Wrongheaded Leadership

Alan Zendell, April 16, 2020

There is much about the COVID-19 pandemic that defies reason and makes us feel like the world is spinning out of control. That’s serious because in a crisis, one of the things we most need is to believe that we are in control of our fate. At such times, most people look to experts for reassurance and a sense of what the future holds.

In the case of the current pandemic, those experts are medical professionals, statistical modelers, and economists. There are literally thousands of such people working around the clock to get a handle on the virus and its impact. While they don’t all agree, each study or analysis, the forecasts of the various models, and the conclusions of researchers narrows the scope of our uncertainty. No one can tell us with confidence how or how fast the virus spreads, which drugs can be used to treat it, or how long it will be before we have a vaccine.

Every week we learn more, as scientists, mathematicians, and front line medical professionals discard bad ideas and failed experiments using sound research and analysis. The good news is that all of their findings point in the same direction. The only way to control the spread of COVID-19 until there is a vaccine available for everyone is distancing for those who are not infected and isolation for those who are. But despite the nearly unanimous consensus of the people we should be listening to, there remains an almost unfathomable disconnect among our leaders.

The debate between people who worry that a declining economy must be fixed to avoid a catastrophe like the Great Depression and those who believe that our first priority should be saving lives and averting the collapse of our health care system is legitimate. Both are serious issues that must be dealt with. The disconnect occurs when raw politics rears its ugly head.

It’s difficult enough to formulate policies when the only objectives are protecting the lives and health of our people, and preventing economic disaster. Politics corrupts the process, because its goals are narrow, venal, and selfish. There are many people with the financial means to do so who are all too willing to pounce like predators on a system struggling to survive for their own benefit. In normal times we refer to them in benign terms like “special interests.” In times like the ones in which we’re currently living, we call them what they really are – vultures who will do whatever is necessary to achieve their ends without regard for anyone else.

The only way we can protect ourselves from them is with integrity of purpose and strong, effective central leadership. That means President Trump. While many aspects of the fight against the pandemic are difficult to understand, Trump’s failures are not. The problem with his lack of leadership is what most of us who were distressed by his election worried about from the start. His extreme narcissism impedes his ability to feel compassion. Compassion means sensitivity to other people’s pain, suffering, and loss, completely separate from our individual desires and needs. Even many of Trump’s political allies acknowledge that he lacks that quality.

That’s why when people like Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx explain the reality of the virus to him, he virtually has to be beaten over the head to understand the human impact of getting back to business as usual prematurely. He is always the last person on board with sound policy decisions, and at every critical point his delays worsen the situation. His focus on himself and his need for adoration are always at the forefront, whether it’s claiming credit for everything, worrying about his television ratings, or desperately deflecting blame to everyone else. It’s also the reason that when governors, mayors, epidemiologists, and the people trying to save lives with inadequate supplies and equipment disagree with him, he demonizes them and complains that the mythical deep state is still out to get him.

Trump’s approach to managing the pandemic is entirely wrongheaded. And despite the feedback he’s getting from business leaders that massive nationwide testing must precede ending distancing restrictions, it’s made worse when sycophants and other politicians like Florida Governor Ron deSantis, who are beholden to him for campaign funds, bolster his wrongness. It’s why conservative super-PACs like the Liberty Project have endorsed Joe Biden, arguing that Trump must be defeated in November for the good of the nation.

His other flaws aside, Trump simply cannot be depended on in a crisis, not because he’s evil, but because he is incapable. It’s never been clearer that he lacks the tools and qualities necessary for leadership.

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