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Ed Yong: On pandemic, Trump reinforced Americans’ worst impulses

While the political fallout from President Trump’s coronavirus comments to Bob Woodward continues, what about the public health repercussions? Would America have fared better if Trump had treated the virus more seriously from the beginning? Ed Yong of The Atlantic, who has reported extensively on America's pandemic response, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The political fallout from the president's comments to journalist Bob Woodward about the coronavirus remains to be seen.

    But there are also questions about what more could or should have been done when President Trump realized that the coronavirus was much more serious than he was publicly acknowledging at the time. The president says he was trying to avoid creating a panic.

    William Brangham explores some of those questions now.

  • William Brangham:

    The Washington Post yesterday revealed that, for his new book, Bob Woodward interviewed President Trump numerous times.

    On February 7, this is what President Trump said to Woodward about the novel coronavirus:

  • President Donald Trump:

    You just breathe the air, and that's how it's passed. And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one.

    It's also more deadly than your — your — even your strenuous flus.

    This is more deadly. This is 5 per — this is 5 percent vs. 1 percent and less than 1 percent. So this is deadly stuff.

  • William Brangham:

    But at that time, in public, the president was describing the gravity of the situation differently. Three days later, the president said this:

  • President Donald Trump:

    Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away. Hope that's true.

  • William Brangham:

    Two weeks after the Woodward call, there was this reassurance:

  • President Donald Trump:

    We have it very much under control.

  • William Brangham:

    The next month, the president was implying in a tweet that the flu was much worse than the virus.

    In June, on the phone with FOX News, as the U.S. saw roughly 20,000 new cases every day, he said this:

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's fading away. It's going to fade away.

  • William Brangham:

    Joining me now to discuss the president's response, as well as our broader national response, is one of the journalists who has covered this crisis as well as anyone that I have read, Ed Yong at "The Atlantic" magazine.

    Ed, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    You have heard the Woodward tape, where the president certainly seems to understand the severity of the coming pandemic. And then yet we saw many examples of him both talking very differently about it in public, and, some would argue, acting very differently in his role as chief executive.

    How do we measure the consequences of the president's actions?

  • Ed Yong:

    Well, we have seen what happens when the person in charge of a country's response is not up to the task.

    You know, we have seen what happens when you put someone who lies consistently, who doesn't trust to expertise, who chooses to feed his own ego, rather than to look after the welfare of his citizens.

    And it's not good. Trump is not, by far, the only reason why America has failed so badly to control COVID-19, but he is central to the country's failure. His repeated attempts to downplay the pandemic, which we have heard now in stark detail, have lured much of the country into a false sense of security.

    And I have argued in my latest piece about America's pandemic spiral that a disaster of this magnitude was always going to be difficult for us to get our heads around, right? It was going to be very seductive…

  • William Brangham:

    Regardless of who was in charge.

  • Ed Yong:

    Absolutely right.

    Regardless of which administration was in power, it would be all too seductive to want to return to normal, to fail to grasp the size and scope of the problem.

    But when the person in charge is actively telling citizens, everything is fine, it's going to go away, when he's boosting this tendency to succumb to magical thinking or silver bullets, then things start getting really problematic.

    And he's contributed to this fraying of the national understanding of this crisis.

  • William Brangham:

    In that most recent piece in "The Atlantic" that you mentioned, you also point the finger at our national citizens' response more broadly. You write: "The country has consistently thought about the pandemic in these same unproductive ways."

    Give me some examples of that. What do you mean by that?

  • Ed Yong:

    So, for example, we bounced from one solution to another, without really understanding that, to control a pandemic, you need a lot of different solutions.

    So, our attention flits from social distancing to masks to treatments to up — coming up soon a vaccine. We need all of these things. We need to do testing, we need to do contact tracing, we need masks, we need to put all these measures together.

    But we seem to only focus on one thing at a time. So, that's one issue. We tend to focus on blaming individuals, rather than fixing broken systems. So, it's very easy to point a finger at someone who is having a party or someone not wearing a mask correctly than it is to look at all the broken institutions, the carceral state, the health care system, nursing homes, and all the rest that have jeopardized America's health.

    The country has this tendency to go from moralism, instead of putting in the structures that will allow people to make better choices.

  • William Brangham:

    But, devil's advocate, how — we are an enormous country. We have wildly different education levels. There's a growing distrust of institutions, and I don't just mean driven by conspiracy theories.

    I mean, this is a tough, big nation to govern. The things you're talking about, I'm just curious what you would see as a possible remedy for that, which I would agree that larger societal problem, how do we remedy that?

  • Ed Yong:

    So, I think that's why clear, evidence-based communication from leaders is so important.

    These instincts that I have talked about in my recent piece, these intuitions that lead us astray are pretty universal. I have made them. You have probably made them. Our viewers are probably making them now.

    I'm not judging people for them, but we can try and resist them. It helps if leaders show a way out, if they provide clear communication. And this is absolutely the opposite of what has actually happened, as we have heard from Woodward's tapes.

    Trump and many of his associates have instead exacerbated these bad intuitions by feeding people lies, misinformation, a false sense of security, this longing desire to return to normal. Rather than counteracting those instincts and showing the country a way out, they deepened and worsened every faulty intuition that we will naturally succumb to.

  • William Brangham:

    Amidst all of this, is there anything that you look at coming forward in the winter or perhaps a vaccine or this coming flu season that gives you hope?

  • Ed Yong:

    So, I think, actually, one of the best signs is that, in the Northeast, a lot of places that were hit originally very hard by the pandemic have actually managed to hold the line, kept cases pretty low throughout much of the spring and summer. And that, to me, is encouraging for the fall and winter.

    In general, Americans have actually done a lot. They have taken to things like masks, which were unfamiliar, social distancing. And they have done that in the face of bad communication, lies, poor leadership from the federal government.

    Now, maybe they can hold that for the long term. I worry that people will get inured to tragedy. And that is a big risk going forward, that the unacceptable will come to be acceptable.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Ed Yong of "The Atlantic" magazine.

    You can read all of his work at TheAtlantic.com.

    Thank you very much for being here.

  • Ed Yong:

    Thanks for having me.

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