The administration’s incompetence frequently arose from its malice. That was the coronavirus story: Trump interpreted the pandemic as a criticism of himself, and dealt with the pandemic the way he habitually dealt with criticism: by refusing to acknowledge its existence. But as often as not, the incompetence was just and only that, the blundering that resulted from people in over their heads holding positions they should never have held.
The Trump administration and its supporters endlessly railed against the disdain and condescension of their political opponents. In a June 2020 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump interpreted the basic precaution of mask wearing during a pandemic as a slight against him and his supporters.
In a column back in 1991, the commentator Chris Matthews memorably described the Democratic Party as the “mommy” party and the Republican Party as the “daddy” party. “‘Daddy’ locks the doors at night and brings home the bacon,” Matthews wrote. “‘Mommy’ worries when the kids are sick and makes sure each one gets treated fairly.” In this scheme, Daddy might be gruff and harsh—but at least he knew what he was doing.
What happens, though, when Daddy is manifestly clueless? When he bellows and bullies to compensate for his own inadequacies? That’s where America often seemed to be during the Trump years. That’s how it was during the Trump trial.
Candidate Trump and President Trump regularly grumbled that the world was laughing at America. They think we are so stupid, he would say, with all the bitterness of a man who imagined that an unnamed “they” was thinking those negative thoughts about him too. The first few weeks of the Biden administration have begun to correct the dismal national self-image that Trump promoted. Suddenly American science, technology, and management seem again to be leading the way. Yesterday, President Joe Biden announced that the United States had secured enough vaccine doses for 300 million Americans. Today, the U.S. administered 2 million doses in a single day. Good-at-stuff America is back, after a long hiatus.
So something is fitting about the fact that the same day, February 12, Trump’s team put, once again, on national display a farewell image of bad-at-stuff America. President Trump associated his political party with all of his personal faults, including his trademark snarling mismanagement. He hired lawyers who shared those faults. Tomorrow, Republicans will have their last, best chance to separate themselves from Trump. But whatever Trump’s party does, the country is separating from him. The ugly and inept performance of the Trump legal team broadcast to the world a final, spectacular view of what and whom a dynamic America is putting behind itself—let’s hope forever, but at least for now.