Over the weekend, as protests brought on by Minneapolis police officers’ killing of George Floyd turned into nightly violent clashes between police and demonstrators, President Donald Trump had little to offer. The metaphors weren’t subtle: He fled to the White House bunker for a spell; the White House went dark. The president’s decision to do, essentially, nothing wasn’t an oversight. It was the product of a cost-benefit analysis by Trump and his senior White House staff, who know their man.
“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,” the Washington Post reported. “Evidently not feeling an urgent motivation Sunday to try to bring people together, he stayed silent.”
Trump’s advisers could only keep him silent—or limited to a few unhelpful tweets a day, at least—for so long. The problem with keeping Trump silent as a deliberate strategy is that it means the news will treat him as a secondary actor, a status that Trump is psychologically incapable of permitting for more than a few hours. He became president, after all, to ensure the news centered on him. So, on Monday morning, he reinserted himself into the center of the news by pressing his one available crisis-response button, provocation, during a call with governors and national security officials.
“You have to dominate,” Trump said on the call, recordings of which were shared with countless reporters before it had even concluded. “If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.” He told the governors that “most of you are weak,” and that “you have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go jail for long periods of time.” He went on a side rant encouraging the governors to pass laws banning flag burning.
This sentence could have been written at any point since 2017, but it seems important to emphasize it today: The United States is, somehow, going to have to make it until at least Jan. 20, 2021, under a situation in which the elected leader, in the best-case scenario, just keeps quiet and, in the average- to worst-case scenario, creates more trouble.
Trump gave a national Oval Office address to the country early in the coronavirus outbreak. Either he or his advisers got the unfortunate idea in their head that anything he said could “calm” the nation. It was a disaster, during which he made significant policy errors that sent people into a panic, when all he had to do was read. The administration had more success when it would launder its leadership responsibilities through capable civil servants, like Anthony Fauci. But Trump couldn’t allow Fauci, or Deborah Birx, or even Mike Pence to have the spotlight for too long, and repeatedly big-footed precious moments of calm by picking fights with governors, who had temporarily filled the political leadership void, or pushing untested medical remedies. The coronavirus crisis is very much ongoing, the president rarely speaks with Fauci anymore, and unemployment is in the double digits for the foreseeable future. The country might need leadership, but the best it can hope for is presidential silence.
The country needs leadership following the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, riots, and police provocation. Leadership in this case is someone who can speak to all viewpoints and convince everyone to work on a productive way forward. This isn’t easy, but neither is being president, and it’s why we used to try to vet presidents to detect in them the qualities necessary to do the job. The best our current president was able to offer—and I do mean that, it was his best possible offering, and he should have stuck to it—was nothing. It was hiding in the White House bunker and going dark. Either stay down there or set up a tee time, truly. These are the United States’ best options for surviving the next seven months (and four years, potentially) whenever moments requiring the president to act as president arise.
This is not even a personal criticism of Donald Trump, or some fleeting hope that he can show something he previously has not shown. He is wired the way he is, and he cannot change. Asking Trump to step up and provide leadership in a moment of crisis is like asking a banana peel to step up and fly to the Moon. No one even expects him to try. The absence of leadership has always been part of Trump’s presidency, but it’s being felt most acutely in Year Four, when there are presently multiple reasons for many, many Americans to feel endangered walking out their front doors and living their lives. Trump isn’t capable of making any of this better, only worse, so please—please—don’t ask him to try.