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Coronavirus Exposes Stunning Presidential Leadership Vacuum

This is what happens when you put an untrustworthy reality TV show actor in charge of the United States government facing a crisis of unparalleled impact upon the citizenry, the economy and life as we know it.

Donald Trump, who has built his reign of error on partisan division, stoking hatred and spewing endless lies, comes face to face with coronavirus — and has no idea what to do except cast blame, continue to lie about the seriousness of the situation, and tout his incredibly lame response as some kind of great success.

The coronavirus presents the nation with a challenge unprecedented since the Spanish flu that swept the planet more than a century ago. That illness killed millions and, if the predictions are correct, coronavirus will do the same and has now been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.

But there’s little comparison between the world a century ago and the world of the 21st century with its interwoven global supply chains, travel, commerce, recreation and urbanization. A century ago most of the world’s nations were still largely agrarian and much less densely concentrated except for in the largest urban centers.

Today, not only does much of the food supply for the nation come from abroad, but so do many other necessities of everyday life. In the world of the much-flaunted “globalization” of commerce, the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. And right now, weak links are breaking across the planet as quarantines and travel bans are instituted to try and contain the spread of a virus that can exist for days on surfaces and survive in the air to infect its victims.

Consider what that means in a nation of more than 325 million people. Universities and schools closed, travel shut down on airlines, ships and mass transit lines. Meanwhile, government offices are emptied as employees follow “work from home” orders. Theaters, sporting events, graduations, concerts, festivals canceled as restaurants and small businesses suddenly face drastic declines in customers seeking products and services.

Like a pebble tossed in a pond, the ripples go out to many shores. Take the energy sector, which operates on supply and demand, but in which supply now far exceeds demand, leaving speculators with enormous debt incurred expecting profits from the fuels produced — but not if no one is buying them.

Trump couldn’t even read a 10-minute speech to the nation without lying about how “anyone who wants testing can get it” and having to issue corrections about bans on goods and travel. And was the nation reassured by our “very stable genius”? Well, not exactly. The day after his speech, the stock market crashed with losses not seen since Black Monday in 1987. And make no mistake, the stock market is the most important thing to Donald J. Trump’s quickly diminishing odds of re-election.

What does Trump do for a populace facing severely reduced or eliminated weekly paychecks upon which they rely? He cuts the food assistance programs to the neediest of Americans, wants to bail out the oil, gas and hospitality industries, while exempting his international resorts from travel bans.

The hard truth is that we are on our own and what leadership we get will not come from the grifter in the Oval Office. That said, Montanans may fare slightly better than most because we’re used to being self-reliant, not panicking, and helping each other in ways unimaginable in our vast urban centers — and that’s exactly what we’re going to need given the vacuum of presidential leadership.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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