WASHINGTON — When dusk falls in Franklin Township, N.J., blue lights on the town gazebo pierce the darkness, one for every person in town who has died from the coronavirus: 118 so far.
To Michael Steinbruck, 54, a resident of the community of 70,000 who keeps up this makeshift memorial with his family, it is a small gesture to mark a collective loss and a sign of support for grieving families, even if he does not know whose name belongs to each light. There are too many.
“We want each family who does know the name to know that we as a town don’t forget,” said Steinbruck.
On Wednesday, the same day Steinbruck’s wife, Kim, hung three new bulbs on the gazebo, the country recorded its 100,000th death from the virus, a devastating milestone that passed without a formal, in-person commemoration from the person best positioned to draw attention to the solemn moment: President Trump.
In recent decades, presidents of both parties have stepped forward to allay national and individual grief after tragedies like the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and mass shootings through speeches, moments of silence, or quiet meetings with the victims’ families, giving rise to terms like “consoler-in-chief” to describe an important part of their job.
But as the pandemic’s death toll has risen, Trump has done almost nothing publicly to mark its sheer human tragedy. Individuals and communities like Franklin Township are honoring it how they can, but Steinbruck called the lack of a national mourning effort a “glaring omission.”
“That’s what’s needed at a national level,” he said, “is someone to guide that process.”
Although Trump routinely says “one death is too many,” his public statements about the virus are generally aimed at touting his claims of success in fighting it, rather than reckoning with its human toll. The approach is in keeping with his response to other national tragedies, when he has offered scripted speeches with little or no sign of significant emotional engagement.
“Being a consoler-in-chief isn’t, nor will it ever be, Donald Trump’s strength as a politician or a commander-in-chief,” said Colin Reed, a Republican strategist. “Trump likes running on strength. Trump likes running on doing the things everyone says you shouldn’t do. He’s decided to stick with the horse that brought him to the dance.”
Trump has been greeted with his share of tragedy while in office, but has often manifested a discordantly upbeat or uncomfortable air when dealing with those incidents and their victims.
When he met with people who lost loved ones to mass shootings following the Parkland, Fla., tragedy, he carried a handwritten note reminding him to say “I hear you.” He was panned for playfully throwing paper towels into a crowd of Puerto Ricans whose lives had been upended by a deadly hurricane. And while greeting Texans in a Houston shelter after Hurricane Harvey, he doled out high-fives, told them to have a “good time,” and said the response to the storm had been “wonderful.”
That has created stark contrasts between Trump and his predecessors of both parties, some of whom prioritized — and also managed to draw political benefits from — consoling the country. And, in the current moment, it leaves the nation without the opportunity to grieve together at a time when the normal rituals of mourning, like in-person funerals, are already suspended.
“To see an individual national leader as an empathetic figure and as a comforting figure and as a vulnerable figure is very powerful, and authorizes those things for others,” said Micki McElya, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut. But reckoning with the national death toll could also be inconvenient for Trump, she said.
“To highlight the staggering number of the dead is to highlight the staggering ineffectiveness of the national response,” she said.
Trump ordered flags to be flown at half staff over Memorial Day weekend to mark the approaching 100,000-death milestone, and told reporters last month he had spoken privately with a handful of families who have lost a loved one to coronavirus. White House officials would not provide further details. They also would not say whether he had plans to meet with any affected families or commemorate the 100,000 dead further in any way. “He takes this very seriously. He’s said before this is the hardest part of his presidency,” said Kayleigh McEnany, his press secretary.
Other countries such as Spain, the UK, and Italy have set aside a national mourning period or period of silence to reckon with their nations’ dead, while Trump has yet to lead a similar moment of silence or give a speech specifically commemorating the victims.
If Trump lets the milestone pass without dedicating a whole event or speech to commemorating the dead, he will not be the only president to do so. Pandemics in America — including AIDS and the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed 675,000 Americans — have often received short shrift when it comes to national mourning.
But for as long as the office has existed, presidents have been called on to suspend politics and give meaning to loss, especially those stemming from tragedies that dominate news coverage.
“A president is expected to bring some combination of hope, healing and help,” said David Kusnet, a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, “to convey some sense that there’s some larger meaning to this all.”
In 1986, with TV footage of the Challenger explosion playing constantly to a nation reeling in shock, president Ronald Reagan delayed his State of the Union address and instead gave a short speech evoking the hope symbolized by seven astronauts boarding the space shuttle.
