Donald Trump is a president made for a time when Americans can no longer embrace one another. It is a strange coincidence that the most divisive and conspicuously bigoted president in decades will be known most for a lethal pandemic that separates us by fiat, preventing physical community in order to help us all survive. The coronavirus has effectively extended our winters, mandating that we be at home as much as possible. Surely some are reading and exercising more, but few things are more American than defraying anxiety with some easily disposable television. Perhaps this is why the former Apprentice star has seized the moment to take the stage and perform.
That may be why Trump tweeted a particularly masturbatory thread Sunday morning, crowing about what Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times reported earlier that week. Ignoring Grynbaum’s larger question — about whether networks should continue to carry the White House daily coronavirus task force briefings live, endangering the public with the president’s misinformation — the president chose to boast in the midst of a pandemic killing thousands that he is attracting millions of eyes, garnering television audiences on par with “Monday Night Football” and the season finale of “The Bachelor.”
Never mind the failings of his administration to federalize a supply chain of life-saving equipment, or to use the time allotted to him each day to convey information the public needs. Trump knows we’ll be watching, so he fears no consequences for being himself. By bragging about his ratings, Trump communicates to us that what matters most to him is not so much how we view him, but simply whether we view him at all.
The coronavirus gives Trump the chance to lie at a regularly scheduled time, ensuring him somewhat of a captive audience. Unencumbered and unfettered by anything but a tough inquiry from a good journalist, the president now regularly barks out claims that would have ended political careers in the past. He and his administration toss out projected death totals like Vegas betting lines, cheapening lives lost to politics. Like his pal, the New York sports radio host Mike Francesa, said on Monday, how would the nation suffering an additional 180,000 or so deaths from COVID-19 signify that he’s done “a pretty good job,” as Trump claimed this week? How does marching up corporate CEOs to kiss his ass save any lives? Why does anyone tolerate its president of the United States hawking snake-oil remedies for the coronavirus? Why do networks allow him this scheduled time to slander officials and overwhelmed hospitals in his native New York, falsely alleging that the state is hoarding ventilators?
Trump surely has to understand both the shock value of such foolishness and our numbness to it. The president quit being a reality host to run for president, but the reality host didn’t quit him. So especially when lives hang in the balance of every presidential presser, the best thing we may be able to do is turn him off. It is likely a waste of time Americans using this coronavirus-enforced time of solitude to suddenly awaken to the president’s act. Our best hope is likely the public tiring of it, and wanting to change the channel.
This is a pandemic that he inarguably made worse with his negligence, and Americans will keep dying by the thousands because he won’t change. Republican sycophants like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blame his failings on everything from the press to impeachment. Yet his validation doesn’t come purely from outside perception, unless it helps him build grudges, something at which to punch back. Trump will always require an audience, so isn’t it time we deprived him of one? More Americans have now been killed by COVID-19 than died in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the president is getting off by telling us how popular he is.
What Trump may not have expected is how the actions we have to undertake to prevent the spread of the coronavirus might stymie his egotism. It has inspired collective public action on a level perhaps unseen since World War II. Yes, we are staying home as much as possible out of self-interest, but the mechanics of the disease that physically separates us, by its nature, also forces us to work together to mitigate its effects. Perhaps that is why so many right-wingers are ready to sacrifice themselves, or in Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s case, Liberty University students to the disease. In their calculus, division must be achieved at any cost.
We now see our societal faults in sharper relief, ranging from unfair labor practices to a porous health system to the various actions of a Republican Party that has manipulated the coronavirus emergency to further their platform. The ramifications of hiring a reality-show host as president also appear even more frightening than usual.
Still, we should not be amazed that 47.3% of Americans, on average,approve of Trump’s job performance — the highest approval ratings of his presidency.
Trump’s dedication to white patriarchy is what got him into the White House, and it continues to secure him anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the American electorate. That is the kind of security that goes beyond the typical rallying behind a president, the kind of phenomenon that occurs when we mistake support for a president with national unity and purpose. It is difficult to know whether the bigotry that elevated Trump will be enough to save him — especially as the pandemic begins, as expected, to visit the pain New York is feeling now onto redder states.
We know that neither George W. Bush nor that former, neo-conservative version of the GOP survived screwing up. His negligence during Hurricane Katrina and the folly of his elective war in Iraq sunk them both. However, this is partially because neither he nor his father weaponized whiteness as effectively as Trump has. It is one reason why he survived impeachment, why he escapes deeper scrutiny for his Puerto Rico catastrophe, and why too many normalize his discriminatory travel bans and immigration policies. Not to minimize their effect, but Katrina and the Willie Horton ad look like an average week for an impeached president with this much racism on his resumé.
Fame does not always equal popularity, though, and even the ratings for The Apprentice declined fairly consistently over the 15 years that Trump hosted the program. A temporary and small rise in the reality-show president’s approval may eventually be subsumed by difficult truths he will have to confront about his performance.
Enduring presidential approval from voters comes less from showy performances than it does from policy. (Barack Obama’s effort to address the 2008 financial crisis is an example.) However, doing a good job would require actual work, which Trump has been too incompetent or lazy or unwilling to do. His intellectual lethargy keeps being forgiven, in no small part to his being a white man. That is a mindset that needs to change, primarily amongst white people, if we ever hope to stop this pandemic from killing more of us in the short term. “Social distancing” is necessary and effective, but so is accountability — even if we start just by turning off his daily exhibitions and demanding that those briefings be all about the science.
If we don’t follow the current example of activists and journalists by challenging him and the sick philosophies he has been advancing through rhetoric and policy, Trump will continue to exploit a pandemic that is already dividing us in a literal sense to divide us further, even if a remedy is found. Why wouldn’t he?