Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Ditherer-in-Chief

Previous presidents have cemented their legacies by acting decisively in times of crisis. Trump… not so much.
April 13, 2020
The Ditherer-in-Chief
US President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 9, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Virtually every historian or political scientist who considers such matters ranks Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and George Washington as America’s greatest presidents. They do so for good reason. Each of them faced existential crises, drew on expertise to formulate decisive responses, and ably followed through with dogged resolve.

Lincoln faced the seccession of Southern states and, rather than temporizing like his predecessor James Buchanan, he assembled a team of rivals to mobilize the nation’s resources and saved the Union.

Roosevelt confronted the worst economic depression in the modern history, and unlike the dispiriting half measures adopted by his predecessor Herbert Hoover, he revived the national spirit with the New Deal. For all of its legal setbacks and the ongoing historical debate over its economic effects, Roosevelt’s decisiveness and manifest leadership may have saved the United States from the political turmoil so many other countries experienced in the 1930s.

Responding to worsening economic and political tumult under the Articles of Confederation following the American Revolution, Washington drew on a wide array of advisors including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to devise a bold new constitution and to decisively implement it. While antifederalists dithered, Washington led and the people rallied around him.

Each of these presidents had private doubts and limited ability, but by listening, deciding, and acting, they prevailed. Penny, dime, or quarter, they all ended up on a coin.

What can one make of President Trump so far in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis? While it’s too soon for a final judgement, his dithering betrays his indecision.

At first, as the virus exploded in China and began spreading globally, Trump denied there was cause for alarm, somewhat like Buchanan when South Carolina seceded from the Union. “We have it under control,” he declared in late January, “It’s going to be just fine.”

For weeks, Trump doubled down on this Hoover-like, prosperity-is-just-around-the-corner response. The virus would disappear miraculously by April, he said in mid-February. Even at his supposedly more sober news conference on March 31, he spoke only of “a very tough two weeks.” Then, “like a burst of light,” he claimed, “we’re going to see things get better all of a sudden.” Trump brushed aside expert warnings of a second wave of the pandemic in the fall with the baseless assertion that it “won’t be like the first wave.”

Worse still, Trump has oscillated between equating Covid-19 to the seasonal flu and depicting it in apocalyptic terms; between calling for and questioning closures; between saying there are enough or too few tests. He invokes the Defense Production Act then resists using it; limits travel from Europe but exempts the disease-ravaged United Kingdom; leaves it to governors to impose stay-at-home orders and then criticizes their actions. He speaks of supplying ventilators to states and then tells them to get their own. People should wear masks, he says, but he won’t.

Trump cannot stay on message because he does not have one. He appears torn between seeing the current crisis in medical or economic terms. Is it better to flatten the curve of the contagion by shuttering the economy (like China) or let it ride with vigorous testing and selective isolation (like Sweden)? For Trump, the answer seems to depend on whom he talked to last.

Trump’s medical advisors held the upper hand at the March 31 press conference when he spoke of significantly higher deaths without closures, but even then he waffled. “I’ve had many friends, business people, people with great, actually common sense, they said, ‘Why don’t we ride it out?’” Swinging back and forth between these two approaches or following a middle course between them likely results in the worst of each and the benefits of neither.

Trump cannot afford to get this one wrong; but dithering is fatal too. We survived him sending mixed messages about North Korea’s nuclear program and about Turkey’s invasion of Syria. There too he lacks coherent plans, but others react in ways to minimize the damage and we muddled through. Pandemics do not work that way.

Saddled with an inexperienced president upon Trump’s unexpected election in 2016, at first we hoped that, like Harry Truman or Gerald Ford, he would surround himself with good advisors. Then, as we watched him replace many of his better advisors with yes-men, we prayed no major crisis would erupt during his term of office.

With these hopes and prayers dashed, Americans now look wearily ahead. Just when we most need clear national policies guided by a confident, competent leader, we lurch from tweet to tweet with no sure end in sight except a fool’s promise of full pews at Easter. Or is it now by May Day?

Edward J. Larson

Edward J. Larson is a Pulitzer Prize winning legal historian and author of the recent book Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership.