May 7, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Contempt for Trump’s Cowardice
A president without courage is a president without trust.
Two and a half thousand people died Wednesday from Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, between the moment I published yesterday’s edition of the Editorial Board and the moment I’m typing these words. The total number of dead, as of this writing, is over 74,500. The frequency of death is increasing, and there’s no end in sight. By next week, we will reach 100,000, and, thereafter, a 9/11 every single day.
The president meanwhile appears to believe he can pay attention to other things—anything, really, it doesn’t matter what, but a bogeyman is most likely—and with his attention will go the attention of the press corps and the rest of the country. Donald Trump appears to believe that once the country is “reopened,” the economy will “snap back” to where it was when spending was strong and markets bullish. He does not appear to understand the role of public trust, or the immense damage done to it, in restoring the people’s health and sparking any semblance of economic recovery.
If businesses and corporations cannot trust themselves not to kill you, why should you?
Indeed, the president and the Republicans in the Congress seem ready to move on to shielding businesses and corporations against future lawsuits seeking damages related to death or injury by Covid-19. Trump and his party seem to have no awareness that passing such legislation would send an unambiguous message to an electorate already in shock—that it can’t trust businesses owners to have consumer interests in mind. After all, if businesses cannot trust themselves not to kill you, why should you?
During a press briefing yesterday, the president said the coronavirus pandemic is worse than the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center. His goal was hyping how bad it’s been in order to hype how good it’s been to have him as our leader. But the outcome was an invitation to compare him to Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush, and the immediate outcome of that was: Can you imagine either president telling us to overlook mass death and suffering, and go back to business as usual?
It’s impossible. Regardless of what you think of either man, Roosevelt and Bush understood the dynamic relationship between public trust and courageous leadership. It takes courage to be any kind of leader; to face a country’s problems; to search for solutions and endure failure; and to ask for trust and risk accountability. Importantly, Roosevelt and Bush understood a nation trusts a leader demonstrating courage. More importantly, they understood a nation distrusts a leader demonstrating cowardice.
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I think Amanda Marcotte was right when she said Trump is bored with the pandemic “and, now that things are getting really hard, he’s ready to abandon it and move on. That’s exactly what he did during his entire career in the real estate business—and in his marriages—abandoning one failed venture after another the second things turned rocky. Now he’s doing it to the entire country.” But liberals should take that further.
Why does a man abandon things “the second things turned rocky”? It could be he’s selfish. It could be he’s greedy. It could be he has the focus of a gnat. But at the root of these is fear—fear of being left out, fear of missing out, fear of not being recognized for being better than everyone else. We all have fears, of course, but most of us screw up the courage to face them. We must. That’s never been the case for Donald Trump.
We have reached a point where it’s not only appropriate to call out cowardice; it’s appropriate to express contempt for it.
Liberals usually do not make a big deal of fear, because liberals are empathetic. They do not, as conservatives are wont to do, ridicule someone for being afraid, especially men who are not supposed to feel fear and should “man up.” But empathy can go too far. One limit should be when presidents include children and seniors among the “warriors” prepared to die for glory and honor. We have reached a point where it’s not only appropriate to call out cowardice; it’s appropriate to express contempt for it.
Some time ago, Mike Wallace was asked a hypothetical. If he knew beforehand that the Vietcong were about to ambush US troops in Vietnam, would he alert them? The late “60 Minutes” correspondent answered with a definitive no. He’s a reporter, he said, and reporters remain neutral, even if that means his countrymen are slaughtered.
Wallace was sitting on an ethics panel with other esteemed figures, including George M. Connell, “a Marine colonel in full uniform.” According to James Fallows’ classic description, the panel’s moderator asked Connell to respond to Wallace. “Jaw muscles flexing in anger, with stress on each word, Connell said, ‘I feel utter contempt.’”
We are not living in a hypothetical. By all accounts, the president knew beforehand the coronavirus would ambush us. He did not act, blocked others from acting, and kept former administration officials from telling on him. He knew it was coming and failed warn us not out of principle, however misguided Wallace’s might be, but out of plain ordinary cowardice. Like Col. George Connell, Americans should show contempt.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.