What's Tony Thinking

A Naked Emperor Is A Frightening Thing


In the old children’s fable of “The Naked Emperor” a little boy blurts out what everyone else knows but no one will say, “The Emperor has no clothes. He is naked.”

While many have perhaps felt that this has described President Trump all along, it feels true in some new way in the face of our many challenges. Today in her “Declarations” column in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan, puts it this way:

“Something shifted this month. Donald Trump’s hold on history loosened, and may be breaking. In some new way his limitations are being seen and acknowledged, and at a moment when people are worried about the continuance of their country and their own ability to continue within it. He hasn’t been equal to the multiple crises. Good news or bad, he rarely makes any situation better. And everyone kind of knows.”

I pay attention to Noonan, a onetime speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, precisely because she is a Republican who writes for a paper of conservative bent. I want to know what smart people who are not in my tribe or bubble are thinking. And Noonan’s thinking is always sober, measured and with some heart.

The fable of “The Naked Emperor,” as a children’s story, is an entertaining jab at all those who are way too full of themselves. But when it becomes real, it turns out to be something else again. It is alarming. Especially when we face multiple crises, as we surely are now. In his most recent op-ed, David Brooks, enumerated no fewer than five epic crises that are all colliding at once upon us.

When you are in a storm, as we surely are, having a naked emperor — a deluded, un-serious person — at the helm is not funny, it’s frightening.

More from Noonan:

“Judgments on the president’s pandemic leadership have settled in. It was inadequate and did harm. He experienced COVID-19 not as a once-in-a-lifetime medical threat but merely as a threat to his re-election . . .

“The protests and riots of June were poorly, embarrassingly handled. They weren’t the worst Washington had ever seen, they were no 1968, but still he wound up in the White House bunker. Then out of the bunker for an epically pointless and manipulative photo-op . . . Through it all the angry, blustering tweets issued from the White House like panicked bats fleeing flames in the smokestack.

“It was all weak, unserious and avoidant of the big issues. He wasn’t equal to that moment either.”

There comes a point when leaders and institutions loose their legitimacy because no one any longer believes them or believes in them. Legitimacy is not a given. It is an invisible quality that exists in people’s minds and hearts. It can evaporate as a kind of inverse magic. It can happen quite suddenly, as if overnight. “The kid is right, the emperor is naked.” “Oh yeah, he really is, uh-oh.”

Another writer recently offered a different image and story-line to interpret President Trump at this time. That of the horror story villain who you think is dead and gone, but who suddenly jumps back up in all their terrible menace, even worse than before. I suppose it is yet possible that Trump might rise up out of the swamp and surge back — despite Biden’s significant lead in virtually every poll.

But it does seem, as Noonan, argues that something has now changed. “. . . He rarely makes any situation better. And everyone kind of knows.”

In safe and stable times you can get by with an inept leader. But our times are neither safe nor stable. Rather, ours is a situation of multiple, complex crises. What that is the case, having no competent or serious leadership is pretty frightening.


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