No social distancing and no mask: Trump is sending a message to America

It was his first public outing in three weeks and Donald Trump clearly wanted to send a message to America on it – you can and will return to normal.

Whatever normal is of course. Mr Trump’s visit to Arizona was perhaps most striking for its rich feast of irony from the moment he stepped off the plane.

President Trump offers his hand to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey before withdrawing it
Image:President Trump offered his hand to Doug Ducey before withdrawing it

Seemingly forgetting or ignoring the social distancing his administration has been touting, Mr Trump reached out to shake the hand of Governor Doug Ducey. Whether this was his idea of a little light relief or a mistake, he quickly opted for an arm pat instead. Not that any health expert would recommend that.

During his trip, he also announced he would be disbanding his task force of experts – since retracted.

The infection numbers in real time

The infection numbers in real time

The president was in Phoenix to visit a Honeywell factory – recently converted to produce protective masks. And yet, the president chose not to wear one.

As he toured the site, eagle-eyed cameras caught the sign telling all workers to make sure they did.

But perhaps it should come as no surprise. Mr Trump hasn’t once been seen wearing a face covering in public. His vice president also chose not to wear one when he went to the Mayo Clinic – though later, following a backlash, he said he should have.

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U.S. President Donald Trump listens to Honeywell's Vice President of Integrated Supply Chain Tony Stallings as Stallings shows him a protective mask during a tour of Honeywell's facility manufacturing face masks for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., May 5, 2020
Image:A maskless Donald Trump tours Honeywell’s mask factory

The final irony of the day came in the accompanying soundtrack. As the president looked quizzically at N95 masks, Live and Let Die by Guns N’ Roses blared out of the speakers.

It was just like a rally. But I guess that was the whole point – this was meant to feel like a campaigner back on the campaign trail, determined to return America to the good old days pre-COVID.

There were some subtle changes though, some hints perhaps of a rethink in strategy internally.

In his exclusive interview with ABC News, Mr Trump said his message to bereaved families was “I love you”.

He has been heavily criticised for not showing enough empathy or compassion during this crisis. This felt at the very least, like an acknowledgement that he needed to show it. Not a big pendulum swing that changes much, but three words we perhaps didn’t expect to hear from him and perhaps wouldn’t hear from many presidents.

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It is up to states to decide when they reopen. Some have already started, with varying degrees of caution. It is the product of a federal system and American individualism.

But Mr Trump has a huge role to play in the months ahead and a surging death toll (with more than 70,000 dead) still to contend with.

The country is on the cusp of perhaps the most challenging and risky stage of this pandemic. The president believes the economy must and will start to reignite.

He wants people to feel optimistic again – to provide some kind of Churchillian uplift.

He’s no stranger to big risk obviously – but if he gets it wrong America bleeds, just when it needs so desperately to heal.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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