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The Petty President

Donald Trump’s lack of empathy and rhetorical gracelessness make him especially unsuited for this moment of crisis.
March 21, 2020
The Petty President
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 20: U.S. President Donald Trump debates with NBC News White House Correspondent Peter Alexander during a news briefing on the latest development of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. at the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House March 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. With deaths caused by the coronavirus rising and foreseeable economic turmoil, the Senate is working on legislation for a $1 trillion aid package to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump announced that tax day will be delayed from April 15 to July 15. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A week ago—although it feels like a month ago—Priscilla Jensen explained here in The Bulwark many of President Donald Trump’s “failings as a crisis leader”: his temperament, his lack of curiosity, his tenuous relationship with facts. It has struck me, though, that one very important factor is missing from that list, as an incident yesterday made very clear.

At Friday’s White House press briefing, NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander asked the president an easy but important question: “What do you say to Americans who are scared, though? I guess nearly 200 dead [in the United States], 14,000 who are sick [around the world], millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”

This is the very definition of a softball question, and any ordinary, competent politician could have handled it with ease. In fact, not much later, the same reporter asked a similar question to Vice President Mike Pence, who gave a fine answer, saying that his message to the American people is “Don’t be afraid. Be vigilant.” Clear, concise, with some reassurance but no false promises—a good response.

When Trump was asked the question, however, he had one of his tantrums:

I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say. . . . I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism, and the same with NBC and “Con-cast.” I don’t call it—I don’t call it “Comcast,” I call it “Con-cast.” . . . Let me just tell you something: That’s really bad reporting, and you ought to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism. Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows. I’ve been right a lot. Let’s see what happens. . . . You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

The transcript doesn’t do justice to Trump’s attack on the reporter:

Again, any merely competent politician could adroitly handle a question like that. The fact that Trump responded the way he did suggests either that he was lashing out angrily because he felt attacked by the question, or that he continues to calculate some benefit with his base in bashing the press.

Either way, what is most interesting is the missed opportunity. Trump is incapable, utterly incapable, of leading the country via his rhetoric during this crisis. He is right to say that “the American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope.” But he is not the man to give them to us.

Library shelves groan under the weight of books about leadership—from historians and biographers, philosophers and psychologists, politicians and management consultants—each offering some different take on what leadership is and how leaders succeed. But here’s the simplest way to think about what a leader is: A leader is someone who convinces a group of people to follow him or her on some mission. Autocratic leaders often need to use force for this convincing; in liberal regimes, leadership requires inspiration. And inspiration, in turn, requires some degree of empathy. Leadership is not a bullet-point list of tasks to follow; it is a paradigm, a mode of being in the world. And leadership is most needed during times of crisis, when the stakes are high and a vision for the future is indispensable.

We have all heard Senator Amy Klobuchar’s story about FDR: A man was by the tracks as the train carrying FDR’s coffin was passing, and he was crying. When asked if he knew the late president, the man responded, “no, but he knew me.” Through the Great Depression and the Second World War, FDR was a crisis leader. He very well knew how to mobilize Americans, and used his “fireside chats” to explain, reassure, and inspire.

FDR’s friend Winston Churchill, too, had this capacity, coupled with his extraordinary gifts as a writer and orator. During his years as prime minister, he gave many parliamentary speeches and radio addresses. His three most famous speeches, all delivered within a span of about five weeks in 1940, are still instantly recognizable: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”; “We shall fight on the beaches”; and “This was their finest hour.” Churchill unified and mobilized and inspired and lifted up his nation in a way that no other British politician could have done. There was a moral clarity to his vision and an abiding hope in the destiny of the English-speaking peoples.

Note that, in those three immortal lines from Churchill, he mentioned himself in terms of sacrifice, then spoke of “we”—joining everybody else as the leader—and then called again for a defiant collective hope.

