America needs a path forward — but we don’t have a president who can point the way

President Trump is incapable of soothing the nation.

President Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House.
President Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

One hundred thousand.

Thirty-three 9/11s.

More than 2 1/2 years of gun deaths.

As many as all the US soldiers killed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

And now, the number of Americans who have died from the coronavirus in less than three months.

It is a figure so large it seems almost impossible to process, which is why perhaps, we as a nation are not processing it.

There has been no national moment of silence; no day of remembrance; no attempt to honor those who have been lost; no effort by our political leaders to put this loss of life in a broader context. The carnage intensifies, and yet the mind-numbing death toll doesn’t get the attention it deserves.


The reaction to so much wanton loss of life brings to mind a phrase uttered by the one of the worst mass murderers in human history, Joseph Stalin — that one death is a tragedy, but one million is just a statistic. When we see the portraits of those killed in a mass shooting or watch their families being interviewed it seems real. When they are just an unending list of names on the front page of a newspaper or an ever-rising number in the news chyrons on cable news, it feels like an abstraction.

There is no one reason why this is happening. Part of it is, unlike past tragedies, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting each of us directly. More than 40 million of us have lost our jobs. We’re stuck at home, away from our family, friends, and colleagues, juggling work and school, and buffeted by stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. We don’t have time to grieve for people we don’t know.

Perhaps we think it’s someone else’s problem. We’re young, we’re healthy, we’re seemingly invulnerable. We’re not old or suffering from obesity or hypertension. We’re not going to get it and if we do, it’s not going to kill us.


Perhaps in the deeper recesses of our minds, we think those who are dying are Black and brown and poor and while we’d never say it openly, we don’t identify with what’s happening in communities to which we have little connection.

Or perhaps it’s the most obvious reason: We have a president who doesn’t care and views the sick and dead as inconveniences who have gotten in the way of his reelection effort. President’s Trump daily excesses distract us. His unending talk about opening the economy has become a dominant and disquieting narrative in the face of such extraordinary loss. Trump has made routine the idea that saving more lives from COVID-19 is an impediment to getting people back to work. The phrase, “it’s terrible we’ve lost 100,000 people . . . but,” uttered this week by a CNBC anchor, has become part of the American lexicon.

Throughout our history we’ve looked to presidents for sustenance in times of tragedy; for larger meaning in the face of events none of us can fully comprehend; for uniting us and rallying us around a common purpose.

Abraham Lincoln memorialized those who fought and died at Gettysburg, and told Americans that the way to honor their “last full measure of devotion” on the battlefield would be to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.” When the Challenger astronauts lost their lives in the skies over Cape Canaveral, Fla., Ronald Reagan reminded us that the “future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.” He told the nation that the seven astronauts who died were “pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”


When Barack Obama eulogized the black parishioners felled by a white supremacist at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., he spoke of their senseless deaths and of the history of racial violence in America, but also offered Americans a path to redemption, as he sang the mournful words of “Amazing Grace.”

This is the undoubtedly the most difficult, and yet most essential, responsibility of political leadership — to offer solace, meaning, and hope.

Even in the wake of 100,000 lost souls, there are reasons for hopefulness. At a time of intense and debilitating political polarization, most Americans are united in purpose. We are largely together, as a nation, quarantining, wearing masks, socially distancing, and cheering health care workers and first providers. There’s an important story to be told of resilience and community, of selflessness and sacrifice, of ingenuity and imagination.

Finding meaning in death is one of our unique and most vital attributes as humans. It’s what allows us to move forward when we experience inevitable loss. It’s what priests, rabbis, imams — or any of us who have ever delivered a eulogy — do regularly at funerals. But for a nation as diverse and immense as ours, much of this responsibility falls on the president. It may sound trite, but in tragedy presidents — no matter who voted for them — speak for us all.


Or at least they should. In this most essential of presidential responsibilities, Donald Trump has not just failed — he hasn’t even tried.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.