March 16, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
A Weak President Is Very Dangerous
Donald Trump is always right. Ask him.
You’d think congressional Republicans would see the wisdom of stepping in to prevent a historically and monumentally weak leader of the Republican Party from making a horse’s ass of himself while turning a national health crisis into a full-on catastrophe.
But that would require Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Kevin McCarthy in the House to believe they have a responsibility to people other than other Republicans. Or, to put it another way, that would require them to show decency and courage. They’d have to tell the emperor that he’s naked. And, to be frank, who’s got the time for that?
This is what happens when people in power view the world through a totalitarian lens in which nothing—not treason, not pandemics, not anything—exists outside the realm of politics.
Put yet another way, the Republicans began severing their dedication to democracy on the day the republic elected its first African-American president. The Democrats, at that point, were no longer the loyal opposition. They were the enemy. Their being the enemy justified any GOP action, even stealing a black executive’s Supreme Court nominee, or worse, covering up for Donald Trump’s conspiracy to betray his country.
Some are asking why the Republicans are standing aside while the president botches the government’s response to the outbreak of a new coronavirus. But this is entirely in keeping with the GOP’s conduct over the last dozen years. They turned their back on the Constitution. They enfeebled it, then sabotaged it. When they acquitted Trump, they said treason was fine. If you’re OK with treason, you’re OK with a pandemic.
Public officials in the Northeast, Midwest and west coast are taking extraordinary measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. They are shutting down various public venues, including schools, restaurants and bars. But some Republican leaders around the country deny the empirical reality of the outbreak, as if recognizing it risks the president’s fury. Worse, they are encouraging people to act as if nothing is wrong.
Governors in Oklahoma, Florida and other red states have taken little or no action to stop the outbreak. Devin Nunes, the president’s No. 1 toady, said on Fox: “If you’re healthy, you and your family, it’s a great time to go out and go to a local restaurant, likely you can get in easy. Let’s not hurt the working people in this country.”
This is profoundly irresponsible for a public official. Young healthy people can carry COVID-19 without showing symptoms. They can, therefore, distribute it far and wide. Such disinformation is of no concern to Nunes, though. His goal is singular and clear. It’s what happens when people in power view the world through a totalitarian lens in which nothing—neither treason nor pandemics—exists outside the realm of politics.
“Totalitarian” is the correct term. The president seems convinced the outbreak is the product of a conspiracy to humiliate him. That’s why he’s focused on numbers of sick people rather than on means of preventing more people from getting sick. That’s why he encourages people not to get tested. (If they do, the numbers go up!) That’s why he’s laser-focused on preventing foreign nationals from entering the country. (In his mind, it’s a “Chinese virus” that infected Europe. Less travel means fewer bad numbers!)
Totalitarians use the same blunt instrument for every crisis no matter how nuanced the crisis is. Inevitably, it gets much worse. Over the weekend, international travelers flooded airports beyond capacity, resulting in long screening lines and hours of waiting in close quarters. The travel ban was supposed to slow down the coronavirus, but the Trump administration failed to think ahead. Instead of retarding its spread, it accelerated it by turning airports into gigantic petri dishes hospitable to the disease.
Another number the president fetishizes is the Dow and other stock indices. He’s been pressuring the head of the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates in the belief that equity markets will celebrate more cheap money. But less than a day after the central bank announced rate cuts close to zero, stocks tumbled minutes after the opening bell. All trading ceased after tens of billions in wealth (8 percent) went up in a puff of smoke.
A monumentally weak president, as I have said, is a dangerous president. Don’t expect Trump to think, “Well, rate cuts didn’t work; let’s try something else.” Instead, expect him to blame Jay Powell for not doing enough to protect him (by way of juicing markets). His aides have said he can’t fire the Fed chairman, but that’s never been tested. The president could fire Powell as he has fired other administration officials for disloyalty, and that would roil the markets even more than they already are.
Trump is a totalitarian in that he is the center of everything, which makes everything—truth or democracy, loyalty or disease, or anything—for or against him in one way or another. His political worldview is total and totalizing. Even if the Republicans were to step in to prevent a weak president from making things worse, what could they do?
They are as weak as he is.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.