The new coronavirus has been one of the worst moments of Donald Trump’s presidency. A crisis erupted, and he spent weeks downplaying and dismissing before finally conceding the urgent need for action. If things go badly, he will get a lot of the blame for his tardy, ineffectual response.
But in some ways, the pandemic puts him in the position he always imagined the office would be. He gets to stand in front of the cameras every day, issuing directives, invoking emergency powers and commanding a platoon of subordinates who praise his inspiring leadership. It’s a Hollywood image of a president in action.
Trump had an air of satisfaction in declaring himself a “wartime president.” But this is the same guy who in 2015 insisted, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” Once in office, he mused, “I think I would have been a good general.”
In fact, Trump has been a wartime president since he arrived, but he had reservations about the military conflicts he inherited, which lacked strong popular support. With COVID-19, he obviously hopes the citizenry will rally behind him in the sort of national unity seen during previous wars.
He is not the first president to see the upside of such challenges. President Bill Clinton, noted Todd Purdum last year in The Atlantic, “sometimes lamented that he was serving in times of broad peace and prosperity, because true presidential greatness was granted only to those leaders who governed in war or crisis.” Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, Clinton knew, owe their heroic reputations largely to the critical wars they fought — and won.
George H.W. Bush saw his approval rating soar to 89% after the coalition victory in the 1991 Gulf War. George W. Bush attained a 90% approval rating after standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center and vowing to strike back at “the people who knocked these buildings down.”
It’s not hard to believe that Trump sees this as his chance for the public to see him as the hero he admires in the mirror. On Wednesday, he channeled FDR: “To this day, nobody has ever seen like it, what they were able to do during World War II. Now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.”
Those words lacked any stirring quality, though, because they are so at odds with his habit of smearing his critics and inflaming his supporters with venomous rhetoric. Even now, he can’t put aside his petty, bitter resentments.
Trump’s appeal for common sacrifice came on the same day he tweeted: “95% Approval Rating in the Republican Party, 53% overall. Not bad considering I get nothing but Fake & Corrupt News, day and night. ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’, then ‘the Ukraine Scam (where’s the Whistleblower?)’, the ‘Impeachment Hoax’, and more, more, more….”
You can’t ask people to come together when your chief concern is how popular you are with the 30% of Americans who identify with your party. You can’t expect solidarity when your favorite political strategy is stoking division. If you want citizens to rise above their selfish concerns, you need to do likewise. Trump is incapable.
A president who expects to get credit for taking steps that help in a crisis has to be accountable for mistakes as well. But Trump has said, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the administration’s failures in preparing for this outbreak. As for the charge that he closed the White House office that dealt with pandemics, he suggested that others were to blame, claiming, “I don’t know anything about it.”
When I asked presidential historian Richard Norton Smith (who is currently writing a biography of Gerald Ford), about Trump’s posture, he had a tart response: “He wants to take credit for D-Day without accepting responsibility for Pearl Harbor.”
Trump, with his notorious ignorance of history, also fails to see the perils of being in charge during a crisis. He has made no effort to learn from Lyndon Johnson, whose fortunes fell so low that he abandoned his 1968 reelection campaign during a losing war. As Smith says, Johnson failed “in large part because of the gross discrepancy between what he was claiming and what people were seeing every night in their living rooms.”
Trump thinks the coronavirus pandemic will be his World War II. It may be his Vietnam.