“There is new hope but nothing is won at the moment … the epidemic is not under control.” Emmanuel Macron (April 13th)
“Everything we did was right.” President Trump (April 13th)
John McCourt writes: Nobody’s perfect, and certainly no president is perfect. Some, however, are capable of looking at what is going on and being reasonably honest about it. In his address on the coronavirus crisis yesterday, Frances’s President Macron was a model of balance, common sense and realism. He asked the following question: “Were we prepared for this crisis?” And he answered: “Not enough. But we have faced the challenge. […] Let’s be honest, we lacked gowns, PPE, disinfectant gel, we weren’t able to distribute enough masks. […] Like you, I’ve seen delays, weaknesses in our logistics.”
Macron has the intelligence to show some respect for his fellow countrymen and women, to acknowledge mistakes, and to offer a straightforward message about what will happen over the coming weeks:
During the home confinement period (through May 11th), France will extend the partial unemployment scheme, in which the state funds businesses to pay workers reduced salaries, not fire them. After May 11th, France will gradually reopen nurseries, elementary schools, middle and high schools, because the home confinement situation has revealed serious inequalities. Less fortunate students don’t have access to computers at home. But after May 11th, hotels, restaurants, cafés, cinemas, theatres, will remain closed, and there will be no major cultural events until mid-July at the earliest, but everything will be re-evaluated every two weeks. We’re going to increase the number of tests in the coming weeks, especially on older people and health care workers. By May 11th we will be able to test everyone showing symptoms. […] This epidemic won’t weaken our democracy or our liberties. Until May 11th our external borders will remain closed. We’re working with mayors so that after May 11th all people in France will be able to have individual masks, which will become obligatory. […] In all frankness and in all humility we don’t have a definitive answer. Very few people have immunity. We need a vaccine. France will have to invest massively in research. I am telling you what we know and what we don’t know. We will we have to live many more months with this virus. With humility, we need to decide how to act taking into account uncertainties.
Macron acknowledged that the European Union and the ECB had given some help, but added bluntly that “we’re at a moment of truth that requires more audacity. We need a moment of renewal.” He alluded to the need for massive debt relief and said: “We will never win alone.”
Pope Francis also slammed the “selfishness of particular interests”, saying it posed a threat to “the peaceful coexistence and development of future generations”. He also warned that the EU was “facing an epochal challenge, on which will depend not only its future but that of the whole world”. He continued: “After the second world war, this beloved continent was able to rise again, thanks to a concrete spirit of solidarity that enabled it to overcome the rivalries of the past. It is more urgent than ever, especially in the present circumstances, that these rivalries do not regain force, but that all recognise themselves as part of a single family and support one another.”
We can only hope that leaders in those European countries still dragging their heels when it comes to adequate economic measures pay some heed.
Meanwhile, in London, Boris Johnson is binge-watching films such as Home Alone and Love Actually and a Number 10 source is quoted as commenting: “It’s a good time to fill in some of his cultural gaps.” The seemingly Teflon Boris finds time to thank a Portuguese nurse for saving his life (and from next year, once Brexit is implemented, there will be no place for future Portuguese nurses in the UK) and he praises the NHS, which his party has systematically weakened over a decade leaving it ill-prepared to handle this crisis. In his stead, Dominic Raab has the gall to say “our plan is working – it’s been a success so far”, which must be a great comfort to the families of 11,329 people who have died in hospitals in the UK and the countless others who have died in nursing homes. The UK is tracking to have the worst coronavirus death toll in Europe.
The toddler in the White House, meanwhile, throws his biggest tantrum yet and turns a press conference into a verbal battlefield, a deranged and deeply unsettling (and utterly unsuccessful) propaganda exercise. Coronavirus is not Trump’s fault but the inadequate US response to it will sit firmly on his shoulders no matter how much he rants and raves. Having only sycophants as advisers is never good. He has identified the wrong enemy in the press. The enemy is the virus and if he actually just said that he and his government had been too slow to react he might even be cut some slack and be forgiven by many. If he had even the tiniest grasp of history he would see that.
On April 21st, 1961, President John F Kennedy took sole responsibility for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He said: “There’s an old saying, that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan … Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the Government …” Kennedy had ignored the deep reservations about the escapade expressed by various dissenting advisers and he got it wrong. The damage done, he was big enough to say sorry and after his speech, his approval ratings soared. There is a lot to be said for offering an apology when it is due.
For all his bluster, Trump increasingly looks like an orphan, increasingly looks weak, alone and vulnerable. Small. He will never understand that admitting failure does not make you a failure. It makes you stronger.
He increasingly reminds me of Macbeth (I am currently reading through the tragedy with my students). Macbeth was brought to power by his own “vaulting ambition” but his time as king led to murder, civil war, and his own eventual destruction. He chose to believe the weird sisters who prophesied that he would become king. So too Trump believed a weird collection of early cheerleaders including all the “folk” at Fox news, Steve Bannon, and Newt Gingrich, the first mainstream Republican to back him (“eye of Newt and toe of frog”). The weird sisters cannot be blamed for Macbeth, nor can Lady Macbeth (although Melania and Ivanka vie for this role in the Trump parallel text). Macbeth is to blame for Macbeth. Trump is to blame for Trump. If Macbeth had formed alliances and taken his time his reign would have been longer and less bloody. Instead he rushed to don robes too big for him and thereafter imagined enemies behind every corner and eliminated them one by one.
Trump (like Macbeth but of course short of murdering people) resolved to do whatever was necessary to gain power and retain his hold on it. Yesterday was just another example of that: he showed a video that attempted to deflect from his own failures and opened with the phrase “the media minimised the risk from the start” and continued with a patchwork of soundbites, some of which were carefully edited in his own favour. Needless to say, while other cable networks shut down their coverage, Fox News ran the press conference almost in its entirety (but even it turned off before the end). Trump attacked journalists as “disgraceful and fake” and claimed: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.” Does he actually believe he is an absolute monarch? Thankfully for the individual states that make up the United States Trump’s power is limited. He may bully a pressroom (but even that is becoming harder) but he will not bully front-line governors, like Andrew Cuomo, who responded: “The President doesn’t have total authority. We have a Constitution. We don’t have a king.” And even if Trump were a king, he lacks all of what Malcolm in Macbeth calls “the king-becoming graces” of “justice, verity, temperance, stableness, bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, devotion, patience, courage, fortitude”. In the end in Macbeth, what matters is not so much Scotland as the increasingly tyrannical Macbeth himself and so it is with Trump:
. . . For mine own good
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepp’d so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
But Macbeth’s downfall is also prophesied at the end of Act Three, when the Third Apparition says:
Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.
And Macbeth feels secure because he knows a wood cannot uproot and move. It would be an unnatural and unprecedented event. But then the messenger (Macbeth’s version of Dr Fauci) breaks the news that the wood is indeed advancing:
As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
The wood began to move.
To which Macbeth can only reply: “Liar and slave!”
Coronavirus is Donald Trump’s Birnam wood and much though he will rant and rail, it will ultimately bring him down. The tragedy in this case is not his however. It is his country’s, which, to again quote Malcolm, “sinks beneath the yoke; It weeps, it bleeds, and each day a gash is added to her wounds.”
Donald Trump: false creations, ‘[p]roceeding from the heat-oppresèd brain’. Image salon.com