The cost of lies; death toll could top Vietnam

There are 58,320 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, in Washington D.C. We may need a much longer wall to remember Americans taken by the COVID-19 pandemic. | AP file

LBJ’s lies cost 58,000 American lives. I assumed Donald Trump couldn’t inflict anything more harmful. I was wrong.

The Vietnam War raged for the first 15 years of my life. I’d sprawl coloring as Uncle Walt read the death toll on TV. When I was older, the war became my benchmark for presidential folly: sacrificing thousands of American lives to avoid admitting the obvious: We lost.

During the first three years of the Trump administration, I kept pulling out Vietnam like a talisman. Sure, things are bad, but look: They’ve been much worse. We’re lucky.

When fellow Dems swooned, wailing that we’d reached rock bottom — America broken, democracy dead — I’d try to cheer them up by dangling my lucky token. See this? Within our lifetime Lyndon B. Johnson — a Democratic president, for those unfamiliar — also lied, followed by Richard Nixon, a Republican, and their lies led to the deaths of 58,000 Americans. While Trump is certainly affecting lives, he isn’t taking many. There isn’t a growing body count to lay at his feet.

I didn’t think to add: “Yet.”

Citing the awful past was a way to feel good about the present, about our beloved country even as it enshrined idiocy and error. We’ve been here before and recovered. We will do so again.

That seems like giddy optimism now we are facing a crisis that Donald Trump can’t lie away. We have no idea how many American lives will be sacrificed on the alter of his ego. A thousand? We’ve passed that already. Ten thousand could be dead next week. A hundred thousand? Easily. A million? Some epidemic experts fear more, warning that as many as 1.7 million Americans could die if we continue bungling our response. The final figure will depend in part on whether Trump really declares the crisis over in mid-April and sends Americans packing their churches at Easter.

All to save the stock market. A word about that. As an older gentleman nearing retirement, I can vouch that the recent stock swoon is not pretty. I will miss the money that evaporated, and wish it would come home, where it belongs. So the future of the Dow is significant to me, personally. Yet I am still not willing to kill your mother, or mine, or you, or myself, to boost it, and still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that anyone can. I long ago realized the whole GOP Life-is-Sacred schtick is a threadbare lie repeated by religious fanatics to justify sticking their noses up into the business of women they never met. I didn’t expect to see the falsity demonstrated in such a dramatic, unmistakable fashion.

Unmistakable to some. Almost as terrifying as COVID-19 is the fact that Trump’s approval rating went up 5 percent last week. His handling of the coronavirus is approved by 60 percent. That is only natural; people are terrified, and rally behind the leader, even a leader whose dithering magnifies the terror. Their obliviousness is the grace note of absurdity found in nightmares. The house is on fire; you run up to the guy your psyche has placed beside you and scream, “Skipper, we have to get out!” He smiles at the flames creeping up the walls. “It’s fine, little buddy,” he coos, grinning. As if dying painfully isn’t a terrible enough prospect, it seems we first must watch a school play of denial acted out by imbeciles in bee costumes before we’re allowed to fall strangling into our graves.

America took a gamble, allowing itself to be led by a charismatic fraud, and now we see we lost the bet. The awful toll of the Vietnam War, 58,000 Americans dead, was my previous high water mark for presidential folly, Now that’s chump change. And if you still like to imagine that our fellow Americans would not literally follow that man into their graves, you can stop now. Me, too. I actually thought we’d get off light, sadder and wiser and saddled with Joe Biden. Now I see that the disaster will unfold and we’ll cheer Trump into a second term, waving palm fronds, because, obviously, the world’s gone insane.

The carnage of Vietnam is our best-case scenario now. The dozen-year death toll of soldiers in Southeast Asia could be surpassed in 2020 by civilians at home. And capping the horror, adding grotesque insult to injury: No matter how many Americans die, our president will still show up on Fox News, smirking, to declare victory — thanks to himself, and to God, in that order.

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