Trump showed even more clearly his lack of fit for the top American job not to mention that of world leader, stressing all his inadequacies, so much so that even Republicans and the markets seemed to worry for once.

The European travel ban was the cherry on the Trumpian cake. As the FT’s Edward Luce rightly wrote “On Wednesday night the global pandemic met US nationalism”. After criminalizing Europeans for having unleashed the virus (I did not know Wuhan was in Europe) Trump decided to impose the ban to “Schengen” EU countries from having its nationals travelling to America. The Schengen zone that allows free circulation and travel includes most of the EU member states today. In declaring the ban, Trump excluded Britain and Ireland as well as Malta, Bulgaria and Romania which was odd as I really thought there had been virus cases in Britain already (more than in the U.S. in relative terms). Then this travel ban did not apply to U.S. citizens or Green Card holders as if that kind of status prevented individuals from virus infection. While Trump pointed the finger at Europeans and the EU, the latter that he clearly sees as the enemy, he did so and imposed the ban without consulting EU leaders, this on the basis that “I didn’t want to take time” as “it takes time to make individual calls” and “when they raise taxes on us, they don’t consult us”. Putting aside the amateurish approach and basis for the travel ban which is in line with many of Trump’s initiatives even though this one topped the lot, it is now clear that the stock market, and the Dow Jones Index, did not enjoy the move sending shares to their lowest levels in years and entering the dreaded bear market territory which is only a prelude to economic decline, something Trump strangely had not expected and does not need in November. Putting aside the criminalization and inequity of the move, not to mention the impact on the world economy which requires a very sensitive approach (America is not the Czech Republic), it might have been sounder to first focus on mitigation efforts at home with thousands of likely cases already there. It would be better for Trump and his administration to focus on testing with only 6,000 tests done to date out of a population of 327 million. And stay away from the inefficient and useless finger pointing, domestic base-aimed, rhetoric.

It is clear that many if not all of Trump’s statements are made with November in mind and strengthening his core electoral base. While Trump’s base will always rejoice at his simple attacks to solve complex issues, they are simply not numerous enough to reelect him in November if the markets keep tanking and the economy falters, this for all to see. Every serious U.S. media, including the Republican-leaning Wall Street Journal, have been baffled by Trump’s latest decisions to handle the Coronavirus outbreak. His response is now judged as inept across the board to the point that former White House Republican speechwriters have dared saying that it would be better if he shut up and especially stop referring to the outbreak as a “foreign virus”. For the first time, critics from across the aisles, pointed to factual errors in Trump’s latest address to the nation, underlining the poor quality of his circle of advisers (not news I would say) who produced a speech that was apparently vetted by senior staff and agencies. This development causes concerns as to who is at the driving wheel in DC, even beyond the usual worries about Trump as a President. One could be forgiven for wondering more than ever if the American executive is not looking like an imperfect version of the extended Corleone family. In a more serious note, the Wall Street Journal rightly stressed as an omen coming from friends that “disasters and crises can make or break presidencies – not from the event itself but from how the public judges a President’s response”.

One could be forgiven for wondering if Trump in a twisted case that psychoanalysts should devote some time on is not systematically driven to decisions that will meet strong opposition as if the latter helped him existentially. Food for thought. In an almost amusing twist of fate, we have now learned that both Trump and Pence have met at the White House with an infected Brazilian official…Not being Trump I sincerely wish him the best in any adverse development that could ensue. On a more serious note and as expected, Joe Biden’s approach to the crisis shows all of us why, in spite of some of his weaker features, that it is ample time for America and the world to restore “decency” – a word we almost forgot for more than three years and that should be a key electoral driver – in that House that is on the shining city on the hill.

Warmest regards,

Serge

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