Vector in Chief

Illustration of Trump and the Statue of Liberty with a mask
Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck

On July 4, 1775, just his second day serving as commander-in-chief of the American revolutionary forces, George Washington issued strict orders to prevent the spread of infection among his soldiers: “No person is to be allowed to go to Fresh-water pond a fishing or any other occasion as there may be a danger of introducing the small pox into the army.” As he wrote later that month to the president of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, he was exercising “the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous Enemy.” On March 8, 2020, well over two months after the first case of Covid-19 had been confirmed in the United States, Dan Scavino, assistant to the president and director of social media at the White House, tweeted a mocked-up picture of his boss Donald Trump playing a violin. The caption read, “My next piece is called Nothing Can Stop What’s Coming.” Trump himself retweeted the image with the comment “Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me!”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Donald Trump is no George Washington, but his descent from commander-in-chief to vector-in-chief is nonetheless dizzying. Trump’s narcissism, mendacity, bullying, and malignant incompetence were obvious before the coronavirus crisis, and they have been magnified rather than moderated in his surreal response to a catastrophe whose full gravity he failed to accept until March 31, when it had become horribly undeniable. The volatility of his behavior during the crucial weeks of February and March, when coherent action could have limited the subsequent loss of life—the veering between flippancy and rage, breezy denial and dark fear-mongering—may not seem to demand further explanation.

Even after he belatedly accepted the seriousness of the threat, the grotesque spectacle of his turning vital public information briefings into campaign rallies—with journalists serving as necessary objects of contempt and facts being indiscriminately jumbled with wild hunches and bitter invective—was, to his fans, a signal that nothing had really changed. Since the president had not altered his conduct, why should they? Since Trump simply carried on being Trump, his disastrous performance seems to require no further elucidation. It is his nature. Yet there is a mystery at its heart. For if there is one thing that Trump has presented as his unique selling point, it is “utmost Vigilance,” his endless insistence that, as he puts it, “our way of life is under threat.”

If the United States is to be run by a man who has perfected the paranoid style, the least its citizens might expect is a little of that paranoia when it is actually needed. But even on March 26, when the US had surpassed China and Italy to become the most afflicted country in the world, Trump continued to talk down the threat from the virus:


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