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Alas, Dear Leader

Coronavirus and the end of Donald Trump's presidency
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I have burned up a lot of energy in this space over the past couple of weeks criticizing President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. I am going to try to wind that down, because at this point, after his speech to the nation on Wednesday night, and his press conference today, the die is cast with this man. Nothing I could possibly stay here is more damning than the way he has conducted himself. If you’re still with him, you’re probably going to stay with him till the end; if he’s lost you, then there’s probably nothing that he can do to regain your trust, however grudgingly it was given.

The whole thing has left me shaken, though it’s better to know the truth of things than to live by a pleasing illusion. I’ll explain the shaken part in a second. Though I have never been a Trump enthusiast, and did not vote in the 2016 presidential contest, I have never been a Never Trumper. I have always found Trump’s character repulsive, but at the same time, I agreed that the Washington establishment, particularly in the GOP, needed to be shaken up. I may not have voted for Trump, but I understand why people did, and I was hoping he would succeed. I’m one of those corny people who believes as a general matter that any president’s success is the nation’s success, and vice versa. It is not patriotic to hope for one’s president to fail, nor is it even in one’s self-interest.

Prior to Wednesday night, he had been bad in this crisis, for reasons I have talked about at length in this space. Then he gave his speech to the nation, which was widely and correctly panned, even by conservatives, and which required the White House to issue three corrections — this, based on the president’s delivery of prepared remarks. Pete Wehner writes of that speech, and everything that led up to it:

Taken together, this is a massive failure in leadership which stems from a massive defect in character. Trump is such a habitual liar that he is incapable of being honest, even when being honest would serve his interests. He is so impulsive, short-sighted and undisciplined that he is unable to plan or even think beyond the moment. He is such a divisive and polarizing figure that he long ago lost the ability to unite the nation under any circumstances and for any cause. And he is so narcissistic and unreflective that he is completely incapable of learning from his mistakes. The president’s disordered personality makes him as ill-equipped to deal with a crisis as any president has ever been. With few exceptions, what Trump has said is not just useless; it is downright injurious.

The nation is recognizing this, treating him as a bystander “as school superintendents, sports commissioners, college presidents, governors and business owners across the country take it upon themselves to shut down much of American life without clear guidance from the president,” in the words of Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times.

Donald Trump is shrinking before our eyes.

Wehner calls this the end of the Trump presidency. Pete Wehner was one of the original Never Trumpers. In January 2016, when, at the start of the GOP primary voting, he announced that he could never vote for Trump, he wrote:

Mr. Trump’s virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency; it could very well lead to national catastrophe.

It’s impossible to deny that Pete Wehner was right. Though again, I was not a Trump advocate, Wehner saw things more clearly than I did. I admit that now. True, the “national catastrophe” would have landed on the head of anyone who was president when the virus arrived in America; Wehner justly concedes in his essay today that Donald Trump did not cause the coronavirus to come to America, and Wehner praises Trump for shutting off the airspace with China in January. But Trump’s blundering and denial since then has been very bad for the country.

I don’t know if you saw Trump’s White House press conference today. I did, and when it started, I appreciated Trump’s more solemn, even somber, tone, though I couldn’t tell if it is because he was self-disciplined, or sick with the virus. Matthew Walther, the conservative columnist for The Week, has been a skeptic all along about the nation’s alarmed response to coronavirus, but he interpreted Trump’s performance today it as something from which the president cannot recover:

On arguably the biggest stage of his presidency, he not only failed to give the impression that he was in control of the situation, he looked about as ready to handle a crisis as Joe Biden is to speak calmly to elderly voters in Iowa or quote the Declaration of Independence.

Agreeing to take questions following his prepared remarks was almost certainly a mistake. In the coming days and weeks and months, Trump will have virtually unlimited opportunities to attack the legacy of the Obama administration. This was not the occasion for it. In so many other contexts, Trump’s disdain for the press is defensible and even amusing. Friday it made him seem petty. And it is never a good idea for a president in the face of a crisis to tell the country that he takes “no responsibility” for anything (in this case, delays in virus testing). Taking responsibility is what the office is all about.

These impressions will not go away. They will certainly outlast the pandemic. No American will remember the day that President Trump addressed the nation on the subject of the coronavirus pandemic the way they remember Ronald Regan’s response to the Challenger disaster. If we have any lasting impressions they will be of an enervated, verbally infelicitous elderly man attempting to speak to realities that he is only half aware of (“unlike websites of the past”). The best thing he can hope for is that many of us will feel that Trump perfectly captured the national mood of alternating feverish speculation and exhaustion.

The “no responsibility” thing refers to the president’s answer when a reporter asked him if he takes responsibility for the government’s critical failure to have Covid-19 tests ready. The president said he does not take responsibility, then blamed Obama, which is a lie — and even if true, Trump has been president for three years — why didn’t he change the Obama regulations?

