Trump’s Score so far during the Pandemic

Should He Have Played it Straight rather than Down; Been Candid rather than Reassuring?

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This is not about whether Donald Trump is a fascist, a racist, a misogynist, a bully or a liar. Those claims are for others to prove, if they are not already obvious. The immediate question is: whether he has displayed the required leadership qualities to get this nation through the worst pandemic since 1918.

Donald Trump is at heart a salesman, showman and promoter, who has honed his skills on the debating stage and on electronic media through his latter day career in reality TV. Before becoming President he was highly effective in sales, entrepreneurship, on TV and in presidential debates. He owed his success to a domineering personality and an iron will to win at at all costs. Many Republican voters saw these as signs of strength, and the attributes of a true leader, no doubt contributing to his surprise election in 2016.

However, these attributes have actually been counter-productive in his attempts at leadership during the pandemic. He has belatedly admitted that he has tried to play down the the dangers of the Coronavirus in order to avoid panic. The optimistic salesman and promoter within got the better of him. This tactic is in sharp contrast to that taken by the (socialist) Prime Minister of New Zealand, and the (conservative) PM of Australia, who both announced a pandemic in early February 2020, and ordered immediate nation-wide lockdowns, with the result that the curve of new Covid-19 cases turned down. The PMs were following advice given by their scientific and medical experts. The populations of both countries responded positively to this candor from their leaders, which saved many lives that otherwise would have been taken by the virus. Now Covid-19 has been practically eliminated in both countries, during their winter, what’s more, except for a second-wave pocket in Melbourne.

By contrast, Trump made the mistake of valuing political goals in an election year above expertise, science and the facts. He tried to will away the pandemic by stating from the outset that it was “a hoax, fake news, a left-wing conspiracy, a little like the flu which will go away very soon; and nothing to worry about as we have it fully under control”. When in fact this virus has been very real, extremely nasty, highly infectious; and lethal to almost 200,000 Americans. It was certainly not under control at any level of Government until lockdowns were put into effect far too late in the piece. And then the pandemic raged out of control again after lockdowns were lifted prematurely, before the curve had been brought down to acceptable levels, as had been done in other countries.

What was required from leaders back in early February, when this pandemic hit the United States, was brutal candor, not reassurance; playing it straight, not playing it down. America is a diverse nation with political and ideological views scattered all over the map, but Americans are capable of pulling together in a real crisis, as they did after 9/11 and after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at the beginning of World War II in the Pacific. The pandemic has been no less a national crisis, and the public would have realized it was so, if it had been framed as such by its leaders, especially at the national level.

Across the pond, World War II PM Winston Churchill displayed the right kind of crisis leadership during the Battle of Britain, when his nation faced the powerful Nazi war machine alone in Europe. In addressing his public, he did not gild the lily; he told it as it was; he did not give the British people false hope. He did not promise a quick victory, but victory in the end. Even after the tide of war began to turn in the allies’ favor in early 1943, after Stalingrad, he was brutally honest, using the now famous words: “This is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning”.

By contrast, the 2020 pandemic in the United States has become a political football. With US elections punishing any incumbent who presided over an economic downturn, the framework for tackling the pandemic was set in economic terms by the Administration. Keeping the economy humming, and then re-opening it after the lockdowns, was given a higher priority than eliminating the virus; and this could be justified (in Trump’s mind) due to the economic hardship a prolonged lockdown would engender. However, we now know that this approach had dire consequences, as it has not been possible to re-open the economy with the virus still raging.

Furthermore, Trump has framed his comments about the pandemic in a way which would appeal to his tough-minded political base. He has been reluctant to endorse the wearing of masks because that approach resonated with the American individualism and exceptionalism of many of his Republican voters who were looking for any excuse not to wear the hated mask. These same national characteristics of self-sufficiency helped to make this country in former times, but are completely unsuited to a pandemic, which can only be eradicated through community cooperation.

Trump caused great confusion in the nation by publicly contradicting his medical experts concerning the severity of the virus, its likely projection, and the reasons for our poor performance when compared to other countries. He caused further confusion by spreading or re-tweeting misinformation about the virus initiated by various right-wing quacks. He also recommended dangerous drugs and procedures against the advice of his medical experts, presumably all in the name of playing down the virus. Mind you, the CDC didn’t help matters by advising against the widespread wearing of masks in the early days, and then reversing this position later. The initial advice was motivated by the desire to preserve the limited supply for essential health workers, but this message mostly got lost in translation. The ensuing public confusion and uncertainty gave citizens an out when it came to taking precautions or making personal sacrifices which were uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Of course, President Trump is not the first to ignore or stretch scientific facts in order to justify a political agenda, ideology or religious belief. The Catholic Church did this back in the time of Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th and 17th C, when it refused to accept that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Undermining the credibility of the sacred teachings of the Church would have shaken the foundations beneath citizens’ religious beliefs, on which social cohesion rested. The Communists in the former Soviet Union and the Nazis in the Third Reich followed the same practice. In this country, it occurred in liberal arts faculties in the universities in the 1970’s with challenges to science and reason and their presumed connection to the military-industrial complex and other so-called societal evils. However, in the 21st C the ideological Right has joined the fray. I refer to climate change deniers and anti-vaccine ideologues, and lately to Covid-19 scoffers. More generally, some quarters of America today are unsupportive of science, expertise, traditional historical facts and truth, if they happen to contradict dearly-held values and beliefs. Facts can be challenged, so it goes, as being part of a narrative; just matters of opinion — someone else’s opinion-, flavored by their ideologies and values at the time.

Where do we go from here? Obviously, there is an opportunity to replace the President in November. But would his successor be able to do a better job on the pandemic? If Donald Trump had been candid about the dangers of the virus in the beginning, he had a chance of inspiring his base of stubborn right-wing supporters to toe the line on masks and social distancing. But, instead he squandered the opportunity by pandering to his base, which is now setting the political agenda for the Republican party on the pandemic. But what chance would a Democrat President have of influencing those same people, who, in addition, will hold differing views as to how and when to re-open the economy? Are we in for another term like in Obama’s presidency when the Republicans controlled the Senate and refused to cooperate with the Administration? Without cooperation across the whole community we may be destined for a third or fourth wave of the pandemic unless an effective vaccine becomes available.

Phillip has an MSc from the University of Sydney and attended Stanford University. He became a scientist, diplomat, CEO and writer. He lives in San Francisco.

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