President Trump has said many misguided and misleading things since the coronavirus started strangling America. Remember this brilliant prediction? "It's going to disappear," he said back in February. "One day, it's like a miracle -- it will disappear."
But few of his words have been as reckless, and downright dangerous, as his exhortation to protesters to "liberate" states like Michigan and Virginia from the stay-at-home orders his own experts have been promoting. This craziness -- the only word for it -- has left even Republican governors like Larry Hogan of Maryland sputtering in disbelief.
"I don't think it's helpful to encourage demonstrations and encourage people to go against the president's own policy," he said on CNN. "It just doesn't make any sense."
No, it doesn't. As Hogan said in a press briefing, "If the recovery is not done in a thoughtful and responsible way, it will not only cost lives, but it will deepen the economic crisis and actually prolong the problems and slow our recovery."
Fortunately, the public has more sense than the president. In the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 58% said they feared the government would "move too quickly" to lift restrictions on everyday life. Only 32% backed the president's view, expressing worry that officials would "take too long" in restoring normalcy.
Trump's often false and fumbling response to the crisis has undermined his credibility. Only 36% said they trust the president as a source of information, compared to 66% who believe their own governor. Even though Joe Biden, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee, has disappeared into his basement in Delaware, 47% say they trust him to handle a crisis like COVID-19, compared to 38% for Trump.
What does this all mean? It's now obvious that Trump would rather run for president than actually run the country. Long gone are the days when he proclaimed himself to be a "wartime president" with "total" authority to respond to the pandemic. Instead, he's abdicated his responsibility, repeatedly telling governors it was up to them to manage testing and tracking protocols and find the equipment they need. So it was Maryland's Hogan, not Trump, who found and purchased 500,000 test kits from South Korea.
Meanwhile, the president has turned his White House briefings into campaign rallies and reality shows, boasting about his ratings and measuring success by one monomaniacal metric only: his personal popularity. In explaining his support for demonstrators who challenged his own policies, Trump said, "I think they listen to me. They seem to be protesters that like me."
Clearly, Trump is most comfortable as an insurgent, not an insider; a protester, not a president. He thrives as a rallying point for the populist outrage that spilled into the streets of state capitals like Lansing, Michigan, and Raleigh, North Carolina. But it's hard to storm the castle, brandishing torches and pitchforks, when you actually live in the castle.
"Mobilizing anger and mistrust toward the government was a crucial factor for Mr. Trump in the last presidential campaign," writes Maggie Haberman in the New York Times. "The problem? Mr. Trump is now president, and disowning responsibility for his administration's slow and problem-plagued response to the coronavirus could prove difficult."
Yes, we are a freedom-loving nation that prizes individual liberty, and yes, the rules imposed on people to battle the virus can restrict their rights, sometimes unfairly. But Americans value community as well as liberty. We understand that all rights have limits, and that we owe an obligation to our friends and neighbors, not just ourselves. We wear face masks in grocery stores to protect others -- clerks, cashiers, fellow shoppers -- from the harm we could do to them, not what they could do to us.
That's why 4 out of 5 Americans tell a Harvard survey that social distancing is working, and why 64% favor continuation of shelter-in-place rules, while only 36% want the country to "begin going back to work." The economic pain caused by the pandemic is very real, and leaders at every level must move as quickly as possible to alleviate that pain. But their actions must make medical and scientific sense. Responding to popular protests for political reasons makes no sense at all.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told ABC that the fall election will be a "referendum" on whether Trump "handled this virus in a way that helped the American people, protected lives and moved us forward." So far the public's answer is a resounding "no."
(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.)