The rank incompetence of Donald Trump’s response to the global pandemic will be studied for generations, analyzed and assessed as one of the great governmental failures in modern times.
Trump’s mishandling of the public health crisis that led in turn to an economic crisis has few parallels but has been compared to George W. Bush’s inept initial reaction to Hurricane Katina in August 2005. Yet, as bad as that governmental failure was – and as damaging as it was to Bush’s presidency and legacy – and while 1,800 Americans died Bush eventually got a gruff, no nonsense Gulf War vet in charge and the situation slowly got straightened out. It was a catastrophe for sure, but pales compared to the current moment.
Trump is dwarfed by Lincoln in more ways than one
Katina, with all its governmental failure, led to reforms in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and highlighted an essential fact that has largely been ignored by Trump during the current crisis – one capable person must be in charge.
Analogies have also been drawn to Soviet Russia in the spring of 1941 when Stalin’s generals were imploring him, and Britain was warning him, that Hitler was about to invade the Soviet Union. All the signs were visible in plain sight, but Stalin – very Trump like – refused to believe the warnings, believed they could be wished away. By December Hitler’s legions were in the Moscow suburbs and ultimately millions of Russians died in a brutal and bloody war that lasted four long years. Much of the devastation could have been avoided, as with our current disaster.
The litany of governmental failure here is long and detailed and even if the president refuses responsibility the buck stops with the boaster-in-chief, including: the gutting of pandemic preparation efforts, the initial failure to recognize the danger of the spreading virus, the denial and minimizing of the threat, the ignoring of explicit warnings, the halting response, the failure to put one capable person in charge, the relentless effort to blame anyone else and the trust Trump placed not in experts, but his inexperienced son-in-law and talk show ideologues.
From the very first moment Trump treated the worst public health crisis since 1918 as a public relations problem that threatened his re-election prospects rather than threatening the health and well-being of millions of his constituents.
Trump at Mar a Lago in early March when he was downplaying the pandemic. He dined with the Brazilian president who later contracted the virus
“They’re trying to scare everybody,” Trump said after a round of golf and a dinner party celebration at Mar A Lago. That was in February as he still refused to acknowledge or understand the pandemic that as of Monday had claimed nearly 70,000 American lives and crashed the economy.
They – meaning the hated Democrats and Never Trumpers – wanted to “cancel the meetings, close the schools — you know, destroy the country,” Trump told his guests that weekend. “And that’s OK, as long as we can win the election.”
On Sunday, sitting in the shadow of Lincoln during a made for TV event, Trump complained that he – not hundreds of thousands of sick Americans – was the true victim of the pandemic. “They always said … nobody got treated worse than Lincoln,” Trump said while pointing toward the massive statue of our greatest president. “I believe I am treated worse. You know, I believe we’ve done more than any president in the history of our country in the first three years, three-and-a-half years. I really believe that.”
Yet, as bad as all this is, and it is very, very bad, and despite the wholesale effort underway – the largest propaganda effort in modern American history – to re-write the history of the last two months, this does not represent Trump’s greatest failure. The president, without character or basic decency, has failed on an even grander scale and it is this failure that stands to diminish the country for years and years to come.
At a time when the vast majority of Americans long for moral leadership, inspiration in this hour of trial and someone able to articulate the shared decency that connects this wildly disconnected country, Trump offers – nothing.
Well, that’s not precisely correct. He offers all he has – division, discord, hatred, bigotry and a shocking lack of empathy, and then says “I don’t take responsibility at all” for his actions or unwillingness to lead a nation in crisis. Trump is a soulless, damaged man at the moment the nation needs a healer and a unifier.
When former president George W. Bush, no stranger to controversy, recently offered words of hope, encouragement and a genuine sense that we really are all in this together, Trump demeaned Bush’s message.
“In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants,” Bush said in a three-minute video message to the nation, “We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God.,” Bush said. “We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.”
Trump’s response to this eloquent plea for national unity: he called out Bush for failing to support him during his impeachment. The president’s mean tweet was prompted, of course, by the nitwits who populate that cable TV sh#*hole known as Fox News, but such pettiness came from the president of the United States.
When armed protesters descended on the Michigan state capitol to object to state at home orders, Trump didn’t push back – he, after all, issued the national guidelines – but instead attacked Governor Gretchen Whitmer. He later called the protesters “very good people.”
There are countless other examples of his constant motivation to drive a wedge, rather than heal a wound. Trump has the title, but has none of the morals, character or instinct to handle the job.
In times of national trial, Americans naturally look to the president for compassion, honesty and a call to action. Bush provided as much in the wake of attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Ronald Reagan did it when the space shuttle exploded. John Kennedy called Americans to serve their country and when the Bay of Pigs fiasco landed squarely on his desk Kennedy did not dodge and deny but declared himself “the responsible officer of the government.”
The buck doesn’t stop at Mar a Lago
In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt reminded a population frightened and demoralized by the Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and FDR went regularly to the radio to provide comfort and counsel to a hurting nation. He made us all Americans with a shared purpose.
As the nation teetered toward our tragic and bloody Civil War in 1861, Abraham Lincoln invoked the immortal words that sought to summon both sides of the conflict to a better place, a shared place.
“We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln said. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Perhaps the greatest example of crisis leadership, combining moral clarity, brutal honesty and hopeful inspiration was the work of Winston Churchill in the darkest days of 1940 when the United Kingdom stood alone against European fascism.
Winston Churchill’s powerful, honest speeches and moral leadership in 1940 prepared British citizens for the great trials that were to come, but also offered hope amid the despair
“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government,” Churchill said upon becoming prime minister almost exactly 80 years ago. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. This is our policy. You ask, what is our aim?
“I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival.”
Imagine the current occupant of the White House summoning such honesty and moral clarity. Of course, you can’t. And it’s not because he needs better speech writers. He’s just not capable. We need a Churchill; we have a Trump.
Please, God give Americans the strength to endure our ordeal of a most grievous kind. But we must recognize we will have to do it without a leader at the top. The president has failed at the central task of any president, and his unwillingness and inability to unite, encourage and rally the country is both an American tragedy and colossal challenge – to us.
Will Americans emerge from our ordeal better, stronger, more united and more decent to, as Churchill said, “move forward to broad sunlit uplands” or will “sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age?”
We have suffered a monumental, historic leadership failure. The president, and for the most part his political allies, are missing in action.
Now it is up to individual Americans to pick up the pieces. Without a leader, it’s up to us – individuals, communities, businesses, non-profits, all of us. In none of our lifetimes have we faced a more serious responsibility.
Don’t kid yourself. The future of the country depends on our response.
- “No one ever stepped up to take responsibility for Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeffrey Miller and Sandra Scheuer, the four dead in Ohio,” Steve Duin writes in The Oregonian, remembering the 50th anniversary of the tragedy at Kent State. (By the way, Steve, a wonderful writer and storyteller, is always worth reading.)
- “The story of Trump’s rise is often told as a hostile takeover. In truth, it is something closer to a joint venture, in which members of America’s élite accepted the terms of Trumpism as the price of power,” writes Evan Osnos in a great piece in The New Yorker.
- I don’t know if former Republican-turned-Libertarian Justin Amash will be a spoiler in the presidential election, but it is possible. He could take votes from both Trump and Biden and he hails from a critical swing state – Michigan. Amash and his wild gamble profiled in this piece by Tim Alberta.
- Writer Kristin Wong says it’s important to remain optimistic even in a time of great trial. “Optimism is simply being hopeful about the future, even when the present feels wholly negative.” Read the whole thing.
- Thanks for reading. Stay safe.