If you’d spent the last five years trapped in a cave somewhere, you’d probably bet that Queens-accented kid from a place called Jamaica Estates would be better at relating to the sorrows and stresses of the everyday citizen than a real-life queen who grew up on actual country estates or in Buckingham Palace, always at a remove from the commoners.
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But if you’re like most people and you’ve seen both Donald John Trump, 45th president of the United States, and Queen Elizabeth II in action, it came as absolutely no surprise that the United Kingdom’s soon-to-be-94-year-old monarch responded to the deadly coronavirus crisis in a four-minute speech that found exactly the perfect words that have so eluded Trump in literally dozens of hours on national TV.
Avoiding the kind of macho war rhetoric so popular with Trump and the current mediocre-or-far-worse batch of mostly men running the world, the Queen spoke instead of national purpose, unity and shared sacrifice. “Together we are tackling this disease, and I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it,” said the British monarch who, as a teenager in World War II, endured bombing raids that struck Buckingham Palace rather than flee London and even joined the royal military as a mechanic after she turned 18 in 1944.
Queen Elizabeth consciously invoked the Battle of Britain — and the famed wartime anthem, Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again" — in a stirring conclusion. “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
Her words had barely faded when Trump — on a Sunday afternoon, with nothing on his schedule — insisted on going before the cameras yet again, at the late hour of 7 p.m. At least when Barack Obama abruptly went on TV late on a Sunday night, in 2011, it was to reveal some actual news about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Donald Trump, so-called master showman, had nothing to offer America except more of the same that we get night after night — self-serving bluster and blame deflection, a dose of dangerous medical hucksterism, and more yelling at journalists, especially if the journalist is a woman or black or, heaven forbid, both.
How ironic that Americans waged a bloody war to free itself from the arrogance of an unelected monarchy, and now 245 years later it’s our democratic ruler who has no feeling for his subjects. Still, as my Twitter feed fills up daily with hot takes on Trump’s performance, or lack thereof, during his first real global crisis in his three-plus years in the White House, I’m reminded of some different words that emerged once from the London fog, which is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the case of “the dog that didn’t bark.”
This week, for example, CNN.com published a lengthy indictment of presidential misleadership in a time of coronavirus, which tried to capture the manic energy of a day in which about 1,500 Americans died from COVID-19 and yet the Trump White House was consumed in petty squabbles or diversionary scandals, capped by another long “press briefing” in which Trump “lashed out at mail-in voting, making claims about fraud that don’t square with the facts, even though he recently cast such a ballot himself.” Yet what the critique failed to point out was the utter lack of any sorrow, or any heartfelt expression of empathy or shared pain, from the president of the United States. Perhaps that’s because we’ve seen enough to know these simply aren’t things that you’ll find in Trump’s warped toolbox. Still, as they used to say on the daytime game shows, it’s not what you say. It’s what you don’t say.
Over the last few days, my Inquirer opinion colleagues have been interviewing a variety of amazing people on the front lines of grief in this horrible time — from clergy to grief counselors to funeral directors. All of those folks knew what they were signing up for, but you know who else should have known that? Donald Trump. Indeed, over the course of my adult lifetime we’ve seen again and again that real presidential leadership isn’t so much Churchillian exhortations to battle as the ability to express empathy and to try to understand the grief that regular folks are feeling.
Bill Clinton, after all, only survived a policy fiasco, an opposition landslide and a huge scandal through the reservoir of goodwill built up around empathy, expressed in the vernacular as “I feel your pain” and specifically when mourning the 168 Americans killed in Oklahoma City by a domestic terrorist in 1995. Other presidents brought their own unique style to the task — whether it was Obama singing “Amazing Grace” while eulogizing one of the nine victims of a racist gunman in Charleston or George W. Bush exhorting workers at the World Trade Center site with a bullhorn — but each bonded with the American people in those moments. Donald Trump has — to steal another relevant phrase from the British monarchy — completely abdicated. He is not doing his job.
This isn’t a total surprise. The man has always recoiled from death more than the average person, let alone the 43 men (Grover Cleveland twice) who came before him. Convinced to meet the returning coffin bearing a slain soldier’s remains at Dover Air Force Base in the early weeks of his presidency, Trump was reportedly so put off by the experience that he’s only done this on one or two other occasions.
But, like any president, Trump has overseen a lot of tragedy — mass shootings, a hurricane in Puerto Rico where the damage was multiplied by government indifference — and can never find the right words to say. He marvels at the size of the loss — size matters to this president — or praises the “tough guys” like cops or firefighters who respond, because he can relate to that, even if not personally. The agony that someone who just lost a loved one feels is a place he just does not want to go.
But here’s what’s hard to understand. Voters rewarded Clinton, Obama, and Bush 43, among others, for their perceived empathy. Why has not Trump paid a political price for his complete failure in this part of his job? I reached out to Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a thought leader in modern American psychology who’s written extensively and just published a book about Trump’s psyche, including his over-the-top narcissism. A few months ago, McAdams argued in a piece in The Atlantic that while the people who’ve worked with the actual Donald Trump in the White House eventually saw through his shtick, everyday voters are trapped in the aura of his invented TV personality.
In an email, McAdams told me that the coronavirus crisis could be the moment that finally bursts that bubble, if more and more people see that neither the logistics of the government’s response to so much death and disease nor the president’s seemingly uncaring reaction matches the moment. Before this, McAdams said, many Trump supporters could forgive his lack of empathy and his bullying because to them he seemed a superhero, “more like a persona than a full-fledged person.”
But, he added, “If your leader is a superhero, you expect him to use his powers to keep you safe. Up until the present crisis, Trump fought enemies whom he could intimidate and humiliate. But the virus does not respond to his dominance tactics. And some of his most ardent supporters are starting to see that.”
And we’re also starting to see this in Trump’s polling numbers, which temporarily saw a rally-'round-the-flag kind of boost in the early days of the global pandemic. An ABC News/Ipsos poll, for example, found that public support for Trump’s handling of the public-health crisis had dipped by 8 points in just two weeks, and is now underwater. Similarly, surveys continue to show that Trump — unlike his predecessors who saw political gains even in times of trial like 9/11 or the early days of the Iran hostage crisis — would lose to Democrat Joe Biden if the election were held today.
Most of Trump’s supporters will probably stick with him, as anyone who has read the New York Times’ 733 or so coffee-stained dispatches from southern Ohio diners knows, but it won’t take many defections to lose the razor-thin Electoral College majority he clung to in 2016. Some voters who’ve cheered Trump’s bullying of CNN or Hillary or Mexicans or whatever might feel differently if they lose their beloved grandmother and the president is too busy yelling at black women reporters to care. How ironic if the man who rode into the White House by taunting the Clinton family is unceremoniously drummed out office because he just didn’t know how to feel America’s pain?
Columnist’s note: We’ll meet again, just like Vera Lynn sang, if you subscribe to my new newsletter, which launches in a matter of days. It’s takes about 5 seconds to sign up, if you follow the link here. When you do, you’ll get an advance look at my newest column and all kind of extra doodads, such as recommendations on what to read now and or even things to listen to that are slightly more current than Vera Lynn.
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