Opinion | Coronavirus Has Taught Us More About Trump Than We Wanted to Know

Meanwhile, Andrew Cuomo has emerged as the anti-Trump.


By Gail Collins and Bret Stephens

Ms. Collins and Mr. Stephens are opinion columnists. They converse every week.

Bret Stephens: Gail, I’m having a weird disconnect. On Friday, I rode my bike all the way up to the George Washington Bridge. The weather was perfect and New York had never looked so glorious. The next day, which was dank and rainy, Donald Trump raised the possibility of quarantining New York, along with parts of the tristate area.

I experience this presidency as a cross between Stephen King’s “It” and “The Truman Show.” Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s popularity is rising. What gives?

Gail Collins: I still adhere to the rule that there is no situation so bad that Donald Trump can’t make it worse.

Bret: If he had been the designer of the Titanic, there would have been fewer lifeboats.

Gail: Or his minions would have forgotten to check for holes.

But even as we’re seeing him flounder, people want to believe they have a leader who knows what he’s doing in this crisis. So it’s not surprising his polls have ticked up.

Although actually Trump’s popularity hasn’t risen all that much considering the intensity of the situation. Certainly nothing compared to what we saw with George W. Bush after 9/11.

Bret: Not a perfect comparison. You can fault George W. Bush in any number of ways, but he did not spend the months before 9/11 repeatedly telling the public that there was absolutely no threat of a terrorist attack on our soil or boasting that he had it all under control, or claiming Osama bin Laden was a liberal hoax to delegitimize his presidency and wreck the economy.

Gail: Excellent point.

Bret: The inability of so much of the public to remember what Trump was saying just a month ago suggests that, in addition to the coronavirus crisis, we’re also experiencing a national amnesia pandemic.

Gail: Maybe it’s just national attention deficit disorder. People do hit a point where they just can’t cope with coronavirus discussions 24-7.

Hey, maybe as a public service we should briefly change the subject. Have you heard there’s a race for the Democratic presidential nomination?

Bret: Could we have a do-over? Watching Andrew Cuomo’s press conferences in recent weeks, I find myself fantasizing about the New York governor becoming the party’s nominee. Your thoughts?

Gail: Cuomo has an, um, forceful personality. Perfect for the present moment, when he can represent the frightened, beleaguered public. Joe Biden got to be the likely Democratic presidential nominee with the exact opposite aura — the candidate who didn’t drive a large chunk of the voting public nuts.

Bret: Fair point, and if the pandemic is behind us by Election Day, maybe Cuomo’s style won’t wear as well, just as Rudy Giuliani’s wore thin a few years after 9/11. But for the time being, Cuomo is playing the part of the president we wish we had — compassionate, well-informed, firm, but also flexibly responding to changing conditions — as opposed to the irascible, ignorant and self-infatuated president we do have.

Gail: No question Cuomo’s the hero in that pairing. And you could certainly sell tickets to the debate.

Bret: Biden is like the guy in the audience raising his hand and hoping the moderator calls on him. I fear this is an inauspicious beginning for the general election.

Gail: I’m not going to argue that Biden has been a stirring presence. But I was listening to him on TV the other night, and he was pretty clear in what he thought should be happening, policy-wise.

The moments when he really makes contact, though, are the personal ones — talking about having get-togethers with his grandkids where Biden and his wife sit on the porch while the kids sit a distance away on the lawn. Hard to imagine Donald Trump sitting still for that.

And of course Biden relates so intensely to what the country’s going through because of his own history of family tragedies.

Bret: Those of us in lockdown nation definitely could use an empathizer-in-chief. I just went back and looked at the clip of Biden’s interview on CNN, when he spoke about his own extensive experience of tragedy and grief. It was moving and real, the candidate at his best.

Gail: This is not the moment to have a leader whose most stirring emotional experience was firing people on reality TV.

Bret: But here’s my fear: the Biden campaign reminds me a bit of John McCain’s 2008 campaign — minus the Sarah Palin part, of course. McCain started off as the presumptive front-runner, then nearly ran out of gas before making a miraculous primary comeback. But then his campaign sorta just flatlined. In the meantime, he ran as the candidate of character and personal biography, not energy, ideas, and hope. And he got crushed as the country went through the crucible of the 2008 financial crisis.

