Read: Trump wants to be president of a one-party state
What has been missing is any sort of behavior traditionally associated with the presidency. Trump initially condemned George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, but since then there have been no statements intended to quell anger, bridge divisions, or heal wounds. There have been no public appearances, either; Trump traveled all the way to Florida to watch a SpaceX rocket launch on Saturday, but hasn’t managed to travel in front of cameras for a formal statement.
During a teleconference Monday, Trump derided governors as “weak” in their response to protests, but he has cowered out of view, dithering about what to do except for armchair-quarterbacking those who are trying. As my colleague Peter Nicholas notes, even Richard Nixon went to speak with anti–Vietnam War protesters in 1970, trying to convey that he heard their complaints. It’s hard to imagine Trump doing something like that, because he has shown no interest in being perceived as caring about what his critics believe.
As I noted in the closing days of the 2018 midterm race, the challenge of a democratic polity is that leaders must run on behalf of one party, then govern on behalf of everyone. In a one-party state, there’s no such divided polity, and that’s what Trump seems to prefer. His lack of interest in unifying Americans has been on display over the past few days.
Despite the vacuum that Trump’s silence creates, practically no one wants to hear from him. They know that he will only make the situation worse, whether by intention—“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”—or by clumsiness. People may yearn for a leader, but they don’t yearn for him.
“He should just stop talking. This is like Charlottesville all over again,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on CNN last night, referring to Trump’s disastrous comments after a violent white-nationalist march in Virginia in 2017. “He speaks and he makes it worse. There are times when you should just be quiet, and I wish that he would just be quiet.”
It isn’t just Democratic leaders like Bottoms who are saying that. His own aides agree. They wish he’d stop tweeting, and while there are sporadic calls for Trump to make an Oval Office address, the prevailing view among his advisers—led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—is that such an address would be unwise. These staffers remember that Trump’s March Oval Office address on the coronavirus was full of errors and a political loser. Like Bottoms, they see a parallel with Charlottesville and worry that Trump will just make things worse.
Read: Trump is terrified of protest
They’re almost certainly right. Trump is unable to analyze any issue outside the lens of electoral politics—or, more precisely, his own political fortunes. When The New York Times asked Trump yesterday what he was going to do to address unrest, he replied, “I’m going to win the election easily … The economy is going to start to get good and then great, better than ever before. I’m getting more judges appointed by the week, including two Supreme Court justices, and I’ll have close to 300 judges by the end of the year.”