On the one hand, yes, the pandemic has spotlighted many presidential shortcomings, emotional as well as managerial. But on the other, it’s oddly disingenuous to flay Trump for failing to weep about the nearly 65,000 American dead. Here is an image-obsessed solipsist, for whom “optics” really are more important than anything else. Almost everything he does is about looking presidential, seeming like a leader, telegraphing power, mugging for the cameras. Yet this may be the first time Trump has ever declined to play president on TV.
That’s a good thing. The idea that he would somehow be a more effective president and a more decent human if he could figure out the right way to comfort us is an illusion. Nothing changes about the peril that his administration has put us in if he one day manages to remember a single grieving American’s name. Why do we insist on demanding that he seem decent when we don’t believe that he is? To crave some expression of humanity from him is just asking him to tell another lie.
The role of national healer has been well-trod over the years. Abraham Lincoln devoted the Gettysburg Address to communal grief. In more recent years, Ronald Reagan told the nation after the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster that “Nancy and I . . . share this pain with all of the people of our country.” Bill Clinton drew on a cartoonish but somehow affecting emotive drawl, choking up around that famous phrase, “I feel your pain,” when an AIDS activist pressed him to address that epidemic. (In 1993, Mother Jones called him the president of “Oprahland,” nodding at the disjunction of seeing someone so clearly gifted at acting like he cared, walking a line between decency and artifice and foretelling Donald Trump’s rise as a so-called reality TV president.)
Then there was George W. Bush, with his arm around a 9/11 first responder at Ground Zero, like he knew the man and grieved with him, calling out to the crowd, “I can hear you” — an image of honest humanity that turned him from a “Saturday Night Live” punchline and the winner of a contested election into a popular president. Barack Obama may have embraced this role more than any previous president, shedding tears and sharing hugs after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Perhaps his most moving display of presidential humanity came during his eulogy for those lost to white-supremacist terrorism at a Charleston, S.C., church — his voice faltering when he, after a pause, began singing “Amazing Grace.” It was a stunning moment: genuine, heartfelt, personally pained in a way that opened up to acknowledge and fortify collective pain.
Trump was never going to follow that act. He came out of a television genre populated by people asked to emote constantly and at a high pitch, a form built on continuous, terrifying vulnerability. But he’d only ever played the role of the grinning, bullying boss, demanding that “Apprentice” contestants share their trials for his approval. The irony is that, while he is the ultimate reality show creation, he’s actually stunningly limited as a TV performer. So it’s strange to hear people pining for a presidential performance that is out of his range — one based on expressed, shared vulnerability — even if it’s one we’ve seen for decades, across party lines.
Even in its most ingenuous forms, the role of mourner in chief can seem like a bit of a contrivance. A few weeks after Obama’s Charleston eulogy, reporters learned that he and his wife had discussed the risks and rewards of breaking into song beforehand. Michelle Obama said it would be weird, but at the last minute, the room felt right and he went for it. The coverage of the Decision to Sing carried the tone of a sports documentary in which some star athlete recounts the moments just before his big shot. It was a peek at the stagecraft of grief, and it wasn’t pretty.
Obama and other presidents possessed genuine emotional intelligence, and none of this makes them insincere. But we’re so well attuned to our leaders’ performances of empathy that they are sometimes equated with action. Our belief in Obama was earned in large part through his performance of presidential moments — marching with civil rights leaders at Selma’s 50th anniversary, putting his arm around Republican New Jersey governor/antagonist Chris Christie in a show of solidarity after Hurricane Sandy — rather than through his actual governing agenda. Trump, of course, is hoping to win the same credibility by acting strong and decisive, even when it means contradicting himself or purveying ignorant falsehoods. The truth is that those optics do help. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Hillary Clinton cried in a New Hampshire diner while answering a question, after which she surged to victory in that state. All of this makes real sincerity murky, accountability harder to demand. A leader who claims to “feel your pain” can reap the political benefits of that display, whether he really feels it or not.
Which is why it’s good, in a way, that Trump is so incapable of living up to the mourner’s tradition, a fact he has proved over and over again during his presidency. After Hurricane Maria leveled Puerto Rico, Trump showed up and cavalierly tossed rolls of paper towels into a desperate crowd. He tried to turn a meeting with the grieving parents of a young British motorcyclist mowed down by an American diplomat’s wife into a reality-TV-style ambush — a surprise face-to-face with the driver where they would perhaps grant her forgiveness. (They demurred, understandably.) He smiled and gave a thumbs-up next to a baby orphaned by the white-supremacist mass shooting in El Paso.
Never once has he pretended adequately to feel. Never once has he made us decipher the space between caring words and uncaring policy in the face of tragedy. We simply know the truth: He is unbothered. At this point, an ostentatious show of presidential grief wouldn’t make Trump a better president; it would only provide ammo for his supporters to say that he’s not really so heartless as everything he’s ever done would make you believe.
During the coronavirus pandemic, nearly everyone is on message with pleas for solidarity. Corporations take out ads, Facebook uploads new “caring” features and Walmart promotes clips of employees singing “Lean on Me,” all for the sake of showing that they are part of the global community in crisis, sharing the pains and hopes we all do. It’s coming from everywhere except the president. He’s not playing a compassionate man, he’s not playing a strong and thoughtful leader — on TV, he’s still playing Donald Trump, who has never been those things, leading a party whose behavior suggests it doesn’t believe in those things.
Don’t ask him for better. Don’t pretend like we expect anything else. Just let him stand alone. Even if he’s at the lectern telling lies, he’s stumbled into honesty.