If you can bear to watch Trump’s performances during the daily White House update briefings, you can only conclude that any effective federal response is happening not because of the commander in chief, but despite him.
The essential problem, of course, is the president’s unshakable view that everything is always, always about him. As Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said about her father, President Theodore Roosevelt, Trump insists on being “the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.” This is a moment for selflessness, but Trump has shown no capacity to think of anything other than himself.
We are asked to stay home and avoid one another, at great economic and psychological cost, to keep the covid-19 pandemic from overwhelming the nation’s health system. The crisis calls for shared sacrifice. Yet at Sunday’s briefing, Trump went on and on about why he will not make the commitment to sacrifice any potential bailout funds for which his hotel properties might qualify.
“You know, every time I do it, like, for instance, I committed publicly that I wouldn’t take the $450,000 salary [as president],” he said. “It’s a lot of money. Whether you’re rich or not, it’s a lot of money. And I did it. Nobody cared. Nobody — nobody said thank you. Nobody said thank you very much.”
There are others who deserve that “thank you very much” and more: the front-line health-care workers who are dangerously reusing protective masks and gowns because such vital gear remains in desperately short supply; the millions of workers in the restaurant and hotel industries who have lost their jobs and in many cases have no savings or benefits to tide them over; the millions of retirees who have seen their 401(k) balances evaporate; the millions of parents who are trying to work their office jobs from their kitchen tables while home-schooling their children while keeping tabs on their elderly relatives who are most vulnerable to the virus.
It is not too much to expect a president to show his gratitude for the sacrifices his citizens are making by doing everything he can to support them, rather than whine that the nation is not thanking him. Yet who believes, at this point, that we will ever see such moral leadership from Trump?
Since that’s not coming, I’d settle for practical leadership. But we aren’t getting that from Trump, either. He could have compelled the production of protective medical gear and lifesaving ventilators. He could have ordered the military to distribute these supplies. He could have spelled out a national “social distancing” policy rather than allow a patchwork of different rules in different jurisdictions.
And he could have called in the leaders of both the House and the Senate and insisted that they work together to quickly pass the massive trillion-dollar bailout package that is sorely needed to keep what is left of the economy afloat. Instead, Trump refuses to talk to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and busies himself retweeting political attacks against likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
We are basically on our own. And, all things considered, across much of the country, we’re doing pretty well given the circumstances.
Governors, notably Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, have stepped up to exercise the kind of political leadership we need and provide calming day-to-day narration of the crisis. Medical experts — led by the ubiquitous and irreplaceable Anthony S. Fauci, whom I’d like to encase in bubble wrap to protect his health — politely correct Trump’s pseudoscience with real science. In my immediate community, few people are ignoring the social-distancing mandates. Congress is grinding its way, messily, toward a relief package.
“I want America to understand, this week, it’s going to get bad,” Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams said on Monday. Trump has the power and the platform to make us confident that things will eventually get better, but he either can’t or won’t. We must continue to comfort and reassure ourselves.