In late March, The Boston Globe published an editorial excoriating President Donald Trump over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. It said that Trump was “epically outmatched” by the public-health emergency and that his “callousness, self-concern, and a lack of compass” had plunged the country into disaster. Trump, the Globe declared in its headline, “has blood on his hands.” But the editorial was also notable for what it didn’t say. Even as the paper held Trump personally responsible for the likely deaths of thousands of Americans, it did not demand his resignation. Instead, the Globe concluded that the best we could hope for was a reckoning come Election Day “for the lives lost, and for the vast, avoidable suffering about to ensue under the president’s watch.”
The Globe editorial highlighted one of the more puzzling aspects of the COVID-19 crisis: Despite Trump’s egregious failure, hardly anyone has called on him to resign. During Watergate, numerous demands were made for President Richard Nixon to step down. Some 30 newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, urged President Bill Clinton to quit over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In the face of Trump’s catastrophic ineptitude, as well as his obvious indifference to the pain he has inflicted on the country, how has the only nationally influential voice to demand his resignation been … Howard Stern? The fact that no one believes Trump would heed the call to resign is beside the point; no one thought Clinton would resign either.
Curious to know why the Globe stopped short of asking Trump to leave office, I reached out to Bina Venkataraman, the paper’s editorial-page editor. She told me by email that the editorial board has considered demanding Trump’s resignation, most recently over the Ukraine scandal that led to his impeachment, but to date it has refrained from taking that step. She said that an election year “raises the bar in terms of the rationale and timing that would justify doing so.” However, Venkataraman emphasized that the Globe has not ruled out the possibility. “When we deliberate about such questions,” she told me, “we consider all kinds of factors, including the timing, the potential to influence the outcome, whether it’s the best position to take for the country in the moment as well for institutions and democratic norms over the long run, [and] what precedents it sets for the editorial board.” She also pointed out that the paper had recently called on Attorney General William Barr to step down over what it alleged was his serial misconduct. (It’s worth noting, too, that the Globe columnist Michael Cohen, although not a member of the editorial board, has demanded Trump’s resignation several times.)
The Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer thinks the fact that Trump so recently survived impeachment is probably another reason editorial pages and congressional Democrats have been loath to demand his resignation. But he suggests that deeper factors may also be at work. Zelizer says that after decades of anti-government rhetoric from the right, a lot of Americans have come to expect that Washington will fail them, and this has shaped how the country responds to incompetent leadership. “It’s this feeling that this is the best we can get,” he says. The degree to which we have become inured to failure, he says, was vividly demonstrated during George W. Bush’s presidency. Even though Bush presided over a series of historic disasters—9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the global financial meltdown—he served two full terms in office.
Our political culture does seem to have developed a high tolerance for failure. As the CIA director under Bush, George Tenet oversaw two intelligence debacles: 9/11 and the Iraq War. Yet he kept his job until June 2004, more than a year into the Iraq fiasco, at which point he insisted that he was not leaving in shame or disgrace. He told CIA employees it was “a personal decision, and had only one basis—in fact, the well-being of my wonderful family—nothing more and nothing less.”
Business culture has perhaps also numbed us to the prospect of failure without consequence. In the corporate world, poor performance is no impediment to lavish compensation. When the Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was fired last December after two 737 Max planes crashed and the entire fleet was grounded, he walked away with a $62 million payout. Executives seem to rake in millions no matter how badly their companies fare.
Beyond matters of culture, Trump’s shamelessness—his unwillingness to express contrition—seems to have become a kind of shield. While Joe Biden is under fire because of a claim of sexual assault dating back almost three decades—with The New York Times demanding an investigation, and some commentators urging the Democratic Party to ditch its presumptive nominee—sexual-assault allegations against Trump, such as the one by E. Jean Carroll last year, barely register. Why the contrasting treatment? Biden’s critics recognize that the former vice president can be made to take responsibility for his actions, whereas Trump seems impervious to opprobrium, whether over sexual misconduct or his lethal incompetence. So we march on toward 100,000 coronavirus deaths, resigned for now to Trump’s diseased presidency.
But if these factors explain why almost no one in a position of authority or influence is saying that Trump should go, they hardly justify the silence. On the contrary, the silence is yet another indication of how warped our politics has become.
Steven Kaplan, a professor emeritus at Cornell University who taught French history and now lives in Paris (full disclosure: he is a friend), told me that if Emmanuel Macron had screwed up as badly as Trump has, he “would have been the object of serious and repeated calls for resignation.” The same would surely be the case for Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel.
Zelizer, of Princeton, thinks future historians will be astonished that Trump’s failure was tolerated to the point that his resignation wasn’t even part of the conversation. “I think we will look back and ask why people weren’t more furious,” he says. “Where was the outrage?”