We are better than this.
Those were the words going through my head this Memorial Day weekend, as the country honored its military dead, but failed to honor the nearly 100,000 souls who perished from COVID-19.
At a time when we pay tribute to those who died for our country, the president spent the weekend tweeting vicious attacks against political opponents. On a holiday meant to symbolize “one nation, indivisible” (did Donald Trump ever learn that line from the Pledge of Allegiance?), the president was tweeting false murder allegations against a talk show host who criticized his handling of the pandemic. And inspired by his mask-resistance, huge crowds partied around the country without protection.
Meantime, the Trump administration released a new testing “strategy” Sunday that will further split the nation while practically guaranteeing a virus resurgence.
We are better than this, as so many first responders and volunteers have proved nationwide by their dedication to fellow citizens. But that can be hard to remember with a president who is determined to divide.
If you need a reminder of what leadership looks like in a crisis, read “The Splendid and the Vile,” Erik Larson’s new book about Winston Churchill’s stewardship in 1940 and 1941, during the dark days when it looked as if the Nazis would invade Britain. Churchill’s genius was his ability to unify his beleaguered people.
There are plenty of leadership examples among U.S. allies. Prime among them is New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who addresses her “team of 5 million” locked-down citizens from her residence daily on Facebook Live video. She is trying to forge an “us,” not an “us vs. them” mentality in a crisis, as she did when standing with Muslim victims of the 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch.
Even Boris Johnson, the deeply flawed British prime minister who mishandled the pandemic initially and caught the virus, addressed his public directly on the need to obey lockdown rules. (To see how seriously Britons take these rules, note that Johnson’s top aide is in deep trouble because he broke them.)
The perfect symbol of the British attitude is the story of Capt. Tom Moore, the 100-year-old veteran who became a national hero by raising $40 million for Britain’s beloved National Health Service by pacing the length of his 82-foot patio 100 times on his walker. Even Queen Elizabeth II sent him a mash note.
America has had this united spirit before in crises. We can do better than a leader who tweets hatred and lies as more Americans die.
Which brings me to the most infuriating aspect of Trump’s divisiveness. The United States has a wealth of the world’s best scientists, hospitals and laboratories. Yet the president’s mishandling of COVID-19, his delayed response and downplaying of its seriousness cost thousands of American lives.
And the Trump administration’s new “strategy” – again, in contrast to so many of our allies – will cost thousands of more lives.
This so-called strategy again holds individual states responsible for planning and carrying out all coronavirus testing, without clear national direction. Once again, the feds will supposedly be the “supplier of last resort,” but past promises have failed or been fulfilled too late.
The president again pits states against each other, competing for supplies and facing inadequate supply chains. “You can’t leave it up to the states to do it for themselves,” Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, told the New York Times. “This is not the Hunger Games.”
But sadly, the Hunger Games seems just what the White House has in mind.
The president has made clear his belief that testing is “overrated,” and his disdain for blue-state mayors and governors whose sick and dying constituents didn’t vote for him. He has also made clear his disdain for rules of social distancing and masking, thus encouraging a culture war in which mask-wearers are regarded as the enemy.
Not for Trump the impassioned plea of North Dakota’s GOP governor, Doug Burgum: “Stop this senseless mask war.”
We are better than this. Other countries have figured out national testing strategies that have crushed the virus, not merely paved the ground for serious new outbreaks when they return to work.
And our country has rallied to crises before. Never, at a time of grave crisis, did any U.S. president incite civil insurrection against his own countrymen. Abraham Lincoln, who presided over a civil war, famously called on the nation in his second inaugural address to bind up its wounds “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Trump had the unfettered hypocrisy to sit in front of Lincoln’s huge statue for an interview, and then counter everything that great man stood for.
But we are better than that. The majority in this country want a leader who can bind up our wounds and provide the leadership to crush this pandemic. Unfortunately, Trump’s divisiveness will cause many more deaths before that election battle is waged five months from now.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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