But in crisis, the two have cut very different paths. Trump has been his normal self, shifting between combative and serious tones in discussing covid-19. Johnson, however, has consistently been both grave and upbeat, conveying that he knows the nation is in a crisis but rallying Britons with the idea that they will come through it together.
Nothing shows this better than how each communicated with his respective nation on Easter Sunday. Johnson, who was released from intensive care after spending the prior week fighting for his life against the virus, released a video wherein he was humble in a way Trump never is. He praised his doctors and nurses at the National Health Service hospital by name, especially commending the two nurses who sat by his bedside for 48 hours as he fought for his life. “Jenny from New Zealand” and “Luis from Portugal” are now momentary celebrities as a result of the prime minister’s graciousness.
Johnson’s video also displayed a balance between resolve and optimism that Trump has struggled to capture. Much like Johnson’s idol, Winston Churchill, who rallied the British people during World War II by emphasizing the gravity of the moment while retaining faith that the war could be won, Johnson openly confronted the terrible scourge that sweeps his nation and contended that the British people’s courage and resolve will let them come through the crisis unbowed. Together with a similar message from Queen Elizabeth II on Palm Sunday, Johnson and his government are both rallying their nation and keeping their spirits up even as the death toll mounts.
Trump, on the other hand, took to his favorite medium, Twitter, to launch a fusillade of tweets that reinforce his image as a petty, unserious man. He posted 27 separate tweets in 12 hours, the vast majority of them critical of the media, impeachment or Democrats. He lambasted Fox News and one of its star reporters, Chris Wallace, in one tweet while blasting the New York Times and the “Lamestream Media” in others. He even retweeted a message that attacked Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and included the phrase “#FireFauci,” leading to speculation that perhaps Trump was thinking of getting rid of the most prominent and trusted medical authority in his administration.
These childish displays of petulance help neither our nation nor Trump. People are scared, and in crises, they always want a leader with calm temper and an upbeat mood. Those who can display these qualities, such as Johnson and many American governors, are rewarded with strong increases in their job approval ratings. Johnson, a very divisive figure in the U.K., saw his job approval rating soar to 61 percent before he went into the hospital, and many American governors now have job approval ratings of more than 70 percent. Trump’s job approval rating, by contrast, rose only slightly in late March, to a little more than 47 percent, and has now dropped to 44.9 percent.
As a result, many Republicans have reportedly become concerned that Trump’s rhetoric and behavior are hurting him. Sunday’s tweets will only reinforce that belief.
Trump’s opponents have long said that his character would preclude him from being the unifying and decisive leader a country needs in war or crisis. Johnson’s opponents once said similar things, but have noticed the change in his demeanor as the seriousness of the moment dawned on him. Trump partisans had better hope that somewhere deep within him there is a similar depth of character to that which Johnson has found. “Better late than never” is a good saying, but the moment is getting awfully late for Trump to turn around his style of leadership.