Dealing With an Unfit President During a Time of Crisis

Governors are battling this crisis on the front lines while having to maneuver Trump’s machinations.

One of the first articles I read about Donald Trump’s mental health issues was written by Richard Greene. He talked to several psychiatrists about the signs and symptoms related to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). One description stuck with me.

There are only two ways to deal with someone with NPD, and they are both dangerous. There is no healthy way of interacting with someone with this affliction. If you criticize them they will lash out at you and if they have a great deal of power, that can be consequential. If you compliment them it only acts to increase the delusional and grandiose reality the sufferer has created, causing him to be even more reliant on constant and endless compliments and unwavering support.

That is a classic double-bind that we have witnessed both U.S. and foreign leaders attempt to navigate with Trump over the last three years. But as Kathleen Ronayne and Jonathan Lamire report, it is particularly acute right now for the nation’s governors. Their piece is titled, “Flatter or fight. Governors seeking help must navigate Trump.”

Facing an unprecedented public health crisis, governors are trying to get what they need from Washington, and fast. But that means navigating the disorienting politics of dealing with Trump, an unpredictable president with a love for cable news and a penchant for retribution.

Republicans and Democrats alike are testing whether to fight or flatter, whether to back channel requests or go public, all in an attempt to get Trump’s attention and his assurances.

At stake may be access to masks, ventilators and other personal protective gear critically needed by health care workers, as well as field hospitals and federal cash. As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., put it, “I can’t afford to have a fight with the White House.”

That is actually putting in mildly. Trump isn’t really all that unpredictable. He made the stakes known during a Fox News town hall on Tuesday when he said, “We are doing very well with, I think, almost all of the governors, for the most part. But you know, it’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well.” We all know that when Trump says “us,” he really means “me.”

So with lives and livelihoods on the line, the nation’s governors are being sent the same message Trump relayed to the president of Ukraine: “Do us me a favor.” California’s Governor Gavin Newsome learned about that the hard way.

Newsom complimented Trump for “his focus on treatments” for the virus and thanked him for sending masks and gloves to California. He said the president was “on top of it” when it came to improving testing and said Trump was aware “even before I offered my own insight” of the state’s need for more testing swabs.

It’s an approach informed by Newsom’s past dealing with Trump during devastating wildfires. While Trump always has approved California’s requests for disaster declaration following fires, just days into Newsom’s tenure last year Trump threatened the state’s access to disaster relief money.

Meanwhile, the president continues to criticize Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer for not being sufficiently deferential.

In an interview Thursday night on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity,” Trump groused, “Some of these governors take, take, take and then they complain.”

Of Whitmer, he said, “All she does is sit there and blame the federal government.” And he said Inslee “should be doing more,” adding, “He’s always complaining.”

That is what happens when we have a president who is “erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy.”

We’ll never know how the coronavirus crisis might have played out under a different president because there is no parallel universe (at least that we know about) where we can watch that possibility unfold. But something Peter Wehner wrote recently tapped into a new emotional response from me. I’ve had lots of moments of fear and anger, but this description finally triggered my grief.

The qualities we most need in a president during this crisis are calmness, wisdom, and reassurance; a command of the facts and the ability to communicate them well; and the capacity to think about the medium and long term while carefully weighing competing options and conflicting needs. We need a leader…who can focus like a laser beam on a problem for a sustained period of time, and who will listen to—and, when necessary, defer to—experts who know far more than he does. We need a president who…excels at the intricate work of governing, and who works well with elected officials at every level. We need a chief executive whose judgment is not just sound, but exceptional.

There are some 325 million people in America, and it’s hard to think of more than a handful who are more lacking in these qualities than Donald Trump.

Not long after the 2016 election, I wrote a piece titled, “The Most Dangerous Part of a Trump Presidency: The Unknown.”

The truth is that what worries me the most about a Trump presidency is the unknown…

During political campaigns, the tendency is to talk about what a candidate will do in office. That ranges all the way from particular policy positions to the visionary elements contained in their campaign slogans…

It is the moment when the unknown happens during the next four years that Trump’s character will be on display the most. That is why it is the part of his presidency that worries me the most.

While Trump’s presidency and the willingness of congressional Republicans to tolerate his actions have been devastating to our country, we were less than a year from a potential end to this madness when the unknown was unleashed in all its force. I grieve for what might have been if we had been able to face that unknown led by a president with even a modicum of competence.

No matter whether your current response to what is happening in our country is dominated by fear, anger, or grief, please keep in mind that our governors need our support. Most of them are not only battling this crisis on the front lines, they’re having to do so while maneuvering the machinations of a president like Donald Trump. I’m guessing that for the competent ones, that requires a herculean effort.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.