President Donald Trump delivered a pair of personal and political gestures this week that seized on his core voters’ mistrust of international institutions and skepticism of science, heightened amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The president threatened to withdraw from the World Health Organization, escalating his accusation it’s beholden to China. The move came hours after he revealed he was taking an anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, to protect himself from coronavirus — an unproven therapy the president has promoted despite outcry from the medical community.
While Trump said he’s taking the drug out of concern he may be exposed to people infected by the virus in his job, both gestures were in line with sentiment among Republicans. As the pandemic ravages the economy, the president has increasingly resorted to brazen appeals to the slice of voters who represent his most avid supporters.
He has sought to define his presidency not by his handling of the US coronavirus outbreak, which surpassed 1.5 million cases on May 19, but in comparison with familiar right-wing bogeymen including China, Barack Obama and even Trump’s own public health advisers, who pushed tough stay-at-home measures despite the risk of an economic slowdown.
As is common with the Trump White House, his remarks have echoed weeks of commentary in right-wing media.
In recent days, Trump has bristled openly as his team urged caution with the nation’s reopening over fears the virus could reemerge. The president has instead spurred governors and school administrators to hasten their efforts. And he’s long voiced concern that the cautious bureaucracy of government scientists were drowning out anecdotal evidence on hydroxychloroquine that could give Americans hope of a return to normalcy.
His letter to the WHO laid out a bill of grievances against the UN agency, which he has threatened to cut off from US funding, accusing it of being too close to China. The letter’s first charge, however, was erroneous: that the WHO had ignored reports of the coronavirus spreading in Wuhan, China in December 2019 or earlier, including by The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal. The Lancet issued a statement saying it didn’t publish its first reports on the novel coronavirus until January 24.
The journal chastised Trump, saying his allegations “are serious and damaging to efforts to strengthen international cooperation to control this pandemic.”
The danger for Trump is that his pronouncements risk evoking an air of desperation. Surveys show Americans growing less confident in his leadership as the nation’s death toll from the virus marches past 90,000, unemployment figures skyrocket from the economic collapse precipitated by the outbreak and the virus intrudes even into the halls of the White House.
The president has shown increasing hostility to science, threatening to solidify perceptions that he’s too impatient or politically motivated to steer the nation through a generational crisis, exacerbating the risk he’ll be held personally responsible if a second wave of the virus emerges. To be sure, the country has become increasingly divided by the pandemic.