Trump would like everyone to forget what he said in January, February, and March to minimize the danger of the coronavirus. Other nations acted, we did not. He continually gave false assurances that the disease was no problem, that it was under control, that people should proceed with their lives as usual.

Fintan O’Toole wrote in the New York Review of Books about the contradictory impulses of Trump’s base. On the one hand, all dangerous things come from The Other, and Trump alone has the courage to save us (from outsiders, Muslims, Mexicans, socialists, Communists, Democrats, etc.) On the other hand, his base embraces risk. They love guns. They want everyone to have one. They don’t like regulation. They want the government to stay out of their lives, not regulating the water or the air.

The article is called “Vector-in-Chief.” It might have also been called “Trump and the Paranoid Style.”

Strangest of all, however, is that Trump is a germaphobe, yet didn’t worry about this germ, which can cause death. Maybe it is because he is personally protected, surrounded by minders. He famously said that the CDC believes everyone should wear a face mask, but that he wouldn’t do it. Count on his faithful base to take his advice to “do as I say, not as I do.” They will crowd the pews in church, and they will not wear face masks. Someone on Twitter put the social risk best: “Telling states and counties to make their own decisions about whether to impose social distancing is like setting aside a peeing section in a pool.”

O’Toole writes:

On July 4, 1775, just his second day serving as commander-in-chief of the American revolutionary forces, George Washington issued strict orders to prevent the spread of infection among his soldiers: “No person is to be allowed to go to Fresh-water pond a fishing or any other occasion as there may be a danger of introducing the small pox into the army.” As he wrote later that month to the president of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, he was exercising “the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous Enemy.” On March 8, 2020, well over two months after the first case of Covid-19 had been confirmed in the United States, Dan Scavino, assistant to the president and director of social media at the White House, tweeted a mocked-up picture of his boss Donald Trump playing a violin. The caption read: “My next piece is called Nothing Can Stop What’s Coming.” Trump himself retweeted the image with the comment: “Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me!”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Donald Trump is no George Washington, but his descent from commander-in-chief to vector-in-chief is nonetheless dizzying. Trump’s narcissism, mendacity, bullying, and malignant incompetence were obvious before the coronavirus crisis and they have been magnified rather than moderated in his surreal response to a catastrophe whose full gravity he failed to accept until March 31, when it had become horribly undeniable. The volatility of his behavior during February and March—the veering between flippancy and rage, breezy denial and dark fear-mongering—may not seem to demand further explanation. It is his nature. Yet there is a mystery at its heart. For if there is one thing that Trump has presented as his unique selling point, it is “utmost Vigilance,” his endless insistence that, as he puts it, “our way of life is under threat.”

If the United States is to be run by a man who has perfected the paranoid style, the least its citizens might expect is a little of that paranoia when it is actually needed. Yet even on March 26, when the US had surpassed China and Italy to become the most afflicted country in the world, Trump continued to talk down the threat from the virus.

“Many people have it. I just spoke to two people. They had it. They never went to a doctor. They never went to anything. They didn’t even report it…The people that actually die, that percentage is much lower than I actually thought…The mortality rate, in my opinion…it’s way, way down.”