His grammar leaves something to be desired, but the message is clear. US President Donald Trump has informed the nation and the world that he has now risen to the same significant height reached by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. Explaining the measures he intends to take to protect the nation from COVID-19 (formerly given the code name HOAX-3), he said: “I view it as — in a sense — a wartime president. That’s what we’re fighting.”
The News Media and Public Health Crises
Trump has already been lauded by the media for launching missiles at Syria and Iraq and has consistently, albeit much more discreetly, drone-bombed numerous other countries across the globe. At the same time, his administration has assisted Saudi Arabia in the destruction of lives, mosques and hospitals in Yemen. Yet Trump has, for the first time, unabashedly claimed the coveted status of being a wartime president.
In 2001, President Bush initiated his “global war on terror” against an elusive enemy adept at making itself invisible. Trump can far more credibly proclaim that he’s at war with an “invisible enemy” — invisible, that is, to anyone not equipped with a microscope. There are, after all, many ways of being invisible. Bush’s terrorist enemies made themselves invisible to ordinary surveillance and military technology. The novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, may be visible under a microscope, but people transmit it invisibly to others, which is far more frightening.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
1. A synonym for president of the United States, a nation that is almost constantly involved in wars (226 out of its 244 years of existence, according to some accounts).
2. An honorary title for specific US presidents who take pride in pointing to what the public perceives as the unequivocally evil nature of their enemy
CNN notes that when it no longer appeared tenable to dismiss the coronavirus as a minor inconvenience, Trump switched from reassuring the nation and underplaying the drama to resolutely rising to the occasion in the role of the heroic leader. “Trump now views the crisis at hand as a once-in-a-generation battle — a reality that people around him have been trying to convey for weeks,” CNN reports.
Like French President Emmanuel Macron, who in a recent televised address repeated over and over again the phrase, “we are at war,” Trump seems to have realized that leading the nation to battle can be a winning electoral strategy. It may indeed be the only one possible after weeks of seeming indifference to a challenge he repeatedly called the third major hoax, following the Mueller investigation and his inconsequential impeachment.
Trump’s new discourse and tone represent an attempt to recall the spirit of heroism and solidarity associated with the memories of the nation’s response to World War II. At a White House briefing, he said: “Every generation of Americans has been called to make shared sacrifices for the good of the nation.” Calling attention to his duty as president to join Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt in a noble historic mission, Trump added: “Now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.”
The contrast between the three Western leaders most prominently in news — Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron — in their handling of the struggle to defeat the coronavirus tells an interesting story about the leaders themselves and the cultures of three nations.
Macron was the first to step up. In a televised address, he set the tone a week ago by invoking the spirit of wartime sacrifice that should guide the French as a nation in combating the threat of the coronavirus. He followed up on March 16 with another televised address and his explicit call to war while announcing strictly enforced measures of sequestration for the entire citizenry. His authority — for once appearing “Jupiterian” (an early theme of Macron’s) — was accepted and even welcomed by the population.
Trump at first hesitated, even about the nature of his role, since as US president he has no direct authority over the states and cities. He then realized that as commander-in-chief, the crisis was inviting him to step into a role of authority and at least give the impression of being the knowledgeable leader capable of making things happen. But instead of imitating Macron and defining all the measures, Trump, in his role as capitalist-in-chief, called together the CEOs of private companies whom the population could trust to organize the war against the enemy.
Trump’s verbal hesitation and shaky grammar when he finally did blurt out the idea of being a “wartime president” on March 18 showed that unlike Bush with the global war on terror or Barack Obama when he announced the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Trump sees it as more of an electoral roleplay than a mission. Moreover, Associated Press noticed that Trump “seemed to minimize the urgency of the decision, later tweeting that he ‘only signed the Defense Production Act to combat the Chinese Virus should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future.’” He added this proviso: “Hopefully there will be no need.’” And by insisting on calling it the “Chinese Virus,” Trump persisted in treating it as somebody else’s problem.
