One of the chief selling points about Donald Trump in 2021, one that persuaded many initially dubious Republicans, was the argument that \”he fights.\” Some of us tried to counter that his battles usually concerned his own fragile ego, not the cause of conservatism, nor even the Republican Party, but these objections were swept aside. He was anointed the right's champion, willing to do or say anything to get at their enemies, approximately they believed, and they were gratified.

Since January, we've witnessed a vivid lesson within the limits of fighting. There were ample reasons before now to recoil from Trump's style of combat. It is so consistently cruel, witless, below-the-belt, and unhinged , that it tainted by association any reasonable arguments that could be advanced for conservative ideas. But in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, we've witnessed that even if a dire emergency requires traits other than bellicosity, fighting is he knows how to do. This really is proving to be a catastrophe for that nation, and also for Trump's own self-interest.

Who doubts that if, in January and February, when his intelligence briefers were warning of a public health disaster, Trump had adjusted his style just a little, he would now be enjoying the type of approval boost that other world leaders have banked? If, rather than minimizing the threat, trusting Xi Jinping to deal with it, and lashing out at Democrats for exaggerating the risk to harm him politically, he had attempted just a simulacrum of traditional leadership, he may now be coasting to reelection rather than bleeding support.

Disasters are opportunities as well as challenges, and while no president welcomes calamity on his watch, most recognize the chance to burnish their standing. Bill Clinton lamented, after his two terms were complete, that he never faced a major crisis. He was apparently regretting that the peace and prosperity the country enjoyed during his tenure denied him the chance to be considered a great president, since only wartime presidents appear to make it into the first tier in historians' rankings.

Confronting intelligence a good imminent world health crisis, Trump might have convened a special session of Congress . Using the unmatched optics of a joint session, he could have announced travel restrictions, requested an enormous investment in testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation, and recommended the temporary relaxation of regulations to hurry treatments and streamline supply chains. He could have called upon Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell to chair an activity force to coordinate the production and distribution of testing and other medical supplies nationwide. If he were truly rising above his instincts and were able to utter a few unifying words, there is no telling how different things might feel now. He might have said:

We have deep disagreements within this country. There are bitter feelings between the parties. But this is not a time for grievances. We are facing a crisis. It will hit all of us diversely, some more grievously than others. It will require courage and sacrifice and patience. It will call upon Americans' volunteer spirit and generosity. If only I could say it will be easy, but that just isn't true. This is a new threat and that we have much to learn. But one thing is certain: We will face this not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. American creativity, innovation, and flexibility have permitted us to meet great challenges before. This time around is no different. If we unite, there is little stop us.

In addition to enhancing Trump's leadership credibility, this kind of approach would have buoyed national morale and set us on a path to control the outbreak. But this president can't choose comity even if it is blazingly obvious that nothing would better serve his own interests. He fights not because he's anyone's royal prince; he fights because it's the only mode he knows.

Since the disease began spreading, Trump did not develop a plan of action. He has punted responsibility to governors, while claiming complete power for himself. He has lied and dithered and hawked quack cures. He's created confusion by forcing government departments to waste time dealing with his callow son-in-law on the matter of urgent national concern. But most importantly, he searched for someone to punch.

While the situation cried out for competent coordination and planning, for calm briefings with experts, he looked just for foils. He fought with Democrats, exclaiming on February 28 that \”this is their new hoax.\” He tangled with insufficiently \”grateful\” governors who requested supplies. \”I say . . . don't call the governor of Washington. Don't call the woman from Michigan.\” He disparaged frontline doctors, wondering on March 29 whether or not they were stealing masks . He'd a spat with congressional leadership at the end of February when they proposed a preliminary coronavirus package more than three times how big Trump's request . He reversed his previous gushing praise and began to blame China for the virus, encouraging using nicknames like \”Wuhan virus.\” He picked a fight with the Postal Service, poured out tweetstorms about his predecessor, whom he charged with dark crimes, and above all, from before dawn till at night every single day, he battled the press.

The death toll mounts. The economic damage is unprecedented.

Yes, he fights – and that we all lose.


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