Plenty of leaders have failed during the pandemic. But I think we can agree that a president has more agency than anyone else in moments of national crisis. From the very beginning, Trump tried to push off that responsibility to the states, because of his aversion to being blamed for anything. But responsible he is, in numerous ways.
Trump’s CDC so botched testing that hundreds of thousands of Americans were infected before we had the information. He’s admitted to deliberately slowing testing at key points to make the numbers look better. He actively cheered reopening way too soon and offered no federal support for states to prepare. The FEMA program of commandeering and shuffling personal protective equipment was the work of a criminal gang. His attitude toward the virus was to dismiss its grave implications, even now amid the unending first wave. His campaign manager is in quarantine, and advance staffers have contracted the disease; his approach is crumbling around him. And the continual pronouncements of the great job he’s doing, amid 125,000 deaths and untold long-term damage to people’s lungs and their livelihoods, recalls Nero and the fiddle.
Americans habitually reject incompetence in their leaders. Before being feted as a kindly painter, George W. Bush was the most loathed man in the country, because he got us bogged down in a war based on lies, let an American city drown, and presided over a crushing financial crisis. He was bad at his job, in public. Herbert Hoover was bad at his job as millions suffered during a presidency shaped by the Depression. The nation rejected them. They’re in the process of rejecting Trump.
There’s a way for a hypothetical president to succeed in the next four months and eke out re-election: universal masking, massive support for testing and army field hospitals and contact tracing where needed, a wide-open money spigot to individuals financially affected. It’s actually a pretty simple formula.
Trump won’t do it. He’s taken the position that everything’s fine, and thinks that moving off that would show weakness. And even if he wanted to do what might seem simple for a replacement-level president, he’s so far below that standard as to make such steps impossible. This is why he should, actually, resign, as Chris Hayes called for yesterday. Instead we’ll have to settle for him being snubbed at the polls in four months.
Trump’s entire political career has been built on hucksterism and grievance. You can fool people with hucksterism for a long time, but not once slapped by reality. Then the sheen wears off. BSing his way through served Trump well in business, which we’re discovering is much more forgiving than government. But you can only whine for so long, as Biden noted yesterday, before it becomes pathetic. Trump can’t figure out how to attack the coronavirus, and without doing that work he cannot attack Biden. He knows he’s going to lose (Biden “is going to be president because some people don’t love me, maybe,” Trump said to Sean Hannity on Friday), because he’s incapable of the governing that would prevent it.
This is the important point. A president has to be president, not just play one on TV. They cannot just express competence, but actually succeed. The difficult truth is that Trump is carrying on a tradition. We’ve done very little to arrest our long-term crises for several decades. The next president needs to actually deal with them. FDR’s descendants wrote an open letter to Biden, urging outsized ambition to fill in the existing cracks exposed by this crisis. Passivity—at income and wealth inequality, at unequal treatment, at structural racism, at a raging pandemic but also the everyday failures we faced before—will only lead to disapproval and decline.
So when Biden wins, he needs to salve the festering wound that is American government, or we’ll get another in a series of wave elections that haven’t really ended since 2006. Trump’s humiliating defeat sets the course for Biden’s presidency: tangibly govern.