The following column by contributing editor, journalist and author Mort Rosenblum is from his regular comment The MortReport.
TUCSON — Let’s be clear. Deadly plague and deadlier politics put America at more risk than perhaps anything since the Civil War. Only a widespread awakening to reality can prevent COVID-19 from leaving permanent scars in a divided, diminished nation.
Donald Trump’s initial mocking of coronavirus — another Democratic hoax after impeachment failed — amounts to wholesale negligent manslaughter. As the toll inexorably climbs, it amounts to a crime against humanity.
As late as February 28, he told a crowded shoulder-to-shoulder rally, “Now the Democrats are politicizing this, and it is their new hoax.” Until mid-March, his message to Americans was be calm and buy stocks.
Now he exploits fear and suffering in daily primetime “press briefings,” as bald a display of demagogy as I have seen in a half-century of covering despots around the world. Do not be surprised if a Reichstag mysteriously catches fire before November.
If you’re new to the Mort Report, this is not what it is meant to be. I’m an up-close reporter who values credibility and objectivity earned over a lifetime. But nothing about today is normal. If seasoned journalists cannot say it straight, we are lost.
I am now back in Tucson where I started out, happy enough in the shadow of dramatic mountains, banging away on a keyboard as chili bubbles on the stove, yet burning to be out there exploring those colors and contours on the big world map by my desk.
Today, a grasping megalomaniac sees that map as a Monopoly board and cons his cultists into believing that he dominates it. Americans who oppose him focus on crisis at home, with scant attention to his global depredations that threaten human survival.
Authoritarians exploit the virus to clamp down. A Washington Post headline made the point: “Coronavirus Kills Its First Democracy.” Hungarians have fought for freedom since a 1956 uprising. Viktor Orban just dissolved parliament, cowed the courts, cancelled elections and said journalists face jail for what he decides is “fake news.”
Before 2017, an American president would have come down like a ton of bricks. Trump is silent. Orban, who slams his doors to refugees despite a long history of other nations protecting Hungarians who were forced to flee, is a man after his own heart.
The threat was clear early in January. South Korea used a German test offered by WHO to screen its population with free drive-through checkpoints. Other countries did the same. With no cure or vaccine for COVID-19, doctors can only isolate and track it.
Trump said Americans could do better; they couldn’t. As the CDC and FDA lost crucial time to bureaucracy, he mocked the “hoax” at rabble-rousing rallies and laughed off “the Chinese virus” on Fox News. The virus will magically disappear. He tried to stop Americans on an infected ship off California from returning to their own country. A rising casualty toll would spook the stock market.
When outbreaks across the country forced him to take it seriously, he avoided what people needed most: truth. Anyone who wanted a test could have one. In fact, the few tests available were given to the seriously sick, defeating their purpose.
Trump rewrote history, denying what Americans had seen and heard for themselves, repeated often on newscast and available online. Across the world, people watched in disbelief as he contradicted medical experts, touted bogus cures and boasted that his actions were perfect, better than in any other country.
Americans are inured to this pathological lunacy. We tally up his lies and adjust to a new normal. But this is about the suffering and death of millions, as well as a grim new reality for a planet already facing existential threats.
Real journalists do their job nobly, asking basic questions any real president must answer. One encounter typifies Trump. Peter Alexander of NBC asked, gently, what he would say to Americans who are scared? “I would say you’re a terrible reporter,” he shot back, with a rant about sensationalist unpatriotic fake media.
Later, real journalists were moved to the back; sometimes their microphones were turned down. Trump called instead on partisan plants, who set him up to complain about how he was so unfairly treated and to explain why he is a very stable genius.
Trump punishes governors who fail to express gratitude for public property he parcels out as if it were his own. He gutted Barack Obama’s preparedness measures and global monitoring team yet blames his predecessor for leaving him a “horrible mess.”
He spews self-praise and bristles at the mention of countries that acted more efficiently than America, which is most of them.
“I know South Korea better than anyone,” he asserted during one performance and said Seoul’s population was 38 million. For starters, the 9.8 million people who actually live in Seoul know Korea better than he does.
The United States tested more people in eight days than South Korea did in eight weeks, he said, neglecting to mention that it is five times more populous. And he missed the point. America’s increase in testing is far too late.
Even people who oppose Trump tend to take him at his word when he misleads them about other countries. In America, the wider world has long been an afterthought.
Amazon’s blurb on William Lederer’s “Nation of Sheep,” back in 1961, is still fresh today: “Discusses the effects of the apathy and ignorance of the American people on foreign policy, relations with other nations and use of foreign aid funds.”
Back then, the title was apt. Sheep trot behind a shepherd with barely a bleat, but they pause if they sense danger. Trump cultists are closer to Edward Abbey’s description of cattle: “shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes” that stampede blindly when spooked.
Arizona is cattle country. As elsewhere in America, lots of people here have risen to the challenge. The sacrifice of medical and public safety works is beyond any thanks we can offer. Countless others donate, volunteer time and take risks for strangers.
But gun sales have spiked by a factor of ten. Gov. Doug Ducey includes them as essential to emergency supplies during the pandemic.
The latest outrage is in Trump’s fiefdom, Florida, which thrives on the cruise ship industry and tourism. Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to airlift medical help to two ships off the coast. Both, with dead and seriously ill passengers aboard, have been turned away from ports up the Latin-American coast. Out of options, they are desperate.
“We cannot afford to have people who are not even Floridians dumped into South Florida using up those valuable resources,” DeSantis told Fox News, after conferring with Trump. The final decision is up to Broward County officials in Fort Lauderdale.
At stake is whether a corner of America under stress will uphold its standard of human decency. History is troubling. In 1939, the Port of Miami turned away the Saint Louis, sending 900 Jewish refugees back to Europe. Hitler exterminated many of them.
Other governors have stepped in, at times pleading for help despite Trump’s grudges. Jay Inslee of Washington is “a snake.” Gretchen Whitmer is “that woman in Michigan.” Andrew Cuomo forced him to delay relaxing social distancing for Easter. Once, miffed at states demanding stockpiled materiel, he replied, “We are not a shipping clerk.”
Anthony Fauci says stringent measures could keep the death toll below 240,000 Americans. If nothing had been done, he said, it could surpass 2.2 million. For two months, by pretending there was no threat, Trump did worse than nothing.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tuscon, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. You can read his regular column, The MortReport.