American presidencies rise and fall in times of great crisis. It’s been true as long as we’ve had a country.
In the darkest days of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln implored Americans to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Eventually, that government prevailed.
In his first inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The country went on to emerge from the Great Depression and fight and win a world war.
In the days after 9/11, President George W. Bush transformed from the not-so-sharp “son of George Bush” to a leader ready to meet his moment. In the still-burning rubble of the World Trade Center, first responders told him they couldn’t hear him over the bullhorn he was using. He told them, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. … And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The country, on its knees in grief, rose up because of the president’s words. Just because of his words.
And during the coronavirus crisis of 2020, as the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, President Donald J. Trump has said these words for the ages:
“Be calm, it’s really working out. A lot of good things are going to happen. The consumer is ready.”
“I don’t think it’s a big deal. I don’t see any reason. I feel extremely good. I feel very good. But I guess it’s not a big deal to get tested.”
“We’re doing a great job with it. … Stay calm. It will go away.”
“It’s very mild.”
“If you don’t shake hands, they’re not going to like you too much.”
“Anybody that wants a test can get a test. That’s what the bottom line is.”
“Anybody that needs a test gets a test. They’re there. They have the tests, and the tests are beautiful.”
“I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”
“And I haven’t touched my face in weeks. Been weeks. I miss it.”
“Who are you from, by the way? … I don’t watch CNN. That’s why I don’t recognize you. … I really don’t. I don’t watch it. I don’t watch CNN because CNN is fake news.”
If that last quote threw you, you weren’t at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, where the president asked a CNN reporter who he worked for, and then took that unfortunate tangent. That also was the place he told the media that anybody who wants a test can get a test, an assertion that is still not close to true nearly a week later.
Crisis managers, especially health care professionals, know that the most important asset a leader can deploy during a crisis is information — clear, concise, direct information. The president has been handing out a mix of false hope and false information. Both are deeply problematic at a time when Americans are worried and looking for answers and assurance.
Empathy is also a quality people in the country look for. When we suffer, our leaders suffer with us, unless our leader is President Trump. With thousands of Americans stuck on an infected cruise ship off the coast of California, the president declared he’d rather not have them back.
“If it were up to me,” he said, “I would leave them there.” He explained he didn’t want the number of illnesses in America to go up, even though most of the people on the wayward ship were, in fact, American.
Luckily, good leadership has been in high supply elsewhere around the country, among other leaders of both parties. In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has led a coronavirus task force that meets regularly, communicates consistently and takes action proactively. In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis speaks knowledgeably about his state’s needs but defers to science for his decisions. They haven’t solved the problem, but they’re taking it seriously and acting responsibly.
Leading people through a crisis is the most important job a president can do. At the moment, it’s hard to see how Americans can feel good about the job Trump is doing.
And remember that this is happening in the context of an election. The president hasn’t forgotten. During a recent press conference about his coronavirus task force, Trump asked if anybody had any questions about the election results the night before, which was Super Tuesday. He had some words about former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whom he called “a spiteful guy.”
What Trump didn’t mention is the fact that voters often punish leaders who fall short in a crisis like this one. President Jimmy Carter only got one term after a gas crisis, a recession and a hostage situation proved too much to handle. In contrast, George W. Bush was reelected by a wider margin in 2004.
It seems trite, but the message a leader delivers during a crisis few could anticipate matters deeply to the outcome of the crisis. Trust in a leader is earned in those moments, and surrendered just as easily.
The message we’ve gotten so far from this president is clear — we have plenty to fear in the coronavirus crisis, including Trump himself.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.