Self-praise, hubris and self-pity: Examining 260,000 words about the coronavirus from President Trump
By JEREMY W. PETERS, ELAINA PLOTT AND MAGGIE HABERMAN
The New York Times|
Apr 28, 2020 at 10:20 AM
At his White House news briefing on the coronavirus on March 19, President Donald Trump offered high praise for the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn. “He’s worked, like, probably as hard or harder than anybody,” Trump said. Then he corrected himself: “Other than maybe Mike Pence — or me.”
On March 27, Trump boasted about marshaling federal resources to fight the virus, ignoring his early failures and smearing previous administrations. “Nobody has done anything like we’ve been able to do,” he claimed. “And everything I took over was a mess. It was a broken country in so many ways. In so many ways.”
And on April 13, Trump insisted that governors were so satisfied with his performance they hadn’t asked for anything on a recent conference call. “There wasn’t even a statement of like, ‘We think you should do this or that,’ ” he said. “I heard it was, like, just a perfect phone call.”
The self-regard, the credit-taking, the audacious rewriting of recent history to cast himself as the hero of the pandemic rather than the president who was slow to respond: Such have been the defining features of Trump’s use of the bully pulpit during the coronavirus outbreak.
The New York Times analyzed every word Trump spoke at his White House briefings and other presidential remarks on the virus — more than 260,000 words — from March 9, when the outbreak began leading to widespread disruptions in daily life, through mid-April. The transcripts show striking patterns and repetitions in the messages he has conveyed, revealing a display of presidential hubris and self-pity unlike anything historians say they have seen before.
By far the most recurring utterances from Trump in the briefings are self-congratulations, roughly 600 of them, which are often predicated on exaggerations and falsehoods. He does credit others (more than 360 times) for their work, but he also blames others (more than 110 times) for inadequacies in the state and federal response.
Trump’s attempts to display empathy or appeal to national unity (about 160 instances) amount to only a quarter of the number of times he complimented himself or a top member of his team.
Trump has mentioned his immediate predecessor, President Barack Obama, roughly 10 times, sometimes in response to a question. And he has referred to previous administrations about 30 times, often accusing them of leaving him with faulty conditions. Trump has mentioned governors, individually or as a group, about 400 times, alternating between compliments and criticism.
While other presidents treated moments of crisis as an opportunity to bring the nation together, Trump, bereft of his signature campaign rallies, has used the evening television appearances as a branding exercise to promote himself. The briefings became so problematic — especially after Trump’s dangerous suggestion last week that injecting disinfectant could help people who are sick with the virus — that the White House is now considering limiting them.
He has regularly used hyperbole to try to cast his leadership as historic in scope, even placing himself in the pantheon of presidents like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt who led the nation through some of its darkest moments. “We have done a job, the likes of which nobody has ever done,” he declared at his April 13 briefing.
Less frequently, he has mentioned the hard work and dedication of ordinary Americans like nurses and truck drivers. He can sometimes be generous when he credits the work of state and city leaders, including Democrats, though he often does so while mentioning that they have been appreciative of him. (Gov. Gavin Newsom of California was “gracious”; Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, “very nice.”) He has repeatedly singled out “great companies” and the “greatest business executives in the world,” but individual workers less so.
And he has mentioned the coronavirus’ staggering toll — more than 50,000 Americans dead and hundreds of thousands of others sick — only fleetingly.
There has always been someone or something else to deflect blame for the various breakdowns in the government’s response. But Trump’s targets have shifted over the past several weeks, showing a clear but disorderly progression of his message as he struggled to focus attention elsewhere.
“When I took this over, it was an empty box. We didn’t have testing. We didn’t have anything. We had a broken system there. We had a broken system with stockpiling. We had a lot of broken systems. And I’m not just blaming President Obama. You go long before that.”
“Nobody has done anything like we’ve been able to do. And everything I took over was a mess. It was a broken country in so many ways. In so many ways other than this. We had a bad testing system. We had a bad stockpile system. We had nothing in the stockpile system.”
“I’ll let you know someday — let’s see what happens — but I may let you know who’s not doing their job. I can tell you the ones that are good, both Republican and Democrat, and the ones who don’t know what they’re doing. But we help some of the ones that don’t know what they’re doing.”
First it was the virus itself, which Trump described on March 16 as an “invisible enemy” that “came out from nowhere.”
Two days later, he said at the start of the briefing that the country was at “war against the Chinese virus.” But after about a week, Trump dropped that phrase and refocused his blame on other targets, while soft-pedaling his criticism of China. The world might have been better prepared, he said on April 17, “if a certain country did what they should have done.”
He has also attacked the World Health Organization — a “very China-centric” entity, he said, that “minimized the threat very strongly.”