Gail: I was covering McCain when he crashed and burned. Once the national focus switched over to the economic crisis, he was just sort of lost. He and Barack Obama were at a big bipartisan meeting on what to do next, and McCain didn’t seem to have a clue.

Biden’s not like that. He isn’t a personality-personal-history candidate; he’s a former-vice-president-who-knows-how-the-system-works candidate.

Bret: If Biden is going to make himself more relevant to the moment, I think he needs to do more than emphasize his command of bureaucracy or his experience of personal tragedy. He’s going to need to reintroduce voters to the “Scranton Joe” side of his biography. One reason I suspect Trump is benefiting politically from the pandemic is that he’s been talking about minimizing the economic fallout and getting the country back to work. That might be irresponsible from a medical and epidemiological point of view. But it resonates with millions of Americans, especially small business owners and their employees faced with complete financial ruin if the shutdowns carry on for months. Biden needs to compete with those voters, particularly those in must-win states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Gail: How are you feeling about the shutdowns? As it stands now, it’s easy to imagine them going on for months.

Even if New York does hit its peak in April, as the experts are now predicting, it’ll be summer before we’re really back to normalcy. And even then the virus will probably be wreaking havoc in other parts of the country where the contagion started later.

Bret: I’m not averse to the kinds of shutdowns that have been imposed so far, especially in dense urban areas where the risk of mass contagion is so high. I’m not averse to extending them by another three weeks, either, as Trump did over the weekend. We’ve got an urgent health crisis and critical shortages of essential medical equipment, particularly ventilators, so buying some time makes sense.

On the other hand, the idea of a much longer nationwide shutdown strikes me as no less dangerous, potentially more so. The economic damage would be monumental, beyond anything in the power of the government to fix. It runs the risk of creating a secondary health crisis in terms of depression, isolation, suicide, addiction and so on. And even then the virus is going to continue to run its course until we’ve found a vaccine or at least more effective medication.

Gail: You know I’m going to ask you what the alternative is.

Bret: I’m intrigued by countries like Holland and Sweden, which are pursuing a mitigation strategy instead of a suppression strategy. Obviously the jury is still out on what sort of outcomes they’ll have, and perhaps they’ll be terrible. But given that this is a pandemic whose consequences are going to be so far-reaching, I think there ought to be room for a certain amount of variety and intelligent experimentation in terms of response.

Then again, I’m not often in the habit of advocating the Swedish model!

Gail: Having lived through decades of fruitless arguments about why we should emulate Sweden, I’m just going to shrug and cede the point. But go on.

Bret: Can we encourage habits of social distancing without enforcing total lockdowns? Can we have restaurants open but cut their seating capacity by 60 or 70 percent, so customers aren’t so close? Can we focus our efforts on protecting the most vulnerable part of the population, especially the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, while accepting a heightened level of risk for others?

Gail: God, the idea of going out with friends to a restaurant sounds like a kind of Shangri-La. But it also scares the heck out of me. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed over the last couple of weeks, but given the incredible stress on our hospitals right now, the idea of just taking the risk to see what happens is … unnerving.

Bret: I don’t know. As my very wise mom never tires of reminding me, I don’t have a degree in medicine or public health.

Gail: Loved that column about your mother, by the way.

Bret: Thanks! She liked it too and only wishes I would agree with her more often. (As in: always.) But I was struck by a quote from John F. Kennedy that appeared in a recent Times obituary of the science writer Daniel Greenberg: “Scientists alone can establish the objectives of their research, but society, in extending support to science, must take into account its own needs.”

Gail: Nice, but I don’t think we’re letting scientists run the game. The real decisions are being made by people like — Andrew Cuomo. I’d love to hear you two argue the point out. Winner gets to run for president.

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Opinion | Surviving Coronavirus as a Broke College Student

We need better options. Our rent is due April 1.

By Sydney Goins

Ms. Goins is a senior English major at the University of Georgia.

SUWANEE, Ga. — College was supposed to be my ticket to financial security. My parents were the first ones to go to college in their family. My grandpa said to my mom: “You need to go to college, so you don’t have to depend on a man for money.” This same mentality was passed on to me as well.

