Since he rode down an escalator at Trump Tower five years ago this month, President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE has been at the hub of the American consciousness, driving the news with policies and actions that enrage half the country and fire up his base.
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Now, five months before voters decide whether to give him a second term, it is Trump who finds himself off balance, beset by two crises that are not of his own making.
Donald Trump did not create the coronavirus. Donald Trump did not create the structural racism that has plagued the country since before its founding.
But his administration’s response to both a global pandemic and the protests over the killing of an unarmed black man while in police custody have made both crises worse.
Even before the coronavirus began infecting people in Wuhan, China, the Trump administration had begun pulling the United States back from its role as global health cop. Funds meant to maintain surveillance on potential disease hot spots ran out, collaborations with foreign health agencies were canceled or curtailed and a team dedicated to pandemic response within the National Security Council was shelved.
“A truism in public health is that an infectious disease threat somewhere in the world is a threat to people everywhere in the world, and one of the things that we’ve seen in this administration is a pullback from participation in the global community. And that includes support for surveillance,” said Rich Besser, a former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who now heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“That puts us at increased risk, because what you really want to be able to do when there’s a new disease threat is to halt it where it initially rises,” he added.
As the virus began to spread, Trump ignored early warnings, even after the first person on American soil tested positive. For a month, he denied the threat, raging against a top CDC official who predicted — correctly — that Americans were likely to see substantial disruption to their everyday lives. Later, he blamed his CIA briefer for failing to make the scope of the threat clear.
The earliest action Trump took — implementing a ban on travel from China — came long after the virus arrived in the United States; his belated effort to ban travel from Europe made things worse as Americans, some of whom were infected with the coronavirus, raced to return home.
And as the virus’s grim death toll mounts, Trump has been virtually silent, absent from a president’s typical role as the nation’s healer. Where George W. Bush grabbed a bullhorn, where Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE sang “Amazing Grace,” President Trump played golf the weekend before the coronavirus claimed its 100,000th life in the U.S.
Then a cop knelt on George Floyd’s neck, ending his life while cameras rolled.
The sentiment underlying the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that erupted in the days after Floyd’s death existed long before Trump, and it will exist long after he leaves office. But Trump’s actions on matters of racial tension, both as a private citizen and as an elected official, have diverged from every recent president. Where others have tried to salve open wounds, Trump as often as not opens them wider.
“The Trump administration’s politics is a politics of divisiveness, it’s a politics of scapegoating, and his comments so far related to the civil unrest has only exacerbated and fueled frustrations,” said Derek Hyra, a political scientist at American University who is writing a book on race, politics and inequality.
When white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Va., for a rally that led to the death of a young woman, Trump defended “very fine people” on both sides. When NFL players took a knee to protest police brutality, Trump sent Vice President Pence to storm out of a game in counterprotest. When plotting to limit immigration into the United States, he complained that “shithole” countries like Haiti and African nations were the source of too many migrants.
The Trump administration even delayed a plan to replace Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, with Harriet Tubman, a hero of the Underground Railroad, on the $20 bill.
Now, as the protests have raged, Trump has sought to project strength, threatening protesters with “vicious dogs” and jail time. His inability to control protests by tweet, and his unwillingness to address the nation beyond that Twitter feed, illustrates just how little power he has to wield one of the greatest tools any president has: the national megaphone.
As the protests grow, Trump has sought others to blame. He has threatened to label an anti-fascist organization as domestic terrorists, picked fights with mayors and governors and chastised the news media as the enemy of the people, even as reporters are attacked outside his window.
On Saturday, seemingly inviting a confrontation, Trump tweeted: “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???” No MAGA hats were in evidence. On Sunday, as protesters once again gathered in Lafayette Square, the lights went out across the street at the White House, like a house out of candy on Halloween.
On Monday, when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) asked Trump to tone down the rhetoric, Trump lashed out at him, and the call ended abruptly.
Where Bush and Obama sought to heal the nation after tragedies like the 9/11 attacks and a white supremacist attack on a black church in Charleston, S.C., Trump has not felt the need to address the nation in the midst of the worst civil unrest in 52 years.
He has not delivered a prime-time, Oval Office address, though he made remarks in Florida on Saturday and Washington on Monday — the latter of which came as police deployed tear gas, flash bangs and rubber bullets to clear protesters from Lafayette Square so Trump could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he held aloft a Bible during a 17-minute photo opportunity that enraged church staff, some of whom had been attending to the injured before being driven off by authorities.
“He is doing absolutely nothing to try to temper this down, to try to bring people together and bring reconciliation,” said Stella Rouse, director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland. “He did not start the tensions and race relations that we have in this country, this has been going on for centuries, but he has not done anything to bring the country together.”
Now, as tens of millions of Americans wait for their unemployment checks, nearly 2 million more battle a deadly virus and protests consume major cities, the twin pillars of Trump’s appeal to the voters he will need to win reelection — a booming economy delivering supercharged growth and an end to what he called in his inaugural address American carnage — have been reduced to rubble.
The challenges posed to the United States in recent months are as great or greater than any recent president has faced: An unprecedented virus has caused an unthinkable recession, and unparalleled anger has led to uncontrollable protests. Those challenges have been magnified by the administration’s own actions, or inaction even in the face of obvious alarms.
“If you take the pain and anguish of 1918 and the pandemic and then the 1929 depression and the 1968 civil rights movement and bottled that into a soda bottle and shook it, it was bound to explode, no matter who was president,” Hyra said. “Clearly, the presidential politics of the day have not helped.”
On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.