After months of a deadly pandemic, weeks of economic catastrophe, and days of rage in the streets, America is in dire need of unifying inspiration. It’s the sort of thing presidents have on occasion supplied, and some are looking to the 45th president of the United States expecting a Big Speech or an equivalent gesture. After all, aren’t we now experiencing the “American carnage” that in his inaugural address Donald Trump pledged “stops right here and stops right now”? But as the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker notes, Trump has nothing to say to the American people at the moment:
In cities across America on Sunday, people awoke to see shattered glass, charred vehicles, bruised bodies and graffiti-tagged buildings. Demonstrators gathered again in peaceful daytime protest of racial injustice. By evening, thousands had converged again in front of the White House, where people had rioted and set fires the night before.
President Trump stayed safely ensconced inside and had nothing to say, besides tweeting fuel on the fire.
Never in the 1,227 days of Trump’s presidency has the nation seemed to cry out for leadership as it did Sunday, yet Trump made no attempt to provide it.
Rucker suggests this occlusion of the supposed national leader reflects a conscious decision:
Trump and some of his advisers calculated that he should not speak to the nation because he had nothing new to say and had no tangible policy or action to announce yet, according to a senior administration official. Evidently not feeling an urgent motivation Sunday to try to bring people together, he stayed silent.
Politico reports, however, that within the White House, an inconclusive debate is underway as to what Trump should do:
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has been pushing for the president to deliver a formal address to the nation to emphasize his support for law and order and police officers, a familiar trope for the Republican Party and one that typically plays well with its base.
Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, along with several other top aides, argued against such a move, fearing the tone could alienate key voters ahead of the November election, including African Americans whose support the administration has been trying to court. An address would also detract from the president’s message of trying to restart the economy as quickly as possible, allies said.
The president made a rough attempt at remarks on the unrest spreading from Minneapolis to nearly every city in the country during his weekend appearance at the SpaceX launch at Cape Canaveral. They were, alas, a lot like his tweets: a series of largely unconnected expressions veering back and forth from ritualistic statements of sympathy for George Floyd’s family and friends to MAGA rants about the “radical-left criminals” and “thugs” leading protests. Then, on a conference call with governors Monday in which one of the participants described the president as “unhinged,” he blamed gubernatorial weakness for much of the spread of violence.
You can almost understand the frustration that he and his advisers are feeling right now. He wasn’t cut out for the job of lowering temperatures, or of reconciling differences, or of healing wounds. To invert George W. Bush’s self-description, Trump is a divider, not a uniter. I say that not as an accusation but as a simple observation. To those who love him, he is a prophet, an avenger, a “disrupter” of norms, policies, and institutions that need disrupting. To his conservative evangelical fans, he comes not to bring peace but a sword; he is God’s anointed scourge of the baby-killers and sodomites.
And so at a time when so many people crave gestures of peace and unity, Trump’s instincts are quite naturally to lurk in the White House probing civic wounds for political opportunity on Twitter, figuring out how to approach the latest national crisis in a way that will somehow show that we are “transitioning to greatness” again despite the powerful forces seeking to deny him a second term.
If he does decide a Big Speech is simply unavoidable, it isn’t likely to be memorable, his aides acknowledge to Politico:
The president’s last formal address — in mid-March from the Oval Office, dealing with the growing coronavirus crisis — was not viewed internally as a success, since the White House had to later clarify several points from the hastily written speech, which Trump appeared uncomfortable delivering.
And as if to implicitly mock Trump’s inability to rise to this particular sort of occasion, his predecessor, whose rise to national fame was via a unity address at a partisan political convention, offered his own thoughts on the crisis at Medium. Former president Obama wrote on Monday:
[T]he bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.
Obama concluded with this very un-Trumpian exhortation:
I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life. But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.
Let’s get to work.
Perhaps if you put these sort of words in front of Donald Trump on a teleprompter, he could manage to say them without going off onto angry tangents and wild boasts and counterfactual assertions he heard of Fox & Friends — but his heart wouldn’t be in it. It’s not who he is. Yes, as chief executive of the federal government, he has a host of important jobs to do between now and November, and his ability to supervise his shambolic administration may vary from time to time. But his role in this country is to force a reckoning between his friends and his enemies and to galvanize both. Let’s not expect him to do anything else.