Pandemic Politics: The Deadly Toll of Partisanship in the Age of COVID
By Shana Kushner Gadarian, Sara Wallace Goodman, and Thomas B. Pepinsky
Princeton University Press, 2022, 400 pp.
The Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward’s 20 Interviews with President Donald Trump
By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 2022, 464 pp.
Officially, close to 1.1 million Americans are reported to have died as a result of COVID-19 through the end of 2021, a total close to the 1.2 million U.S. soldiers who died in all U.S. wars from the American Revolution to the Afghan war. But if one includes estimates of unreported deaths and those caused by the diversion of medical resources to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic, the actual total is calculated to exceed two million, second only to the number of excess deaths in India. Moreover, the United States is the only high-income country among those countries that account for a large proportion of the global total. In short, U.S. performance in the pandemic was terrible in absolute terms and when compared with that of all other developed countries. Two recent books offer revealing portraits of this disaster.
Gadarian and her co-authors conducted large surveys of public opinion and behavior from the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 through 2021. Their book is a sophisticated study, based on voluminous data, of U.S. politics as revealed by the strains and stresses of the pandemic. They find that the “core explanation” for the United States’ calamitous performance is U.S. President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis. Beginning with the crucial early window of opportunity to contain the virus, Trump and his Republican allies chose to prioritize a strong economy in an election year over public health, wanted to project “an image of strength” rather than scramble to mobilize necessary resources, and did not “encourage deference to trusted public health leaders” (an unduly generous way to describe the torrent of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and phony science advanced by the administration). Instead of uniting already polarized Americans in the face of a shared threat, Trump’s policies drove them farther apart, undermining their willingness to act to protect others and even themselves in the name of partisan tribalism.
In Trump’s four years in office, Woodward concludes in his newest release, the president’s “greatest failure was his handling of the coronavirus.” The engrossing audio book of 20 lengthy interviews with Trump and various aides highlights his missteps. Trump received early warning of what was coming. Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger had extensively covered the SARS epidemic of 2002–4 while living in China as a reporter. In early January, he called Chinese doctors he knew from that time and learned that the virus was vastly worse than Chinese officials had let on. “Don’t think SARS ’03,” he was told, “think 1918”—a reference to the devastating Spanish influenza pandemic. By that time, China had already quarantined more than 50 million people, and thousands were already dead. Frighteningly, the Chinese doctors reported to Pottinger, the disease could spread asymptomatically. Based on this unique information, Pottinger’s boss, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, told Trump at his intelligence briefing on January 28 that the new virus would be the biggest national security threat of his presidency. A few days later, Trump virtually ignored the brewing pandemic in his State of the Union speech. When Woodward asked Trump whether O’Brien’s bald prediction led him to see the pandemic as “the leadership test of a lifetime,” he demurred. Regarding the pandemic, he said, “I had nothing to do with this” and “I take no responsibility for this.” He has since denied O’Brien’s account of this briefing.
The two books emphasize the same fundamental point: several hundred thousand American lives were unnecessarily lost because of Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic. There has been little public recognition of the dimensions of this catastrophe and, incredibly, neither Trump nor any Trump administration officials have been held to account. There is much more in the audiobook worth listening to, including Woodward’s ultimate verdict that Trump simply does not believe in democracy. Trump claimed that all the administration’s ideas “were mine. Everything’s mine.” Woodward adds that his meaning was clear: “The presidency is mine.”