NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE C riticism of President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus for the most part centers not on policy but on style: The president made many ill-considered and inaccurate remarks, and he tried to happy-talk his way through the situation. His habit of going off message, which appears to be incurable, gives his opponents a steady stream of ammunition with which to attack him. As for the happy talk, there was an awful lot of that going around.
As David Harsanyi points out, on the day Trump tweeted that the virus is “very much under control,” Nancy Pelosi was urging her constituents to visit Chinatown in San Francisco. That was February 24. On March 5, Bill de Blasio was urging New Yorkers to “get out on the town despite coronavirus.” As late as March 19, Andrew Cuomo was still playing Kevin Bacon in Animal House — “Remain calm, all is well!” he cried, as he got flattened. Cuomo told us “the fear and panic is, if anything, worse than the virus,” though it turned out that the virus was actually quite a bit worse, and a little more fear and panic earlier in the year would have been useful in limiting its spread.
Trump’s inclination to play down the virus was widely shared, and I see no reason to think a President Obama or Biden would not also have struck an optimistic tone, albeit without the hyperbole that characterizes everything Trump says. I think Obama would have very calmly and suavely reassured us that he had things under control and that everything would be okay. That’s what leaders do, isn’t it? As a general rule, “Don’t panic” is a wise message, just not in this special case.
By mid-March, it was too late. The map of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S. overlays neatly onto a map of the New York City area’s mass-transit routes. Should this be laid at Trump’s feet? Was Trump supposed to shut down the trains? Did he even have the authority to do that? Can Cuomo and de Blasio really look Trump in the eye and say, “I respect you so much that I obviously would have complied if you had only suggested we shut down the trains”?
I hold that a Democratic administration in Washington would have done at least as bad a job at containing the coronavirus, because the disease was tied up with a racial element. The primary psychological motivator in the Democratic mind is: I can’t have anyone thinking I’m a racist. This worry warps judgment. It short-circuits all other thinking. Throughout February, the news media and Democrats were warning us that racism was the real threat here. The policy corollary was obvious: For Democrats, borders are always, at best, regrettable necessities. It would surely be inflaming prejudice to shut the door to anyone on the pretext that foreigners might be bringing the virus in with them.
As late as March 13, by which time the best possible containment strategy would have been to place a giant impermeable bubble over the entire New York metro area, The Atlantic was still fretting that the reaction to the virus might give evil right-wingers and populists an excuse to shore up border defenses. The essay in question specifically criticized travel bans (Trump had just announced the partial shutdown from Europe the day before) because they exacerbate prejudice: “Efforts to contain the disease are likely to prove even more futile in places where it is already spreading. In the case of the U.S. travel ban, there is nothing to suggest that restricting European visitors will prevent new cases from emerging: After all, the disease is already there.”
So, if x cases of the virus have already been imported into the U.S., it’s futile to stop y more cases from coming in and adding to the problem. And if a building is on fire, I suppose it would be silly to try to stop the flames from spreading, because after all, the fire is “already there.” This is how your mind works when obsession with prejudice is the overriding program, and it was absolutely the conventional wisdom of the left that prejudice was behind Trump’s actions. Moreover, slamming President Trump as hostile to outsiders was always the first card Democrats were inclined to play against him. Which is why, when Trump announced the partial shutdown on China travel, Biden gave the most obvious, conventional Democratic response: He condemned it. As Trump announced the China travel restrictions, Biden, reading haltingly from a prepared statement in Iowa in late January, said, “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, hysterical xenophobia to, uh, and fear-mongering.” Biden tweeted the same thought shortly after.
Silicon Valley and the media are furiously spinning this remark; call up “Biden xenophobia” on YouTube, and the first thing you are presented with is an “independent fact check” from PolitiFact purporting to investigate “whether Biden called Trump ‘xenophobic’ for restrictions on travel from China” and dubbing the proposition “mostly false.” This “fact check” is a model of partisan service attempting to disguise itself as a nonpartisan search for truth: PolitiFact urges us to consider that “Biden has not directly said the travel restrictions were xenophobic,” even though the restrictions were the lead news story of the day when Biden used the term, and adds that even when “Biden used the phrase ‘xenophobic’ in reply to a Trump tweet about limiting entry to travelers from China and in which Trump described the coronavirus as the ‘Chinese virus,’” Biden should get a pass because he “did not spell out which part of Trump’s tweet was xenophobic.”
This fact-check cannot survive a laugh-check. When Trump expanded the travel restrictions to cover Europe, not only did Biden not admit that at least the China restrictions were a good idea, he doubled down on his opposition to travel bans. This is knee-jerk opposition to the idea of restricting travel from any place, for any reason, in keeping with the deeply held belief that any such restrictions are xenophobic:
A wall will not stop the coronavirus.
Banning all travel from Europe — or any other part of the world — will not stop it.
This disease could impact every nation and any person on the planet — and we need a plan to combat it.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) March 13, 2020
It wasn’t until April 3 that the Biden campaign announced he supported the travel ban, and Biden himself said as much on April 5 — at which point he shamelessly accused Trump of having been too slow to implement the travel restrictions that Biden himself had bitterly opposed when they mattered. The media have not only shown close to zero interest in highlighting for the American public how badly Biden bungled the travel issue, they have in fact directed their efforts to furiously covering up what Biden actually said.
How a hypothetical leader of absolutely perfect vision and incomparable execution skills would have handled the coronavirus, we will never know. What we do know is what Biden’s instincts were, because he repeatedly and proudly announced what they were. And they were so disastrously misguided that he acknowledged as much by throwing them overboard — but only when it was already far too late. Will reporters take any notice of how spectacularly wrong Biden was on the most pressing issue of our time?
Editor’s note: This article originally stated that Biden criticized Trump’s “xenophobia” on February 28; it has been edited to reflect the late-January period of Biden’s criticism. In addition, its original contentions about Biden’s Medium article have been deleted.