What's the smartest thing Donald Trump could say to the American people right now? I mean, other than, "I resign."
How about, "I'm sorry?"
Back in the day, three-time New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia admitted, "When I make a mistake, it's a beaut,"and voters loved him for his seeming humility (even though he had an ego the size of Radio City).
Imagine it. The president would get up at the beginning of one of his coronavirus press briefings and instead of the usual interminable, self-aggrandizing rant, announce:
"America, I'm sorry…"
"I realize that just about every waking hour, I shoot my mouth off when I shouldn't. I don't think about what I'm saying, I don't stop and consider the implications of the stuff I do. I'm sorry, the nation is in deep trouble right now—a lot of it's my fault, I admit—but we're going to try to do better."
He won't say he's sorry, of course; Trump's free-floating id, his pathology won't let him. And even if he did, chances are he'd burst into flames or turn into a pillar of McDonald's Filet-o-Fish. Displaying humility just isn't in the playbook.
But imagine it. Despite all the tragedy, all the illness and tens of thousands of deaths, all the ceaseless ineptitude and lies, I'm betting that overnight, his popularity would go up. And the Republican Party would breathe a sigh of relief. As Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman write in The New York Times, "Mr. Trump's single best advantage as an incumbent — his access to the bully pulpit — has effectively become a platform for self-sabotage.
"His daily news briefings on the coronavirus outbreak are inflicting grave damage on his political standing, Republicans believe, and his recent remarks about combating the virus with sunlight and disinfectant were a breaking point for a number of senior party officials."
An analysis by The Washington Post this weekend found, "Trump has spoken for more than 28 hours in the 35 briefings held since March 16, eating up 60 percent of the time that officials spoke… Over the past three weeks, the tally comes to more than 13 hours of Trump—including two hours spent on attacks and 45 minutes praising himself and his administration, but just 4½ minutes expressing condolences for coronavirus victims."
The Times performed a similar deep dig of more than 260,000 words uttered or written by Trump related to the pandemic from March 9 through mid-April: "The transcripts show striking patterns and repetitions in the messages he has conveyed, revealing a display of presidential hubris and self-pity unlike anything historians say they have seen before.
"By far the most recurring utterances from Mr. Trump in the briefings are self-congratulations, roughly 600 of them, which are often predicated on exaggerations and falsehoods."
In the face of dropping poll numbers, and apparently at the behest of GOP leadership and White House staff, Trump's shortened Friday's briefing session, took no questions and eliminated the weekend's briefings altogether, tweeting, "What is the purpose of having White House News Conferences when the Lamestream Media asks nothing but hostile questions, & then refuses to report the truth or facts accurately... Not worth the time & effort!"
In other words, the usual blaming of someone else for his own obscene failings.
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Nonetheless, perhaps Trump would now calm down for a while, I thought. Foolishly, of course, because on Sunday afternoon, deprived of his time to preen before the cameras, off he went on one of his maddest Twitter tears yet, assaulting the media and their "Noble" Prizes (yes, he misspelled "Nobel" several times and confused it with the Pulitzer Prize; there is no Nobel for journalism), calling for lawsuits against the press and whining about his lack of status in presidential history, despite the fact that no one has worked as hard as he, just ask him.
Imagine it. March 1933. Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivers his first inaugural address in the midst of crushing economic ruin: "We have nothing to fear," he declares, "but the mainstream media who just tell lies about me no matter how hard I work. Mean, mean, mean!"
(Hours later, Trump claimed that his "Noble" misspelling was done on purpose and intended as sarcasm—the exact same way he tried to justify his disinfectant insanity. Then all the tweets were deleted.)
In the words of Jack Nicholson's character in the movie As Good as It Gets, "Sell crazy someplace else. We're all stocked up here."To those who would argue that this tweet stuff is trivial compared to the dying and despair we see all around us, I'd agree, but this constant erratic behavior is far too disturbing and off-the-wall to be shrugged off, and too symptomatic of a country that has gone off the rails in part because the brain of our choo-choo engineer-in-chief is filled with more, manic cartoon animals than the ones cavorting inside Homer Simpson's skull.
We are, journalist George Packer says, living in "a failed state." In a must-read essay in The Atlantic, he writes that from the beginning, "Like a wanton boy throwing matches in a parched field, Trump began to immolate what was left of national civic life. He never even pretended to be president of the whole country, but pitted us against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region, and—every day of his presidency—political party. His main tool of governance was to lie. A third of the country locked itself in a hall of mirrors that it believed to be reality; a third drove itself mad with the effort to hold on to the idea of knowable truth; and a third gave up even trying… If lying was his means for using power, corruption was his end."
Except for feeding his greed and that of family, GOP cronies and fat cat friends—plus his ability and need to play political strings in the name of his abiding narcissism—Trump's thinking can barely get from Point A to Point B, never mind seeing beyond to Points C, D, E and F and the possible blowback from his actions. We are in a fix because he and his party are unfit to govern—they threw away what little was left of that toolkit when he was chosen as their candidate and president.
Nor do they wish to govern, except in an autocratic, iron-handed manner that brooks neither dissent nor expertise. In a crisis like this one, with few exceptions, they melt into goo.
Trump, they say, sees emotion as weakness, and so in a time of woe there is no national political voice at the top that can give us solace or offer hope along with practical solutions. With his divisiveness, ineptitude and chicanery, he and his colleagues have only made things worse.
But now imagine this. George Packer writes, "We can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death."
We the people are our own best hope. Many are sacrificing—some from a sense of duty, some because they still must work outside the safety of home to provide for themselves and family. Too many others are sick and dying. And yes, some rant about conspiracies or choose to speak out against any sane attempt to keep them from getting a manicure or tattoo and endangering the rest of us. When did so many stop being citizens and become nothing but unthinking venal consumers?
"There are very powerful interests who demand 'freedom' in order to do as they like with the environment, society and the economy," the great Fintan O'Toole of The Irish Times observes. "They have infused a very large part of American culture with the belief that 'freedom' is literally more important than life. My freedom to own assault weapons trumps your right not to get shot at school. Now, my freedom to go to the barber ('I Need a Haircut' read one banner this week in St Paul, Minnesota) trumps your need to avoid infection."
And yet, and yet… We have state and local leaders working for us despite the president. And for the vast majority of us, protecting ourselves and others with vigilant observance of guidelines, watching out for friends and neighbors, reaching out to help as best we can—these are thing we as Americans do when times are bad.
The medical facility up the street from me now has one of those refrigerated trailer trucks at the side, a makeshift morgue. It's deeply sad, but at the front of the building and on the sidewalk in chalk are thank yous and signs announcing, "Heroes Work Here." The truth: These are our United States, these heroes are our America, not Trump. He owes us the world's biggest apology. And a speedy exit so we can drain the swamp of the sleaze, lies, bumbling and contagion in which he, his grasping pals and thoughtless followers have mired the rest of us.