–Donald Trump speaks at the America First Policy Institute event in Washington DC, spouting conspiracy theories, pretending to be transgender, and much more
This spring I taught a seminar (via Zoom, of course) at the University of Chicago on the art of political persuasion. We read Lincoln, Pericles, King, Orwell, Havel and Churchill, among other great practitioners of the art. We ended with a study of Donald Trump’s tweets, as part of a class on demagogy.
If the closing subject was depressing, at least the timing was appropriate.
We are in the midst of an unprecedented national catastrophe. The catastrophe is not the pandemic, or an economic depression, or killer cops, or looted cities, or racial inequities. These are all too precedented. What’s unprecedented is that never before have we been led by a man who so completely inverts the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
With malice toward all; with charity for none: eight words that encapsulate everything this president is, does and stands for.
What does one learn when reading great political speeches and writings? That well-chosen words are the way by which past deeds acquire meaning and future deeds acquire purpose. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” are the only false notes in the Gettysburg Address. The Battle of Gettysburg is etched in national memory less for its military significance than because Lincoln reinvented the goals of the Civil War in that speech — and, in doing so, reimagined the possibilities of America.
Political writing doesn’t just provide meaning and purpose. It also offers determination, hope and instruction.
In “The Power of the Powerless,” written at one of the grimmer moments of Communist tyranny, Václav Havel laid out why the system was so much weaker, and the individual so much stronger, than either side knew. In his “Fight on the beaches” speech after Dunkirk, Winston Churchill told Britons of “a victory inside this deliverance” — a reason, however remote, for resolve and optimism. In “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., explained why patience was no answer to injustice: “When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
In a word, great political writing aims to elevate. What, by contrast, does one learn by studying Trump’s utterances?
The purpose of Trump’s presidency is to debase, first by debasing the currency of speech. It’s why he refuses to hire reasonably competent speechwriters to craft reasonably competent speeches. It’s why his communication team has been filled by people like Dan Scavino and Stephanie Grisham and Sarah Sanders.
And it’s why Twitter is his preferred medium of communication. It is speech designed for provocations and put-downs; for making supporters feel smug; for making opponents seethe; for reducing national discourse to the level of grunts and counter-grunts.
That’s a level that suits Trump because it’s the level at which he excels. Anyone who studies Trump’s tweets carefully must come away impressed by the way he has mastered the demagogic arts. He doesn’t lead his base, as most politicians do. He personifies it. He speaks to his followers as if he were them. He cultivates their resentments, demonizes their opponents, validates their hatreds. He glorifies himself so they may bask in the reflection.
Whatever this has achieved for him, or them, it’s a calamity for us. At a moment when disease has left more than 100,000 American families bereft, we have a president incapable of expressing the nation’s heartbreak. At a moment of the most bitter racial grief since the 1960s, we have a president who has bankrupted the moral capital of the office he holds.
And at a moment when many Americans, particularly conservatives, are aghast at the outbursts of looting and rioting that have come in the wake of peaceful protests, we have a president who wants to replace rule of law with rule by the gun. If Trump now faces a revolt by the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership (both current and former) against his desire to deploy active-duty troops in American cities, it’s because his words continue to drain whatever is left of his credibility as commander in chief.
I write this as someone who doesn’t lay every national problem at Trump’s feet and tries to give him credit when I think it’s due.
Trump is no more responsible for the policing in Minneapolis than Barack Obama was responsible for policing in Ferguson. I doubt the pandemic would have been handled much better by a Hillary Clinton administration, especially considering the catastrophic errors of judgment by people like Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo. And our economic woes are largely the result of a lockdown strategy most avidly embraced by the president’s critics.
But the point here isn’t that Trump is responsible for the nation’s wounds. It’s that he is the reason some of those wounds have festered and why none of them can heal, at least for as long as he remains in office. Until we have a president who can say, as Lincoln did in his first inaugural, “We are not enemies, but friends” — and be believed in the bargain — our national agony will only grow worse.
It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain.
When, in January 2016, I wrote that despite being a lifelong Republican who worked in the previous three GOP administrations, I would never vote for Donald Trump, even though his administration would align much more with my policy views than a Hillary Clinton presidency would, a lot of my Republican friends were befuddled. How could I not vote for a person who checked far more of my policy boxes than his opponent?
What I explained then, and what I have said many times since, is that Trump is fundamentally unfit—intellectually, morally, temperamentally, and psychologically—for office. For me, that is the paramount consideration in electing a president, in part because at some point it’s reasonable to expect that a president will face an unexpected crisis—and at that point, the president’s judgment and discernment, his character and leadership ability, will really matter.
“Mr. Trump has no desire to acquaint himself with most issues, let alone master them” is how I put it four years ago. “No major presidential candidate has ever been quite as disdainful of knowledge, as indifferent to facts, as untroubled by his benightedness.” I added this:
Mr. Trump’s virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency; it could very well lead to national catastrophe. The prospect of Donald Trump as commander in chief should send a chill down the spine of every American.
It took until the second half of Trump’s first term, but the crisis has arrived in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s hard to name a president who has been as overwhelmed by a crisis as the coronavirus has overwhelmed Donald Trump.
To be sure, the president isn’t responsible for either the coronavirus or the disease it causes, COVID-19, and he couldn’t have stopped it from hitting our shores even if he had done everything right. Nor is it the case that the president hasn’t done anything right; in fact, his decision to implement a travel ban on China was prudent. And any narrative that attempts to pin all of the blame on Trump for the coronavirus is simply unfair. The temptation among the president’s critics to use the pandemic to get back at Trump for every bad thing he’s done should be resisted, and schadenfreude is never a good look. That said, the president and his administration are responsible for grave, costly errors, most especially the epic manufacturing failures in diagnostic testing, the decision to test too few people, the delay in expanding testing to labs outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and problems in the supply chain. These mistakes have left us blind and badly behind the curve, and, for a few crucial weeks, they created a false sense of security. What we now know is that the coronavirus silently spread for several weeks, without us being aware of it and while we were doing nothing to stop it. Containment and mitigation efforts could have significantly slowed its spread at an early, critical point, but we frittered away that opportunity.
