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Why Trump’s empty boasts hide the horror of COVID-19 from Americans

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

Donald Trump is giving Americans a false picture of how serious the COVID-19 crisis really is, instead using the pandemic to boast about his performance and improve his bid for re-election.

Donald Trump is giving Americans a false picture of how serious the COVID-19 crisis really is, instead using the pandemic to boast about his performance and improve his bid for re-election.

That's the opinion of Dr David Smith, the United States Studies Centre's senior lecturer in American politics, who says Mr Trump has politicised the crisis more than any other recent president would have.

With the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US quickly heading towards 100,000, the situation is reaching tipping point, with the number of deaths expected to soar in the coming weeks as hospitals are overwhelmed.

Despite that, Mr Trump gave himself 10 out of 10 when he was recently asked to evaluate his response to the pandemic, and this week he promised to have the country back to normal by Easter.

That's a far cry from the sobering note of the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who's warned the country to prepare for months, even years of pain.

Donald Trump said the media wants to keep America shut down to hurt his re-election chances.

Earlier this month Mr Trump claimed that America had "been very vigilant, and we've done a tremendous job at keeping it (infections) down."

According to Dr Smith, Mr Trump's reckless statements mean many Americans haven't grasped the gravity of the situation.

"I can't help but remember that when Barack Obama was asked towards the end of his first term how he would grade his performance, he said he would give himself a B+," he told

"He thought he'd done a good job, but there was room for improvement. We aren't seeing any of that sort of introspection from Trump, who has done a far worse job.

"By constantly talking about how great his performance has been, it is seriously undermining people's perceptions of how great this crisis is.

"Parts of the USA could look like Italy by next week, I don't think they're ready for it.

"The whole thing isn't Trump's fault, but he's not making things any better. "

Americans are set to head to the polls in November, with Mr Trump seeking re-election.

The last three Presidents all won a second term, but Dr Smith says all three would have handled the current crisis differently to Mr Trump.

"It is very hard to imagine Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton politicising it in the same way," he said.

"Trump has certainly seen this purely through the eyes of his re-election campaign.

"That was true at the start, when he was deliberately playing down the crisis, because he didn't want it to jeopardise the economy.

"He's been using his briefings as campaign opportunities, because now he can't hold rallies, which is his favourite campaign tool.

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Donald Trump has attacked the Oscars for giving Best Picture to 'a movie from South Korea'.

"There's been the ludicrous optimism around the performance of the US Government.

"Everything from claims about tests being perfect and available to everyone, to the claim that the US is the best prepared country in the world.

"There was the claim that Trump saved millions of lives with his travel ban from China, I would point out that Italy actually implemented a travel ban from China a day earlier! He has talked up his performance so much."

While Americans may still not be fully aware of the magnitude of the crisis, Mr Trump is enjoying a surge in public support.

A Gallup poll released this week showed 49 per cent of those surveyed approved of the job the president is doing, while 45 per cent disapproved.

Former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama wouldn't have politicised the crisis like Donald Trump, according to Dr David Smith.

That matches Mr Trump's best approval rating in a Gallup poll since he came to office.

When the respondents were specifically asked about Mr Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, 60 per cent said he was doing a good job.

Dr Smith pointed out a rise in approval ratings for a president isn't unusual in times of crisis, as people rally behind the leader, but there could be another reason behind the jump, specifically, Mr Trump's promise to have the country back up and running by Easter.

"It could also be that a lot of people agree with Trump, that the economy shouldn't be closed for a long time," he said.

"But that could really change if we begin to see a lot of deaths, especially if it starts happening outside New York.

"At the moment there's a view that it's mostly confined to New York and maybe a couple of other places.

"If it starts to take hold in other parts of the country, and there's a lot of deaths because the health system isn't properly prepared, then I think it might turn into a negative."

The United States Congress this week agreed on a US$2 trillion (A$3.3 trillion) stimulus package, but that's not expected to prevent the country slipping into recession.

But with recession defined as two consecutive negative quarters of economic growth, that won't become official until the second half of 2020, and that could be a major problem for Mr Trump.

