Minimal government in the time of coronavirus

Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, one of the worst crises this nation has endured, Donald Trump, his administration and the legions of Republican lawmakers and several GOP governors initially decided to do almost nothing. Instead, Trump basically said that the states are on their own in procuring essential life-saving medical supplies like ventilators and masks. This is nonfeasance.

An online legal dictionary defines nonfeasance as: The intentional failure to perform a required duty or obligation.

You see a person drowning in a community pool, thrashing and calling for help. Right there is a rope and a lifesaver. But you don’t throw the woman either one. Instead you walk away. You rationalize that it’s not your job, you don’t want to get involved, the pool should have employed a lifeguard, and you have other things to do like being on time for your appointment with your personal trainer. Nonfeasance.

From the beginning, Trump has, in word and deed, failed disastrously in his duty to do the utmost to protect the nation’s citizens from a deadly new disease that has spread like wildfire throughout the country, reaching every single state in the union. As early as January, U.S. intelligence agencies warned of the danger of a pandemic. The administration didn’t listen and did nothing to prepare. Nonfeasance.

Even when the first signs appeared that the intelligence was on the mark, Trump went into deep denial and paranoid mode, claiming the alarm was a hoax by the Democrats to hurt his chances of reelection.

Now that the magnitude of the COVID-19 calamity has become evident, leaving many deaths, many more sick, an economy and stock market in free fall, millions unemployed or on the way there, and society-wide disruption on a scale not seen since World War II, what is he doing? He is still refusing to fulfill his duty as the nation’s top authority.

Right now, Trump is committing criminal negligence by refusing to use the Defense Protection Act, which empowers the president to force private companies to produce critically needed goods. Instead, when it comes to obtaining life-saving supplies, Trump is passing the buck.

The president on Thursday said: “First of all, governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work, and they are doing a lot of this work. The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.” But governors, including some Republican governors, have been begging the federal government for help which has not come. Nonfeasance.

We may have thought that we had seen the worst consequences of Trump’s Empathy Deficit Disorder. His actions during this emergency top them all.

Harry Truman understood what Trump fails to understand even now. The buck stops at the office of the president. Real leaders understand that instinctively and act accordingly. Harry Truman proposed, and Congress approved, the Defense Protection Act in 1950 as a response to shortages of strategic materiel for the Korean War. At the outset of World War II, FDR met with the heads of the auto companies. They all promised to help with the war effort. FDR told them that they would not be allowed to build cars for the duration of the war and should concentrate on tanks and vehicles needed for the war. At that time, Roosevelt did not have the legal authority to enforce that command. But he had the moral authority, and the executives knew FDR would not hesitate to call them out for lack of patriotism. They complied. In contrast, Trump’s meeting with CEOs during this crisis have been mutual admiration affairs. Only praise, no presidential pressure for the executives to do anything. Nonfeasance.

In contrast, at a press conference, Trump exploded at NBC reporter Peter Alexander for asking the president what he would say to Americans who are scared. Trump didn’t answer the question and instead called Alexander a terrible reporter. Failure to communicate concern and empathy to the American people. Nonfeasance.

Even in a terrifying crisis like this one when the role of a president is to work for national unity, this president has not even taken a break in bashing his favorite scapegoats, including the media and foreigners. He calls coronavirus the Chinese virus. Pure racism: viruses don’t have national identities. He has taken advantage of the situation to do something he has been trying to do for a long time but has been foiled by the courts, banning all asylum seekers from entering the country. Fomenting racism and slandering the media when solidarity and information are at a premium goes beyond nonfeasance into malfeasance. Malfeasance is the act of knowingly committing a wrongful act.

Among the yes men and women around Trump, led by Vice President Mike Pence, who lavishes praise on the president like firefighters unload their hoses on a big fire, one person stands apart for his integrity and courage, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health (NIH).

An eminent public health expert, as a member of the Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci has to stand there and listen as President Trump spouts a vast quantity of misinformation, engages in wishful thinking, gives false hope to a nation desperate for some good news, and displays an abysmal ignorance of the most basic principles of science. Fauci must swallow bile each time Trump opens his mouth, but he endures the pain stoically out of a sense of duty to speak truth to the American people in the face of a sovereign liar. Fauci’s actions are the antithesis of Trump’s misfeasance and malfeasance.

One last point should be clear. The massive nonfeasance of Trump and the Republican political elite who run this country is not just a case of the chaos and confusion characteristic of the administration. It is a result of the ideology of savage capitalism and minimalist government which this elite professes. According to the New York Times, “Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have privately said they are adhering to longstanding conservative opposition to big government,” which is nothing but nonfeasance and malfeasance justified through a thin philosophical façade.

Let them call it what they will, it is an ideology of death even in good times. In a plague, the lack of solidarity inherent in the dog-eat-dog American form of capitalism and the government’s nonfeasance and malfeasance that comes with that is as lethal as any virus.