But it has also exposed a huge weakness he has as a president, one we saw only intermittently before in a visit to a flood zone or a hurricane’s aftermath: Trump is simply incapable of offering the kind of emotional support the country needs at a time like this.
It was illustrated vividly in Friday’s episode of the press briefing show, when NBC’s Peter Alexander asked him a question that any other president would have seen as a slow pitch just asking to be hit out of the park:
What do you say to Americans who are scared, though? I guess nearly 200 dead, 14,000 who are sick, millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now, who are scared?
Another president would understand that this was an opportunity to speak to people’s fears, show you understand what they’re feeling and thinking, and then offer them the reassurance that you will help guide them to the end of this crisis.
But not Trump. Here’s how he responded:
I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers, and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism, and the same with NBC and Concast, I don’t call it Comcast, I call it Concast.
He can say the American people are looking for hope, but he can’t offer it to them. He interprets mention of people’s fear as an attack on him, and, as we know, he feels strongly that any attack on him must be met with an attack in response. So that’s how he treated it, and the opportunity was lost.
That’s not to say Trump isn’t aware of the need. He has been extremely conscious from the beginning of the fear and uncertainty the coronavirus can inspire. That’s why he spent weeks pretending it was no big deal and he had everything completely under control — nothing to worry about, it’ll be gone before you know it, everything’s fine, it’s gonna be great.
Now that he can’t say that anymore, he struggles to give voice to anything resembling an emotional resonance with the national mood. He tried on Monday to personalize it, by saying, “I’ve spoken, actually, with my son. He says, ‘How bad is this?’ It’s bad. It’s bad. But we’re going to be hopefully a best case, not a worst case.”
So all we learn from that little story is that his son is worried, but Trump told him it’s all going to work out. There was nothing recognizably fatherly about the conversation as he relayed it. He didn’t empathize with his son’s concern, and we have no idea how his son’s fear made him feel or whether the boy was reassured.
You may say that this is a less important part of the job of president than actually running the government and making good decisions. But every president is called upon to reflect and tend to the country’s psyche, sometimes over limited traumas and sometimes over larger ones. And when they do it well, we remember it for years, even decades.
I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!
We remember Barack Obama wiping away a tear as he spoke of the children murdered in Newtown, Conn.:
This evening Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another. But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight. And they need all of us right now.
We remember Ronald Reagan addressing the nation’s schoolchildren after the Challenger disaster, telling them he knew they were confused and hurt, but adding:
The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
Trump will never deliver great rhetoric, because he isn’t a good orator and the people who write his speeches aren’t very good either. But Trump is so focused on himself that he can’t even understand when he’s being given an opportunity to express empathy, as Peter Alexander gave him.
When we look back on this presidency and this moment in particular, we’ll think of the mismanagement, the divisiveness, the shortsightedness, the pettiness and everything else that makes Trump the president he is. But we’ll also remember the void in the White House, the place where connection and empathy and reassurance should have been.
It’s far from the worst thing Donald Trump has done, but it’s a reminder of what we’re missing as long as he’s president.