Does President Trump think he is still the star of a reality TV show?
The COVID-19 death toll in America continues to mount. As of Sunday, the number stood at more than 2,400 — but the president took little note. Instead, he was preoccupied with a different set of numbers: TV ratings.
In a series of tweets, Trump purported to quote The New York Times about the huge audiences tuning into his daily pandemic press briefings.
The tweets were very misleading. The New York Times did report that Trump's briefings are a ratings hit — but it also warned that journalists and public health experts considered this a "dangerous thing" because of the constant stream of "ill informed, misleading, or downright wrong" comments spewing from the president's mouth. Not exactly an affirmation.
But Trump's tweets were also, as James Fallows of The Atlantic noted Sunday, a demonstration of "complete amorality."
While doctors and nurses across the country battle the pandemic to the point of exhaustion, while thousands of families grieve for lost loved ones, and while tens of thousands more struggle through illness, the president of the United States is looking into a mirror, asking it to assure him that he is the fairest of them all.
Shameful. Even Trump's usual defenders seemed astonished at his misplaced ratings obsession. "Why bother to tweet about this, of all things?" Fox News' Brit Hume tweeted.
We know the answer to that question. The president is endlessly narcissistic, a man who craves the limelight above all else. We have known this since the 1980s, when he rose to fame stamping his name on every building, casino, and business that would have it. We knew it when he parlayed his first divorce into a creepy pizza commercial. We knew it when he went on Howard Stern's show to talk — even more creepily — about his daughter's looks. Donald Trump is one of those guys who believes there is no such thing as bad publicity. For decades, this trait was simply clownish. But he is president now, and he hasn't changed, even in the face of a pandemic ravaging his hometown.
Trump's narcissism is only part of the problem. The other part is that he evidently lacks any sense of history.
The president's ignorance about America's past — and his disinclination to learn what he doesn't know — is well-documented. The result is that he is constantly surprised by the routine challenges that come with the nation's top job. Over the last few years, he has asserted that "nobody knew" how complicated health-care politics could be, or that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, or that flu is a deadly disease. He is wrong of course. Lots of people knew these things.
Trump's ignorance of history doesn't just deprive him of the ability to learn from and about leaders who have confronted big challenges in the past. It also denies him the perspective needed to understand, or perhaps even to care, that history will judge him one day. Most presidents have a sense of the Oval Office's history, and act with an eye toward leaving a legacy of their own. His tweets bragging about his TV ratings in the midst of a pandemic only add to the pile of evidence that this president lives in the perpetual now, unwilling or unable to take a long- or medium-term view of the consequences of his actions. Tomorrow's historians won't linger long on Trump's ratings — except, perhaps, as a key to understanding his failures during the coronavirus crisis.
A president with obligations to something more than his own ego wouldn't have the time or inclination to preen publicly about his TV ratings. A president with an eye on history wouldn't use an era-defining crisis to compare himself to The Bachelor or a prime-time sitcom. A president with any real sense of "greatness" would aspire to something larger, better.
Unfortunately for sick and dying Americans, the president we have doesn't care about any of that. He just cares about being seen and praised.
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.