Whether chosen democratically or by some other means, a leader’s true character comes out in a crisis. It’s then that people find out whether the person they have entrusted or acquiesced to be in charge is up to the job. In a democracy, thoughtful and decisive action not only is required of leaders, but it must also be carefully explained, with rationale provided. “We can get through this” is not a bad message to deliver as long as it’s backed by facts, even if those have more than a tinge of grimness. Blood, sweat, and tears kind of stuff, when necessary. Happy talk, on the other hand, is not helpful. And lies—well, lies can be lethal.
Credibility in a crisis matters a great deal even for an autocrat. If people believe what their leader tells them, then they’ll be far more willing to sacrifice to meet a crisis, whatever it is. They will strive to adjust their lives to protect themselves and others. There is a can-do spirit when they can trust that sacrifice hasn’t been forced on them by incompetence or abuse of power. When they sense that their leaders are depending on the advice of wise and compassionate minds to guide them past the shoals, the result is a tamping down of panic and overreaction. People will lay aside deep differences for the duration of a crisis and pull together to conquer something that knows no ideological lines.
But we, unfortunately, in the pandemic now underway have people in charge at the top who don’t have a shred of credibility or trust, except among the terminally gullible or venal, which, unfortunately, is still a substantial part of the American population.
The string of lies and dissembling we’ve heard for weeks from Donald J. Trump and some of his minions regarding the coronavirus has been bad enough. Far worse on Thursday, however, was an interview on NPR in which Politico reporter Dan Diamond said that Trump not only ignored warnings two months ago, but he also worked to keep testing to a minimum so as to ensure the case numbers remained low, in order not to tarnish his image as the best-ever president in an election year.
Diamond told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that Trump “did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, and that’s partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear—the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.” Thus did Trump guarantee that the virus would be spread to far more people.
Let that sink in. Trump didn’t just want to keep the numbers low; he made an effort to see that they stayed that way, all so it would be easier for him to preen on the campaign trail. While this intentional failure to test was underway, so was the spread of the virus across America, now confirmed in all but two states. We don’t know how many cases there are. We can’t—because mass testing has still not occurred. Containment was always a myth here because of the lack of early response, and now it’s utterly busted, no matter what Larry Kudlow says. This failure will cost dollars and lives. Very possibly lots of both. On Trump’s watch.
As for his character? His second response to the crisis, after first calling it a Democratic and media hoax, was the usual: How can I turn this to my personal advantage? The guy who claims the informal title of “leader of the free world” will. never. ever. change.
Either through neglect or—if the reports of test suppression prove accurate—with malicious intent, Trump abused his authority in a manner that hampered the early taking of preventative measures that could have stopped people from spreading the virus, which is now rampant and killing. This isn’t incompetence, or sloppiness, or too much on his plate. It’s sociopathy.
It’s hard to see how Trump can hang on to all his fans when he can’t bullshit them with tales about something going on outside their experience or view. The infection is happening here. How long will it be before most Americans know somebody with the coronavirus? How long before many know somebody who died of it? It’s hard to believe that that won’t pry at least a few more people out of his thrall. But it’s frankly depressing that so many didn’t long ago see this dangerous parasite for what he is. So maybe even this failure won’t do the trick.
Lots of the people he stiffed or grifted or committed fraud against have known about Trump’s character since long ago. But he made it super-clear to the rest of America and the world when he became the king of birtherism, with his vile and relentless othering of Barack Obama with a bogus claim promoted by dishonest conspiracymongers displaying the morality if not the regalia of Klansmen.
Since then he has flashed that character to the nation repeatedly, from tossing paper towels at suffering Puerto Ricans after Hurricane María, while othering them as foreigners despite their U.S. citizenship, to charging the taxpayers for the room and board of Secret Service agents that must accompany him on visits to his own resort, Mar-a-Lago. If they didn’t already know, people who read the Mueller report or watched the impeachment testimony and Democratic prosecutors in the Senate with an open mind know what he’s about, just as do the students he ripped off at Trump U and the folks his charitable foundation was supposed to help when he illegally helped himself to the money instead.
Here’s a guy who operates by bribes and hush payments, a sexual predator who treats women like meat; approves of putting kids in cages; thinks there are some good American Nazis; incites mayhem at rallies; spouts racist slurs; and has a white supremacist adviser just down the hall. He holds secret tête-à-têtes and makes secret deals with dictators, including the Russian one Trump knows meddled in the 2016 U.S. election and, new reports assert, is meddling again now as he works to remain top dog in the Kremlin for another 16 years. He gives cover to the Saudi autocrat Mohammed bin Salman even when brutal assassination is involved.
Trump shatters international agreements and endangers Americans and other world citizens, essentially flipping off the Paris climate accord as a favor to the science deniers and fossil fuel industry, and bringing us to the brink of war with Iran in great part because he couldn’t stand the fact that President Barack Obama was key to getting the multilateral nuclear pact negotiated, signed, and working as intended.
As if that wasn’t enough, we’ve got Trump’s incessant bragging and bullying, his self-pitying, his grandstanding, his tiresome demands for constant, abject adoration … and his unstoppable daily tsunami of lies, big ones and small, silly and conniving, eye-rolling and infuriating, probably more lies than all the other American presidents combined—a one-man disinformation machine pushing an extremist agenda the Republican Party has been sculpting for decades.
An awful lot of Americans have been okay with all this. Including just about the entire Republican He’s-a-Crook-and-an Autocrat-So-What? Senate caucus.
Trump had a chance to prove himself in a crisis to be the best helmsman who, he almost daily informs fans and foes alike, has ever steered the nation. Two months ago he could have called in a few of the world’s most-skilled medical professionals and had them brief him on what course to take and then taken it. Quick action might well have averted what we’re faced with now. Trump could have set up a virus task force instead of seeing the front-running Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden do it instead.
Donald J. Trump could have shown he had what it takes to handle a crisis. But that would have required him not to be Trump. So he sought to cover his flanks, to lie and happy-talk the nation in hopes of keeping the stock market high, and to bolster his chances of another four years to use the power of his office to pad his pockets and rip off whoever crosses his path.
No amount of hand sanitizer will wash the blood off his hands.