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OPINION | Fourth Estate

Trump’s Claims of Victory Usually Mean Someone Else Loses

When he suddenly shifted ground on the number of expected coronavirus deaths, it became clear that someone is us.

Donald Trump

You need no longer wonder what it’s like to be Donald Trump’s business partner or banker, chained to him in one of his sinkholing ventures that will take you down to ruin along with him if you don’t caretake him and his ego.

Previously, Trump had consistently downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, predicting in late February that, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” and in early March had urged the Covid-19 infected to go to work. As recently as last Friday, the White House was floating the idea of lifting the coronavirus lockdown in stages so that church congregations could reassemble on Easter Sunday.

But then came the president’s Sunday presser in which he reversed field so sharply it’s a marvel he didn’t blow out the anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees. The good news now being spread by Trump wasn’t that the virus would miraculously vanish. It was that death count of between 100,000 and 200,000 would provide evidence that he’d done “a very good job.” As a point of comparison, 291,000 members of the U.S. armed forces died in combat during World War II.

How did Trump go from treating the pandemic as a complete nothingburger to a major die-off—one so horrific that New York City has purchased 45 refrigerated truck trailers to preserve corpses when hospitals start ejecting bodies faster than the morgue can store them? One can only imagine what magic Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx performed before Trump between Friday and Sunday to get him to discard his idea of relaxing coronavirus restrictions. The president may be stubborn and belligerent, but even he knows when to dismount when sensing that he’s losing the reality war. Nobody was buying his cheery vision of America back to work by Easter, not even Fox, which parted ways with a business anchor who claimed the virus was an “impeachment scam.” In typical Trump fashion, he conceded defeat by claiming impending victory over the virus.

As POLITICO’s Michael Kruse and other Trump chroniclers can tell you, the president has long made a habit of spinning his failures as successes in both business and politics. He remains unbothered by critics who point out the contradictions of claiming that bad is really good. The grander the flop—the collapse of his USFL football team; the bankruptcies of his casinos; the financial reorganization forced on him by his banks in 1990 when his enterprise veered toward collapse—the happier the face Trump puts on the disaster. Each time a new deluge approaches, Trump does his best to shout, “Surf’s up!” assert that he’s Kelly Slater, and encourage everybody to praise him for riding such a monster wave. As Kruse puts it, the enduring Trump pattern is to stumble, proclaim victory, and then move on to his next catastrophe. Which is what we’re witnessing today.

Of course, a deadly pandemic is nothing like a football team, an ailing casino or a drowning amount of debt. Yet drawing on his business experience, that’s precisely the way Trump is treating it. Any critical situation that runs out of his control can be erased from the public’s mind if he moves quickly and abruptly enough to claim the upper hand. It takes a lot of moxie—something Trump has in reserve—to abandon his previous stance that the virus would soon vanish for the new position that the loss of 100,000 to 200,000 lives (what would be one of our largest domestic losses of life outside of the Civil War) as a “great victory.”

The secret of Trump’s crisis-management is calculating down to the day and hour the exact time at which the crisis he fostered has become so immense so that it becomes a shared responsibility. Failing to pay his bank loans in the 1990s was a problem for him, but it was a bigger problem for the banks. He threatened to declare bankruptcy to escape his mountain of debt unless they forwarded him another $65 million to tidy his balance sheet. They agreed. He did it again in Atlantic City where state gaming regulators dithered over pulling his licenses because his three casinos were hemorrhaging money, fearing he would drag the whole city down with him if they did. In the end, he survived but Atlantic City kept sliding into ruin.

Trump’s new concession that upward of 200,000 will die in our great victory leaves us in the shackles previously worn by the bankers. The president has dragged the nation to a place like the one he towed his 1990s bankers, only worse. We must now root for him to succeed, even though the disaster taking shape was exacerbated by his inaction and blithe dismissals. It’s a horrible deal, but the only way for us to avoid the final bankruptcy of a coronavirus death is to hope that Trump finally gets it right.

By Monday afternoon’s presser, Trump had wrapped himself in the glory of his impending “victory” and framed the fight against the virus as part of “our shared patriotic duty,” as if segueing into his reelection campaign. Redefining victory as 200,000 dead might even help him win in November, but it will be Americans who end up paying the real price for his political survival.

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