In May 1918, Frederick Trump—Donald’s paternal grandfather—was taking an afternoon stroll with his young son when he suddenly announced that he felt too ill to continue, and needed to retire to his bed. One day later, Frederick died at home, having succumbed to a case of pneumonia that would later be identified as a complication of the “Spanish flu.” The president’s grandfather, in fact, was one of the first domestic casualties of the world’s worst modern pandemic, which ultimately killed millions.
The death toll was undoubtedly worsened by the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to talk down the health risk. Sound familiar?
Not to Trump, apparently, who in his visit to the CDC in Atlanta on Friday said, hours after this story was first published, that 36,000 people a year die from the flu, which he compared to the coronavirus. Trump went on: “I never heard those numbers. I would’ve been shocked. I would’ve said, ‘Does anybody die from the flu? I didn’t know people died from the flu.’”
Here’s the family (and American) history that Donald didn’t know:
With World War I raging, the British, French and German governments downplayed the virus’s spread, fearing negative press might hurt the war effort. Spain, unengaged in the fighting and watching from the sidelines, reported honestly on the disease, leading to the false impression that the virus originated in the country, hence its misleading name.
In the United States, Wilson, a Democrat, declared all bad news verboten as soon as the U.S. entered the war. A complicit Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, amending it one year later with the Sedition Act, which made criticism of the government a crime carrying a 20-year sentence. Smithsonian magazine notes that “government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories…cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.””
Labor organizer Eugene Debs, a hero of Bernie Sanders, was very quickly made an example of. One month after the Sedition Act took effect, the Socialist party chair and repeat presidential candidate gave an anti-war speech before a crowd of more than 1,200 in Canton, Ohio.
“The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives,” Debs said, later adding, “These are the gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty.”
Weeks later, Debs was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act with “intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States.” He was sentenced to 10 years in jail, though the sentence was commuted two years later by Wilson’s successor.
Wilson, who won re-election on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” had created the Committee on Public Information—a wartime propaganda machine—on the suggestion of Arthur Bullard, who once wrote, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms… The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.” CPI staffers cranked out press releases, often republished word-for-word in newspapers around the country, that ginned up support for the war effort and sugarcoated the situation at home.
The consequences of this campaign would be an unknowable number of American lives. In Philadelphia, newspaper editors wary of disloyalty accusations avoided publishing doctors’ warnings about the public health risks of an upcoming parade. Within 48 hours of the event, thousands in the city fell sick with Spanish flu, but public officials continued to insist it was business as usual. “Bodies remained uncollected in homes for days,” researchers at the National Academy of Sciences write, “until eventually open trucks and even horse-drawn carts were sent down city streets and people were told to bring out the dead.”
Despite mounting death figures in Chicago, one local public health official stated he would do “nothing to interfere with the morale of the community.” A Wisconsin newspaper that factually reported on the danger posed by the flu was targeted for prosecution by an Army general under the terms of the Sedition Act.
President Wilson was even eventually hobbled by the flu in the midst of peace talks. His doctor publicly downgraded the illness to a cold. (Later, Wilson suffered a stroke that left him an invalid, and then fired his secretary of state for convening a cabinet meeting to discuss the health emergency.)
All told, the Spanish flu killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people globally, including 675,000 Americans. The Wilson administration’s mishandling of the Spanish flu pandemic—minimizing the virulence of the virus, censoring reports on precautionary measures that might help stint the disease’s spread, and undercounting deaths despite contradictory and observable local evidence—eventually caused a loss of public trust and made the virus yet more lethal.
The U.S. response, or lack thereof, to the pandemic that killed Frederick Trump would be a lesson in what not to do regarding coronavirus for any historically literate leader. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with Trump, who from the moment he was elected has been far more concerned with optics than public health.
Even as the coronavirus situation worsens, Trump officials have persisted in efforts to slash more than $85 million from the CDC, and recently announced plans to cover coronavirus costs by slashing $37 million from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which literally gives heat to impoverished families.
Vice President Mike Pence, tasked by Trump with overseeing all aspects of the coronavirus response, not only lacks medical credentials, he wrote in 2001 that “smoking doesn’t kill” and oversaw Indiana’s worst outbreak of HIV, which he then tried to pray away.
Last, but not least troubling are the pains this administration has taken to shut down the flow of information about coronavirus, including preventing health experts from speaking to the press without White House preclearance and going after whistleblowers who have spoken publicly about its unpreparedness.
Trump, a notorious germophobe who infamously attacked President Obama’s efforts to contain and thwart the Ebola virus, is meanwhile mocking coronavirus concerns as Democrats’ “new hoax”—another bit of evidence that even when millions of lives are potentially on the line, Trump remains all about himself. The president’s flunkies in conservative media have accused Democrats of “weaponizing” the disease to “get rid of Donald Trump,” telegraphing mis- and disinformation that may help turn this crisis into a global disaster.
The Washington Post has noted that “Spanish flu had a mortality rate of 2 percent, much higher than seasonal influenza strains, and similar to some early estimates about the coronavirus.” It’s obviously impossible to predict whether coronavirus will rival the plague of 1918-1919, but the failure of the U.S. government to properly address the disease offers a cautionary tale for how the Trump administration deals with coronavirus.
Unfortunately, among the many things this administration is terrible at, acknowledging history and learning from past mistakes rank right up there.