In response to the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump declared Sunday a National Day of Prayer. In doing so, he captured in miniature everything wrong with his administration's approach to the mounting crisis.
Trump refuses to address real problems. He instead prefers to try to rally his base using divisive symbolism. He wants to govern only for his supporters, rather than for all Americans - which means that ultimately, he is not governing for any of us.
The National Day of Prayer is framed as a unifying move. "TODAY IS A NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER, GOD BLESS EVERYONE!" Trump tweeted in all caps on Sunday. We're supposedly all one nation under God together, a single religious community facing the disaster in unity.
The problem is that not everyone is necessarily going to feel included when the president commands the country to pray. As an atheist, I don't feel comforted or welcomed by a call to prayer. And as a Jewish person, I really don't feel comforted by a call to prayer on Sunday. If I was a believer, and/or a congregant, I'd be praying on Friday or Saturday.
When Trump says we are going to have a day of prayer on Sunday, what I hear is that at best he doesn't know that people like me exist, and at worst he wishes that we didn't. The fact that Trump has questioned the loyalty of Jewish Democrats, and suggested that Jewish people owe loyalty to Israel rather than to the United States, doesn't help matters.
Trump made clear which community he was praying with specifically when he tweeted on Sunday that he was watching a digital broadcast service from the church of white Christian evangelical pastor Jentezen Franklin.
It's no surprise Trump chose a white evangelical Church to promote; white evangelicals are among his strongest supporters. Nearly three-quarters of white evangelicals approve of Trump, according to Pew. In comparison, Jewish voters give him only about 25 percent support, while his popularity with the general public has wavered in the low 40s. So the day of prayer gave Trump a chance to show his most loyal supporters that he's still their guy.
- Trump and Giuliani's Crude, Coercive and Conditional 'Love' for Jews
- Coronavirus 'Truce': The Guns Falling Silent Across the Middle East
- Evangelicals Still See Trump as God's Emissary in the White House
- 'Like the King of Israel': Trump Unleashes Bizarre Twitter Storm
The problem is that a president isn't supposed to just be focused on his most loyal followers, especially not in a time of national disaster. The president is supposed to be a president for all people, even for folks who didn't vote for him. Coronavirus doesn't discriminate between Republicans and Democrats, and ideally a president shouldn't either.
I am no fan of George W. Bush, but he struck the right note after 9/11 when he forcefully spoke against hate crimes against Muslims, and praised American Muslims. Bush had enthusiastic support from evangelical Christians too, but he understood that part of his job as president was to speak to, and for, other constituencies as well.
Trump is obviously not the first public official in US history to signal to non-mainstream Christians that America isn't for them. Atheists and Jehovah's Witnesses have spent decades trying to stop local jurisdictions from censuring their children for refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance, as just one example.
But Trump is unusual in the speed and consistency with which he defaults to partisan divisiveness even in situations like an inaugural address or a national emergency where most presidents strongly signal they'd like support from everyone.
Obviously, declaring a National Day of Prayer in a way designed to irritate atheists, or Jewish people, or (in my case) Jewish atheists, is hardly the worst thing Trump has ever done. But the callous disregard for everyone but his most fervent supporters has broader, and uglier implications. It's at the root of his many failures as a president, and at the root of his failure to respond to the coronavirus epidemic specifically.
Presidents should ideally be interested in the votes of everyone, and so should, again ideally, be interested in the welfare of all their constituents. Faced with a dangerous pandemic outbreak, Trump should have been focused on slowing the spread of the disease and protecting everyone in the country.
But instead, he reacted as he always does - by looking for political opportunities for division. Against the recommendations of experts, Trump's main initial response to the virus was to institute a ban on European nationals traveling to the United States. The ban makes no sense in the middle of a pandemic which is, by definition, global and which, in any case, is already well established in the United States.
But policing the borders, however useless, is always the first recourse of the xenophobic Trump administration. Rather than trying to unite Americans, Trump looks for scapegoats. He's always portraying the United States as a bastion of purity threatened by nefarious criminal and disease-ridden outsiders. For Trump, every problem is caused by outside infiltrators, who must be expelled and defeated.
The Trump presidency is about who is in and who is out. Immigrants, Mexican-Americans, black people, atheists, the "wrong" Jews - Trump says frequently, clearly, and loudly that those groups and others don't belong, and that he's not speaking for them. But when a president is obsessed with figuring out who he doesn't represent, he has little time to focus on representing, and caring for, the country as a whole.
Right now, as we face this pandemic, we need a president who is accountable to, and acts on behalf of, all of us. Prayer, unfortunately, isn't going to help.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He lives in Chicago. Twitter: @nberlat