Steve Bannon, former Trump White House adviser, former chairman of the right-wing website Breitbart and the architect of Trump’s white nationalist, populist platform, declared in February that the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic would be President Donald Trump’s “Churchill moment”.
Bannon told FOX News at the time that the president would “bring the country together” by powerfully confronting the virus as well as the plummeting stock market. “He does that, you don’t need to worry about 2020.”
So it must be something of a mystery to Bannon and his zealous Trump cultists why the president chose not to seize the moment weeks ago – the perfect authoritarian opportunity – his moment to rally the nation around his unmatched wisdom and “strong leadership” on the pandemic.
Instead, he seemed disengaged, downplaying the seriousness of the looming public health tsunami bearing down on the United States, an impending crisis that he’d been briefed on months before, and appeared reluctant to take command of the situation even if only for the ‘optics’, the appearance of leadership.
And even now in late March, as the American death toll exceeds 1,000, and has the very real potential to reach hundreds of thousands by its peak, he still indulges in ‘quick fix’ fantasies, and irresponsibly premature ‘back to work’ exhortations, more concerned with the economy and the stock market, to say nothing of his chances for re-election, than the lives of Americans.
But if Donald Trump’s “Churchill moment” came down to a single instance, it was probably on Friday, March 20th when NBC’s Peter Alexander asked the president, “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”
It was a softball question, right over the plate, Donald Trump’s perfect opportunity to reassure the American people as ‘Consoler-in-Chief’ that we were all in this together and would get through this together. This was his “Churchill moment” to inspire the nation.
So what did he say to Alexander’s question? He said, “I say that you are a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. It’s a very nasty question. It’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people,” Trump responded. “The American people are looking for answers and looking for hope. You’re doing sensationalism. You might want to get back to reporting” and “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Moments later, another reporter asked the question again and Trump offered a more measured response: “My message to the American people is that there is a very low incidence of death, you understand that, and we’re going to come through this stronger than ever before,” he said.
“If you happen to get it, it is highly unlikely ― it’s looking like it’s getting to a number that is much smaller than people originally thought in terms of the ultimate problem, which would be death. My message to the American people is number one, you’ve done an incredible job. … There is tremendous hope.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever find (a US-wide lockdown) necessary,” he said, adding that the United States was “winning” the war against the virus.
If that was Donald Trump’s “Churchill moment”, it was the wrong Churchill – not Winston Churchill rallying the British public in the face of an impending Nazi onslaught during World War II, but Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, in the last years of his life, raving and delusional from the ravages of either syphilis or a brain tumor.
Ray Cunneff is a former CBS Television executive, professional motion picture and television writer. His book, “2020: A Trump Odyssey – The Rise of America’s Fascist Dictator” has just been released on Amazon Kindle