“We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight … in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall never surrender.” — Winston S. Churchill.
“[The pandemic] is a Democratic hoax.” “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” And so on. — Donald J. Trump.
In May 1940, Great Britain faced the greatest existential threat in its long history. French forces were collapsing before the German juggernaut. The Germans were preparing to invade Britain, soon to be the last holdout against Nazi oppression. On May 10, Winston Churchill became prime minister and immediately painted a grim verbal picture of what Britain faced. He didn’t pull punches. He understood that his people needed to know the truth in order to prepare for and manage what lay ahead.
Inspired by his unmatched, soaring rhetoric — “I have nothing to offer but blood, tears, toil and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind … many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny …” — his people rallied around him, defiantly endured the Blitz, prevailed against unbelievable odds in the Battle of Britain and ultimately, with the assistance of its Soviet and American allies, buried Nazism and won the war.
May 1940 was arguably the finest month any leader in history has ever had. It was marked by telling the unvarnished truth to the British people. In return, they responded with patriotic zeal, an absence of panic and a fierce resolve to survive and triumph.
Contrast Donald Trump’s approach to the greatest existential threat to the United States since the Civil War, as starkly revealed in Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage.” Trump, in 18 taped interviews, told Woodward that he played down the COVID-19 threat because he “did not want to panic” the American people. He knew how dangerous the coronavirus was as early as January, then frittered away months before reacting. His half-baked Chinese travel ban (43,000 travelers from China entered the U.S. after the travel ban) was the only timid step he took early on to try to contain the virus. At the same time, he consistently lied about the danger. He pushed dubious cures and suggested injecting bleach, among other insane notions. He held six rallies following his January briefings about the seriousness of the situation, during which he disdained basic safety measures like wearing masks and socially distancing, a reckless advocacy he still espouses today. He went ahead with these rallies knowing full well that not taking the most elementary safety precautions spreads the virus and risks severe illness, suffering and death. Politicizing safety and health while knowing the danger is a crime against humanity. He puts his own supporters’ lives on the line for political gain.
Other countries' leaders told their people the truth and no one panicked. Instead, their honesty triggered a determination to contain and mitigate the virus so they could get their lives and economies back on a normal footing. Look where they are today while America flounders, saddled with the worst coronavirus record in the world under this sorry excuse for a leader.
Donald Trump is no Churchill. By lying to his people about the virus and playing games with his government’s response, he is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. This is without doubt the greatest crime in the history of the presidency.
Sadly, I doubt that Woodward’s condemnatory revelations will change a single November vote. Trump supporters, for reasons inexplicable after all the damage and carnage he has wrought, are baked into their unworthy candidate. When I read the polls, I am blown away by the fact that Trump still retains any support. He deserves none.
Canandaigua Academy graduate Richard Hermann is a law professor, legal blogger, author of seven books and part-time resident of the Finger Lakes.