Macron predictably affirmed the preeminent role of the Jacobin state to put things in order. Trump is playing on the quintessentially American political meme of the public sector sounding tough while relying on the private sector to get things done.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson provides an interesting contrast. The Guardian notes that for a man who claims to adulate Winston Churchill and has even written a biography of the legendary prime minister, Johnson displays a very un-Churchillian allergy to mobilizing the population by appealing to the citizens’ patriotic duty. Instead of calling for “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” Johnson has spent the week standing up for an Englishman’s right to stand at the bar and order another pint (of bitter, of course).
Writing in The Guardian, political editor Heather Stewart remarks that “nothing in Johnson’s background or political makeup have prepared him for telling the British public to stay out of the pub.” She adds: “He has so far been unable to muster either the dirigisme of Emmanuel Macron or the moral heft of Leo Varadkar when urging the public to do the right thing, and stay at home.”
The lesson of this comparison of two presidents and a prime minister facing a situation they see as comparable to war is as clear as it is amusing.
France beheaded its last Bourbon king in 1793 and subsequently flirted with two dynastic emperors, before settling on the first of five Republics in the course of the 19th century. Yet its culture has consistently remained compatible with the principles of monarchy. Charles De Gaulle, Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and even Giscard d’Estaing cultivated a certain panache of monarchy in their style of governing, spreading a royal fragrance like pheromones in every corner of the republic. While throughout the Fifth Republic presidents insisted on the principle of democracy, Emmanuel Macron was the first to consciously evoke the idea of the president’s royal prerogatives, giving it a classical twist with his idea of Jupiterian rule.
Boris Johnson presides over the nation that long ago adopted as its motto: “Every Englishman’s home is his castle.” The proverb was formalized in law 400 years ago but, contrary to the current reaction to the coronavirus outbreak, retreating to one’s castle had nothing to do with social distancing. Instead, it pointed to the sacred rights of individuals who, within their private realms, could be a law unto themselves. When they exercised the same rights in the public sphere, they were simply called “eccentric” and often admired for it. The English will always think of themselves as free as long as they observe the rule of fair play that they believe effectively governs social relations. All of this highlights the fact that Johnson is very much an Englishman rather than a Briton.
Winston Churchill, the half-American British aristocrat descended from a legendary 18th-century general, the Duke of Marlborough, hailed from a different tradition that combined an American “can do” force of will with an atavistic nostalgia for the glory of formal combat that turned him into the perfect wartime prime minister capable of resisting Adolf Hitler (with a little help from his American friends).
This brings us back to the American, Donald Trump, a businessman-turned-politician, who has consistently bowed to the great 19th-century tradition of the snake oil salesman. He’ll make the promises people want to hear, but never overcommits. He shamelessly backtracks when challenged, claiming that whatever pleases the crowd and appears to be most effective is what he meant all along. As a salesman, he’s all things to all men: a living oxymoron; an anti-racist white supremacist; a wartime president intent on bringing back the troops (and then leaving them on the battlefield); a “grab them by the pussy” man who respects women; and a person concerned with everyone’s health, except those who are weak-willed enough to get sick. Like all Americans, he’s task-oriented and can sacrifice a principle or two to focus on the task and then congratulate himself on getting it done. Trump’s main task today is to get reelected in November. That’s what he is now focusing on.
Trump profits from the federal concept at the core of America’s political system. Not only does that mean a few unrepresentative states (swing states) — rather than the people of the nation — elect the president through the Electoral College, but it also means that coherent and consistent decision-making is no single person’s or even institution’s responsibility because decisions, however cacophonous and poorly coordinated, are every state’s or even city’s responsibility.
That means presidents and even legislatures are free to talk tough and act weak. It ensures that rhetoric becomes not just the primary political activity, but practically the only one. The content of laws and policies is defined by those who have an interest in a particular sector of the economy (lobbyists), not by the people’s representatives, who simply vote on the proposals. At the same time, the executive assumes the job of enforcing the laws thus defined and defending the interests of those same interests who finance their campaigns.
At least that’s how it works in normal times. In a crisis, the people have different, more immediate expectations. They know the rhetoric will be there. They can simply hope that the action evoked in the rhetoric will come to be. And depending on the severity of the crisis, they may at some point try to hold the rhetoricians responsible. That’s what happened after 1929. It nearly happened after 2008, but the rhetoricians managed to hold off the assault (Tea Party, Occupy). This time may be different.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.