Trump cannot lead America through the coronavirus crisis
President Trump's biggest failing may be that he can never not be himself.
On Wednesday, Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office to discuss the COVID-19 crisis — announcing what actions the federal government will take, and ostensibly trying to reassure the American people that we are collectively up to meeting the terrible challenge before us.
We will see how the policies shake out. After the speech, it became clear Trump had repeatedly misspoken when announcing the details of his administration's plans to confront the new coronavirus: He overstated the extent of a travel ban from Europe, mistakenly said it included "trade and cargo," and wrongly said insurers were waiving co-payments for coronavirus treatments. But technicalities aside, it was clear from the start that the president is not up to the task of reassuring the nation he leads. He was puffy-faced and sniffly, raising new questions about his own exposure to the virus. And he fell back into all of his own worst, easily predictable habits: xenophobia, hyperbole, and problem dodging.
He pitted the United States against outsiders, referring to the "foreign virus" that "started in China" — as though the disease had any idea of or respect for national boundaries.
He boasted undeservedly. "The virus will not have a chance against us," Trump said, even as events outside the White House were quickly indicating otherwise: While cases continued to rise in the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the virus was 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.
Perhaps most dangerously, Trump refused to acknowledge the magnitude of the emergency. "This is not a financial crisis," the president told the nation. "This is just a temporary moment in time we will overcome as a nation and a world." It was an absurd bit of rhetorical nonsense, belied by his announcement of emergency measures to shutter travel, help workers, and assist businesses.
Within minutes of his speech, several developments unfolded: Dow futures immediately plunged. Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had contracted COVID-19. And the NBA announced it was suspending the remainder of this season after a member of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the disease.
Taken together, these developments indicate that America is in terrifyingly uncharted territory here — and that Trump, the reality show star whose most powerful TV moments were crafted during post-production edits, is simply incapable of performing like a leader in real life when the times demand it.
Even if you despise Trump and his politics, you had to hope against hope that on Wednesday night he would finally summon up something bigger and greater than himself. He did not.
So what now? This president will be in office at least until January. Our national leadership isn't going to get any better soon enough to matter. Responsible Americans will do the following:
Hunker down. At this point, there may not be much choice. Schools are shutting down, sporting events are closed to the public, and workers are being sent home. (The lucky ones who aren't already being laid off, that is.) Every expert in the world — not including the folks at Fox News or on Rush Limbaugh's show — says that "social distancing" will be the most effective way to slow the spread of the virus. This is not a time to try to prove that you're macho, or to be confident that youth will save you. Stock up on groceries, if you haven't already, and stay home if you can.
Help your community. Plenty of folks are going to lose paychecks or suddenly find their grocery bills painfully inflated because kids are staying home instead of eating lunch at school. Clinics that help the poor are probably going to find themselves overwhelmed by new business. Find the organizations in your hometown that best serve the poor and needy, and make a donation. It would be nice to hope that the federal government would swoop in with all the necessary resources, but don't depend on that. Help your neighbors.
Contact Congress. The Senate on Wednesday blocked a bill that would require employers to provide paid sick leave to workers during the crisis. The feds at the same time announced that they're tightening food stamp requirements at the end of the month even though the need for food assistance is probably about to rise. Trump isn't the only official with a say in how the country gets through this emergency. Your senators and representative in Congress do too. Make your voice heard, now, on what you think your community needs from the federal government. Do it repeatedly and do it loudly. Then call your state elected officials and do the same.
The president is not up to the task before us. If Americans are lucky, though, we won't have to rely on Trump to lead us through the emergency. He made clear on Wednesday that it is time we turn to each other.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.