Trump’s Kiplingesque Coronavirus Leadership
by
Trump and the Coronavirus Task Force at a press briefing, March 16, 2020 (Shealah Craighead/Official White House Photo)

Both Plato and Aristotle feared mass democracy because its smooth-talking agitators could easily whip up popular passions and lead an unsophisticated mob into fury and blind obedience to the tyrant they were promoting to save them.

For the past three years, progressive intellectuals and media have depicted President Donald Trump as that tyrant even with little evidence after multiple investigations by his opponents and by the government itself. Yet, when the coronavirus struck, these same critics derided him for the opposite — for not exercising absolute control over the country’s private institutions and local governments. They demanded a single national solution to regulate everyone.

In his first policy test, the president showed no interest in authoritarian control. Standing up to the inflamed media mob, he properly put the coronavirus threat in context. He compared the numbers of deaths from coronavirus, even in its then-epicenter in China, as in the low thousands, compared to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimate for U.S. influenza deaths at 20,000–50,000 cases per year. He refused to shut down the nation’s economy to contain the virus, suggesting that could make the cure worse than the disease and that states were better placed to meet the different conditions in our very large and diverse nation.

The yellow journalism storm hit hurricane strength when Fox’s Tucker Carlson told the Trump base that America would end unless the president came forward with a comprehensive national plan. Even then, President Trump’s next proposals were moderate. They mostly loosened government rules restricting private medical responses and still emphasized federalism and decentralization. But in the face of the media blizzard and Congress’ belief that spending trillions was the only way to “do something,” all Washington agreed on the need to throw trillions of their borrowed money at the crisis and exert drastic new controls. The executive finally accommodated to this panic. Even then, he expressed hope that extreme controls would last only for a limited time, setting the restrictions for 15 days.

This, for me, recalls Rudyard Kipling’s criteria for true leadership:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise …

President Trump is emerging from this crisis as this type of leader. Even his accommodations seem to pass the Kipling test by making allowances for others’ panic and waiting for the proper time to act. There certainly is a pandemic, and action is necessary. But trillions of dollars in grants and everyone restricted to their home has high costs to all concerned, and so the situation needs less exaggerated news coverage and more careful consideration of the real facts:

