Read: Red and blue America aren’t experiencing the same pandemic
The second path is Trumpian magical thinking—the belief that the problem will go away as a function of Trump’s own personality and will. He has lapsed into this kind of thinking repeatedly throughout this crisis—in his denial of the problem, in his assertions that the problem will take care of itself, in his tossing off of theories about new therapeutic possibilities for treating the virus, and now in his promotion of the idea that sacrificing Americans to feed the economy will somehow make things better, instead of dramatically worse.
So the old Trump has not gone away. He still praises himself, attacks his critics, announces outcomes, harangues the press, eschews responsibility for anything that has gone wrong, and lies about his prior posture with respect to the crisis. He does these things daily, apparently still believing—as he once said on Fox News—that “the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters.”
But there’s a problem with this style of presidency too: It doesn’t work, because magic isn’t real. It can appear to work when the stock market is rising and the economy is humming along and it doesn’t matter that much what the government does. But when people are getting sick and losing their jobs in droves and the economy is in free fall—or when people return to work only to become gravely ill and spread the virus further—magical thinking is not going to cut it.
The result of this battle within the Trump White House has been an occasional glimpse of a more normal presidency—but one in which the normalcy is incompetent and grudging and occasional and consequently ineffective. The Trump administration has taken some of the steps that a more normal presidential administration might have taken to deal with the virus, but it has done so haltingly and weeks late. It’s trying to mobilize the federal government to deal with a national crisis, but without any apparent interest or insight into how the government actually works. This is how the country ends up with a president who trumpets the fact that he has invoked the Defense Production Act to assist in the manufacturing of ventilators and surgical masks, but who fails to take any action under the relevant executive order to actually trigger that surge in production. Trump is like a bad actor trying to play the role of a normal president—a role he hates and so misunderstands that he just can’t do it, and instead resorts to hamming it up onstage.
The result is a remarkable feat: Trump has stoked concerns about executive overreach and executive underreach simultaneously; he has at once promised everything and acknowledged accountability for nothing; and he has found that magic—so endlessly enticing as an alternative to failure when the cameras are rolling—doesn’t slow the spread of a pandemic. Backed into a real crisis, one that requires the steady hand of a more traditional president, Trump is suddenly finding that genuine governance is hard.