Within hours of the president’s Oval Office address on the coronavirus, in which he stared into the camera and insisted, “We must put politics aside, stop the partisanship and unify together as one nation and one family,” he was already tweeting, “Nancy Pelosi all of a sudden doesn’t like the payroll tax cut, but when Obama proposed it she thought it was a brilliant thing that all of the working families would benefit from because if you get a paycheck, you’re going to take home more money.”
Back when I played sports, my teammates and I used to talk about how we and our opponents handled the pressure of the moment, how we became our truest selves when we were out there alone with our fear and our nerves, when our facades were stripped away. If you fell to bullying or cheating or name-calling, the stress of the situation was not the problem, your character was.
The president has been in office more than three years. He is running for re-election. He can no longer claim to be new to politics nor shocked by the vagaries of Washington D.C. And what we are witnessing in this time of global crisis is the man behind the boastful facade, a man who remains hopelessly entrenched in the bitterness, petty jealousies, and long-running grievances that fuel him.
Why? Because this is his true character. This is who he is.
Like many of you, I have found myself stocking up on things I don’t normally buy—hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, bags upon bags of frozen vegetables, an entire pallet of canned chicken, six huge bags of dog food instead of one—all while calmly moving through the store, smiling and saying hello to neighbors, like everything is fine, just fine, as we sneak knowing glances at the contents of each other’s shopping carts.
But as late as the morning of his Oval Office address, the president remained seemingly oblivious to the mounting fears and preparations of the American public, tweeting, “Vanity Fair Magazine, which will soon be out of business, and their third rate Fake reporters, who make up sources which don’t exist, wrote yet another phony & boring hit piece. The facts are just the opposite. Our team is doing a great job with CoronaVirus!”
The president, laser-focused on his coverage by a fashion magazine, as Dr. Anthony Fauci testified on Capitol Hill that the coronavirus is ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu and “repeatedly corrected the president by saying the real timetable [for a vaccine] is a year to 18 months.”
On Sunday, March 8, as I was flying home from visiting my baby grandson in Boston, acutely conscious of every coughing passenger and pulling disinfecting wipes from my purse to clean and clean and clean again the armrests, seatbelt buckle, and tray table for my two-hour flight, the president was playing golf and tweeting, “The New York Times is an embarrassment to journalism. They were a dead paper before I went into politics, and they will be a dead paper after I leave, which will be in 5 years. Fake News is the Enemy of the people!”
Erik Larson’s new novel, “The Splendid and the Vile,” opens in the spring of 1940 and tells the story of Winston Churchill’s first months in office at the start of WWII. On his first night, Churchill wrote that “coveting power for power’s sake was a base pursuit, adding ‘But power in a national crisis, when a man believes he knows what orders should be given, is a blessing’ … I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
Eighty years later, we must ask: Is President Trump prepared for this hour, for this trial? Can he rise to lead in a crisis? Can he put aside his petty and divisive rhetoric and consider the welfare of the American people before his own financial and political interests?
Or, like the athlete who reveals his true self in the pressure of the big moment, will he continue to lie and bully and tweet at his perceived enemies? Will he point his finger at #FakeNews and insist this is yet another hoax, as he called it at his recent North Carolina rally, in his long list of imaginary hoaxes?
If past is prelude, God help us all.