  • There are no treatments for those infected with the coronavirus except supportive care and isolation, and there will not be a vaccine for many months. CDC only recommends drinking water, covering sneezes and coughs, washing hands, staying at home, not sharing items even with family members, and cleaning all surfaces even with just two at home.
  • If symptoms worsen, one is to call rather than visit a doctor. The doctor is to decide if the person should go to a hospital. But that decision is dependent upon getting through to the doctor, getting to and through the emergency room, and the hospital having space and equipment — all of which is in short supply — which is why CDC recommends this circuitous process.
  • Testing is imprecise and not yet widely available. Temperature checks are not conclusive, and testing itself has measurement errors and can even spread disease to those who otherwise would not become ill. Testing for the virus is recommended for all, but supplies are limited, so the CDC priority is for testing people who fall in vulnerable categories since the death rate for healthy persons seemed to be 0.9 percent or less (compared to 10 times more for diabetes, lung, and like diseases). In fact, CDC experts first said closing schools was unnecessary considering that very few healthy children suffer severe symptoms or death.
  • CDC-suggested social isolation for the sick and elderly has known negative effects for the mentally ill, those who are lonely, those in jails, and other vulnerable groups who need social interactions, including for otherwise healthy persons.
  • Coronavirus data is constantly changing. All of these recommendations are based upon the “best data.” But as John P. A. Ioannidis, a top Stanford University medical expert, found, “The data collected so far on how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving are utterly unreliable…. We don’t know if we are failing to capture infections by a factor of three or 300. Three months after the outbreak … no countries have reliable data on the prevalence of the virus in a representative random sample of the general population.”
  • The mortality rate keeps dropping. In the face of estimates by other experts of two million or more deaths in the U.S. (the largest estimate now has been revised down to tens of thousands), Ioannidis concluded, “Projecting [even the isolated population] Diamond Princess [cruise ship] mortality rate onto the age structure of the U.S. population, the death rate among people infected with Covid-19 would be 0.125%. But since this estimate is based on extremely thin data — there were just seven deaths among the 700 infected passengers and crew — the real death rate could stretch from five times lower (0.025%) to five times higher (0.625%)…. Adding these extra sources of uncertainty, reasonable estimates for the case fatality ratio in the general U.S. population vary from 0.05% to 1%.” By comparison, CDC set the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) death rate at 1 percent but later reduced it down to 0.02 percent.
  • Coronavirus is far more dangerous for older people and those with underlying conditions. The health experts in Italy, the country with the most documented coronavirus cases, found that 99 percent of deaths had underlying pathology and that median age of a fatality was 80 years.
  • U.S. outbreaks so far have come in clusters instead of spreading widely. The state with the largest number of early-recorded fatalities was Washington, now at 123 deaths, with Seattle the epicenter and many of these at one previously city-censored retirement home, which at one time had 60 percent of the U.S.’s total coronavirus deaths.
  • The shutdown is dangerous for the economy. What the experts know for certain is that not allowing people to work will destroy the economy with recession inevitable and a full depression likely depending on how long work closures last. All expert opinion agrees that viruses will always be around, and even with a vaccine outbreaks recur, and (as with the flu) vaccinations never work for all strains. In the face of these facts, some have suggested virtually unlimited restrictions indefinitely, which would certainly end with the U.S. as a third-world economy.
  • Can the Federal Reserve save us? In what the media called its “most dramatic action since 2008,” the Fed was encouraged by many, including the Wall Street Journal, to take bold action on interest rates to stimulate the economy. It did, but that was followed the very next day by the largest drop in stock prices ever. One financial columnist concluded, “The Federal Reserve is now effectively spent,” leaving only more market-oriented loans available for additional private businesses, even though granting these loans is a proper central bank function. And no serious economist believes the congressional “stimulus” actions and increased debt will work. We simply do not know how to run an economy without workers.
  • Unemployment is skyrocketing. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits in the third week of March — 3.8 million applicants — was five times higher than the previous U.S. high, and state offices were overwhelmed with additional new applicants.
  • Americans want to protect both lives and jobs. In the midst of this media-induced panic, the people have a more nuanced view. The Pew Research Center reported that only 26 percent of Americans feared that the coronavirus would affect their own health but that 70 percent feared the economic effects of shutting business down. Sooner rather than later this fear will lead to mass disobedience, and the police are not enforcing the rules already. The 15-day limit set by the president for his plan to “slow the spread” is like a vacation, but after that things will become serious. That’s why he wants to end the restrictions by Easter.

The only possible solution is President Trump’s insight that there are two pandemics, one for health and another for the economy, and that “we can do both.” In a recent two-hour press conference, in which he answered every question from the media, the president was repeatedly asked if he would promise to obtain the approval of National Institutes of Health infectious diseases chief Dr. Anthony Fauci before reducing or ending his coronavirus restrictions. The president responded each time that he had great trust in Fauci and the other national experts and listened to them. But he told them a president must look at all aspects of governance and listen to the economic experts, too. The job of a president is to make decisions among different expertises, and that is what he would do.

The president likewise reiterated that states would still be able and allowed to act where necessary beyond the few national rules. Many states have no fatalities and few who have contracted the virus. Only five states represent 72 percent of national fatalities, with New York and Washington state alone with almost half of the cases, mostly in their large cities. There is no national solution, and the states would be wise to allow local governments to adopt different policies, as well.

Gallup’s most recent poll finds 60 percent or more of the public supporting health institutions, local and state governments, and even President Trump for the way they have responded to the coronavirus threat, with only the media having a majority disapproving their actions.

All in all, an exemplary presidential performance as Trump has mastered the Kipling-promised public doubt and refuses to give way to ideologically driven hate, while keeping his head as all about him were losing theirs.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution and Political Management of the Bureaucracy. He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.

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