Donald Trump was elected president of the United States the American way as the makers of the constitution in 1787 wanted it, imposing the Electoral College to despise “democracy”. He was not the first to lose in the popular vote and win in the Electoral College; George W. Bush did the same in 2000. Expecting to lose the popular vote throughout the country, each had worked extra hard and smart to ensure he got the votes that counted in the Electoral College. Bush and Trump had politically outsmarted supposedly very smart people in Albert Gore and Hillary Clinton. Trump enjoyed leading “smart” people by the nose and then firing them unceremoniously. He likes doing things, as Frank Sinatra would sing, “My Way.”
As long as there was no serious crisis, his way seemed to work. The third president to be impeached, he showed no remorse for his seeming uncouthness. He survived the Senate trial which gave him strategic “bonga” points in the anti-establishment rural America where electoral votes reside. His way was their way, for a while, until coronavirus hit America.
When the Coronavirus hit America, Trump’s way became global liability as he, and America lost the coronavirus moment. He could not blame the loss on predecessors Barack Obama or George Bush or even on China. To his credit, Trump had tried solving challenges inherited from Bush and Obama in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya and had a modicum of success. He had even tried to create his own “Nixon Moment” in North Korea, the way Obama did in Cuba, only for his advisors to sabotage the effort. They did it, particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton, by making inappropriate comments at crucial times in negotiations. Bolton’s supposed comment about fixing North Korea the way NATO had fixed Libya was sure way to sabotage discussions.
Although Trump showed leadership in North Korea, he failed to “lead” when the coronavirus opportunity arose. His indecisions and probable disdain for anything not white American made him lose the coronavirus moment. He, instead, made contradictory statements that made him look confused. He initially tried denying the reality only to be forced to swallow pride and appear to act half-heartedly. He showed that he was a very poor consumer of intelligence and, even worse than poor consumption, he lacked the acumen to understand and properly act on the intelligence availed to him. He ignored serious warnings of epidemic threats on the horizons.
No need to blame members of the intelligence communities for not availing the appropriate intelligence to consumers/policy makers. They did their part. Policy makers, in their worldwide habit of “Kupuuza”, failed partly because they have inherent prejudices that blind them to evident realities. The prejudices deny them capacity to understand and act properly. By the time they wake up from superficial self-grandeur, they end up plunging themselves and their countries into panic modes. It happened in the US where Trump has a big fight with governors of various states who waited for his leadership in crisis, in vain.
Trump belatedly tried to act forcefully, only to lose it partly because his administration’s believability level is low. He went to Norfolk to launch a floating hospital called “Comfort” to take regular patients and relieve other hospitals to worry about coronavirus. He also declared war on coronavirus by turning Detroit and related industrial zones into huge factories for coronavirus related fighting materials. With the US government as the primary market, this deficit spending economic stimulus package might pull the US out of its current economic squeeze, the way World War II pulled the US out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. His low believability undermined his anti-coronavirus war strategies. He quickly had to retreat on his suggestion to quarantine the tri-states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo accused him of violating the constitution.
Accusations of behaving unconstitutionally undercuts Trump’s dreams of become a great president leading nationalistic Americans into being “Great Again”. He watches that “greatness” disappear in the new global crisis. The coronavirus sweeps his dreams of becoming a great president, probably greater than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, down the sewer of self-pride. It exposed the United States as a once great country that lacks proper public policy, would be global leader without grand strategy. Since Trump’s home state of New York leads in American coronavirus infections and deaths, he looks beaten, rudderless, and troubled. Reflecting the country that he leads, no longer great, he is like James Buchannan before the Civil War and Herbert Hoover at the onset of the Great Depression. Being neither Lincoln nor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he talks “great”, has no capacity to be great, and is symbolic of American lost world of self-greatness.
Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU.