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Trumpita: Why The Balcony Bust Epitomizes The Hemisphere's COVID Catastrophe

President Trump (left) on the White House balcony Monday night; Madonna as "Evita"
Alex Brandon
President Trump (left) on the White House balcony Monday night; Madonna as "Evita"

COMMENTARY Our hemisphere has one-eighth of the world's population but half the world's COVID cases and deaths. Its two most important leaders led the way.

I don’t know where President Trump and Jair Bolsonaro were the early morning of August 14. I only know Trump and the Brazilian president weren’t sitting at my kitchen table in Miami when my wife got the call from Venezuela that her brother had just died of COVID-19.

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If they had been – if they had seen the convulsive grief, made worse by the cruel distance shackling everyone during the pandemic but especially those with loved ones abroad – they might not still be treating this horrifying virus as recklessly as 5-year-old boys accepting dares on a playground. They might not still be ridiculing protective masks and social distancing, sneering at us and declaring: We both got COVID– hell, we practically told the microbe to bring it on – and we beat it. It’s nothing more than gripezinha, as Bolsonaro calls it. A little flu.

If they had been in our kitchen – if they had shared our realization that patients like my brother-in-law, who was trapped in Venezuela’s healthcare horror show, can’t access the Walter Reed-level treatment and experimental meds that save heads of state – the U.S. and Brazil might not still be registering the highest and second-highest number of COVID deaths in the world. That is, more than a third of the world’s million total deaths.

READ MORE: Macho and Maskless: Trump, Bolsonaro Make U.S., Brazil Weaker COVID Prey

If they had been with us – if they had appreciated as deeply as we did in that moment how desperately this pandemic cries out for the serious, science-based leadership it has rarely seen in the Americas – a COVID-infected Trump might not have climbed onto the White House’s Truman Balcony this week and ripped off his mask like a petulant kindergartner. He might not have further endangered people in his inner and outer circles, all to stage yet another grotesque photo op and salve his strongman ego.

I’m sorry, did I say a White House balcony? Trump’s unhinged performance was actually more reminiscent of a presidential palace balcony – the kind Americans usually associate with Latin American despots, including thuggish populists like Bolsonaro, who think governing means looking down on sycophants from wrought-iron perches. The way Trump, wheezing and grimacing at the virus inside him, looked down on MAGA nation Monday night.

For people in this hemisphere like me who've lost loved ones to COVID-19, the unhinged performances of Trump and Bolsonaro — especially Monday night's Evita stunt — remind us why the Americas have been devastated by this pandemic.

It was a warped picture, to be sure – and it will forever encapsulate a key reason the novel coronavirus has ravaged the Western Hemisphere.

I’m referring to the fact that Trump has made it normal for a U.S. president to behave like Brazil’s current president. The guy who said “So what?” when reminded that his reckless example of COVID denial was contributing to Brazil’s 148,000 pandemic deaths.


It’s bad enough when Brazil’s president leads that way. But when America’s president also leads that way, its influence is far more far-reaching, and helps lead the way to this macabre stat: A hemisphere that accounts for only one-eighth of the world’s population accounts for half the world’s COVID cases and deaths.

"Nobody that's a leader would not do what I did," Trump says. But Uruguay’s president has not done what he did. And Uruguay, the hemisphere’s exception, has recorded fewer than 50 COVID deaths.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro defiantly removes his mask at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia in July.
Andre Borges
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro defiantly removes his mask at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia in July.

I wish Trump and his wife, who is also infected, a fast and full recovery. But I was mistaken last week when I wrote that Trump’s caudillo costume was now complete after he’d made a violent, white supremacist group like the Proud Boys his de facto paramilitary enforcers. There was still one autocratic accoutrement I’d forgotten: the balcony.

Now Trump, even in his illness, has given us that too. Instead of the hallowed image of Abraham Lincoln – whose last photograph was taken on a White House balcony – our minds now have to wrestle with the picture of the late Argentine dictator Juan Perón. Or more famously, his wife Eva Perón, aka Evita, who made the Casa Rosada balcony the sort of charlatan populist’s stage Trump just turned the Truman Balcony into.

I’m hardly alone in that observation: social media are already seeingsatirical videos of Trump’s balcony stunt set to the tune and refashioned lyrics of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”

At least Evita tried to look as if she were crying for her country. Families like mine can only expect Trump and Bolsonaro to dismiss us. As if we were gripezinha.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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