There is no point in fantasising which US presidents would have done better. The answer is almost any. You go to war with the president you have. But it is easy to project Mr Trump’s direction. There will be no federal plan to marshal the US’s resources for testing, therapeutics or the search for a vaccine. The US will have to rely on its patchwork of labs, companies and philanthropists. They are unrivalled but highly fragmented. As the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, put it: states should not have to compete with each other during a war for tanks and guns.
Nor will Mr Trump educate Americans about the reality ahead. In his view, the US is already past the peak. Failure to reopen the economy would cost more lives than keeping it closed, he says. In fact, a new wave that triggered a second lockdown would be a far bigger hit to US wealth than a cautious return to work over a period of months. One paper estimates the difference at $5.2tn over 30 years. Economists and scientists mostly agree on this. Mr Trump is deaf to the consensus.
Which means the US is likely to flunk the test that matters most — national purpose. No matter how sinuous their civic institutions, nations without leadership lose wars. The US was galvanised into unity after the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and the launch of Sputnik. Covid-19, by contrast, is spurring a hunt for scapegoats. The virus is only worsening America’s divide.