In times of trouble, the nation needs a consoler-in-chief: a leader who lifts our spirits, eases our pain and calms our fears.
President Trump is not that leader.
He doesn’t treat wounds, he tears them open. He doesn’t soothe grief, he stirs grievances. He is the divider-in-chief.
The president will dutifully -- albeit without warmth or sincerity -- read words of condolence and sympathy written for him. But when he speaks spontaneously, when he says what he really means, he has shown over and over again that he is totally incapable of consoling others -- for one simple reason.
He doesn’t think about other people. He thinks only of himself -- his own needs, his own crowds, his own reputation, his own ego.
“What you want in a moment like this is somebody to be able to rise above partisanship, rise above the political concerns and be able to be the president of all the people,” said presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to the Atlantic. “And that has been, so far, not the way the president has handled the presidency.”
Last week, he had another chance to try, when he traveled to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, cities where gunmen had killed 31 innocent victims and wounded scores more. But he fell short. Again.
White House aides, petrified that Off-Script Trump would say something to spoil the carefully crafted message of On-Script Trump, barred cameras from the two hospitals he visited. But of course every cellphone can take a video.
Someone in El Paso recorded the president boasting about the size of the crowd he had attracted there three months before, and attacking the city’s former congressman, Beto O’Rourke, as “crazy Beto.” This came after Off-Script Trump had used Twitter to assail two Ohio politicians, Sen. Sherrod Brown and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, even though both had said nice things about his visit.
Maggie Haberman of The New York Times reported on CNN that White House aides “privately admit that (the trip) was something of a debacle, that these were not the headlines they wanted to see.”
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins had a similar take: “Multiple staffers agreed behind the scenes that (the trip) wasn’t successful from the administration’s viewpoint. They conceded Trump spent too much time lashing out at local officials.”
Trump’s performance as consoler-in-chief matters. It matters a lot. The American presidency is really two jobs fused into one: head of government, and head of state. Many countries divide those roles, but here, the president is expected at times to be a unifying force, to eschew political rivalries and be a symbol of the entire nation. Consoler-in-chief has long been a critical component of that head-of-state responsibility.
“It’s always important for the president to demonstrate he is emotionally connected to America and its problems, and it is critically important for the president to discuss what is happening and show great concerns for victims and community,” Andy Card, Bush 43’s chief of staff during 9/11, told Politico.
Think of Lincoln in his second inaugural address urging a war-torn nation to approach the future “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Think of FDR, in the midst of the Depression, telling Americans, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In the modern era, that role, if anything, is even more vital. Televisions, computers and cellphones make tragedies immediately visible to all Americans. And since it’s possible for presidents to jet across the country in a few hours and visit the scene of a disaster, they are expected to do so. When they grasp their opportunity and rise to the occasion, they can create indelible moments of conviction and compassion that define their presidency.
This is a completely nonpartisan point. Think of George W. Bush grabbing a bullhorn at Ground Zero after 9/11 and vowing revenge. Think of Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” during a eulogy for victims of a mass shooting at a black church in Charleston.
The late Michael Deaver, a key adviser to Ronald Reagan, once described the consoler-in-chief role this way: “It’s something that now, with instant communication, we really want from a president. It’s something that the national psyche needs when there’s a disaster, a threat, a trauma. We want somebody there to tell us, ‘We will survive, we will get through it.’”
Yes, we really do want that from a president. And it’s one of Trump’s great failings that he can’t -- or won’t -- understand his role.