On Wednesday, Donald Trump declared that “when somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total.”
Aside from running counter to the basic underpinnings of American constitutional democracy, the rant was strangely discordant. Because, as the country staggers from a pandemic that has already taken at least 30,000 lives in the United States and forced nearly every American to shelter in place, the president — and the presidency — have become smaller and strangely useless.
The media have long been trained to believe that what the president says matters. “The leader of the free world,” they call him — or at least they used to. So when Trump saunters up to the podium for his daily press conference, the reporters take their seats and the cable news networks transmit the spectacle to the nation. But every day it becomes harder to see the point, as more and more Americans simply tune Trump out.
There’s precious little news to report from these briefings — unless one considers cataloging Trump’s endless falsehoods and fantastical statements to be news.
Never does he offer sympathy or solace for the families of those who have died or the tens of millions who have lost their jobs. He doesn’t even carry out the utilitarian responsibility of informing the public about what the federal government is doing in the face of a raging crisis.
Others like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, and Vice President Mike Pence are often allowed to speak, along with whatever other special guests Trump has invited to participate — and they may provide some useful information. But the president is not one to surrender the spotlight to others. He uses the question-and-answer session to complain, attack reporters, praise himself, and heap blame for the disastrous response to the coronavirus on everyone else, from President Obama and Democratic governors to the World Health Organization and China. This is not a news event as much as it is an opportunity for the president to air his personal grievances, rewrite history, and make outrageous and self-serving claims.
He claims over and over that strong and powerful testing is taking place, when it clearly isn’t. He says nobody’s asking for ventilators, even though the ventilator shortage has been one of the hallmarks of this crisis. He touts miracle drugs that have not been approved and can do more harm than good. He celebrates himself for banning travel to China, while failing to address the weeks that were wasted as he told the country, among other lies, that the coronavirus was no worse than the seasonal flu.
One has little sense that the president is even involved in the federal response to this crisis.
He touts plans to re-open the economy that are so unserious, they amount to little more than fantasies. By a 2-1 margin, Americans are more worried about social distancing rules being lifted too soon rather than too late. The only group that disagrees are conservative Republicans.
Most of the nation’s governors, who actually have the authority to re-open schools and businesses, are ignoring these proclamations. The ones who give the president’s statements weight — and incomprehensibly refuse to put in place stay-at-home orders — are putting the lives of their own citizens at mortal risk.
And yet, the president persists in his bluster that everything can return to normal soon.
To the extent that his words matter, it is in the danger they represent. Every day he shovels out more misinformation. And in recent days, some of his supporters, donning MAGA hats and waving Trump/Pence banners, showed up at the Michigan State Capitol to angrily protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s strict stay-at-home orders. Trump’s insistence on re-opening the country, his suggestion that things are looking up, even his refusal to wear a mask as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seeds more confusion than clarity.
When he finishes, Trump goes back inside the White House and the cable news talking heads dissect his latest mistruths. Reporters whose sole job it is to fact-check the president detail his lies. Pundits engage in the now familiar process of psychoanalyzing the president and pointing out the wide gap between his statements and reality. And then the next day, we start all over again.
Meanwhile, far more courageous and resourceful women and men are doing the job of responding to this pandemic. Governors and mayors are providing vital information and genuine comfort to their fellow citizens. Health care workers, scientists, grocery store clerks, food bank volunteers, and first responders toil on the front lines of this crisis, rarely acknowledged or praised by the president. The gap between their selflessness and Trump’s self-absorption is yawning.
It’s difficult to ignore the president of the United States. Yet, in the midst of the worst public health crisis to strike this country in more than a century, there’s no denying the fact that rather than being the nation’s “total authority,” Trump has become an increasingly irrelevant figure.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.