Trump on COVID deaths: 'It is what it is'

"It is what it is."  So said President Trump in a recent interview when asked about the death toll due to the COVID-19 virus.  President Trump's statements often trigger firestorms of criticism; this one even swerved into Michelle Obama's recent address to the Democrat National Convention.  Further drilling down on the "feelings" theme of her message, Mrs. Obama added: "But right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another."

While "requiring" empathy may prove difficult for Mrs. Obama, President Trump stating that "it is what it is" does not imply he is cold and unfeeling.  Reality is a tough companion but an honest friend.  Sympathy and empathy both have a place, but any combat veteran will affirm that battlefields require clear thinking — and feelings are better processed from a place of safety.  Who among us will not agree that the COVID-19 battlefield demands comparable leadership?

Trump's bluntness inflames his critics.  He is not the first president to do so.  A reporter once challenged Harry Truman by stating, "Mr. President, people feel you are giving your opponents hell."

Truman responded with, "I never did give anybody hell.  I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell."

The courage, determination, and skill required to face truth — the "it is what it is" moments — can serve as launching points for an individual's, family's, or even a nation's recovery.  This is particularly needed when confronted with brutal and prolonged consequences.

Through my wife's more than eighty operations, we insisted on expertise from her surgeons but never required empathy from them.  While empathy can be meaningful at a funeral home, it offers little in surgical suites.  After losing both of her legs, her prosthetist had an "it is what it is" moment with her.  Although he wore his own prosthetic leg and certainly had empathy, his expertise knew her greater need was to accept the new reality of being a double-amputee. 

Untold millions walking in recovery programs regularly pray for God's help "…to accept the things I cannot change." While that prayer exudes fervent feelings, it also serves as a declaration—a resolution—to make peace with reality in order to improve one's life despite challenging circumstances.    

America is in a pitched battle with consequences extending beyond the horizon.  When paramedics recuse a trauma victim, they certainly exude compassion but not at the expense of immediate action. When survival of a city or a society is at stake, how does Mrs. Obama suggest enforcing empathy? 

A wise friend once stated, "Process the pain privately.  Share the process publicly."

In our voyeuristic society driven by social media, we see all too many process their pain publicly.  The immediate gratification allows an unhealthy reveling in victimhood.  This type of behavior will promote not acceptance and growth, but rather extend adolescence.

This is where leadership confronts calamity and points to recovery.  Firmly directing people out of a burning building requires little empathy but ample leadership.  Compassion takes on many forms.  Some harness it to console, while others act to rescue, meet a need, or equip others to self-sustain.

In rare moments, empathy, compassion, and a call to action all meld into one.  President George W. Bush did this while standing on a pile of rubble addressing rescue workers following the attack on September 11.  Someone in the crowd shouted out, "We can't hear you."

Through a bullhorn, President Bush quickly responded, "I can hear you!  I can hear you!  The rest of the world hears you!  And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

Sadly, the guise of compassion can be used to manipulate. ""I feel your pain" sounded nice from Bill Clinton — but does it move the needle in our circumstances?  "I feel your pain" morphed into a cliché and quasi-punchline.

"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," offered President Obama.  He certainly appeared empathetic, but the nation required something different.  Ferguson, Baltimore, and even the "Beer Summit" following the arrest of Henry Gates provided Obama a unique opportunity to direct America to a higher plane of race relations and police engagement.  The empathy may have felt good to his supporters, but did it lead the country to a better place?

Even while privately choking back the tears, true leadership avoids commiserating and emotionally medicating and instead points the way through the pain — beyond "it is what it is."

President Trump acknowledged a grim reality while laying out his ongoing strategy for dealing with a global pandemic.  Far from touchy-feely, President Trump brings a lengthy reputation as a brash results-driven decision-maker.  Although the left rails against his frank "it is what it is" comment, solutions still seem to drive the president more than feelings.

Four recent presidents offering different leadership styles to a distressed nation.  History will judge the efficacy of each.

In the meantime, "it is what it is." 

Peter Rosenberger is the host of the nationally syndicated radio program Hope for the Caregiver.  He continues to serve as a caregiver for his wife, Gracie.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

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