Which brings us to President Trump, and his response to the coronavirus, from his initial belated steps to his rambling attacks on the media at White House briefings to his bizarre remark (an attempt at humor, his staff later said) at Saturday’s rally in Tulsa: Increased testing for the virus is “a double-edged sword” — useful for public health but bad for public relations — so “I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’ ”
In all of it, the missing factor has been decency, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “behavior that is good, moral and acceptable in society,” and which, throughout most of previous American political history, presidents have at least pretended to model.
Trump, by contrast, has transgressed his way to the top, tapping — it must be acknowledged — the deep alienation of a swath of society that sees validation for long-ignored grievances in his rule-breaking.
Yet the past three months, since the pandemic disrupted American life and claimed more than 118,000 lives, have shown that Trump’s lack of decency is a matter more of personal character than political calculation. The insults, the self-indulgence, the all-but-explicit racist language — this is just how he rolls.
And now it may be yielding diminishing returns. When the coronavirus hit, the American public, even some who previously opposed him, seemed willing to rally behind Trump in the “war” he announced from his Oval Office desk.
From mid-March through mid-April, polls tended to show relatively high approval for his handling of the virus, including several showing more than 50 percent support.
All he had to do to sustain that was to show real concern; to educate himself on the issues; perhaps to turn the other cheek to a hostile press. Camus’s doctor concluded that common decency “consists in doing my job.” Trump could have, too.
It just wasn’t in him. Instead, at an April 23 White House briefing, he mused crazily about the curative power of sunlight and injected disinfectants, then, when the media called him on it, claimed falsely he was being sarcastic — and his ratings on handling the virus began to fall. Now, 55.3 percent disapprove, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
Common decency, or the lack of it, is also Trump’s Achilles’ heel regarding mass protests against systemic racism that began after George Floyd’s death, for which a former Minneapolis police officer has been charged with murder.
Trump has mouthed healing words scripted by speechwriters — even consoled the Floyd family briefly on the phone. When speaking spontaneously, however, whether on Twitter or at the Tulsa rally, he is venomous and violent, even going so far as to suggest a 75-year-old man who suffered a severe head injury at the hands of Buffalo police may have provoked the assault because he was an anarchist spy.
The American people do not want this. Nearly three-quarters of adults surveyed by YouGov in early June opined that the United States is “out of control.” Sixty-four percent said the solution for this is “bringing people together,” while only 36 percent favored Trump’s approach, “law and order.”
Sixty percent of Americans told the YouGov survey they agree with the words of former defense secretary Jim Mattis, that Trump “does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”
This rejection of Trump’s message is especially striking given how uneasy the public was about looting and other violence. Excesses of the new movement such as “cancel culture” also frighten moderate potential allies.
Yet people do not rally to the banner of “law and order” when the man raising it is himself an agent of chaos and conflict.
Even among people who voted for Trump in 2016, almost a quarter agreed that Trump is not even pretending to unite the American people. One-tenth considered him “racist.”
And, of course, only 6,000 supporters showed up for Trump’s Tulsa rally in a 19,000-seat venue, an event that brazenly defied both public health concerns and the sensitivities, still raw since a 1921 massacre of black people in that city, of African Americans.
When it comes to Trump’s character, there’s no realistic prospect of change. For America as a whole, fortunately, there is.