The corporate media misunderstands the role of a president during a crisis. Above all, people look to their president for hope. Right now, whatever Donald Trump is doing seems to be working. To the consternation of his foes in the press, Trump’s approval ratings are up, while theirs are down.
That must be awfully frustrating. After all, Trump is a buffoon who doesn’t respect the scientific experts. Trump, as everyone knows, blundered in the early stages, letting a critical month go by while Democrats were laser-focused on impeach . . . er, the coming pandemic.
Reasonable people won’t pin all of the blame on the president. America is, after all, a federation of states, with a massive and sprawling bureaucracy. And the most inveterate Trump critics must admit that nobody saw this pandemic coming. People don’t care about what steps could or could not have been taken a month ago. They care about what’s happening right now.
In times of emergency, people look to their leaders for stability. Even liberals, while claiming to oppose authoritarians, have found themselves bewitched by the ersatz authoritarianism of New York’s sleazy governor, Andrew Cuomo.
If at first President Trump was careless—a shameful mistake, to be sure—he is now taking the crisis seriously. Things are dark and they will get darker, but if Trump can play the part of “wartime president” convincingly, many will be ready to forgive him.
The coronavirus is a psychological event, something that works to the advantage of someone, like Trump, who has a big personality and who understands human psychology better than most people. The media are convinced that Trump is a misanthropic monster, but the truth is that the president has a rough humanity. Trump, though you’d never know it from the news coverage, obviously likes people. He has a social genius that will help him weather this crisis, whatever may come.
The coronavirus will test his competence as a president, sure. But Trump’s detractors vastly overestimate the significance of policy expertise and underplay the importance of social skills.
A confused class of technocrats assumes that average people judge presidents as they do—on whether they make perfect, expert-approved decisions. But most people are more attuned to intangibles, such as likability, confidence, and an ability to lift the public’s spirits—in short, they judge the president as a moral figure, whether he’s someone who inspires them, not on whether he’s a genius in a lab coat.
Trump is approaching the crisis with wartime bravado and surprising balance. His concern for the economy, doubtless tied up with his reelection, is completely sensible and humane. But he is extending the lockdowns by another month (at least) anyway, guaranteeing weeks of further financial and psychological suffering for the American people in order to limit the death toll. No one can say that he isn’t taking this seriously.
Trump has shown restraint, too, or at least a lack of concern about making the most of the moment politically. The coronavirus is proving Trump right about an awful lot. This could have been a big “I-told-you-so” moment. He’s now demonstrably right about China, about globalism, about the decadence and corruption of “the swamp” and in the permanent bureaucracy and in Congress —which could not even muster itself to throw more than a few breadcrumbs from the high table, even as millions of Americans lost their jobs.
For years now, the president’s detractors (and some fans) have likened Trump to an American Caesar, a would-be tribune of Middle America who had ridden to power on the resentment of an angry underclass of “deplorables.” If Trump is really a “strongman” as they say, then surely this is the moment for the American Caesar to step out of the shadows.
With Roman resonance, a corrupted aristocracy is failing its people from the halls of the Senate while celebrities offer insipid reassurances from inside their mansions. Hospitals in some places are overwhelmed, millions are in distress, and despite all of this chaos and misery, a major political party finds sympathy to spare for migrant workers and “diversity” initiatives.
The media, meanwhile, are preoccupied with nipping at the president’s heels for “racist” rhetoric and doing everything possible to depress the public. “Enemy of the people” has never sounded more accurate.
If there ever was a time to “drain the swamp,” it’s now. Trump has been given a golden opportunity to strike a contrast between himself and the failures of the bipartisan ruling class and the corruption of the times, more generally. He has an opportunity to be the people’s champion.
Outside of feuding with the media and rattling some stuffed shirts with “Chinese virus,” however, Trump strangely has responded to this crisis as an aloof federalist.
Of course, he’s right that the states have their role to play. But the heavy-handedness that some expected from this “dictator” has hardly materialized. That may come as a disappointment to the most committed ideologues in the Trump camp, who have long seen Trump as a solitary champion for the “forgotten Americans” who single-handedly would transform the GOP into a party for working people.
If that was the hope, then the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue bill fell short. Trump seemed more concerned with signing a bill than with making sure it was a good one. Trump might have used the bully pulpit to keep the Republican party—of late said to be his personal cult—in line with working-class prerogatives.
Nowhere has Trump looked more laissez-faire than in his clashing with Cuomo. Why would a nationalist hesitate to mobilize the production of critically needed medical supplies?
But Trump is no ideologue. He goes by instinct, and his instincts are often smart. His presidency may well survive the coronavirus without his ever becoming the populist revolutionary many said he was, and the sort the moment appears to be demanding. He may succeed while disappointing his bitterest enemies and his most ideological supporters alike.
The president’s enemies may think he’s a joke, but it’s not too late for Trump to surprise everyone. He may even win over some of those who, in peacetime, otherwise would hate his guts.
Who in his right mind would want him to fail?