My father, an English language purist, often complained about what he viewed as misuse of the word “tragic.” Yes, he said, the death of a young child is sad, heartbreaking even. But it is not necessarily “tragic,” at least not in the traditional sense of the term.
At the same time, although I am sure my father would have been repulsed by the racism, ignorance, and pettiness of our current president, I suspect he would have had no problem with the description of Trump as a “tragic hero”; that is, he would have accepted the notion of Trump as the protagonist in a drama whose self-inflicted downfall invokes the audience’s pity or horror.
Like Oedipus, the classic tragic hero who was felled by his excessive pride and self-righteousness, Trump has been done in by his own personal failings. I am convinced, for example, that but for the fallout from Trump’s narcissism, he may have gone down in history as a successful two-term president.
Americans will rally around a president during a time of national emergency. They rallied around President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. They rallied around the first George Bush during the Persian Gulf War and around the second George Bush after 9/11. And, according to Nate Silver, they were beginning to rally around Trump during the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. His approval ratings rose to the highest level they had been since he was elected in 2016.
Notwithstanding the current political climate, American are also pretty forgiving. After all, over 70 million of our fellow citizens were willing to overlook Trump’s racism and bigotry; his lack of humor, grace or empathy; his name-calling, whining, and self-pity; and, most recently, in what has become the greatest threat to our democracy since the Civil War, his refusal to accept the result of the election. As someone has put it, what matters to many Americans is that Trump hates the same people they do.
But what I think tipped the balance against Trump in the 2020 election was his extreme narcissism.
The pandemic presented Trump with the opportunity to rise to the occasion. He could have been Franklin Roosevelt speaking to the American people in their living rooms every night on the radio.
Instead Trump could not get out of his own way. He could not cede attention or control to others.
Some people will remember Carolyn Kepcher, one of Trump’s deputies during the first five seasons of TV’s The Apprentice. She became so popular that Trump fired her. It was as if the producers of Seinfeld decided to fire the actors who played Kramer, Elaine Benis, and George Costanza because those characters risked becoming more popular than Jerry Seinfeld.
And that is because Trump has never been good with sharing the spotlight. He does not understand that sometimes you shine by allowing those around you to shine. You stand back and you bask in the reflected glory of others. You take credit for having hired only the best people, as Trump himself always promised he would do.
If Trump was constitutionally unable to offer empathy and compassion to Americans as they suffered the effects of the pandemic, he could have left this to the grandfatherly kindness of Tony Fauci.
If he was afraid of the political consequences of imposing greater discipline (masks and social distancing so that we could mitigate the spread of the virus), he could have left this to his Health Secretary or to his always servile vice president.
He himself could have remained above-the-fray – presidential. He could have avoided diminishing the currency of his personal appearances.
But this is not who Trump is. Watching TV in the White House residence or in the small dining room off the Oval Office, he could not abide watching others receive all the attention. He himself needed to be center stage.
Somewhere on the Internet you can hear Trump impersonating his own publicist – “John Barron,” I think it was — extolling Trump’s prowess with women. Because no one can say more flattering things about Trump than Trump himself. As a result, Fauci and Azar and Pence all became the Carolyn Kepchers of his Administration, pushed aside the moment they risked attracting more praise than the most-attention seeking person you can imagine.
As a result, the American public was exposed to Trump’s clownish behavior: the verbal diarrhea, the false extolling of hydroxychloraquine, the injection of bleach, and so on. And the country was left without the leadership and direction it needed to minimize the impact of the pandemic on human health and the economy.
It is painful to think of all the lives that might have been saved had Trump risen to the occasion, had he been someone he is not. All he needed to do was to step back and let others either take the heat or receive the praise, depending on the situation.
Trump’s inability to separate his own personal fortunes from the fortunes of the country is for me the true tragedy here — a tragedy of epic proportions – whether or not you agree with my father’s more limited definition of the term. An attack on him, Trump has claimed, is unpatriotic, treasonous, because his interests and the country’s interest are interchangeable. L’etat, c’est moi.
In this respect anyway, he is absolutely correct: His tragedy is every bit our nation’s tragedy.