The reality star is finally bowing to reality. During a Monday afternoon press conference, Donald Trump demonstrated a significant shift in substance and style.
“It's bad, it's bad,” Trump said, describing a conversation with his son Barron about the coronavirus. This was a striking departure from previous comments, when he compared it to the flu, saying “it will go away,” and otherwise downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic.
Who knows what changed? Maybe he heard from Tucker Carlson or Newt Gingrich? Maybe he saw the Democratic debate on Sunday, and finally realized he was in trouble? Or maybe someone he personally knows got sick? Whatever the case, it was a different Donald Trump who showed up at that press conference on Monday afternoon—a calmer, more in touch with reality Donald Trump.
For one hour, at least, the president was finally dealing with the reality that America must unwaveringly administer an aggressive social distancing regime to stop this contagious virus. Instead of insisting that we have “tremendous control over” the virus, Trump announced guidelines to avoid gathering in groups of more than 10. When asked how long Coronavirus could impact America, he said it could be as long as July or August.
Of course, the problem isn’t just the serious health implications, it’s also the health of the economy (a factor that presumably contributed to his previous reluctance to speak frankly about the health hazards). Referring to the virus as an “invisible enemy,” Trump conceded we “may be” headed toward a recession.
As he spoke, the Dow closed nearly 3,000 points down, its worst performance since 1987.
Optimism is important in a president, but trust is a prerequisite. Before Trump can inspire hope, he has to level with us. Monday was the first time we got a clear taste of that. It was a distinct change in tone. “If everyone makes… these critical changes and sacrifices now we will rally together as one nation and defeat the virus,” he said.
The question, for me, is whether this new tone will last.
One good sign is that, instead of immediately undermining his remarks as he’s done following past press conferences, Trump took to Twitter this time with a series of messages for containing the virus.
Then, he tweeted this: “I ask all Americans to band together and support your neighbors by not hoarding unnecessary amounts of food and essentials. TOGETHER we will stay STRONG and overcome this challenge!”
It was a call to action that seemed to recognize the reality of our situation.
One could imagine a president who had built up some moral authority and capital using this medium—”fireside tweets”—to rally a nation. But Trump, as is his fashion, has built up moral debts.
This isn’t the proverbial “pivot,” the moment he became president.
But it was a relief to hear some signs that he seems to get it, even if he did insist, when asked, that he’d done things right from jump:
“ I would rate it at 10. I think we've done a great job.”
That was a useful reminder that, whatever he does from here, Trump refused to accept reality for two critical months when we could have been preparing for, and averting at least some of, the frightening and precarious position we are in now. Like she sang, “It’s a little too late to do the right thing now.”
But then, thinking about how bad things could get, I hear another voice in my head, saying “Better late than never.”