Viewed simply as a pattern of Trump’s speech, the self-aggrandizement is singular for an American leader. But his approach is even more extraordinary because he is taking credit and demanding affirmation while he asks people to look beyond themselves and bear considerable hardship to help slow the spread of the virus.
“He doesn’t speak the language of transcendence, what we have in common,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University. Instead, Mercieca said, he falls back on a vocabulary he developed over decades promoting himself and his business.
“Trump’s primary goal is to spread good news and information and market the Trump brand: ‘Trump is great. The Trump brand is great. The Trump presidency is great,’ ” she said. “It’s not the right time or place to do that.”
At 260,000 words and counting, enough to fill a 700-page book, Trump has been writing his own history of the virus, one that is favorable to him, settles scores and is often at odds with the facts. There were at least 130 examples of falsehoods or exaggerations. He ignored his long public record of making breezy claims about the virus when he said on March 17, “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” He falsely described the Obama administration’s response to the H1N1 virus, saying on April 6, “It was like they didn’t even know it was here.”
Speaks falsely or exaggerates
“When the professionals need a test, when they need tests for people, they can get the test. It’s gone really well.”
“We have a problem that a month ago nobody ever thought about.”
“This is — when somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.”
There is no precedent for the platform that Trump commandeered for himself through much of March and April: a nationally televised appearance that can go on for up to 2 1/2 hours, seven days a week, often without interruption. Critics of the president have questioned why the cable networks continue to air the briefings, saying that decision is, in effect, handing over to the president control of the day’s agenda.
“It was thought that presidents were extraordinarily powerful at the height of the Cold War when they could ask the three networks for 20 minutes of TV time,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. “But as far as a president’s being able to exert influence, I think this is much greater than that.”
If Trump is always the hero in his version of events, the way he describes his role has changed over time.
He called himself a “wartime president” at first but mostly dropped the label by late March.
More recently he has often described himself as a commander leading an enormous undertaking to reconfigure the nation’s supply chain to deliver badly needed medical supplies like testing kits. “There’s never been anything like it,” he said on April 1, despite widespread concerns that not enough testing was being done.
He credited himself with leading a turnaround — echoing his campaign promise to “Make America Great Again” — even though there are still serious shortages and deficiencies in the nation’s testing system.
“We had a broken system,” he said April 14. “And now we have a great system.”
The coronavirus briefings have often contained the same phrases and themes that he used in his 2016 race.
“It’s consistent with the way he campaigned when he said, ‘I alone can fix it,’ ” said John Murphy, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies the rhetoric of American presidents and politicians.
Murphy said that most presidents avoid taking personal credit because they appreciate the fact that Americans can draw the connection themselves between presidential leadership and the country’s successes.
With Trump, there is no such subtlety. “The level of self-congratulations that occurs every day at these press conferences is unprecedented,” Murphy added.
The president, often criticized as lacking empathy, does occasionally express it. The Times found about 60 instances in the analysis. His usage of unifying language was fleeting at first, rarely more than a terse sentence about the “tremendous spirit” of Americans.
Uses unifying language or attempts empathy
“For those of you who are feeling alone and isolated, I want you to know that we are all joined together as one people, eternally linked by our shared national spirit — we love our country — a spirit of courage and love and patriotism.”
“I want to start by saying that our hearts go out to the people of New York as they bear the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic in America.”
“You have people that have never asked for business interruption insurance, and they’ve been paying a lot of money for a lot of years for the privilege of having it. And then when they finally need it, the insurance company says, ‘We’re not going to give it.’ We can’t let that happen.”
His praise of health care workers who put themselves at risk every day — “these are our warriors” — and his admiration for the resilience of the American people have become somewhat more common, especially in his prepared remarks at the opening of each briefing.
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“We’ve marshaled every instrument of American power, and we’ve unleashed our most potent weapon of all: the courage of the American people,” he said on April 16.
At some briefings, Trump has tried to rally the country, saying the U.S. will emerge stronger. He often expresses confidence that the ravaged country will bounce back quickly — “like a burst of light.” And at perhaps his most effective briefing, he soberly braced the country for two weeks ahead that would be “painful,” as doctors predicted a large number of deaths.
Once in a while, the deadliness of the virus seems to weigh on Trump. He spoke of a friend on March 31 who came down with an especially bad case and was in a coma. “Sort of a tough guy, a little older, a little heavier than he’d like to be,” the president said. “It’s not the flu. It’s vicious.” And he has spoken of seeing the images of Elmhurst Hospital Center, miles from where he grew up in Queens, New York, overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.
But his laments about the virus’ economic toll — the damage it has caused “probably the best economy in the history of the world” — are far more common than remarks about the human toll.
“It’s the things that are not there, the things he isn’t doing,” said Roderick P. Hart, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is an expert in political speech. “It’s what’s not there — that sense of, ‘I’m part of the human condition,’ the ability to empathize with the downtrodden and the afflicted — that’s what’s so important.”