The original article


How Many Lives Would a More Normal President Have Saved?

By Ross Douthat, Sept. 5, 2020

Trump failed to meet the Covid-19 challenge. But it’s harder to judge whether the overall response was catastrophic or merely mediocre.

All of the fears I nurtured in 2016 about Donald Trump’s unfitness for the presidency, and the dangers of putting him in the White House for the sake of judicial appointments or tax cuts or any other policy goal, have seemingly been vindicated so far in 2020. Combine Trump’s conduct throughout the Covid-19 pandemic — the month of denial, the veering messaging and policy, the rage-tweeting, the shrugging surrender to a summer spike — with the growing toll of American dead, and you have the strongest case for NeverTrumpism, distilled: Never mind his policy positions, never mind the perils of liberalism; the risk of a once-in-a-century catastrophe with this guy in charge is just too high.

It’s precisely when events seem to vindicate your deepest anxieties, though, that you should be careful about your conclusions. We can say, because we have eyes to see, that the president’s response to the coronavirus has thrown all his faults into relief. But has it been as horrific in its consequences as it has been dispiriting to watch? To put a sharper point on it: How many Americans are dead because Trump, rather than a normal politician, occupied the White House in 2020?

I’ve been thinking about this question because my colleague David Leonhardt suggested one possible answer in a recent edition of his Morning newsletter. Right now, he noted, “the U.S. accounts for 4 percent of the world’s population, and for 22 percent of confirmed Covid-19 deaths.” But suppose that “the United States had done merely an average job of fighting the coronavirus,” meaning that our country “accounted for the same share of virus deaths as it did global population.” How many Americans would still be alive? “The answer: about 145,000” — which is to say, the large majority of the roughly 185,000 Americans reported to have died.

That’s an awful toll; to the extent that it can be laid at the current administration’s feet, it would emphatically prove the case that electing Trump enabled not just corruption but catastrophe.

But I’m not fully convinced by my colleague’s approach. Consider that the patterns for Covid-19 fatalities often look more region-specific than country-specific: You’ll be more likely to predict a nation’s pandemic toll if you know where it’s located (Western Europe, the Pacific Rim, Africa) than if you know what kind of leader or government it has. Which suggests that some still-mysterious combination of region-specific factors — recent experience with pandemics, a population’s youth or age, pre-existing immunity or genetic inheritance, the differing strains of the virus that show up in different places — establishes the baseline against which individual countries should be judged.

If so, then it probably makes more sense to compare the U.S. death toll to similarly positioned and sized countries — meaning the biggest countries in Western Europe and our major neighbors in the Americas — than to compare us to a global average. And when you compare deaths as a share of population within that group of peer countries, the U.S. starts to look more mediocre and less uniquely catastrophic.

Of the five most populous countries in Western Europe, only Germany has been a great success, with less than one-fifth our coronavirus death rate. Three of the remaining five, Spain and Italy and the United Kingdom, have higher death rates than the U.S., and the fourth, France, isn’t that far below. Likewise with the five largest countries in Latin America, where only Argentina stands out as a clear success, while Brazil and Peru have worse death rates than ours, Mexico is just below us and Colombia a little further down.

Overall, once you observe the general pattern where the Western Hemisphere and Western Europe have been particularly hard hit, it’s hard to distinguish the big countries run by centrists or socialists from the country run by Donald Trump. And the same is true if you look at overall excess death statistics (the number of deaths above normal levels), which fewer countries keep, but which are probably a more accurate measure than a Covid-19-specific count. Again, Germany looks great, but Britain, Spain and Italy all have worse numbers than the United States.

One obvious rejoinder is that many of these countries were hit harder than the U.S. at the outset, when we all were ill prepared, but Trump’s blundering helped give the U.S. its summertime wave, which our peer countries have avoided. But actually both Spain and France have seen late-summer infection waves that have brought them above or close to our infection rate. (We also don’t know where herd immunity lies, and whether some initially hard-hit countries that haven’t seen a summer spike have already reached it: It’s notable that Sweden, which famously never tried a complete lockdown, has seen its rate of daily deaths collapse.)

And the effects of some specific Trumpian follies, like his palpable contempt for masking, are hard to discern in the data at all: The U.S. has rates of mask usage that fall, like our death rates, right in the middle of the pack for our peer nations.

Now there is an element of, “Who are you going to believe, my stats or your lying eyes?” to an argument like this. Having lived through the last six months, I am sure some lives would have been saved if Trump had encouraged his own voters to take Covid-19 seriously at the outset, or if he had prodded his bureaucracy during the lost month of February, or if he had discouraged early reopening in the Sun Belt, and so on. If those failures add up to 20,000 lives lost instead of 145,000 it’s still a tragic record of avoidable mass suffering. And it’s possible that when all the waves are done, we will end up looking worse relative to Western Europe than we do today.

But the peer-country evidence suggests that to take the pre-emptive, creative and draconian steps that might have actually suppressed the virus, and in the process saved that hundred thousand or more extra lives, would have probably required presidential greatness, not merely replacement-level competence. We can say without a doubt that Trump whiffed when this call for greatness came. But distinguishing between Trump’s incompetence and what an average president might have managed is harder, so long as so many peer-country death tolls look like ours.

Then there is a final wrinkle, which is that we don’t yet know how the administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine push will end. If the United States ends up generating large quantities of a working vaccine, or more than one, on an unprecedented timetable — currently a real possibility, however much you worry about Trump’s pre-election incentives — then that will also end up on the ledger when we assess this president’s Covid-19 response.

And if it comes to that, then the pre-2020 pattern of this presidency, where critics (like me) fear an only-under-Trump catastrophe but what actually happens is bad but also mixed and complicated, will not have been as decisively broken by the coronavirus as the headlines today make it seem.