Trump the performer, and his inadequacy to the moment

President Donald Trump leads a cabinet meeting at the White House. Photo by Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

The thought began with some armchair political speculation a few weeks back: President Trump was putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the administration’s coronavirus efforts.

I had just recently mentioned in a column an awful HIV outbreak in Indiana that occurred under Pence’s watch, his response to which did not help matters.

Politico summarizes the situation thusly: “What happened is that Pence failed to act in response to increasingly urgent signs of a significant HIV outbreak, and he delayed implementation of vital public health measures. Among public health experts, the Indiana outbreak is considered a failure of state response, and an example of how poor political leadership can actually make a crisis worse.”

I observed in this conversation that if coronavirus really goes down a bad public health road, Trump can put it on Pence’s head and replace him on the ticket.

An astute question was put to me, “Do you think some percentage of evangelicals dump him if he dumps Pence?”

I had to think about that one. In the end, I concluded I do not.

“I think they’re dug in,” I said. “Pence was useful for initial trust, but they know Trump is going to play to his audience.”

Evangelicals know control over the U.S. Supreme Court for decades may well be at stake in 2020. They know Trump is a performer, who plays to his audience, and they are part of his audience. He’s going to give them what they want.

Trump is a talented political performer. He sure does whip people into a lather, preying on their frustrations, insecurities and outrages to endear himself to them. He’s wildly effective at it.

The trouble at the moment is that his political performance skills have zero usefulness in addressing a public health crisis. Perhaps the most important thing in a public health epidemic moment is to share accurate information and follow the guidance of experts.

The Associated Press reported Monday that the White House overruled health officials who wanted to recommend that elderly and physically fragile Americans be advised not to fly on commercial airlines because of the new coronavirus.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention submitted the plan as a way of trying to control the virus, but White House officials ordered the air travel recommendation be removed, said the official,” AP reports.

The report says the official does not have direct knowledge of why the provision was killed or by whom, but the subtext is fairly obvious: Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a recommendation to stem the coronavirus tide and save lives. They were overruled by an administration prioritizing… the markets? …not looking bad? over the health and well-being of Americans.

This has been a pattern.

President Trump has repeatedly, brazenly contradicted the CDC, falsely claiming COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are “going very substantially down, not up,” indicating a vaccine — that will not be ready for a year to a year-and-a-half — would be available “in a fairly quick manner,” and falsely claiming the flu mortality rate is much higher than coronavirus (it’s not: so far, the fatality rate for COVID-19 has been about 2-3%; the influenza fatality rate in the United States is about 0.1%).

The goal of trying to calm the markets isn’t wrong. A president’s words can matter and can calm markets, but not if he’s blatantly sharing misinformation and contradicting experts. Nobody is fooled. It serves no purpose. It makes matters worse.

Meanwhile, amid a new oil price battle alongside coronavirus fears, the Dow dropped more than 2,000 points Monday.

President Trump is striking out at favorite targets like the “fake news” media, and he’s continuing to share misleading information about coronavirus and the stock markets. This is not a coherent strategy for anything.

This is a public health problem, not a political adversary. It takes competent, thoughtful leadership to address, not empty political performance art. Strong leadership, accurate information, and a trustworthy administration would help calm markets. Desperately peddling misinformation is antithetical to all three.

David C. DeWitt
David C. DeWitt is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience covering Ohio politics and policy. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS and Plunderbund.com covering topics such as education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, government, business, labor, energy, environment and social issues. His work has also appeared in Government Executive, the Columbus Dispatch, Girlfriends magazine, Bleacher Report and the Ashtabula Star Beacon, among others.