“They’ve simply lost time they can’t make up. You can’t get back six weeks of blindness,” Jeremy Konyndyk, who helped oversee the international response to Ebola during the Obama administration and is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told The Washington Post. “To the extent that there’s someone to blame here, the blame is on poor, chaotic management from the White House and failure to acknowledge the big picture.”
Earlier this week, Anthony Fauci, the widely respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases whose reputation for honesty and integrity has been only enhanced during this crisis, admitted in congressional testimony that the United States is still not providing adequate testing for the coronavirus. “It is failing. Let’s admit it.” He added, “The idea of anybody getting [testing] easily, the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. I think it should be, but we’re not.”
We also know the World Health Organization had working tests that the United States refused, and researchers at a project in Seattle tried to conduct early tests for the coronavirus but were prevented from doing so by federal officials. (Doctors at the research project eventually decided to perform coronavirus tests without federal approval.)
But that’s not all. The president reportedly ignored early warnings of the severity of the virus and grew angry at a CDC official who in February warned that an outbreak was inevitable. The Trump administration dismantled the National Security Council’s global-health office, whose purpose was to address global pandemics; we’re now paying the price for that. “We worked very well with that office,” Fauci told Congress. “It would be nice if the office was still there.” We may face a shortage of ventilators and medical supplies, and hospitals may soon be overwhelmed, certainly if the number of coronavirus cases increases at a rate anything like that in countries such as Italy. (This would cause not only needless coronavirus-related deaths, but deaths from those suffering from other ailments who won’t have ready access to hospital care.)
Some of these mistakes are less serious and more understandable than others. One has to take into account that in government, when people are forced to make important decisions based on incomplete information in a compressed period of time, things go wrong.
Yet in some respects, the avalanche of false information from the president has been most alarming of all. It’s been one rock slide after another, the likes of which we have never seen. Day after day after day he brazenly denied reality, in an effort to blunt the economic and political harm he faced. But Trump is in the process of discovering that he can’t spin or tweet his way out of a pandemic. There is no one who can do to the coronavirus what Attorney General William Barr did to the Mueller report: lie about it and get away with it.
The president’s misinformation and mendacity about the coronavirus are head-snapping.
- He claimed that it was contained in America when it was actually spreading.
- He claimed that we had “shut it down” when we had not.
- He claimed that testing was available when it wasn’t.
- He claimed that the coronavirus will one day disappear “like a miracle”; it won’t.
- He claimed that a vaccine would be available in months; Fauci says it will not be available for a year or more.
- Trump falsely blamed the Obama administration for impeding coronavirus testing.
- He stated that the coronavirus first hit the United States later than it actually did. (He said that it was three weeks prior to the point at which he spoke; the actual figure was twice that.)
- The president claimed that the number of cases in Italy was getting “much better” when it was getting much worse. And in one of the more stunning statements an American president has ever made,
- Trump admitted that his preference was to keep a cruise ship off the California coast rather than allowing it to dock, because he wanted to keep the number of reported cases of the coronavirus artificially low.
“I like the numbers,” Trump said. “I would rather have the numbers stay where they are. But if they want to take them off, they’ll take them off. But if that happens, all of a sudden your 240 [cases] is obviously going to be a much higher number, and probably the 11 [deaths] will be a higher number too.” (Cooler heads prevailed, and over the president’s objections, the Grand Princess was allowed to dock at the Port of Oakland.)
On and on it goes.
To make matters worse, the president delivered an Oval Office address that was meant to reassure the nation and the markets but instead shook both. The president’s delivery was awkward and stilted; worse, at several points, the president, who decided to ad-lib the teleprompter speech, misstated his administration’s own policies, which the administration had to correct. Stock futures plunged even as the president was still delivering his speech. In his address, the president called for Americans to “unify together as one nation and one family,” despite having referred to Washington Governor Jay Inslee as a “snake” days before the speech and attacking Democrats the morning after it. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz put it, “Almost everything that could have gone wrong with the speech did go wrong.”
Taken together, this is a massive failure in leadership that stems from a massive defect in character. Trump is such a habitual liar that he is incapable of being honest, even when being honest would serve his interests. He is so impulsive, shortsighted, and undisciplined that he is unable to plan or even think beyond the moment. He is such a divisive and polarizing figure that he long ago lost the ability to unite the nation under any circumstances and for any cause. And he is so narcissistic and unreflective that he is completely incapable of learning from his mistakes. The president’s disordered personality makes him as ill-equipped to deal with a crisis as any president has ever been. With few exceptions, what Trump has said is not just useless; it is downright injurious.
he nation is recognizing this, treating him as a bystander “as school superintendents, sports commissioners, college presidents, governors and business owners across the country take it upon themselves to shut down much of American life without clear guidance from the president,” in the words of Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times.
Donald Trump is shrinking before our eyes.
The coronavirus is quite likely to be the Trump presidency’s inflection point, when everything changed, when the bluster and ignorance and shallowness of America’s 45th president became undeniable, an empirical reality, as indisputable as the laws of science or a mathematical equation.
It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain. The president, enraged for having been unmasked, will become more desperate, more embittered, more unhinged. He knows nothing will be the same. His administration may stagger on, but it will be only a hollow shell. The Trump presidency is over.