Now, however, Trump has taken us to the brink of irrelevance—not quite to the abyss, but teetering on its edge. To lead or to inspire, a country has to offer a model—an “example,” as Kennan put it, of what its leadership or values or system of politics can produce. And facing the coronavirus, we are showing that, at least for the moment, we’re offering little or nothing.

The New York Times and Washington Post have reported long, gripping tales of how slowly Trump responded to the pandemic, ignoring warnings from scientists and top officials. Even now, fully seized of the urgency, he has no plan for minimizing the damage or restarting the economy. He has appointed two advisory teams—and is about to appoint a third—thus only exacerbating personal and bureaucratic rivalries. He continues to shrug off his responsibilities as chief executive, leaving under-resourced state governors to squabble among themselves in bidding wars for scarce medical supplies. His lousy relations with foreign governments have impeded the international cooperation that usually fosters a solution to these crises (though scientists are building consortiums on their own). He even tried to buy a German research company that was working on a vaccine, with an eye toward restricting its product to American buyers—a much-publicized attempt that could backfire if Germany or some other country comes up with a vaccine first…

Meanwhile, China is acting like a leader. This status may be undeserved; the virus took hold within its borders, and the Communist Party leaders suppressed the earliest reports of its spread and have falsified data ever since. Still, China is the source of much of the world’s medicine and medical gear, and party leaders have made a great show of airlifting supplies to other countries, including the United States. As Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, tweeted, “Let’s be honest. It hurts to see China sending humanitarian aid to the U.S. and Europe.”