President Trump Won’t Respect the Dead or the Grieving

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Just weeks from Election Day, President Trump logged what may have been his most offensive day ever, disrespecting not only 200,000 dead Americans lost to the coronavirus but the not-yet-mourned or buried Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her family.

Monday morning started with the president in his happy place — on television. During what is now his weekly call to “Fox & Friends,” Trump carried on exuberantly about the prospects of filling the seat of Ginsburg, who had died less than 72 hours earlier. When the show’s anchors asked him about the dying wish she shared with her granddaughter, Trump tried to cast doubt on its veracity and accused Democratic leaders in Congress of making it up. Clara Spera released to the media the statement her grandmother dictated, in front of her doctor, that was meant to be made public. It read: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” 

Trump said it was likely the work of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. “I don’t know that she said that, or if that was written out by Adam Schiff, and Schumer and Pelosi,” the president said. “That came out of the wind. It sounds so beautiful, but that sounds like a Schumer deal, or maybe Pelosi or Shifty Schiff.”

For Trump, indulging his lust for theatrics and point scoring is prioritized over behaving like the leader of our nation. Just watch his rallies. No matter the subject, even the dead, the discipline required to muster solemnity or graciousness will always lose out to the thrill of sounding like a cheap Vegas act.

It is most certainly not the job of President Trump or Republican senators to grant Ginsburg her deathbed request, but it is most certainly their job to respect that it is authentic. Even if Trump didn’t believe it was real, as he indeed creates his own reality, it is his duty to keep his doubts silent. Pretending an American icon’s granddaughter didn’t say something, or that her grandmother didn’t impart such momentous words to her, and then use them as an opportunity to attack his political opponents isn’t just disgusting — it’s deranged.

But there is never a bottom. So Monday night Trump held two rallies in Ohio, at which he downplayed not only the threat from the pandemic but the staggering losses it has produced. While Trump knew America was just about to cross the threshold of 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, he — as usual — refused to acknowledge the dead but celebrated how immune he thinks the young are to a disease that he said only affects “elderly people with heart disease.” Trump doesn’t seem to realize how many millions of Americans have heard him telling Bob Woodward the virus is “deadly stuff” that affects “young people too, plenty of young people.” But on Monday he said “it affects virtually nobody. It’s an amazing thing.” Of course, that’s not true, but this is someone who never lets the truth get in his way. He’s there to amaze. 

There were plenty of other outrages this week from Trump. From the aid and comfort he gives Vladimir Putin to the further politicization of the Centers for Disease Control to the news that he gave himself an “A” for his response to the pandemic, calling it “phenomenal” — “other than public relations, but that’s because I have fake news.” But his callousness toward the Ginsburg family and the hideous mark of 200,000 dead sit atop the dung heap.

Before Monday, other grieving families have known all too well the sting of attacks and insults from the most powerful man in the world, which tend to come in the most painful time of their lives — from the family of Sen. John McCain to the family of La David Johnson to the family of former Rep. John Dingell or Humayun Khan. The list goes on. Ironically, many of the loved ones lost were military members (or had been) who served their country in ways Trump never has. 

The dead appear to be of little use to this president, especially those old people — or black and brown people — who tend to die at higher rates from COVID-19. Models predict another 200,000 dead by January, a clear escalation — but Trump won’t ask Americans to wear masks that could drastically reduce that number. He is unbothered, remember: “We’re rounding the turn.”

Having our first-ever president who has shown no shame whatsoever, no matter how many degrading, cruel or self-destructive things he says or does, has tested the nation in still unknowable ways. But a president also devoid of empathy is untenable as the United States endures its fourth worst mass death event in our history.

Those of us who are blessed to not be dead, or grieving the dead, or infected, or sick,  or suffering long-term effects of the virus, or destroyed economically or navigating anything truly awful like cancer while isolated inside without close friends or even family, are still struggling through a ghastly vortex the president refuses to acknowledge. Many of us are alone; kids are going to school on their bed, through a screen; and in this coming winter, with burgeoning flu and other viral infections, there will be no relief provided by a gathering or a movie or dinner or even a hug from a friend. 

But those of us who are still alive see Trump refusing to see it all. We know there are 200,000 grieving families in America, joined by millions of friends, neighbors, fellow worshipers and co-workers, who will never again see those 200,000 victims again. Almost all of those lost died isolated from those closest to them, and the living are haunted by it. Now the grieving hear the dead being spoken of as “virtually nobody” — virtual nobodies. 

Are we not supposed to notice or remark upon Trump’s devaluing of human life or his use of conspiracy to intentionally hurt the grieving? Four years into his presidency, no one asks how Donald Trump can sleep at night, because we know he always has and always will. You might say it’s an amazing thing.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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