The forced monotone of Donald Trump’s most serious public address to the nation was a striking contrast from the theater of his most recent State of the Nation on March 12, where he sought to calm the nation as it faced the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events. With his hands grasped but thumbs flickering, as if they were a fire under which he sat, as if he were wriggling like a kid strapped in the back seat of a car where he was a passenger to God-knows-where, wrestling with the increasing urgency that his aides demanded he address the outbreak of the virus in the United States that he had long tried to deny. And who can doubt that the serial flag-waving continuing to fuel President Trump’s attacks on China and the World Health Organization don’t reveal an adherence to America First policies of nationalism before a global catastrophe?
President Trump tried to look as presidential as possible, re-inhabiting a role of authority that he had long disdained, as he was forced to address a nation whose well-being he was not in control. The national narrative, as it was begun by WHO’s declaration of a pandemic, was perhaps seen as a narrative which seemed to spin out of his control, below his eyes, as he tried to calm markets by addressing the nation in what he must have imagined to have been as reassuring tones as he could summon. And if America First as a doctrine allows little room for empathy, affirming national greatness and the importance of a logic of border closures was all he could offer, and would be predictably lacking reassurance or empathy as he attempted to create a connection at a defining moment of his Presidency.
Not that he ever wanted to give this speech. The behind-the-scenes picture that emerged in the Washington Post revealed a leader who, while starting the second Oval Office address of his Presidency, not only failed to share it with the members of the Coronavirus Task Force, but had resisted the address, was in a foul mood, and included many gaffes–from asserting that ht eUnited States “first” banned travel to China to asserting that the rates of infection were low at home–inaccurate low numbers of infections and death promoted false confidence–and incorrectly conveying the impression that all flights were suspended from Europe–even as in limiting restrictions to foreign nationals, Trump encouraged a broad re-entry of infected Americans, often through crowded airports, across the nation. If confirmed cases were low, he had clearly not grasped the magnitude of the threat, and projected much of his discomfort in undertaking the address by grousing to his aids over a stain on his shirt, that seems to have been concealed by keeping the jacket tight around his girth.
Did Trump really believe, as he would later assert in a news conference, weeks later, that he had been the first to impose travel restrictions from China in the face of the pandemic? Forty other nations not only beat him to it, but he had not only failed to isolate the nation from the virus’ spread, but perpetuated an idea that the decision to “cut off China” saved lies. The lack of orientation reveals a low level of commitment in assembling the rushed draft of the address with Kushner, Stephen Miller, and Pence, without any members of his Coronavirus Task Force, assembled almost until the moment Trump went on air, which read as if his problem was able to be reeduced to increasing the border as a preventive barrier. Slumping in his seat at the Resolute Desk, perhaps contemplating how no predecessor had ever delivered on air unprepared remarks from the desk, and visibly discomfited in doing so. He must have hoped to make up for his televised performance by sending surrogates scrambling to social media, issuing clarifications for misstatements–as the exemption offered U.S. citizens to return from China, or the exemption of Ireland, as well as England, and an assurance that trade would “in no way be affected” by the ban, as markets had reacted poorly to his performance.
As cascading fears grew in markets across the world, Trump was perhaps forced to realize his new relation to the world, even as the German stock exchanges plummeted as the measures he announced seem either difficult to process, or failing to address the importance of maintaining trade ties–or of taking adequately prudent steps of public health.
If Trump rarely trusted himself to make hand gestures as he plighted through the speech, thumbs flickering, hands clasped, he every so often seemed distinctly out of synch with his austere surroundings, gold curtains drawn to reveal two flags, barely aware, perhaps, that the eyes of the world were very much on his performance in this new sound studio to which he was not fully accustomed, trying to explain that he had undertaken measures that had made us safe, even if he must have been worrying that the lack of worry he had been projecting and urging in previous weeks had risen across the nation, and his performance was not calming them at all.Continue reading