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Crises may change presidents, but Trump remains the same

As the crisis took hold, there were some who said Donald Trump would simply have no choice but to change. Their optimism was wildly misplaced.
Image: Donald Trump in Oval Office
President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on Hurricane Michael in the Oval Office on Oct. 10, 2018.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

About a month ago, Politico ran a subhead that stood out for me: "Crises change most presidents. Not this one." The accompanying article added:

[T]hose who know the president best say that even a crisis that has devastated American families and brought the economy to a standstill has hardly changed him at all.

As the coronavirus crisis took hold in March, there were some who said -- expected? hoped? -- that Donald Trump would simply have no choice but to change. The Republican had endured plenty of political crises during his term, but they were mostly calamities of his own making. A pandemic, and everything that comes with it, was something else entirely.

The president, observers argued, would simply have to change. If he intended to have any success at all, Trump would have to recognize the enormity of the circumstances, the scope of the crisis, and the need for measured, responsible leadership.

Presidents "forge their legacies in crises," a New York Times analysis noted on March 11, and this would serve as a test of Trump's mettle.

He's failed that test spectacularly -- in part because the president doesn't want to adapt to crisis conditions, in part because he doesn't know how, and in part because he doesn't even see the need to grow or evolve.

Before a single American had contracted the virus, Trump's presidency featured a variety of unmistakable staples. The Republican embraced conspiracy theories, obsessively avoided blame, ignored experts, wildly accused perceived adversaries of "treason," attacked global institutions, fueled division and social strife, lied uncontrollably, and pursued political vendettas shaped by his preoccupation with grievances.

And now that 100,000 people in his own country have died as a result of the pandemic, consider the president's recent antics.

Embracing conspiracy theories? Check.

Obsessively avoiding blame? Check.

Ignoring experts? Check.

Wildly accusing perceived adversaries of "treason"? Check.

Attacking global institutions? Check.

Fueling division and social strife? Check.

Lying uncontrollably? Check.

Pursuing political vendettas? Double check.

In theory, if Trump's political allies were abandoning him in droves, and his approval rating slid to Bush-in-'08-like levels, we might see the president looking for ways to tweak his style, at least a little.

But since Republicans aren't forcing his hand, the Donald Trump we saw before the crisis is the Donald Trump we're seeing during the crisis, who will remain the Donald Trump we'll continue to see so long as he occupies the nation's highest office.