Author’s Note: I drafted this piece back in April, when I was writing on the side for my own purposes. With the COVID-19 pandemic re-emerging across several states–even as it recedes in most of the rest of the world–the piece seems relevant. Certainly, its central thesis has been anything but disproven.
Everything one needs to know about Donald Trump can be summed up in two statements—one true, one false—he’s made during what might loosely be called his pandemic “management” efforts. Last month, when pressed on his administration’s failure to promptly develop COVID testing, Trump thundered “I don’t take responsibility at all,” a textbook case of saying the quiet part out loud. Then, compare Trump’s repeal of Truman’s “the-buck-stops-here” doctrine with his recent declaration that “when somebody’s the President the United States, the authority’s total.”
Well, a leader claiming all authority without any responsibility is a tyrant. But Trump avoids joining his circle of favored strongmen—Putin, Xi, and “Chairman Un”—only by strenuously avoiding anything approaching substantive action. Indeed, Trump’s daily “pandemic briefings” find him consistently bewildered at anything resembling substance. Instead, he whiles the hours basking in the obsequious praise of his vassals or litigating grievances against his enemies.
None of this is new to Trump. After his own disastrous real estate forays left him near financial ruin, he started licensing his name for others’ use. Most of these ventures were dismal failures. Some, like Rob Burnett’s “Apprentice” show, were stepping stones to Trump’s electoral success. But Trump was always just a brand name, like Kellogg or Starbucks. Trump simply used his name and others were responsible for the substance. This arrangement allowed him to take credit for success, and deflect blame for failure.
And so it is now, even when the stakes are life and death. As the nation ground to a halt, Trump sent a postcard to every American household called “The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America.” This was certainly mere branding, as they were no sooner postmarked than Trump started undermining them. Nevertheless, Trump adopted these Guidelines by possessive apostrophe.
Trump similarly branded federal aid efforts. When Jared Kushner referenced “our” stockpile, sure, he opened his father-in-law to an intellectual debate about the nature of federalism. But at a raw level, Jared’s primary message was unmistakable. It is “The President’s Stockpile,” and you’ll thank him when you ask to use it.
And when the economy sputtered out, Trump stopped aid checks to ensure his name appeared on them. Trump thus can take credit for today’s direct economic aid, but dissociate himself from responsibility for the economic impact the pandemic will have on Americans, today and for the next decade.
Now, a shaken and scared America must inevitably emerge from hiding. Indeed, Trump and his supporters are ostensibly demanding it. So one would assume that Trump would brand this effort as well. Put his name on it, as it were, even if he ultimately intends to divert or dissociate from the substantive results.
Trump will lend his name to sell nearly anything: steaks, alcohol, xenophobia, conspiracy, or golf balls. But just the other day, the government issued certain “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again.” And, oddly, they aren’t “The President’s.” Of all the things he won’t put his name on, it’s this. At this epochal moment in this monumental era, Trump has abandoned his own administration’s plan for America’s re-emergence. In its place, he has reverted to the abiding symbol of his desolate leadership—his Twitter feed—to sell the putative “liberation” of various swing states with Democratic governors, Guidelines be damned. And so, finally having been forced to choose between authority and responsibility, Trump has chosen abdication. But, of course, Trump has left it to voters to import his choice with substance.