NATIONAL INTEREST - Aug 13, 2020 -
Donald Trump isn’t the better choice to secure America’s future. He is the only choice
Editor’s Note: Please see a counter perspective, courtesy of Dov Zakheim, a former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense during the George W. Bush Administration, as part of a two-part debate on the 2020 Election and Donald Trump. You can read the essay here.
PRESIDENT DONALD Trump, despite his numerous and well-documented faults, is by far a better choice than former vice-president Joe Biden in 2020. If the election were strictly a referendum on Trump, the answer might be quite different, and the Democrats would understandably want to portray the election as a referendum on a controversial and unpopular president. But as with most presidential elections, there are really only two candidates. The election is not only about what the incumbent president has done, but also about the actions of the opposition—in this case, the Democrats—to checkmate his efforts.
First, a word on Trump’s own record: he clearly has mishandled the greatest current challenge to the United States, namely, the coronavirus pandemic. His response to the crisis has been, at best, erratic, and, at worst, a mixture of self-delusion and a search for personal political benefit. Many thousands of people have died needlessly because the president was unwilling and unable to form an effective response to the pandemic—a challenge that required a disciplined and deliberate analysis, the right balance between medical and economic considerations, and skillful federal leadership in coordination with governors and mayors. As a result of the president’s fumbling, the economy is now in worse shape than it needed to be. In contrast, for most of his term, Trump provided quite sound economic leadership, and by most indicators, both Wall Street and Main Street were in good shape before the virus struck. It is clear, however, that a lack of adequate preparation to a fairly predictable pandemic, an absence of minimally adequate supplies, a failure to organize mass testing comparable to what was done in most of Europe, China, Korea, and even Russia, has made the pandemic more severe than in most other advanced nations. The president’s emphasis on reopening the economy no matter what has also now contributed to a new wave of the virus, which in turn triggers new closings of the economy, more unemployment, zig-zags in financial markets, and a general uncertainty.
Trump can also not escape personal responsibility for the recent wave of political protests, accompanied in far too many cases by outright violence against police, businesses, average citizens and even monuments—a central part of the American tradition whose violent destruction symbolizes the impotence of authorities in dealing with illegal actions by a relatively small but belligerent movement of radical militants. Trump’s insensitivity toward acts of police brutality—which garner most attention when directed against African-Americans but are experienced by citizens of all races—has heightened tensions following the dreadful death of George Floyd, a black man virtually strangulated by a white police officer. Trump’s response to the subsequent riots was a combination of bravado, empty threats, and a demonstratively inadequate yet provocative action which left the rioters emboldened—and average people exposed and unprotected.
More fundamentally, the United States is the most polarized it has been since the Civil War. States controlled by Democratic governors, mayors, and legislatures demonstrate an open contempt for President Trump’s orders, and the president has so far shown little ability to either find common ground with them—even on dealing with such essential matters as the pandemic—or to subjugate them to his will. Democratic governors and mayors defiantly declare their disregard for federal orders, ranging from the pandemic to immigration, without ever suffering serious consequences for themselves and for their states. The president, who thinks of himself as a tough leader in the mode of Winston Churchill, often sounds rather like King Lear.
In addition to a defiant bureaucracy and paralyzing leaks, Trump also finds himself confronted with senior officials in his own administration who openly disassociate themselves from his positions. Even amid riots in the nation’s capital, both the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated that they did not see the need to use the regular military against rioters. While there was indeed probably no need for the president to go that far, there is no doubt that the intent of such statements was to distance themselves from the president and to create doubts that he would be able, if necessary, to use military force to deal with domestic disturbances—a measure that has been used on several occasions in the past without much controversy. This de facto condemnation by heads of the military against their own president would be totally unjustifiable if Trump himself was not constantly providing mitigating circumstances by issuing ridiculous statements, ranging from comments about being a “stable genius” to threatening to smash his opponents both at home and abroad in a way nobody could actually take seriously.