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OPINION

A leaderless nation adrift in a crisis

The president has put his political interests above the national interest.

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe

It’s the agony and the tragedy of America.

At a time when we long for hope, we’re getting depressing news.

At a time when we need a high-minded leader to unify the country, we have a president consumed with his own political prospects.

And as a consequence, at a time when we need to pull together as a nation, it sometimes feels as though the United States is coming apart at the regional, ideological, and generational seams.

In the midst of this crisis, against the backdrop of a traumatized nation, we saw on Tuesday what this president is really about. Explaining his refusal to let Dr. Anthony Fauci testify before the House of Representatives, Trump said that House Democrats “frankly want our situation to be unsuccessful, which means death.”

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This from the president of the United States of America.

This from a president who is urging states to reopen even though most of them don’t meet the White House’s own guidelines of a 14-day decline in new COVID-19 cases before entering the first phase of reopening.

He also dismissed an alarming new projection by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that now predicts the number of US deaths, currently a little over 70,000, will reach 134,000 by Aug. 1.

The IHME’s model is the one the White House has heretofore favored because of its relatively less pessimistic projections. Still, the president waved off that new prediction, saying that it “assumes no mitigation.” In fact, the IHME has factored into its model the increased infection likely to occur because of the easing of social distancing and increased mobility. Trump dismissed on the same grounds a draft administration document predicting daily COVID-19 deaths rising from about 1,750 today to 3,000 by early June.

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“Models,” he opined, “have been very inaccurate.”

This from a man who on Feb. 11 declared the contagion was well under control and would “miraculously” go away by April and who in late February said that “within a couple of days,” coronavirus cases were “going to be down to close to zero.”

And so, having leveled an exceedingly ugly accusation, shrugged off a flouting of the White House’s own guidelines, and offered a water-muddying claim about modeling, the president proclaimed that it was time for the country “to go back to work." Whereupon he flew off to Arizona on a thank-you trip to a mask-making Honeywell facility, a trip with obvious political overtones.

Trump’s calculation is that his reelection prospects improve if he can get the state stay-at-home orders lifted and the economy operating as soon as possible. Thus his cavalier dismissal of the warning flags.

His blandishments come even as the administration’s own experts are expressing serious misgivings about states that are reopening prematurely and incautiously.

No matter. Even though he’s described himself as a war-time president, Trump is determinedly practicing responsibility distancing, saying the primary actors and decision-makers must be the governors. Having thereby attempted to insulate himself from the consequences, the president is not just prodding governors to open their states but also egging on right-wing protests in capitals around the country.

Demonstrators take part in an "American Patriot Rally" last week, organized by Michigan United for Liberty on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses.
Demonstrators take part in an "American Patriot Rally" last week, organized by Michigan United for Liberty on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses.JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Those protests have turned menacing, with some participants showing up armed and others, without face masks, screaming at police at close and transmission-threatening range. Yet in his Fox News Town Hall on Sunday, Trump offered encouraging words: “All those people out there that are protesting, they’re — they’re right."

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A president worthy of the title would be speaking unifying words to the nation, urging civic calm, patience, understanding, and kindness. Such a leader would chastise the provocateurs who are absurdly trying to elevate their refusal to wear a face mask in public into a political statement about liberty.

Such a president would already have taken the lead in formulating a national testing strategy and getting adequate testing in place as quickly as possible.

Trump, of course, is incapable of being that president. He was never qualified or competent to lead this country — but nothing demonstrates that he is unfit for the presidency more clearly than the way he has conducted himself in this time of national crisis.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh