After Labor Day, President Donald Trump's reelection campaign will shift into high gear — but his plea for four more years is being drowned out by the outrage over charges largely confirmed by CNN that he called America's war dead "suckers" and "losers."
This, of course, is not Trump's first self-inflicted wound. It is merely the latest in a long list of scandals and revelations, which make the case that our impeached-but-not-convicted president is undeserving of reelection but also the worst president in US history.
After Trump's first term in the highest office, the US, in many ways, is unrecognizable. More than 189,000 have died of Covid-19 and the economy has collapsed. Much of the of the world now pities us for the poor leadership we must endure.
Trump has wounded the nation's psyche. He denigrates those who won't kowtow to him, including elected officials, the press and anyone who dares to challenge his actions. He does all this as he tries to claim excess power for himself. It feels to many like the US has become a nightmare. No wonder a recent Gallup poll found Americans are more politically divided than they have been in the over 80-year history of the poll.
It is audacious, of course, to suggest that someone is categorically the worst president in history, but it is no more audacious than Trump's own first-term claims to greatness, made with more than 20,000 untruths and deceptions documented in running fashion by the Washington Post. Trump is, remember, a man who said before the pandemic, "George Washington would have had a hard time beating me."
The President's most absurd claim — a main theme of his reelection campaign — is that he did everything he said he would do. His slogan, "Promises Made, Promises Kept," is another lie. Among the promises he failed to fulfill are: building a border wall that Mexico would pick up the tab for, replacing Obamacare with something better, heavily investing in rebuilding our infrastructure, reducing the federal debt, ending trade deficits and creating vast numbers of jobs. In many cases, the good things that have happened during the Trump years depended on momentum created by his predecessors.
Trump's bizarre practice of simply declaring success when failure surrounds him reached a new crescendo as he accepted his party's nomination. His speech was so riddled with distortions and lies that CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale concluded he "serially lied" throughout it. Trump placed himself beside Abraham Lincoln in the American pantheon and described his challenger in ways that should be reserved for Lucifer himself.
Among the worst acceptance speech deceptions was Trump's claim that he moved decisively to stop the pandemic. To hear Trump tell it, he is the hero in this story and the virus will soon be behind us. In fact, 3,600 people died during the four days of the convention, as colleges and universities across the country reported new outbreaks as students tried to resume on-campus studies.
Under Trump, America, a nation with just 4% of the world's population, has suffered more than 20% of those killed in the pandemic. It is true, of course, that Trump did not begin this calamity, but by many estimates, he failed egregiously in his duty to do the best anyone could do to stop it. His has been an unforgivable, unfathomable failure of leadership, with catastrophic results.
The most galling aspect of this leadership failure is that Trump's administration was handed a playbook for dealing with a pandemic by the Obama administration. Instead of using it as a source of guidance, however, Trump complained about his predecessor, downplayed the threat, and when asked about inadequate testing said, "I don't take responsibility at all."
As Americans died, often at a rate of more than 1,000 per day, Trump diverted attention to quack cures and unreliable speculations. He touted one treatment — hydroxychloroquine — that was soon shown to be not just ineffective but possibly dangerous, but not before the government bought 63 million doses. Standing at the White House podium, he mused about using household cleaners and sunlight to fight the virus which, I should not have to say, are not actual treatments.
Besides his snake oil salesman act, Trump has amplified dangerous voices while squelching those we should hear. A few weeks ago, he boosted a doctor who has said her colleagues use genetic material from aliens to make medicines, gave a platform to a supporter who sells pillows on TV and has touted another unproven compound as a potential Covid-19 treatment.
The economic impact of the pandemic has been perhaps as devastating as the misinformation. In the most recent quarter, the US economy shrank by an estimated 32.9%, which was the worst fall ever recorded. (Yes, a worse economic contraction than any quarter of the Great Depression). Unemployment, which is a better measure of individuals' suffering, has also reached a record, bring with it all the anxiety that comes with the sudden loss of work and bill-paying security.
Health care professionals have noted a spike in psychological suffering and connect it to management of the pandemic. In July, one poll found that 53% of Americans have said that the coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health.
Of course, America has faced terrible times before. But when those crises brought death and suffering due to war, we could take comfort that some noble cause was part of the equation. In this case, nothing noble will be achieved by all this sacrifice. What about the pandemic of 1918? Yes, that outbreak did kill more Americans, but it occurred when scientists knew less about contagions and much less could be done for the sick. Trump, in contrast, had the public health resources of the richest country on earth at his disposal. Not only did he fail to use them, he actually attacked the experts at these agencies for trying to do their jobs.
Rick Bright, the federal doctor formerly overseeing Covid-19 vaccine development, said that he was pulled from that role after clashing with the administration's stance on hydroxychloroquine. The Centers for Disease Control was apparently under pressure by the President's team to change its guidelines for schools. Some at the CDC who once talked freely to reporters to help the American people understand threats to their well-being have withdrawn for fear of reprisals.
No one has been more mistreated by Trump than the nation's top expert on contagious disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom Trump has called "alarmist" and a man who "made a lot of mistakes" as an adviser on the crisis. It could be easily argued that no one in the world is more respected than Fauci when it comes to the science of pandemics, and yet Trump and his closest lieutenants have repeatedly undermined him. Trade adviser Peter Navarro even published an op-ed declaring, "Anthony Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on."
As Trump bashed the experts, he held rallies where thousands risked exposure to the virus. Following suit, some Republican governors played down the risk, keeping nonessential businesses open and declining to mandate face masks. The result was predictable. Outbreaks spread in their states, claiming thousands of lives.
Perhaps the damage of the Trump era that will leave the longest-lasting mark is the political and social tumult he has fostered apart from the pandemic. Trump has used his pardon power to reward his cronies, stonewalled Congress as it sought to perform its oversight duties and crusaded against a press that he calls the "enemy the people." He turned federal officers on peaceful protesters and exaggerated unrest in big cities to demonize those exercising their right to demonstrate. With Election Day approaching, he has repeatedly predicted that fraud and chaos will accompany the vote.
It becomes an afterthought when compared to everything else, but let's not forget that Trump was only the third president to be impeached by the House of Representatives. It is difficult to name a president who has shown so little concern for so many of the people he is supposed to serve. This terrible quality was likely on the minds of the 157 presidential scholars who responded to a rank-the-presidents survey conducted in 2018 by Siena College. At that time Trump placed third from last, just ahead of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Of course, this survey was completed before the pandemic, the recession that followed, and Trump's impeachment.
Coming out of the Republican convention, Trump signaled that we will get more of the same from him between now and November 3. He practiced his signature name-calling against the mayor of Portland, Oregon, resumed undermining the use of masks to protect public health, and demonstrated his contempt for mail-in voting by suggesting people vote twice — of course this is against the law — because the system may not work.
The vote-twice suggestion continued the President's long effort to cast doubt on the security of the election system at a time when mail-in voting could protect people from the pandemic. His effort comes when our need to trust each other, and our institutions, is extraordinarily high.
The President's behavior is irresponsible but consistent. By Election Day the man who has always demanded to be regarded as special may well have cemented the title of first among the worst of Americans. But we won't be delivered from his traumatic era if a convincing majority fails to recognize this reality.