The Coronavirus Isn’t Trump’s Katrina. It’s His Vietnam.

Francis Wilkinson

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Mistakes were made. Lies were told. The body count kept rising.

President Lyndon Johnson knew the war in Vietnam was a fiasco. But he believed American  prestige was on the line. And he didn’t want to be the first president to lose a war. “I know we oughtn’t to be there,” he told Senator Eugene McCarthy in a February 1966 phone call. “But I can’t get out.”

For two more years, until both the war and Johnson became unpopular, Johnson kept feeding fresh bodies into the maw.

President Donald Trump’s disastrous mismanagement of the covid-19 pandemic has been compared with President George W. Bush’s deadly inaction in advance of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But Bush did not have months to prepare for that storm, as Trump did for this pandemic. 

This is not Trump’s Katrina; it’s his Vietnam — with a warped timeline.

Johnson may have misjudged Vietnam, but at least he was acting, in part, on behalf of what he perceived to be the national interest. Trump’s response to Covid-19 runs strictly on personal pathology. The failure to obtain basic equipment, including masks and ventilators, is akin to sending soldiers off to war without rifles. His initial falsehoods about the imminent spread of the virus, like his consistent inconsistency, reflects Trump’s perception of his self-interest as well as his lifelong recourse to make-believe.

Trump lacks Johnson’s institutional knowledge or mastery of government. But Johnson’s weaknesses — ego, vanity, insecurity, selfishness — reappear in Trump at freakish levels.

And now the death toll is piling up. There are more than 69,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. The number of unconfirmed cases, given the federal government’s catastrophic failure to test, is vastly higher. Deaths from Covid-19 have risen to more than 1,000. Yet the bad part has not yet begun.

In February, Trump said the number of cases would soon be “zero.” Bush may have failed to prepare; Trump actively thwarted preparation. Trump is a tactical liar, spreading falsehoods to get through the next five minutes, not the next five weeks or months or years. He is aided by a Republican Party that has routinely defended his incompetence and corruption and is now poised to contribute to the defining event of his presidency: unnecessary death on a mass scale.

By 1966, when the Vietnam War still had broad public support, Johnson was already taking heat from within his own party. Senator William J. Fulbright, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denounced the war in a major speech, rising to fulfill what he called “the patriot’s duty of dissent.”

Had Johnson heeded Fulbright’s criticism, his warning that the war was being waged from arrogance rather than from strength, things would’ve turned out very differently. If Johnson had acted on the convictions he expressed in that phone call with McCarthy, he could have saved more than 50,000 Americans and many more Vietnamese (not to mention Cambodians and Laotians). Instead, the killing accelerated, and the body bags kept coming for another nine years.

Casualties from the coronavirus failure will not persist for years. Scientists will devise a response, and public-health experts will make it stick. But Trump, who continues to encourage reckless behavior that will lead to additional loss of life, will make the death toll far higher than it should have been. The price of an unfit American president will be paid in thousands of American lives.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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