AWOL: Trump’s Disappearing Leadership

Donald Trump’s political strategy during the coronavirus pandemic is simple: insist the federal government only plays a backup role when it comes to providing needed services and supplies, but take credit for directing the reopening of the economy. Governors should “call your own shots,” he says (April 16), as though they were chomping on the bit waiting for his instruction.

In fact they, and some mayors, are way ahead of Trump’s guidelines, already organized in (so far) three regional groups—Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest—to fight the virus. They are following Dr. Anthony Fauci’s, not Trump’s, idea: “the virus determines the timeline.”

Contrary to Trump, the governors’ groups have adopted three principles (see their statements announcing their groups’ formation): first, that public health comes before opening for business; second, that science, data, and professional opinion determine policy; third, that testing, tracing, and capacity building will be paramount in determining when recovery has been achieved. Trump adheres to none of these.

So who’s in charge? Trump is desperate to have us think he is. “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total.” (April 13) That autocratic flight of fancy obscures The Donald’s fear: his diminishing reelection chances. He’s botched it on so many levels, including the lead role the federal government historically plays in a national crisis. Most Republicans are pressing for a return to “normal” out of deep concern, as Jamelle Bouie writes in the NY Times (April 17), that the federal government’s role in economic recovery will be not only indispensable but permanent:

There’s no guarantee that Americans will respond to the pandemic and economic collapse with support for more and greater assistance from the federal government. But the possibility is there and it will become more apparent the longer this continues. If the rolling depressions of the late 19th century disrupted the social order enough to open the space for political radicalism — from the agrarian uprising of the Farmers’ Alliance to the militant agitation of the industrial labor movement — then the one-two punch of the Great Recession and the Pandemic Depression might do the same for us.

Power Without Responsibility

Here are five areas—there are many more—in which Trump has taken a beating in his effort to show that he’s in charge.

Testing Kits and Other Equipment: Once upon a time he said that anyone who wants to be checked for the virus can do so. When it became apparent that there was virtually no testing capacity, he arrogantly asserted (in March): “I don’t take responsibility at all.” No wonder: Only 1% of Americans have been tested as of mid-April. The country has a very long way to go if even a third of the population has a chance of being tested. “The White House Guidelines to States for Reopening” contains all the usual information about social distancing, cleaning of hands, etc. But as Sen. Jeff Merkley tweets (April 17): “None of this matters if there isn’t a real plan for ramping up testing, and for extensive contact tracing. Where are those plans?? The guidelines to reopen are all well and good, but without testing and contact tracing, this isn’t a plan, it’s a wish list.”

Displacing Congress: Said Trump: “The Senate should either fulfill its duty and vote on my nominees or it should formally adjourn so that I can make recess appointments.” (April 15) Even Mitch McConnell had trouble with this one, showing that dictators don’t always get their way.

(Dis)Organizing: The rollout of what the president referred to last week as his “Opening Our Country Council” was as confusing as the process of getting there. Instead of a formal council, Trump announced (April 13) a watered-down version that included 17 separate industry groups, including hospitality, banking, energy and “thought leaders.” Media reports indicate many of the members had no idea they were being called upon. The next day, a bipartisan group of lawmakers received emails inviting them to join another task force. (NY Times, 4/16/20) That’s in addition to the task force headed by Mike Pence. In a word, you know this administration is flailing around when it starts multiplying group, councils, and task forces that add nothing to virus-fighting capability. Besides, since when has Trump ever listened to advice?

Divide and Rule. For a president who thrives on national division, it should come as no surprise that he would override the best medical advice and call on supporters to “liberate” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia—all blue states, coincidentally—with strict rules on personal behavior and, in Virginia’s case, strict rules on gun ownership. Pushing for these pro-Trump political rallies, as Governor Gretchen Whitmer rightly calls them, completely undermines the White House guidelines just issued, not to mention all the talk about governors being in charge.
This deplorable sabotage tactic may well have meaning beyond the virus, because as we’re all aware, Trump has threatened in the past to call on his core to take to the streets if he is not reelected. Are these rallies a trial balloon?

Public opinion: A Pew research poll found that “Americans say their greater concern is that state governments will lift restrictions on public activity too quickly (66%) than not quickly enough (32%).” Trump’s advisers, the overwhelming number of doctors, and the business community all urge caution about opening up the country. “There may be some setbacks. Let’s face it,” Fauci cautions. “We may have to pull back a little, and then go forward.” But again, Trump wants crowds: “We want every seat occupied” in an Alabama football stadium with 110,000 seats. If a restaurant has 158 seats, all 158 should be filled. That’s our normal. And it’s going to happen relatively quickly.” That’s not normalcy, it’s insanity.

Blame Game

On the flip side of pretending everything is OK is the blame game. Following a script he wrote long ago, Trump (a) never apologizes for or acknowledges mistakes (as in “I don’t take responsibility at all”), and (b) never acknowledges a contradiction in his thinking (as in once complimenting Xi Jinping for “working so very, very hard” to deal with the virus).

Scapegoating China is now SOP, conveniently fitting with the far right’s strategy for protecting Trump. To be sure, Xi led a cover-up that continues to this day with respect to coronavirus deaths. But a mountain of evidence has appeared to demonstrate conclusively that Trump had ample forewarning from multiple domestic and international sources, including China.

The media, as usual, comes in for blame every day. Trump and his minions are constantly attacking the bad news on the virus as evidence of their (and the Democrats’) determination to get rid of him. But as the Committee to Protest Journalists observed in a report this month: “Along with Trump’s thousands of documented false statements and his promotion of discredited conspiracy theories, the administration’s attacks on the credibility of the news media have dangerously undermined truth and consensus in a deeply divided country.”

Next in line is the World Health Organization. “So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” Trump said of WHO. “The WHO really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China-centric. We will be giving that a good look. Fortunately, I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?” (April 7)

His decision to suspend funding of WHO followed. But a G7 conference call lent support to WHO, the German foreign minister saying WHO is the “backbone of the fight against the pandemic. It makes no sense now to question the ability of the WHO to function or its significance.” It especially makes no sense coming from a man with blood on his hands.

New Patterns?

It just might be that governors who devised a regional approach to COVID-19 have come upon a new approach to democracy in America. Though a Democratic president might make that regional approach unnecessary, it is possible that we have a new liberal model of states’ rights, one that gives serious attention to people’s needs and civil society. California governor Gavin Newsom’s assertion of nationhood is something to watch: Is it the first concrete sign of Cascadia? These united states may someday look the same as now on a map but function very differently in relation to the central government.

In sum, The Donald has no plan. What he does have is breathtaking incompetence. He’s AWOL on leadership, and the first step in overcoming the virus is to ignore him whenever possible and defy him when necessary.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.