President Trump’s nationally televised state of the coronavirus address was an opportunity to encourage orderly urgency, to confront current challenges squarely, to call the country to larger purposes and to prepare Americans for what lies ahead.

What came out of the president’s mouth was a speech of monumental smallness.

There was heavy-handed political damage control: Trump’s delayed, dismissive initial reaction was self-described as an “unprecedented response” and an “aggressive and comprehensive effort,” conducted with “great speed and professionalism,” involving “early, intense action” and featuring “a lifesaving move” thanks to “early action.” These are the protests of a leader caught entirely unprepared, trying to leave the illusion of proactivity after a largely squandered month and a half.

There was the requisite xenophobia: We are facing a “foreign virus,” which is evidently far more sinister than our wholesome, responsible, best-in-the-world domestic viruses. The outbreak “started in China.” (Presidential thought bubble: Should we charge the Chinese for the economic costs their virus imposes on us?) The virus spread because the “European Union failed to take the same precautions” that Trump did, resulting in U.S. disease clusters “seeded by travelers from Europe.” The real problem, evidently, is not community transmission but roaming Europeans.

And there was Trump’s attempt to calm capital markets, which are only politically useful when exuberant: “This is not a financial crisis, this is just a temporary moment of time.” Without claiming to be a financial expert, I know exactly what would pacify markets. They would like to see a U.S. president with even an inkling of his public duties at this particular moment.

Amid all the self-praise and scapegoating, Trump made room for a few sentences on the steps — wash your hands, cover your cough, stay home if you are sick — that would actually help slow down a pandemic. I suppose we should be grateful. But we are facing a national crisis with a president who is utterly incapable of mature and inspiring presidential communication.

During his speech, Trump managed to skirt around three of the most pressing issues facing the country. First, how and when will gaps in testing for the coronavirus be filled? (Here the president said only that “testing capabilities are expanding rapidly.”) Why can’t the United States produce and process enough tests to actually determine the prevalence and fatality rate of this disease? What is wrong in processes at the Food and Drug Administration and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that led to this astonishing debacle? What does it mean to put “America first,” as the president promised, when America still can’t determine how sick it is?

Trump may think he can sugarcoat coronavirus, but media critic Erik Wemple says it is time for the government to speak with one clear voice about public health. (The Washington Post)

Second, if the disease hits hard — like it has in Italy — what is being done to prepare hospital surge capacity, particularly when it comes to protective gear and respirators? Will health professionals be forced to make impossible decisions about prioritizing care because of tragically limited medical resources? Will health systems be suddenly swamped by ill, angry and anxious citizens? The president did not even touch on this topic.

Third, how will Trump confront coronavirus denialism on the right? This is a problem the president helped create, by making light of the virus as the functional equivalent of the flu and blaming “fake news” and the Democrats for feeding hysteria. As a result, it is now evidence of Republican loyalty to treat a deadly disease as a joke. Twice as many Republicans as Democrats regard the risk of the virus as “exaggerated.” Future generations will look back in horrified wonder that covid-19 became a culture war debate.

Some in the right-wing media are telling lies that put the lives of their audience at risk. A few presidential appearances on Fox News affirming scientific facts might do more real good for the country than a self-serving, immediately forgettable address to the country. But does the president really believe those facts? Even after his speech, this remains an open question. Trump’s conversion to unfavorable reality is often partial and temporary.

Leading in this crisis would be a difficult rhetorical task for anyone. It demands a careful balance of urgency and reassurance. It calls for sacrifices from all Americans, even though the risk falls heaviest on the ill and elderly. Fighting a pandemic requires an atmosphere of confidence and trust and involves the suspension of deep differences in pursuit of the common good. Leaders are rising to that challenge in every corner of the country.

And the work of all of those leaders might benefit from the president’s silence.

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