Worse still, Trump has oscillated between equating Covid-19 to the seasonal flu and depicting it in apocalyptic terms; between calling for and questioning closures; between saying there are enough or too few tests. He invokes the Defense Production Act then resists using it; limits travel from Europe but exempts the disease-ravaged United Kingdom; leaves it to governors to impose stay-at-home orders and then criticizes their actions. He speaks of supplying ventilators to states and then tells them to get their own. People should wear masks, he says, but he won’t.

Trump cannot stay on message because he does not have one. He appears torn between seeing the current crisis in medical or economic terms. Is it better to flatten the curve of the contagion by shuttering the economy (like China) or let it ride with vigorous testing and selective isolation (like Sweden)? For Trump, the answer seems to depend on whom he talked to last…

Trump cannot afford to get this one wrong; but dithering is fatal too. We survived him sending mixed messages about North Korea’s nuclear program and about Turkey’s invasion of Syria. There too he lacks coherent plans, but others react in ways to minimize the damage and we muddled through. Pandemics do not work that way.