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Why it's unwise for Trump to invite international virus comparisons

Trump's new talking point: the U.S. is "doing very well" on the coronavirus by international standards. I wish this were true. It's not.
Image: *Los Angeles Church Offers Covid Testing, As Cases In L.A. County Continue To Spike Upwards
St. Johns Well Child & Family Center workers prepare to test a woman for COVID-19 at a free mobile test clinic set up outside Walker Temple AME Church in South Los Angeles amid the coronavirus pandemic in Los Angeles on July 15, 2020.Mario Tama / Getty Images

It's easy to tell when Donald Trump comes up with a new talking point he likes, because the president will repeat it incessantly in the hopes that people will embrace it. The Republican's new rhetorical toy is a line intended to make it seem as if the United States' coronavirus crisis isn't that bad -- at least when compared to international standards.

When Trump sat down with Fox News' Chris Wallace, for example, in an interview that aired on Sunday, viewers saw the president argue, “You know, it’s not just this country; it’s many countries. We don’t talk about it in the news.”

At a White House event yesterday, the president added, unprompted, "[W]hen when you watch the news -- the local news -- and you see it, and it’s -- it’s, like, all about the United States. They never like to talk about what’s going on in the world.... But this is a worldwide problem."

It was a bit jarring to hear Mr. America First complain that local news outlets don't do enough international pandemic coverage, but he nevertheless followed up this morning, pushing the broader point on Twitter:

"You will never hear this on the Fake News concerning the China Virus, but by comparison to most other countries, who are suffering greatly, we are doing very well - and we have done things that few other countries could have done!"

In a superficial sense, I can appreciate the appeal. Americans are taking note of developments in their own country -- staggering infection numbers, climbing death rates, maxed out hospitals, a faltering testing system, etc. -- and have reason to be disgusted. From Trump's perspective, that's all the more reason to argue that our disaster appears less calamitous when compared to related developments in other countries.

"You only think this is dreadful," Trump is effectively arguing, "because you haven't seen international comparisons."

But the reason the American public "will never hear this" on the news is that the argument is wrong.

In the Chris Wallace interview, for example, the president referenced "parts of Europe" that put the United States in a more favorable light. But as a new Washington Post analysis noted, pandemic numbers out of Europe are vastly better than ours.

Making matters slightly worse, the United States is the world's preeminent global superpower. For Trump to find countries with coronavirus rates comparable to ours, he has to compare his country to far less economically developed countries, which isn't the sort of comparison one might ordinarily expect from a sitting American president.

It's not surprising that the White House is looking for new talking points; the old ones obviously weren't fooling anyone. But the fact remains that as coronavirus infection rates climb in the United States, members of the European Union have decided to block American travelers from their countries. Our allies in the U.K. aren't eager to see us, either. Even Canada is reluctant to welcome its American neighbors any time soon.

That's not because our numbers look better when compared to international standards; it's because the opposite is true.