The last two presidents who lost their bid for re-election, George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, did so with the country having recently been through a recession.

"We're only at the start of the economic impact," Dr Smith said.

"When the US goes into recession it might become difficult for Trump to win.

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"No US president has won an election during a recession for more than 100 years.

"But these are very different times, anyone will be able to see that no matter how many ways Trump has exacerbated the crisis, it didn't originate with him, and it didn't originate in the US, hence why he always calls it the Chinese virus.

"But the US is so polarised at this point, I'm not sure that the 40 per cent of the population that consistently supports Trump is going to blame him for this.

"What we've seen is this partisan division is so strong, that despite Trump making some obvious mistakes, there's still part of the population who will never blame him for that."

The current crisis has seen the usual bickering in Australia over what is the responsibility of the Federal Government, and what is controlled by the states.

According to Dr Smith, the same issues exist in the US.

"One of the things we're learning at the moment is the American system is hopelessly fragmented," he said.

"Trump hasn't provided a lot of strong leadership or co-ordination, but that is not entirely his fault.

"That's because of the way the system is setup, where states have an enormous responsibility. The Federal agencies are actually quite weak in what they can do. The Federal Government is weak.

"Congress is powerful because it controls the moment, but when it comes to the implementation of measures like lockdowns and healthcare, that's the responsibility of the states."

While Mr Trump maintains the country will shortly be back to normal, it's already impacting on November's election. Some Democratic primaries have already been delayed, and if the spread of the virus can't be contained it could disrupt the nominating conventions, scheduled for July and August, and even the election itself.

The crowd at the RNC in Cleveland. (AP)

An election disrupted by COVID-19 could end up messier than the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, when a winner wasn't known for more than a month.

Democrats are already pushing for provisions for universal mail-in ballots, as they consider the possibility that the colder weather in November might mean large gatherings are still not safe.

Dr Smith says while a disrupted election could end in chaos, mail-in ballots could actually be an improvement.

"Physical voting in America has so much latitude for stuff ups anyway, that this probably couldn't be worse. There are so many different ways of voting, there's different voting machines all around the country.

"What mail-in ballots would do would actually create a really strong paper trail for the whole population, like we have here in Australia with paper and pencil voting.

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"Yes, there's the possibility of a stuff-up, but it could also actually end up making it more reliable."

When news came through this week that Prince Charles had tested positive for COVID-19, one of the first questions that was asked was when he last had contact with the Queen. The idea of the monarch, and the heir, both contracting coronavirus was a big deal.

No such concerns seem to exist in the United States, where Mr Trump appears almost daily with Vice President Mike Pence, despite a member of Mr Pence's staff recently testing positive to COVID-19.

In the event both were severely ill and unable to discharge their duties, the role of acting president would fall to the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney famously spent a long period in an undisclosed location, kept separate from Mr Bush to ensure continuity of government.

But Dr Smith says that although Mr Trump and Mr Pence are setting the wrong example, the chances of both contracting the virus are slim.

"I think it sends the wrong message about social distancing, but on the other hand I think the probability of Trump getting coronavirus is incredibly low, and that's partly because Trump is a famous germaphobe," he said.

Mike Pence and Donald Trump look over their notes in the rose garden of the White House.

"People who've been around him have described his hand-washing rituals, which are probably well in excess of what's recommended, even in these unusual times.

"The other thing is both Trump and Pence have been recently testing for COVID-19 and came up negative. So there might be less concern there that they're at risk of infecting each other.

"I suppose that after 9/11 the fear was a sudden attack that would kill both the president and the vice president at the same time, COVID-19 is obviously different to that.

"They'd be looking at an extended period of illness, during which presumably both would have access to the very best medical care imaginable."

Many have been critical of Mr Trump's performance in the first three years of his presidency, but as Dr Smith points out, now is the time he needs to step up, as he faces a challenge bigger than any of his immediate predecessors.

"Trust in the political system is just one of the many things at stake here," he said.

"We've got the economy at stake, and potentially millions of lives.

"This is the biggest crisis since the second World War."

Source: 9News

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