As the coronavirus pandemic escalates and the federal government fails to take meaningful, coordinated action to arrest the spread, the political press has latched onto a frustratingly flippant word to describe the Trump administration’s catastrophic failure of a response: “bungled.”
In The Washington Post, one headline points out Trump’s habitual embrace of xenophobia as “he bungles this crisis,” and columnist Jennifer Rubin writes that the administration’s delayed response to the virus “might be the costliest presidential bungle in history.” A subheadline in TheNew York Times asserts that “the federal government bungled its response to the coronavirus,” and Newsweek surveys the crisis timeline and suggests that “Trump’s bungling of coronavirus started with Iran.” Glossy magazines have picked up the terminology too, with Vanity Fair detailing how “Trump’s coronavirus bungling is dividing Republicans,” and the fashionably exasperated Vogue simply sighing, “Of course Trump is bungling the coronavirus outbreak.” There are even bungle-based listicles—just a few weeks ago, Mother Jones laid out “17 ways the Trump administration bungled its coronavirus response.”
In the United States, as of today 682 people are dead and more than 52,000 others are known to have fallen ill due to the coronavirus. Thousands—and possibly millions—more are expected to follow. With the virus dominating the news cycle 24/7, we’re watching the narrative of the Trump administration’s response take shape in real time. But if the phrase that writers and editors have widely adopted for this disaster is merely “bungling,” and not, for example, “gross negligence,” “malfeasance,” or “reckless indifference to human life,” it’s clear that the narrative being developed is one that’s not taking the intentionality of the administration’s failed response seriously, or considering the human costs that have and will result.
As its dictionary definitions suggest, the word “bungle” evokes a sense of accident—a clumsy mistake or stumbling misstep rather than deliberate misconduct. Synonyms drive home the word’s flippant connotation: “mess up,” “bumble,” “flub,” and “goof up.”
The description of Trump’s response as “bungled” rather than deliberately callous, corrupt, and willfully ignorant isn’t altogether surprising given the media coverage privileges he’s afforded as a white male politician. Despite being widely acknowledged in the press as “not qualified” to be president, Trump was able to ascend to the highest office in the land. Now, conveniently, the same questions of capability and fitness to hold office that failed to prevent his ascent insulate him from responsibility for his decisions: He’s probably not smart enough to be engaged in deliberate malfeasance, so the narrative goes. No—he’s just “bungling” this crisis the way he “bungles” everything else. In this way, he fits the mold of another notoriously incurious white male president—George W. Bush—whose lethally inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina was also described in the press with words like “bungled” and “botched.” Indeed, Trump’s handling of this crisis has already invited those comparisons.
Dubious as his qualifications for office may be, Trump cannot credibly claim ignorance in this scenario, and headline writers shouldn’t do it for him by implication. There’s no shortage of experts speaking out both in the media and within his own coronavirus task force with clear explanations of the potentially devastating consequences of failing to respond swiftly and strongly to the growing pandemic, to say nothing of the best practices and cautionary tales to be drawn from other countries. But instead of heeding those easily accessible and evidence-based warnings, the administration has affirmatively decided to pursue another course, one that values profits over people.
Trump is not a helpless and innocent bystander to the coronavirus pandemic, stumbling and bumbling over his own two feet as he tries his level best to help out the American people, and those of us in the news media are not doing our jobs if we portray him that way. He’s the president of the United States, a position that affords him a wealth of material, financial, and political resources to help mitigate both the spread of the virus and the economic toll of preventive measures on vulnerable people. That he has not done so is no accident.
Disbanding a pandemic response team and leaving the nation vulnerable just to spite a prior president is a choice. Refusing to use the full powers of the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of desperately needed medical supplies is a choice. Pivoting to racism against Asian Americans and anti-immigrant rhetoric in response to criticism is a choice. Prioritizing the short-term health of the stock market over human lives by scheming to prematurely end social distancing is a choice.
Nothing about these responses can reasonably be characterized as just a clumsy or awkward mishandling of the situation. Rather, they reflect the administration’s knowing and intentional prioritization of Trump’s own business interests and reelection chances over the health and safety of the people he’s responsible for. News outlets’ reliance on terms that diminish his intentionality and culpability—like “bungled” or its similarly popular cousin, “botched”—perpetuate misunderstanding of where responsibility lies for this crisis. It’s a misunderstanding that will only benefit Trump should he ever be called to account for his actions.
While the use or nonuse of a single word like “bungled” may not change the trajectory of the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus, it can and will shape the way Americans understand what’s happening. Words have specific meanings, and it’s from those meanings that words draw their considerable evocative and narrative power. The words we choose can point the way toward justice, or they can absolve wrongdoers of their misconduct. Trump has already expressed his desire not to “take responsibility at all” for the harms wrought by his administration’s failed response to this pandemic. Those of us in the news media must not bungle our way into helping him achieve that goal.