Donald Trump, the first reality TV star to become president, has treated the Coronavirus crisis as if it were a reality TV show. He has allowed a vacuum of leadership to develop into which the governors of the individual states have now stepped.
One can see why he approached the crisis in this way. It is his natural game, he lacks the moral seriousness to make the huge effort needed to change it, and this mode of behaviour has advantages for him.
Part of the point of reality TV is that when it’s going badly it’s going well: the ratings rise because it’s astonishing to see such disreputable conduct played out in daily instalments for the public’s amusement.
Trump has boasted that the ratings he is getting for his daily press conferences are high, though some might say that 8.5 million viewers in a nation of 330 million at a time of national peril is unimpressive.
It does not compare with what, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt got for his fireside chats on the radio – a more valuable commodity, for during the 12 years and one month he was President, and led the country through the Great Depression and the Second World War, he delivered only 30 of those, and took enormous trouble over them, each of them requiring “four or five days of long, overtime work” to prepare.
Nor is he capable, as FDR and most of the presidents since him were, of leading an international response to the crisis. In some ways, he is the most embarrassingly out of his depth occupant of the White House since Warren G. Harding, though Harding’s most grievous flaws were only exposed after his death in office in 1923.
The shamelessness of reality TV, the primacy it gives to appetite and emotion over restraint and reason, means Trump can assert as true anything he would like to be true, regardless of whether it is known to be false, or will soon be proven false.
The first case of Coronavirus in the USA was detected on 20th January. The CDC – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency – was slow to test for the disease, and got no encouragement from Trump, who was anxious to downplay the threat.
Asked on 22nd January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, if there was a danger of the virus developing into a pandemic, he replied: “It’s going to be just fine. We have it totally under control.”
Over a month later, on February 26, he said of the virus:
“It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear. And from our shores, you know, it could get worse before it gets better. Could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”
The next day, Trump predicted the number of infected people in the country “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero”. On 16th March he started to take the pandemic seriously, but not long after he said the churches could be full for Easter.
A change in how the president is feeling suffices for a change in what he says at his daily press conferences. He can contradict himself as often as he likes, be as outrageous as he likes, and this unpredictability helps him to dominate the headlines, just as he did during the 2016 election campaign.
He enjoys a flexibility which is denied to his more scrupulous opponents, who feel under an obligation to strive to be honest, rational and consistent.
This puts his critics in a difficult position. Many of them find his wheedling, insinuating tone of voice so creepy they cannot bear to listen to him for any length of time.
The President is so disgusting he becomes incomprehensible. It is easier to excommunicate him than to sully oneself by trying to follow his thought processes.
This pharisaical reaction plays into his hands. His opponents reveal themselves as intolerant, self-congratulatory and out-of-touch, a bunch of hypocrites who think they’re better than the kind of people who watch reality TV.
All the same, reality TV can go seriously wrong, particularly when the participants start killing themselves.
Then questions start to be asked about whether those running the show exercised their duty of care towards the vulnerable people involved, and the answer is usually found to be that those in charge couldn’t have cared less.
Such questions now faces Trump. If within the next few months he is found to have been so negligent in his handling of the Coronavirus that huge numbers of Americans have died unnecessarily, his show is likely to be taken off the air in November, even if he faces an opponent no more formidable than Joe Biden.
Meanwhile America’s federal system is belatedly starting to supply some opponents more considerable than Biden.
On Sunday, Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois lamented the “loss of essentially the entire month of February” and the “profound failing of the federal government” to supply the tests it assured Americans it was going to supply:
“The White House has promised millions of tests for weeks now, and they’re just not here. I’m not going to wait on promises from the federal government that may never be fulfilled. We need this testing capacity now. So, we’re building it ourselves in Illinois.”
Pritzker, a Democrat, is a member of the immensely wealthy family which owns the Hyatt hotel chain. In 1993, Trump accused the Pritzkers – with whom he had gone into partnership to turn the old Commodore Hotel in New York into the Grand Hyatt – of racketeering.
If that was an isolated case of Trump falling out with business partners and flinging bizarre accusations at them, it could be regarded as a misfortune. But as James D. Zirin observes in Plaintiff in Chief: A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits, published in September 2019, there is a pattern of behaviour here: instead of getting on with his partners in New York and winning their trust, Trump sued them, using the “attack-dog” methods he learned from the notorious Roy Cohn, who in turn had worked for Joe McCarthy.
Trump, in other words, has never practised treating people as valued allies in pursuit of a common goal, making the prudent accommodations needed to work together as a team. Instead he readies himself to strike some unbelievably low blow – the sort of thing which produces a gasp in the reality TV audience.
As my old friend Roland Stephen, who lives in Maryland, puts it:
“The only person to enter into any kind of transaction with Donald Trump — and I include the American people in this unfortunate group — who has escaped with fortune and reputation enhanced is Stormy Daniels.”
Trump is now in the process of falling out with the state governors whose co-operation he needs in order to get a grip on the Coronavirus. He has lashed out at several of them, including Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan, Jay Inslee, the Governor of Washington, and Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York.
He complained that he has a “big problem” with the “young, a woman governor” in Michigan, because “all she does is sit there and blame the federal government.” He referred to her as “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” and said she is “way in over her head” and “doesn’t have a clue.”
Whitmer responded on Twitter: “I’ve asked repeatedly and respectfully for help. We need it. No more political attacks, just PPEs, ventilators, N95 masks, test kits. You said you stand with Michigan — prove it.”
When Inslee said the President should lead a “national mobilisation of the industrial base in this country” to produce medical supplies, Trump retorted that Inslee “shouldn’t be relying on the federal government”.
Cuomo said the state of New York would need 30,000 ventilators at the peak of the outbreak, and had only received 400 from the federal government. Trump replied that he had “a feeling” that “40,000 or 30,000” would not be needed.
Those three governors are Democrats, but some Republicans – Larry Hogan in Maryland, Mike DeWine in Ohio – have enacted stern measures to slow the virus, sterner than the President has ventured to commend.
In Mississippi, by contrast, a Republican Governor, Tate Reeves, has allowed most businesses to stay open, and restaurants too, as long as they serve no more than ten people at a time.
Reeves said his critics were enemies of Trump and “don’t like the fact that I’m a conservative and I’m willing to pray.” He added:
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if the United States found themselves in a severe depression with 20 per cent to 30 per cent unemployment that the abject poverty that could create could lead to more health problems than this particular virus is causing.”
Trump is tempted by that line of argument, remarking sometimes that the cure could be worse than the disease.
If only he could be confident that the Coronavirus would afflict Democrat states more grievously than Republican ones, then not taking the disease so seriously would possess a certain ruthless logic. But the evidence suggests the disease will not make that distinction.
When I began this article, I hoped to avoid composing yet another prosy denunciation of Trump, and at least to give him credit for a hucksterish Realpolitik which owes nothing to Christian morals or gentlemanly behaviour.
He also has the merit of not making himself the prisoner of experts who may have exaggerated their ability to see how the crisis will unfold.
But having watched the zigzag course he has steered, the laughably contradictory messages he has sent to the American public, and the way he has sought to diminish state governors instead of making common cause with them, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that at a time when the United States needs national leadership, it finds itself in the hands of an impudent opportunist.
Andrew Gimson’s recently-released Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump, illustrated by Martin Rowson, is published by Penguin Books.