“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,” he said.
In 1995, Clinton traveled to Oklahoma City after the bombing of a federal building there killed 168 people, and promised that the country would stand with the victims’ families for “as many tomorrows as it takes.”
The dignity and emotional eloquence of that speech ended up helping boost Clinton’s popularity after Democrats took a beating in the 1994 midterm elections, a reminder that the “mourner in chief” role can come with potential benefits as well as pitfalls.
George W. Bush was widely praised for taking a bullhorn at Manhattan’s Ground Zero after 9/11 and ad-libbing when someone in the crowd of first responders yelled they couldn’t hear him. “I can hear you,” Bush said, “the rest of the world hears you.” His popularity soared in the aftermath of the terrorist attack.
But later in his presidency, he was criticized for failing to respond quickly or empathetically enough to the disaster unfolding during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which killed nearly 2,000 people.
President Barack Obama came across as stoic and unemotional at times, but he consoled the nation with empathetic speeches again and again after the mass shootings that occurred while he was president. Valerie Jarrett, a close adviser, said that when she and Obama heard the news of the 2012 slaughter of first-graders and educators in Newtown, Conn., they immediately thought of their own children. Obama also wrote his remarks for the memorial service by hand, and spent hours meeting individually with families of the victims.
“You have to be able to let your heart take you to that place in order to feel empathy. And then imagine what you would want said to you,” Jarrett said.
One of the most lasting images of Obama as the “mourner in chief” came in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 when he sang “Amazing Grace” at the service for the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was among nine black churchgoers killed in that city by a white supremacist. It was something he only decided to do as he traveled to Charleston that day.
“He thought it would be an opportunity for us to feel as one,” Jarrett said. “He knew that if he started to sing, everyone would join.”
Trump’s approach has been starkly different. Sometimes, when he does nod to the coronavirus tragedy, he has a way of bringing up his own political disputes and rivalries.
When meeting at the White House in April with people who had recovered from the disease, Trump steered the discussion to his own reelection. Representative Karen Whitsett, a Michigan Democrat, told the group she felt like she was going to die when she fell ill with COVID-19. “Well, I’m not going to speak for her, but I don’t see her voting for Sleepy Joe Biden,” Trump joked.
And while he sent condolences to family members of the dead on Twitter on Thursday — “I want to extend my heartfelt sympathy & love for everything that these great people stood for & represent,“ he wrote — he also spent the days leading up to the milestone spreading a conspiracy theory about an MSNBC host, sharing a video of a man saying the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat, and boosting a post calling Hillary Clinton a “skank.”
“For whatever reason, he’s been unable to find his voice and to serve as the mourner-in-chief, people have been left to mourn on their own,” said David Gergen, a former adviser to several presidents, including Reagan and Clinton.
A White House official who did not want to be named said Trump had shared many “tender moments” over his years in office, including his speech at Normandy to commemorate D-Day, personal interactions with veterans, and visits to factories.
But as a lifelong salesman who used to routinely exaggerate the height of his buildings and the extent of his wealth, the president is more comfortable making the rosy pitch, not providing a shoulder to cry on.
Tony Schwartz, who worked with Trump for two years in the 1980s while he ghost-wrote Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal,” said the real estate developer did not show much capacity for empathy, contrition, or sorrow in his experience. “I don’t think grief was in his vocabulary,” he said. “I don’t think he’s ever felt any grief about anything.”
That has led to a lost political opportunity for Trump, as well as a vacuum of federal leadership in a moment when Americans are struggling to comprehend the sheer loss of life. Trump’s approval rating has sunk, even as many governors and other world leaders are seeing their constituents rally around them.
“It’s not surprising, given his entire presidency has been very divisive, but this was a big missed opportunity to potentially unite the country, and one of the ways you unite the country is through shared grief,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign.
In contrast, former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee who is set to challenge Trump in the fall’s election and who often speaks of his personal grief, posted a somber two-and-a-half-minute video to Twitter on Wednesday to mark the grim milestone.
“I think I know what you’re feeling,” said Biden, who has mourned his first wife and two of his children, and spoke at multiple memorials while he was vice president. “You feel like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest, suffocating, your heart is broken; there’s nothing but a feeling of emptiness for you.”