Via Red State, this is obviously grossly untrue. Whether Biden said it as a sort of Trumpian lie, hoping to get a talking point circulating among his base whether it’s accurate or not, or whether his 77-year-old mouth was moving faster than his 77-year-old brain is unclear. Either way, many, many, many thousands of Americans would have died regardless of who was in charge.

In fact, if this had come from a smoother politician, I’d wonder if there wasn’t an eight-dimensional-chess strategy behind it — that is, maybe it’s a sly way by Democrats to get Americans thinking about precisely how many additional deaths are due to Trump “downplaying” the virus and spouting endless inanities about how it’ll go away magically or how masks are “politically correct” or whatever. Ten thousand? Fifty thousand? Not a good topic for POTUS either way.

But since it’s not a smoother politician, I think it’s just a case of Biden stumbling into a laughable smear amidst an aggressive attack on Trump’s coronavirus record.

Ross Douthat wrote a column a few weeks ago asking this very question — how many U.S. deaths are *really* attributable to Trump’s leadership? — then had to write a follow-up column addressing the backlash to his answer, which was “not as many as Trump-haters would like to believe.” But he’s undeniably right. I can think of three early catastrophes in the U.S. response off the top of my head that had nothing to do with Trump. One was the CDC’s screw-up in rolling out an effective test in February, a disaster the agency will never live down. Another is the early opposition among public health authorities to Americans wearing masks, a “noble lie” they engineered because they feared that a run on surgical masks by the general population would leave doctors and nurses with a shortage. And the third, of course, is Darth Cuomo’s decisions to wait until late March to lock down New York and then try to save bed space at hospitals by sending infected nursing-home patients back into their nursing homes.

That’s one key difference between the U.S. and Europe. We live in a federalist system that grants general police powers to the states, not the president. It’s your governor, by and large, who’ll determine how well your state responds to a crisis, which means Cuomo and others need to be incorporated into the blame equation. Unless, that is, Biden thinks there was some way for Trump to prevent the virus from entering the U.S. in the first place, which there wasn’t. I want him to look me in the eyes and tell me that he, as president, would have banned all travel into the United States on, say, January 1, with all the attendant economic consequences of that decision, due to an outbreak in China which everyone assumed would be contained to the region the way SARS was.

No other western country moved that quickly to ban travel so why would a different U.S. president have done so? Relatedly, as Douthat noted in his column, the death rate per capita in the U.S. is comparable to the rates in various European and South American countries. We’re behind Spain, the UK, and Brazil in that category and quite similar to Italy, Sweden, and Mexico. That’s not a compliment to Trump — all of those countries have had *bad* outbreaks, with lots of death. The point is simply that, going by the numbers, there’s no reason to see Trump’s management of the pandemic as uniquely bad relative to that of various other world leaders.

And as for the much-cited fact that the U.S. has four percent of the world’s population but some 20 percent of all COVID deaths, even that can be explained (at least partly) by factors unrelated to Trump. Namely, we’re just not a very healthy country. Earlier this year the percentage of U.S. adults who are obese passed 40 percent; in European countries, according to the WHO, it ranges from 10-30 percent. We’re all familiar by now with the fact that COVID preys on comorbidities, and obesity is an important one. An international study published last month found that “people with obesity who contracted SARS-CoV-2 were 113% more likely than people of healthy weight to land in the hospital, 74% more likely to be admitted to an ICU, and 48% more likely to die.” A population that’s larger around the middle will have a larger death toll.

Even on aspects of the pandemic where Trump really has been uniquely terrible relative to how any other president would have behaved, e.g. standoffishness about masks and happy talk about the state of the pandemic, the extent of his influence on public behavior is exaggerated. I noted in this post that anti-Trumpers sometimes tell themselves a comforting lie, that if only Trump started speaking responsibly about containing the virus in a forceful way his diehard fans would dutifully fall in line. That just ain’t so. The rebellion against precautions like masks can be reinforced by Trump’s irresponsibility but it doesn’t originate with him, a point Douthat recognized as well. He calls the impulse driving the antipathy to masks “folk libertarianism.” I’d call it “spiteful populism” (or “populist nihilism” maybe) but whatever:

The first thing you see is that some failures in the American response are less about the president’s specific faults and more about a debilitating pre-existing condition in his coalition — a folk-libertarian hostility to all federal policymaking, a reflexive individualism disconnected from the common good.

What I’m calling folk libertarianism (to distinguish it from the more academic sort) is deeply American, not just conservative, and its present expression has many antecedents in our history (there were anti-mask leagues during the Great Influenza). And some of its impulses are healthy curbs against public-health overreach and local tyranny.

But in the Republican coalition today these impulses have too much power, or too few checks. Which is why conservatism as a culture has produced so much “it’s just the flu” contrarianism, so much social-Darwinist rubbish about the disease being harmful “only” to seniors and the already-unwell, and so little in the way of policy innovation from its elected leaders — some of whom are currently impeding a new wave of coronavirus relief, to their own party’s likely detriment.

If President Ted Cruz had urged people to wear masks from the beginning — or, better yet, sent five reusable masks to every U.S. household — would the death toll be lower? I think so. A lot lower? I’m less confident about that. If President Hillary Clinton had urged people to wear masks from the beginning, would the death toll be lower? I’d answer that this way: It might be lower due to *other* policies implemented by her administration but I strongly doubt there’d have been a higher public buy-in on masks. If anything, the buy-in might have been lower, as “spiteful populism” joined forces with basic partisan anti-Clintonism among Republicans to further discourage mask-wearing on the right.

Where I think Trump was uniquely bad in a way that really did drive infections was his insistent push to reopen from the moment the country started locking down in late March, and then not being a stickler about states following his own federal guidelines for reopening safely once lockdowns began to lift. That sent all sorts of bad messages — that the pandemic would be over sooner than we think, that it was safe to congregate while community spread was still rampant, and most of all that containing the virus and restoring the economy were two contradictory rather than complementary goals. Republican governors could have resisted him, but too many were lily-livered about being lambasted by their own pro-Trump bases if they didn’t follow his “orders” on reopening. On top of all that, Trump’s motives for reopening were inexcusably selfish. As Olivia Troye acknowledged yesterday, all he cared about from the start was his reelection, and he concluded early on that an economic comeback (specifically, a stock market comeback) was an absolutely necessary prerequisite to victory. So he pushed for reopening whether it was safe or not and now here we are, six months later, still skipping along with 40,000 or so new cases per day. How that shakes out in terms of deaths attributable specifically to his leadership, I don’t know. It’s certainly not “all of them,” contra Biden. But it ain’t zero.