Monday, January 11, 2021

Personally responsible: President Donald Trump and America's Plague Year

A notable historical site in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I completed my residency in Family Medicine, is Wheatland, the estate of the 15th American President, James Buchanan. Buchanan, who preceded Abraham Lincoln in office and is often considered by historians to be the worst President ever, did absolutely nothing as the first 7 states of the 11 that would go on to form the southern Confederacy seceded from the Union. Although Buchanan believed that secession was unconstitutional, he did not interpret his oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States" as giving him the authority to use force to prevent states from leaving. In the four months between Lincoln's election and inauguration (until 1937, Inauguration Day was March 4th), Lincoln watched helplessly as Buchanan's inaction and the scheming of his Southern-dominated Cabinet (including Secretary of War John B. Floyd, who later became a Confederate general) allowed the country to break in two.

Although there were some tense moments in early 1861 and in the summer of 1864, when Confederate General Jubal Early's Army of the Valley briefly skirmished with Union forces in the ring of forts surrounding Washington, DC, no insurrectionists would succeed in breaching the U.S. Capitol with a Confederate battle flag until January 6, 2021. On that date, a violent mob incited by the current President overpowered police and broke into the Capitol building, intending to stop the Congressional certification of November's election result, in which former Vice President Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump by 7 million popular and 74 electoral votes. They threatened to hang Vice President Pence from a noose for not going along with Trump's illegal plan to disqualify enough electors to swing the election his way, and, before authorities reoccupied the building, mortally wounded one Capitol police officer and likely contributed to the suicide of a second officer three days later.

When historians assess the Trump Presidency, will they judge his anti-democratic actions to be worse for the nation than James Buchanan's inaction? Will they judge Trump to have been personally responsible for creating the movement that, if not for the quick thinking of courageous Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, could very well have resulted in live-streamed assassinations of Senators and staffers?

I hold President Trump personally responsible for a large portion of the 375,000 U.S. deaths from the pandemic to date. Admittedly, it's impossible to assign an exact number. As convincingly argued in the tour-de-force New Yorker article "The Plague Year," there were 3 critical missed opportunities to decisively alter the trajectory of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.: 1) China's initial suppression of evidence of SARS-CoV-2's human-to-human transmission capability, including refusing to allow the CDC to conduct its own outbreak investigation; 2) the CDC's failure to develop and distribute an error-free test for the virus in February when doing so could have facilitated effective isolation of small numbers of infected patients by state health departments; and 3) Trump's refusal to wear a face mask in public and repeatedly suggesting that doing so was a sign of weakness, particularly when the mask-wearer was his election opponent. It's hard to blame the President for the first two, but the third was all on him.

Trump's responsibility - personal and historical - is even clearer for what happened at the Capitol last week. When you spend months telling supporters that if you don't win the election it will have been due to "massive voter fraud"; when you refuse to concede that you've lost a free and fair contest and file a blizzard of lawsuits that are so legally feeble that conservative judges that you appointed dismiss them out of hand; when you encourage supporters to show up in force on January 6th, appear before them in person to fire them up even more, then send them marching toward America's seat of democracy - you knew exactly what would happen, Mr. President. It's why you deserve to be removed from office before your term expires in 9 days, or failing that, be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate so that you can never hold public office and wound or sicken this country again.