Panaro: The failure of political spin and President Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19

Kevin Panaro, Staff Columnist

In many ways, the current COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing political crisis clash heavily with the ethos on which President Donald Trump predicates his entire political philosophy. Trump has thus far treated every major crisis of his campaign and presidency as an image problem that can be solved with the right publicity spin. And for the most part, this has been very effective. 

The best example of Trump’s political spin is the “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016. When they were first released, the general opinion of CNN and NBC pundits was that this bombshell—admitting sexual assault—spelled the end of his campaign and that Trump would be forced to withdraw from the race in shame. But somehow, through voracious PR, his team was able to spin the whole crisis around Hillary Clinton. Not only did Trump infamously claim that the conversation with Billy Bush was “locker room talk,” he flipped the issue back onto former President Bill Clinton and brought all of his accusers to the next debate. Trump somehow managed to survive the crisis and carried through with this manufactured momentum to a narrow presidential victory. 

Political spin has also been his strategy when dealing with the novel coronavirus. His mishandling of the pandemic has resulted in the loss of lives—with unfortunately more to come—and long-term financial damage; however, the coronavirus will hopefully finally hold Trump accountable, proving that PR cannot get you out of any crisis. 

An April 18 CNN article details how officials from the administration continued to downplay the virus and its impacts all through February. On Feb. 25, chief economic advisor and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said the virus was “contained” on CNBC; later that evening, then Trump campaign spokeswoman and current White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed, “we will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here.” These comments coincided with the cusp of a stock market crash and amid Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warnings that there would be “community spread.” Trump himself oscillated between claiming the virus was flu-like and would completely disappear in warmer weather and blaming networks for blowing the dangers out of proportion. These comments, along with at least 16 others from the Trump administration and campaign, downplayed the coronavirus and economic impact just as the crisis was slowly getting out of control.

The message from these statements is clear: Trump knew the virus could be dangerous (there were even private warnings from intelligence agencies of a pandemic), yet his strategy to fix the issue was the same as any other—spin the issue so the media no longer saw it as a problem and his supporters had somebody else to blame. 

However, you can’t half measure yourself out of a pandemic. The fact is that Trump has done a terrible job of responding to the crisis, and in many ways left working-class people behind. The $454 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act designated to help bail out large corporations suffering from the pandemic includes few strings to curtail the exploitative tendencies of these companies. An April 2 Politico piece outlines that “they impose no requirements that the beneficiaries use the money to retain their employees,” and there are also no restrictions on executive pay, unlike the 2008 bank bailout. These decisions come as regular people are left with pennies.

The much-celebrated stimulus check of $1,200 for adults making under $99,000 will certainly provide some much-needed relief, however that number simply isn’t enough. An April 16 New York Times article details how a group of 62 Congress members have urged for monthly payments. This is a step in the right direction; even still, America should be fighting to preserve jobs, rather than increasing unemployment benefits. In a U.S. Department of Labor news release, the total number of unemployment claims was cited as 22 million, which means the real unemployment rate is likely nearing 18 percent. We have surpassed the 2008 Great Recession and are quickly approaching Great Depression levels of economic instability.

What companies should be doing is furloughing employees in order to keep ties between workers and their jobs, which will help to lessen the impact when the economy eventually restarts. The World Economic Forum reported on April 1 how United Kingdom employers “have been offered government grants to cover 80% of wages for staff on their payroll who are not working.” Similar strategies have been implemented in Denmark and France to great effect. The U.S. should have followed the lead of their more economically savvy peers, instead of digging themselves into an unnecessary hole.

This crisis has highlighted the Trump administration’s strategy of deflecting blame and downplaying crises. The amount of preventable deaths aside, the lasting economic impact will be felt for years after the last wave of the virus has come and gone. The White House could have followed the lead of other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, yet they’ve continued to forge their own path, willfully ignoring medical and financial experts. What’s worse is Trump is already scheming on how to find ways around the inevitable backlash to his coronavirus response. By insisting on printing his name on the stimulus checks, he is not so subtly reminding people who they can thank for their financial lifeboat. If the arc of the moral universe really does tend toward justice, maybe Trump will finally be held accountable for his incompetence in November.