Of course, the Gettysburg Address, a rhetorical gem and the greatest speech in American history, lacks any reference to the orator individually but refers to “we.” It is about the fallen and the living, united and dedicated to a single mission and purpose. The dead, the living, and the orator all are one—joined with us, the inheritors of the freedom consecrated in that bloody field.

In living memory, a famous expression of presidential leadership via empathy is George W. Bush’s impromptu bullhorn moment. Three days after the September 11, 2001, attacks, when a firefighter shouted that he could not hear the president, Bush responded, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” It was a brief ad libbed moment, but a transformative one for a president less than a year into his term. Bush was telling that firefighter that he was being heard, and the two of them were one, along with the rest of the nation. I can hear you, at that moment, translated into “I share your sorrow, anger, and determination.”

The historian and biographer Andrew Roberts, in his terrific new book Leadership in War, discusses Churchill and FDR, among others. But Roberts also offers negative examples. Stalin and Hitler, Roberts shows, had weak constitutions of character, coupled with low self-esteem. Hitler habitually lied to brag about himself and his accomplishments. Stalin, too, was profoundly insecure. They each possessed an instinctive capacity to inspire their followers—Hitler in particular was obsessed with his image and the motivational spectacle of his speeches. But neither of them allowed their subordinates to question their judgments—they were too insecure to ever be wrong. That fact contributed to Hitler’s defeat and, in Stalin’s case, to his biggest blunder: his failure to see that his pact with Hitler was worthless and to anticipate Operation Barbarossa, a failure of such magnitude that Stalin expected to be arrested because of it.

Not all great leaders have been great orators, of course, and speech is not the only way to express empathy. Many great leaders earned the trust of their followers by taking risks alongside them. George Washington disliked public speaking but won the love of his troops by never leaving their side. Admiral Horatio Nelson, another figure Roberts profiles, was not a great orator, yet he was among the greatest of British leaders; he led his men in battle with courage and did himself what he asked of his men. During the Civil War, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, whose story was immortalized in the historical novel The Killer Angels, leaned on his sword after being shot to lead his men until the last one to clear the field, and then fainted.

Still, even if not every president can have the eloquence of Ronald Reagan, the moral clarity of George W. Bush, or even the logic and composure of Barack Obama, there is at least a baseline expectation that our presidents will have some capacity to teach and console and inspire and unify.

Donald Trump just can’t do it.

This is a moment of great national uncertainty—a public health crisis, an economic crisis, a financial crisis. There is hardly any precedent for this moment: Stores and schools and churches have slammed shut their doors. Streets that once would be bustling are empty. Millions of Americans, after having emptied grocery-store shelves, have bunkered down at home. As Peter Alexander pointed out on Friday, many Americans are scared—and with good reason. They want information and guidance, comfort and hope. In a word, they want leadership.

But Donald Trump cannot provide it. He is on his regular Twitter schedule, tweeting his typical nonsense. He lacks the capacity to empathize, that necessary prerequisite for leadership. Consider the rhetorical record of his entire presidency: his “American carnage” inaugural address, his rallies bashing the press and immigrants, his juvenile tweets, his crowing about every minor victory and bitching about every last grievance. It is a sorry litany of gracelessness and pique, and it has left him utterly unprepared to bear a message of resilience, hope, unity, or sacrifice in the face of hardship.

Americans are looking everywhere for a leader—everywhere except the Oval Office. Many people are turning to the sober and well-informed presence of Dr. Anthony Fauci (who has worked hard to hide his feelings about the president), while others are becoming their neighborhood’s leaders by doing grocery shopping for the elderly and disabled, or trying to help get equipment to hospitals, or exploring ways to keep bolstering one another online. But nobody is expecting leadership from the president.

We should all wish the president success in managing the coronavirus crisis. And we can hope that he can change—that he might rise to meet the moment. But that seems unlikely: He is a petty man, vain yet insecure, who needs to be praised by his subordinates to feel good, even in a crisis. Don’t expect him to lead us through our finest hour.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.