Amid a once-in-a-century deadly pandemic, Trump has inserted his ego squarely into the U.S. response while simultaneously minimizing his own role — deferring critical decisions to others, undermining his credibility with confusion and misinformation, and shirking responsibility in what some see as a shrinking of the American presidency.
Trump has never faced a problem that was so resistant to PR, in which his ability to manipulate the media and create an alternate reality can’t turn everything in his favor. To solve it he’d actually have to be informed, engaged and competent. That is just way too much to ask.
This has been an issue for Trump from the beginning. Just a few months into his presidency, he was already wishing he could unburden himself of the office’s more tedious requirements. “I loved my previous life. I had so many things going,” he told Reuters in April 2017. “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”
Consider that for a moment. Trump thought that managing the U.S. government, the largest organization on Planet Earth — dealing with foreign and domestic policy, confronting natural and man-made disasters, trying to solve short- and long-term problems — would be easier than running a midsize real estate and brand licensing firm.
How could he possibly have thought that? Because he only knew what he saw on TV. And on TV, he saw the public parts of the president’s job and figured that’s all it was. You make a few speeches, you hold a few rallies, you cut a few ribbons, you welcome the Super Bowl champs to the White House, and everybody loves you. What’s so hard about it?
Trump has spent his entire life believing that there’s no challenge he couldn’t meet with his superior genes, firm will and ruthless lack of scruples. Everyone who allegedly knows what they’re doing is actually stupid, and he knows more than all of them.
By now it’s hard to keep count of all the complicated areas of policy in which he claims to know more than the people who actually do. Among his doozies: “I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.” “Nobody knows more about trade than me.” “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.” “I know tech better than anyone.”
That’s driven by his unique combination of narcissism and insecurity, but it also reflects the ignoramus’s belief that the world is simple. There’s no point in acquiring experience and expertise because those things are pointless, and the people who have experience and expertise only got it so they could act superior. Trump can take a quick look at something and consider himself an unparalleled expert.
When he encounters a truly complex problem (“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated”) he takes a shot at solving it, then gives up. And he regularly laments that there is some easy solution to a problem he faces if only he wasn’t constrained.
So last September, he mused on the possibility of bombing Iran: “The easiest thing I can do — in fact, I could do it while you’re here — would say, ‘Go ahead, fellas. Go do it.’ And that would be a very bad day for Iran. That’s the easiest thing I could do. It’s so easy.”
Unfortunately, launching another war in the Middle East would bring all kinds of complications, even more than the complications of dealing with Iran in other ways. Trump was stuck, and hated it.
Or consider how often, when the subject of Afghanistan comes up, Trump says variations on “We could win that war in a very short period of time, but I’m not looking to kill 10 million people, okay?” Afghanistan has frustrated three presidents now, all of whom would have liked an easy solution; only Trump grows wistful thinking about how easy it would be to free himself of the troublesome situation by committing genocide.
Again and again, he thought he could solve a thorny problem with a dramatic stroke — just let me get Kim Jong Un in a room and we’ll settle this whole thing — only to find that it didn’t work, whereupon he lost interest.
Given all that, it’s completely unsurprising that he would eventually give up on dealing with this pandemic. It requires an intellectual and material mobilization across multiple domains — health care on both a micro and macro level, state-federal coordination, supply chain management, international cooperation — that would challenge even the most engaged president, let alone this one.
He kept searching for a “miracle,” either that the virus would just vanish or that something like hydroxychloroquine would solve the problem and take it off his hands. Now that it’s clear that won’t happen, he has decided that the pandemic is taken care of and he’ll devote his time to cheerleading for our coming economic recovery.
But ask yourself this: Even on this ground where he feels more comfortable, what is Trump actually doing?
He’s tweeting about it. And visiting a factory or two, and holding some meetings with business leaders. But what is he doing, substantively, to help the economy recover? Pretty much nothing.
It’s impossible to know what would have happened if Trump had taken the coronavirus pandemic seriously from the beginning and put all his effort into managing the crisis. What we do know is that this will go down in history as one of the most catastrophic failures in the history of the presidency.
In the face of all this misery and death, the person in charge has made the presidency a reflection of himself: All about a vulgar show, with no substance underneath it. And the price we’re all paying continues to rise.