Alan Zendell, April 13, 2020
Our country and the world are in the midst of a deadly pandemic. If this were a movie, serious actors would portray serious politicians consulting even more serious experts and pooling their resources. Politics would be but a sidebar. Even the most imaginative Hollywood producers couldn’t envision the sort of chaos and leadership vacuum we see in the United States today.
In times of national crisis we reflexively turn to our president for direction, reassurance, and comfort. We do that because of the examples of the past; FDR shepherding us through the Depression and World War 2, Winston Churchill taking the Battle of Britain on his shoulders, Dwight Eisenhower assuring us that we would not be obliterated by Soviet H-bombs, George W. Bush calming us after nine-eleven, Barrack Obama inheriting the worst financial crisis since Black Friday, 1929 and taking the helm with eloquent calm assurance.
Americans need that today, but instead we have a self-aggrandizing president who brags about his television ratings and his popularity on Facebook, who babbles incoherently, misstating facts, inventing falsehoods on the fly, and constantly being discreetly corrected by the experts who should be conducting the briefings in the first place. And Congress? After a rare show of bipartisanship no matter how reluctantly they were dragged into it by the need to assure Americans that they would be able feed their families, they are once again mired in impasse, separated by competing special interests trying to protect their wealth and power.
Trump’s daily briefing ratings are high in the same way that people are fascinated by train wrecks and zombie films. They are longer and less informative every day, with Trump devouring airtime in pursuit of re-election, telling us he’s doing a perfect job, deflecting blame for the mistakes he has made, and spouting insane, debunked conspiracy theories. His public health task force stands behind him for two hours cringing as he undermines their attempts to save lives.
Trump claims he’s facing the most difficult decision of his presidency. That’s true, but the decision is not a binary choice between the health and safety of Americans and protecting the economy. In the 1930s our economy survived a devastating Depression that lasted more than ten years. Yet both it and the Americans who suffered through it recovered rapidly to become the economic and manufacturing behemoth that saved the world in the 40s. Trump’s agonizing decision isn’t about the economy. He’s gambling the lives and health of Americans against protecting short term corporate profits to preserve his re-election chances.
Thank God there’s another source of leadership filling the breach – our governors and mayors. Instead of letting cable networks shape your thinking, check out the daily briefings of our forward-looking governors. There are several every day on television and online: Andrew Cuomo in New York, Gavin Newsom in California, Phil Murphy in New Jersey, Larry Hogan in Maryland, Andy Beshear in Kentucky, Mike DeWine in Ohio, Gretchen Witmer in Michigan…and more.
Each has its own issues and timelines, but they have things in common that you’ll never see in a Trump briefing. There’s no grandstanding or competing for credit and accolades, bragging about false accomplishments or playing the blame game. What you’ll see consistently from these natural leaders is compassion, truth, unifying assurance, and strength. I regularly listen, and I hear no partisanship or buck-passing, no threats to people who voice disagreement, and a willingness to hear and respond to questions no matter who asks them.
As Trump continues living his own reality, trying to force the country into prematurely “re-opening for business” and undermining all the mitigation steps that we’ve taken, (and might have taken many weeks earlier if someone had been able to muzzle him,) we should be thankful for our governors. Realizing they cannot depend on the federal government for anything but misdirection and chaos, they are forming their own coalitions. The east coast compact is New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island. The west’s is California, Oregon, and Washington.
The compacts will devise regional approaches to loosening restrictions on businesses and social distancing that reflect local conditions. Both will have priorities uncontaminated by politics or self-interest. Number one will be protecting the lives and health of Americans. Two will be restoring functioning local economies to assure maintenance of food supplies and the financial survival of both families and businesses.
They’re prepared to defy and ignore the President if need be. They know that in the end, the federal government will have to get in line and follow suit. Whether they work in Congress or the White House, they have no choice. There’s an election in November, and the voters are watching.