I had enough money to last until May— $1,625 to be exact, until the coronavirus ruined my finances.

My mom works in human resources. My dad is a project manager for a mattress company. I worked part time at the university’s most popular dining hall and lived in a cramped house with three other students. I don’t have a car. I either walked or biked a mile to attend class. I have student debt and started paying the accrued interest last month.

I was making it work until the coronavirus shut down my college town. At first, spring break was extended by two weeks with the assumption that campus would open again in late March, but a few hours after that email, all 26 colleges in the University System of Georgia canceled in-person classes and closed integral parts of campus.

UGA professors are currently remodeling their courses and revising their syllabuses for online learning. Students were advised to not return to the campus at Athens from their vacations or hometowns. Our May graduation ceremony was even canceled without any hope of rescheduling it for a future date.

After this news, one of my housemates drove for 12 hours to her mom’s house in Chicago. Another gave me a few rolls of toilet paper and left with her boyfriend for a neighboring county.

The dining hall I worked at remained open. UGA allowed to-go meals for those still living in their dorms without a place to go. Student workers who didn’t leave for the break could call in and ask to work their usual shifts, but on many occasions, the staff wouldn’t answer the phone.

So far, an athletics trainer and honors student have tested positive for the coronavirus. They were last on campus on March 6. As of Tuesday, one person has died in the Athens hospital. Some students are asking for the semester to end with a pass-fail grading scale. This would help those without access to Wi-Fi or a distraction-free environment. I didn’t even have a personal laptop to use until a few weeks ago. It broke in November and I couldn’t afford to fix it until recently.

What if I had to do intensive schoolwork on a lagging smartphone? For the last three years, I have relied on the libraries and other on-campus resources like interlibrary loans and the bus system in order to complete my coursework. Now, the university is refunding us around $128 for services that we may need for a semester online.

After three years as an undergrad, I will graduate in May. I had applied to two highly selective creative writing programs with the ambitious hopes of acceptance. Brown University sent me an email to check the portal, and Iowa Writers Workshop sent me a letter through the mail. Both were rejections.

I pivoted my plans. I thought I could find another restaurant job in Athens or hopefully an internship during the summer until I could apply to grad school again. Those odds are not in my favor anymore. Many restaurants here have closed indefinitely or only offer takeout options. They are not hiring anytime soon.

A local coffee shop and bar, Hendershots, has started a GoFundMe for their out-of-work employees with around $10,000 raised so far. Just the Tip: Athens Virtual Tip Jar also allows regular customers to send their favorite servers tip money they would normally leave on a night out. Many service industry workers my age have added their names to this list.

Not all college students are gallivanting across the white sand beaches of Florida without a care in the world. This pandemic affects young people too. Our future depends on the efforts of the national and state governments. Coronavirus testing is extremely limited in Georgia. For its 10.52 million residents, only 100-200 state tests are available each day.

“The state does not have the capacity to test those with mild symptoms,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, in a news conference call last week.

On Thursday night, Athens-Clarke County unanimously passed an ordinance that enforces social distancing and a “shelter in place” rule, eliminating nonessential travel and large gatherings. Over 60 percent of the city’s population — the homeless, elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions — are susceptible to Covid-19.

Local grocery stores had already limited their hours and lacked essential food items like beans, rice and paper goods, showcasing barren shelves. I had a panic attack, looking at items marked “out-of-stock” on the Instacart app and watching peers post photos online. I asked my mom if I could come home.

We drove through the empty Atlanta highway, away from my struggling college town. Now, I am back in Suwanee with dwindling savings, still having to pay rent until the end of my lease in July. I won’t have an income to pay it.

For college students like me, the current solutions are: File for unemployment! Find a job at Kroger or Aldi at the detriment of your physical health! Call your potentially toxic parents! Tax refund! Personal loan! Sell your belongings!

These options are not good enough. College was supposed to give us hope for our financial future, not place us back in our parents’ houses without jobs.

Mortgage and rent payments must be suspended, so further debt and illness can be avoided, especially for restaurant servers, broke college students and those in the working class who cannot afford to escape financial crises. Our rent is due April 1.

