Do you remember President George W. Bush’s remarks at ground zero in Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks? I can still hear him speaking of national grief and national pride. This was before all the awful judgment calls and fatal mistakes, and it doesn’t excuse them. But it mattered, because it reassured us that our country’s leader was navigating some of the same emotional currents that we were.
Do you remember President Barack Obama’s news conference after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 28 people, including 20 children, dead? I do. Freshest in my memory is how he fought back tears. He was hurting. He cared. And while we couldn’t bank on new laws to prevent the next massacre, we could at least hold on to that.
One more question: Do you remember the moment when President Donald Trump’s bearing and words made clear that he grasped not only the magnitude of this rapidly metastasizing pandemic but also our terror in the face of it?
It passed me by, maybe because it never happened.
In Trump’s predecessors, for all their imperfections, I could sense the beat of a heart and see the glimmer of a soul. In him I can’t, and that fills me with a sorrow and a rage that I quite frankly don’t know what to do with.
Americans are dying by the thousands, and he gloats about what a huge, rapt television audience he has. They’re confronting financial ruin and not sure how they’ll continue to pay for food and shelter, and he reprimands governors for not treating him with adequate adulation.
He’s not rising to the challenge before him, not even a millimeter. He’s shriveling into nothingness.
On Friday, when Trump relayed a new recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all Americans wear face masks in public places, he went so far out of his way to stress that the coverings were voluntary and that he himself wouldn’t be going anywhere near one that he might as well have branded them Apparel for Skittish Losers. I’ve finally settled on his epitaph: “Donald J. Trump, too cool for the coronavirus.”
This is more than a failure of empathy, which is how many observers have described his deficiency. It’s more than a failure of decency, which has been my go-to lament. It’s a failure of basic humanity.
In The Washington Post a few days ago, Michael Gerson, a conservative who worked in Bush’s White House, wrote that Trump’s spirit is “a vast, trackless wasteland.” Not exactly trackless. There are gaudy outposts of ego all along the horizon.
When the direness of this global health crisis began to be apparent, I was braced for the falsehoods and misinformation that are Trump’s trademarks. I was girded for the incompetence that defines an administration with such contempt for proper procedure and for true expertise.
But what has taken me by surprise and torn me up inside are the aloofness, arrogance, pettiness, meanness, narcissism and solipsism that persist in Trump — that flourish in him — even during a once-in-a-lifetime emergency that demands something nobler. Under normal circumstances, these traits are galling. Under the current ones, they’re gutting.
“I don’t take responsibility at all.” “Did you know I was number one on Facebook?” To bother with just one of those sentences while a nation trembles is disgusting. To bother with both, as Trump did, is perverse.
He continues to bash the media, as if the virus were cooked up in the bowels of CNN. He continues to play blame games and to lord his station over those of a lesser political caste, turning governors into grovelers and suggesting that they’re whiny piggies at the federal trough.
He continues his one-man orgy of self-congratulation, so that in the same breath recently he speculated about a toll of 100,000 deaths in America from COVID-19 and crowed about what a great job he’s doing.
And he continues to taunt and smear his perceived political adversaries. Last week, on Fox News, he called Nancy Pelosi “a sick puppy.” This is how he chooses to spend his time and energy?
At those beloved daily briefings of his, where he talks and talks and talks, he sometimes seems to regard what’s happening less as a devastating scourge than as a star-studded event. Just look at the nifty degree of prominence it’s conferring on everyone and everything involved! He has mused aloud about how well known Anthony Fauci has become. He has marveled at the disease’s celebrity profile.
“Become a very famous term — C-O-V-I-D,” he said Thursday. Was that envy in his voice?
He leaps from tone deafness to some realm of complete sensory and moral deprivation.
“I want to come way under the models,” he said Friday, referring to casualty projections. “The professionals did the models. I was never involved in a model.”
“At least this kind of model,” he added. No context like a pandemic for X-rated humor.
It’s an extraordinary thing: to fill the air with so many words and have none of them carry any genuine sadness or stirring resolve.
I can hear his admirers grumble that he doesn’t do camera-perfect emotions, that Obama was just a better actor, that Trump is the more authentic man.
To which I answer: What’s the point of having a showman for a president if he can’t put on the right kind of show? Performances count, even if they’re just performances. And Trump clearly isn’t averse to artifice. Just look at his hair.
A cheap shot? I’m feeling cheap. A loss of life and livelihoods on this scale will do that to you.
As of this writing, at least 9,600 people with the coronavirus have died in the United States. That’s more than three times the number killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. New York state alone reported 630 new deaths Saturday. No school shooting has taken even a small faction of as many lives.
And while I’m not looking to Trump for any panacea, is it too much to ask for some sign that the dying has made an impression on him, that the crying has penetrated his carapace and that he’s thinking about something other than his ratings? I watch. I wait. I suspect I’ll be doing that forever.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.