“President Trump was acting as the United States’ cheerleader, his Republican supporters argue. He was derelict in his duty to protect the American public, charge his Democratic opponents.”
ob Woodward’s reporting helped to bring down one President. Now, in his book Rage, which was released yesterday, Woodward has exposed another. The difference this time is that we have President Trump’s own damning words on tape. Showman that he is, did President Trump think that he could trick Woodward into writing a favorable book? Did he believe that he—like Citizen Kane—could bend the public narrative, telling the reporter one thing and the public another?
The commentary that has accompanied recent headlines has largely fallen along the predictable partisan lines. President Trump says on Woodward’s tape that he knew in February of this year that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) was “deadly stuff” but that he has “always wanted to play it down…because I don’t want to create a panic.” President Trump was acting as the United States’ cheerleader, his Republican supporters argue. He was derelict in his duty to protect the American public, charge his Democratic opponents.
However, there is a more fulsome explanation than one rooted only in partisan ideology. As I examine in my new film Citizen Trump, President Trump’s missteps handling the pandemic are rooted in the celebrity path he has followed, as well as in the skills he leveraged in ascending to the highest political office in the land. It is a similar path to the one trod by the title character of his favorite movie, Citizen Kane.
In confronting COVID-19, President Trump, the showman who rode his reality television profile to the White House, originally tried all of the familiar strategies: dismiss the truth, blame the media, and then blame China. Still, he could not control the death tolls or even his task force of scientists. The performer inside unwittingly turned daily briefings about a life-and-death medical issue into a talk show for self-promotion. All the while, he offered false hope in the face of a catastrophe. That it now appears that he understood the virus’ danger well before he shared the extent of said danger with the public only reinforces this unshakeable truth: During a pandemic—and in an election year—it is a high risk venture to have an entertainer as a national caretaker.
President Trump, though, might still have the chance to take charge and lead the greatest effort for national mobilization since World War II, the same era in which Citizen Kane was made. In the meantime, even his enemies have needed to rely on him as the President of the United States. This might not always have been out of admiration, but it was true at least out of necessity. So even if President Trump may have delivered on most of his campaign promises—and his economic policies did give rise to one of the greatest economies in history—the virus, nevertheless, has had a mind of its own.
And, for this reason, the United States has needed a moral king and not a reality television star.
As COVID -19 continued to spread, the Trump administration’s longevity was thrust increasingly into jeopardy. The economy all but shut down. The stock market temporarily came to a grinding halt. And President Trump’s failure to respond early enough to the warning signs—even though it is now apparent that he was aware of the severity of the crisis—continues to threaten his administration’s standing and his own reputation. Now, post-Woodward, this is all even more the case.
It has become apparent that President Trump, the hard-driving leader who would do anything to win, might not be trustworthy when it comes to being forthright and honest about the pandemic. Although the disease was not the President’s fault, all of his strengths as a showman are now coming to be seen as weaknesses—just as those same weaknesses fueled the downfall of Charles Foster Kane. President Trump’s reliance on conflicting messaging and repetitive speech was downright dangerous. His history of bending institutions to his liking might have further exposed his country to the fullest possible impacts of the pandemic.
As the crisis continues to unfold, it is more evident than ever that the United States does not need a reality television star in the White House. Instead, it needs a moral leader: a role for which President Trump has apparently not rehearsed. It needs not a gunslinging anti-hero but, rather, a genuine hero capable of self-sacrifice. When faced with a real war, how can we believe the showman? The cinematic America in Citizen Kane, after all, was unable to inspire said trust, hence Kane’s defeat in his bid to become Governor of New York.
The United State, at times, needs—even requires—a bold television trickster to beat the Clinton machine. However, just the same, the country needs a moral king—like it had in say President Franklin D. Roosevelt or President Ronald Reagan. Instead of a President doing his job, we received the happy-talk showman, as was revealed to Woodward. So, at this point in time, our only hope must be that this situation does not devolve into even further tragedy.
Robert Orlando is a filmmaker and writer. He founded Nexus Media, and his latest film is Citizen Trump. He is also the author of two books, and his essays have appeared in various publications, including American Thinker, The Catholic Thing, The Daily Caller, and HuffPost.