Sydney Goins (@sydgoins) is a senior English major at the University of Georgia.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

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COMMENTARY: Why Donald Trump’s coronavirus border plan is much ado about nothing

Canada doubled down Friday on its opposition to a plan by U.S. Department of Homeland Security that could have the agency ask the Pentagon to place about 1,000 U.S. troops, armed with sensors, near the border between the two countries to try to detect illegal would-be immigrants.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that Canada was still seeking clarification from the White House about what, exactly, the U.S.’s intentions were and repeated that his government was strongly opposed to the plan.

The prime minister’s remarks followed by a day Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s declaration that Canada had made its “opposition very, very clear to our American counterparts.”

What should be of greater concern to those Canadians who believe the state should not intrude into their private lives is how high-tech instruments, such as sensors and cellphones, are being used by governments to track people’s whereabouts so that they cannot infect others with COVID-19.

This may not be wrong when there is a global pandemic, but the rights and wrongs of this, and how to put this genie back in the bottle after the pandemic is controlled, are certainly worthy of debate — particularly since Prime Minister Trudeau has said he would consider tracking citizens’ movements if his government concluded that was required.

That the U.S. has been considering moving about 1,000 troops near its northern border (and about 500 more troops to its southern border with Mexico) to assist the border patrol in preventing people from illegally entering there is ridiculous, of course, as relatively few people ever try to cross from the north.

This must be especially true today, with the U.S. having become a petri bowl of COVID-19 coronavirus infection. None among us and few from elsewhere would want to try to break into the U.S. today.

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While the mockery that this U.S. plan has engendered is understandable, the stern denunciations from some of the political echelon have been a bit much. The only obvious purpose has been to score easy political points at the expense of a neighbour that finds itself on the ropes at the moment.

The prime minister and his deputy apparently seem to have no idea that the U.S. army already has a division (up to 20,000 troops) of combat forces living minutes away by road from the Thousand Islands and Kingston, and 90 minutes away by road and 20 minutes away by helicopter from Ottawa.

The 10th Mountain Division resides on 434 square kilometres of land at Fort Drum in northern New York. The most frequently deployed regular force troops that the U.S. has, the 10th’s soldiers have done multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have sometimes stood shoulder to shoulder with Canadian and Afghan troops.

And speaking of helicopters, Fort Drum probably has more of them than there are in the entire Canadian Armed Forces.

Out west, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord by Puget Sound, only two hours by road south of Vancouver, more than 40,000 troops from the U.S. Army’s I Corps and the USAF Airlift Command occupy 367 square kilometres of prime real estate. I Corps even has a Canadian general serving as a deputy commander.

The USAF also has a general based with the RCAF in Winnipeg and Canada has a three-star general at NORAD in Colorado and other flag officers based in Hawaii, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.

Moreover, the USAF routinely sends tankers, bombers and fighter jets over Canadian airspace as part of their joint responsibilities for NORAD, and U.S. troops from Fort Drum and elsewhere often bring thousands of troops and fighting vehicles to train at CFB Petawawa in the Ottawa Valley or at CFB Wainwright in northern Alberta.

The U.S. also has a string of fighter and bomber bases very close to Canada in northern Washington State, Montana and North Dakota. And the U.S. Navy is believed to almost always have nuclear submarines lurking in Canada’s northern archipelago.

Worth remembering, too, is that the U.S. Border Patrol on both northern and southern frontiers is already armed and often uses helicopters and drones that use radar and other sensors to search for illegal immigrants.

In the grand scheme of things, the U.S. considering placing 1,000 troops along the length of its 8,891-kilometre border near Canada, where about 60,000 troops are already based, is very small beer at this time, especially when hotbeds of COVID-19 infection are breaking out everywhere including British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Mike Day, the former head of Canada’s special forces, got it right in a Tweet on Friday about Homeland Security’s hair-brained plan.

“We are right to object but any bandwidth devoted to this is issue is a distraction,” he said.

Canada’s political class must maintain a laser focus on slowing down the country’s own mushrooming coronavirus infection rate and find ways to much better protect citizens and health care workers from this pernicious global scourge.

The kerfuffle regarding the mooted placement of, on average, one U.S. soldier for every eight kilometres of the long undefended border is truly much ado about nothing.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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