Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President Donald Trump gave in to the realities of Covid-19 when he canceled the plan to hold portions of the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, Florida. Trump had insisted on moving some of the festivities to Florida after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper highlighted the dangers of hosting a major event during a pandemic. Now, with the surging virus ravaging the Sunshine State, the President is resigned to sticking to the original location and holding a pared-back convention in Charlotte.
For the President, who likes to create his own reality with the support of Fox News, the decision is a big blow. Trump has desperately wanted to make sure that Republicans can convene a grand convention on the scale of what other incumbents have enjoyed in the past. He thirsts for a celebration of his term and the public confirmation that he is as successful as he says.
But he can’t have that.
Welcome to the world we all live in. The pandemic is real. The virus is killing people — it’s overwhelming our health care facilities, it’s putting workers at risk and it’s stretching our institutions, as well as our economy, to the breaking point. While the President might be able to repeat “Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV” several times over, he can’t just wish the pandemic away.
This has been a major problem for our country. Fearing for his own political hide, the President refused to acknowledge the severity of the threat and resisted the steps needed to contain the virus. Let’s not forget that Trump defied state lockdown orders and supported protesters who wanted to “liberate” states like Michigan. During a critical period in April, the President encouraged governors to get the economy going as soon as possible.
Trump mocked the use of face masks and was not publicly seen wearing one until earlier this month. He shouldn’t get the equivalent of a political cookie for finally putting on a mask more than seven months after the virus first emerged and suddenly declaring himself patriotic for doing so. Trump has sidelined scientific experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, just when the country needed them the most. As a result of Trump’s actions, the Covid crisis is continuing to spiral out of control in the US, while countries like Italy and Germany are reopening.
The President who loves to flex his power has refused to direct a coordinated, national response that would have been far more effective than the haphazard, jerry-built policies we are now left with. Instead of sending militarized law enforcement agents into Portland, Oregon, to stop the “criminal actions” of “violent anarchists,” according to the US Customs and Border Protection, Trump should have been sending armies of contact tracers and testers into every part of the country.
Now the President can’t escape the quagmire he helped create. The administration has utterly botched its response, and Trump’s decision to call off the events in Jacksonville is just one piece of evidence that he can’t get out from underneath this crisis. The miserable poll numbers that show him trailing behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and the mounting issue of whether schools should reopen this fall are two others.
Throughout American history, presidents have often found themselves bogged down by their own policy failures. Herbert Hoover’s middling economic policies were not nearly strong enough to prevent the implosion of the American economy during the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam devastated his domestic legacy. As he told his biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved — the Great Society.” President George W. Bush burned through the political capital he earned after 9/11 with a needless and disastrous war in Iraq.
Trump is now confronted with his own failures. But the President, who in a press briefing earlier this week repeated his belief that the virus would disappear, still lives in a world of disinformation that justifies inaction. It’s unlikely, given his track record, that his fears of defeat in November are enough to push him toward substantive action; whatever changes he might propose come much too late.
While it is possible for presidents to survive an imbroglio, as Bush did in 2004, their legacies can rarely be repaired. These disastrous decisions often loom so large that they become the starting point for any conversation about a presidency and Trump doesn’t have many accomplishments that will stand the test of time and improve his reputation. With the case of Covid-19, the dire impact on society and the wreckage of American institutions might be so grand that it will be years if not decades before we recover from what happened in these trying months.