One of the chief selling points about Donald Trump in 2016, one that persuaded many initially dubious Republicans, was the argument that “he fights.”
Some of us tried to counter that his battles nearly always concerned his own fragile ego, not the cause of conservatism, nor even the Republican Party, but these objections were swept aside.
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Since January, we have witnessed a vivid lesson in the limits of fighting. There were ample reasons before now to recoil from Trump’s style of combat. It is so consistently cruel, witless, below-the-belt and unhinged (e.g. his recent tweets implying that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was guilty of murder), that it taints by association any reasonable arguments that might be advanced for conservative ideas.
But what we’ve witnessed in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic is that even when a dire emergency calls for traits other than bellicosity, fighting is all he knows how to do.
This is proving to be a catastrophe for the nation, and also for Trump’s self-interest.
Who doubts that if, in January and February, when his intelligence briefers were warning of a public health disaster, Trump had adjusted his style just a bit, he would now be enjoying the kind of approval boost that other world leaders have banked? If, instead of minimizing the threat, trusting Xi Jinping to handle it and lashing out at Democrats for exaggerating the danger to harm him politically, he had attempted just a simulacrum of traditional leadership, then he might now be coasting to reelection, not bleeding support.
Disasters are opportunities as well as challenges, and while no president welcomes calamity on his watch, most recognize the chance to burnish their standing. Bill Clinton lamented, after his two terms were complete, that he never faced a major crisis. He was apparently regretting that the peace and prosperity the nation enjoyed during his tenure denied him the chance to be considered a great president, since only wartime presidents seem to make it into the first tier in historians’ rankings.
Confronting intelligence about an imminent world health crisis, Donald Trump could have convened a special session of Congress (before lockdowns). With the unmatched optics of a joint session, he could have announced travel restrictions, requested a huge investment in testing, contact tracing and supported isolation, and then recommended the temporary relaxation of regulations to speed treatments and streamline supply chains.
He could have called upon Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to chair a task force to coordinate the production and distribution of testing and other medical supplies nationwide. If he were truly rising above his instincts and were able to utter a few unifying words, there is no telling how different things might feel now. He might have said:
We have deep disagreements in this country. But this is not a time for grievances. We are facing a crisis. It will hit all of us in different ways, some more grievously than others. It will require courage and sacrifice and patience. It won’t be easy, but one thing is certain, we will face this not as Democrats or Republicans but as Americans.
In addition to enhancing Trump’s leadership credibility, such an approach would have buoyed national morale and set us on a path to control the outbreak.
Since the disease began spreading, Trump has failed to develop a plan of action. He has punted responsibility to governors while claiming complete power for himself. He has lied and dithered and hawked quack cures. He has created confusion by forcing government agencies to waste time dealing with his callow son-in-law.
But above all, he searched for someone to punch.
He fought with Democrats, suggesting on Feb. 28 that “this is their new hoax.” He tangled with insufficiently “grateful” governors who asked for supplies. He disparaged frontline medical professionals, wondering on March 29 whether they were stealing masks. He had a spat with congressional leadership on Feb. 27 when they proposed an initial coronavirus package more than three times the size of Trump’s request (“Pelosi’s incompetent.” He’s “cryin’ Chuck Schumer”).
He reversed his previous gushing praise and began to blame China for the virus, encouraging the use of nicknames like “Wuhan virus.” He picked a fight with the Postal Service, poured out tweetstorms about his predecessor, whom he accused of dark crimes, and, above all, from before dawn till after dark every single day, he battled the press.
The death toll mounts. The economic damage is unprecedented.
Yes, he fights — and we all lose.
Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her new book is “Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense.”
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