Then a reporter asked him about his White House (in the person of then-national security advisor John Bolton) dissolving the team tasked with handling pandemics. Here’s how that went:

After the press conference, we learned that Trump’s big announcement about Google’s coronavirus site was … not really true:

Once again, the President of the United States demonstrates that in the face of an unprecedented national catastrophe, he cannot be relied on to give accurate information to the American people. He was asked several times why he doesn’t take the advice of his own public health officials and get himself tested for coronavirus, given that he was recently in the presence of people who now have the disease. He wouldn’t give a straight answer. Either he was tested, and he has the disease, or he is afraid to be tested for what it might reveal. In neither case does one have confidence. Moreover, he does not have the moral courage to admit error — if he did, it would strengthen his ability to lead. He takes personal credit for successes, and blames others for failures. It’s so shabby, all of it. And it’s not going to get better, because this is who he is. There will be no redemption here. Character is destiny after all. When you fail at this level, there is no way to hide it.

When the president finally finished, it was a relief. I found myself not so much angry as sad and weary, in an unfamiliar way. We are accustomed to presidents — Republicans and Democrats both — playing the role of Stabilizer-In-Chief in times of national crisis. Whether you liked George H.W. Bush, Clinton, Dubya, or Obama, they all, in their crisis moments, knew what to do — or at least how to appear. Stagecraft is an important element of leadership in the television era. If you are the President of the United States, you need to be able to come across as in charge of the crisis. You also need to be in charge of the crisis, insofar as it is possible, but if you can’t be, you must at least seem. That’s what your country needs from you. At the moment of unprecedented peril for the United States, Donald Trump is choking, and none of Mike Pence’s sycophantic “Dear Leader” encomia can hide that fact.

Here’s why that made me strangely sad, more than angry. I thought: This man is a symbol of America’s shadow side: bloated, vain, rich, incompetent, and impotent. In a word, decadent. 

But that is not all that we are. Somewhere out there in this country, there are men and women who are not this. These are men and women who will show themselves as heroes in this hour, in cities and small towns and rural regions of this country. Some of them are no doubt in senior levels of government right now, working hard to keep things from falling apart despite the vacuum, moral and otherwise, in Oval Office leadership. They’re the ones we have to count on now. One day, we will know their names.

Jonah Goldberg captures why the coronavirus crisis has demolished all illusions around Donald Trump:

Part of Trump’s superpower is his ability to frame how we see reality. This ability makes him very dangerous to fellow Republicans who need the approval of his fans to win primaries. It makes his good favor very desirable to radio and TV hosts who need his fans for ratings. And so they join in the game of constructing a reality that becomes, in a way, self-fulfilling.

As a result, smart people can actually be convinced that the same man who gave the worst nationally televised address since the invention of the television is a victim of bad staffing while simultaneously believing he is a brilliant manager and an even more brilliant communicator (“Stupid stock market! Be more reassured!). When things go well, it’s a direct result of his managerial and policy genius. When they go poorly, it’s because of the Deep State, the media, the globalists, and the rest of the Legion of Doom unfairly undermining him. Tails, Trump wins. Shut up, NeverTrumper.

But here’s the problem: The coronavirus doesn’t give a crap about any of this. The math is the math, the science is the science. And however terrible the New York Times or MSNBC may or may not have been on the issue of the Mueller probe, it doesn’t change the infection rate if we do nothing. Just ask the families of all those dead Italians.

Sometimes the social construction of reality runs head-on into generic reality. I’m reminded how my wife once reviewed a book called The Frailty Myth in which the author argued that female “frailty” was a social construct. If women were raised to value physical strength and athleticism the way men are, they could bench press as much or run as fast as any man. The only problem with this theory was that it wasn’t true, and no matter how passionately you claimed otherwise you couldn’t bend actual reality to some contrived social reality.

The social reality Trump & Co. constructed isn’t powerful enough to paper over the underlying facts this time.

That’s right. This coronavirus crisis is a clarifying time for all of us. So many illusions will be taken down by this thing. Trumpophilia is one. Here’s another: We are about to discover, I think, how the agenda of the Social Justice Warriors is an indulgence that a society under maximal stress from disease cannot afford. Or we won’t, and we will tear ourselves apart. It really does feel like America’s social and moral fabric is like a fishing net that has been allowed to rot, and now suddenly it has caught a thrashing whale. We’ll see.

Anyway. It would have been great to have had a president who could rally the country behind his leadership at a time like this. We do not have that kind of president. Don’t forget, though, that Trump may have failed, but the deep problems that brought Trump to power remain — and they’re not going to be addressed by returning to the status quo under Joe Biden. That too is an illusion that won’t survive this purification. I’m not saying that Biden won’t win, or even that he doesn’t deserve to win in a contest with Trump. I’m just saying that he is yesterday’s idea of a solution.

Maybe Trump will surprise us. I pray for that. But none of us should expect it.