As the Country Burns, Trump Gives Up

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A more comprehensive abdication of leadership could scarcely be imagined.

America has now lost more than 105,000 people to a still-uncontrolled virus. Some 40 million are out of work, with the economy in free fall. From coast to coast, cities are burning, protests raging and chaos spiraling in an immense outpouring of pain and anger over police violence that seems only to intensify by the day. Not since the Vietnam War has the country been gripped with such unrest, or faced with so many serious crises at once.

And what is the president of the United States doing amid all this? Tweeting, mostly.

In addition to his usual mix of insults and grievances, Donald Trump has lately used his Twitter feed to air baffling conspiracy theories, express lurid fantasies and offer idle observations on the headlines of the day, as though someone else runs the government. He has scarcely even acknowledged the source of the national turmoil — the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer — let alone effectively addressed it. He betrays no urgency, offers no ideas, and shows no inclination to rise to the moment or heed the voice of the people protesting at his doorstep.

On Monday, after an unnerving speech in the Rose Garden, Trump had police officers clear out mostly peaceful demonstrators in front of the White House — aggressively using smoke canisters, flash grenades and batons, and risking their safety in the process — so he could stage a photo at a nearby church, thereby infuriating the local bishop, the mayor of Washington and a neighboring police department requisitioned for the stunt. It nearly defied belief.

To ask this president to get serious seems almost comically futile at this late date. Except it isn’t funny. The total absence of executive leadership has exacted an appalling price. A coherent national strategy for combating Covid-19 is still nowhere in evidence, even as the president’s coronavirus task force winds itself down. Faced with an economic calamity, the White House offers only blithe optimism and self-congratulation. Amid the worst civil unrest in a generation, an expression of empathy or an exhortation to better angels might palliate the national mood. Yet even these basic steps seem to be utterly beyond Trump’s capacity.

A normal president would recognize the horror of Floyd’s death and all it represents. He or she would insist that riots accomplish nothing productive, while still conceding that the frustrations they express come from centuries of discrimination. And any occupant of the Oval Office should understand that helping unite and repair the country in a time like this is part of the job description, something Trump entirely fails to grasp.

Rarely in American history has a president been so ill-suited for a moment or so decisively overmatched by events. In a crisis demanding resolve and competence, the commander in chief sits at home, feebly tapping on his phone. It’s a potent metaphor — and a national shame.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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