Frank Bruni’s Opinion Column in the NYT


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April 8, 2020

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Al Drago for The New York Times
Author Headshot
Opinion Columnist

I didn’t expect Donald Trump to turn eloquent overnight, nor is that necessary. Strong leadership doesn’t require it.

I didn’t expect him to stop complimenting himself. Bragging is as central to his existence as swimming is to a whale’s. It’s what propels him. It’s what sustains him. At this point it’s not merely reflexive. It’s autonomic.

I didn’t expect him to start telling the truth. I’m an optimist, not a fantasist.

But what I did expect, or at least hope for, was that this once-in-a-generation pandemic would tamp down his pettiness and meanness. How could it not? How cold he behold the scale of the suffering and the dimensions of the challenge before him and not realize that he finally had to be bigger and dig deeper?

There is no such bigness in Trump, no such digging. There is just the usual martyr complex, the familiar tirades and the same old passing of the buck. I’m forced to conclude that he’s not just a man ill equipped for this moment. He’s a man whose soul went missing.

I said as much in a column published a few days ago, and I winced when I wrote it and cringed when I sent it to my editor, because I don’t want to feel this cynical about an American president, certainly not now. I want to be pleasantly surprised. I want to be forced to reassess all prior misgivings and to apologize for selling him short, because that would mean that he was ably and nobly guiding us through this nightmare. Get something this important right and you’re forgiven all wrongs.

But as I explained in the column, which assesses Trump’s behavior over the past month, he isn’t finding the grace in crisis that other presidents did. He doesn’t even seem to be trying. I can’t fathom that. And I definitely can’t swallow it.

Laments like mine won’t change him. His rot is too fundamental for that. But they do, I think, serve a purpose: They nudge us past any lingering illusions that the direst of circumstances will transform the false prophet into a benevolent god.

No, this prophet just demands an even greater magnitude of worship. And he grows all the more furious when he doesn’t get it.

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