The most important question today is not what President Donald Trump has learned from his bout with COVID-19. Trump is one of those leaders who never learns and never forgets, as the saying goes. The most important question is what have we as citizens learned — and, in particular, what have Trump’s supporters learned?
Because the debate over Trump himself is over. The verdict is in: He cast himself as Superman, but he turns out to have been Superspreader — not only of a virus but of a whole way of looking at the world in a pandemic that was dangerously wrong for himself and our nation. To reelect him would be an act of collective madness.
But while I see it that way, and maybe you see it that way, will enough Trump voters see it that way? That will depend on Joe Biden’s ability to help them see all the big and small things where Trump has been so fundamentally mistaken.
The list of “small” things is long: Caution in a pandemic is not a sign of weakness but of wisdom. Face masks in a pandemic are not cultural markers, just common-sense protection that says nothing other than “I’m a responsible person who wants to protect myself and my grandparent, myself and my customer, myself and my co-worker, myself and my neighbor from an invisible pathogen.”
Machismo in a pandemic is not strength. Resisting mask-wearing in a pandemic is not safeguarding freedom. Lockdowns in a pandemic are not an abridgment of our rights of assembly or speech. Blue states aren’t more attractive to the coronavirus than red states. Scientists are not politicians. Politicians are not scientists. Everything is not politics. Lysol is a disinfectant for cleansing counters, not your lungs. Our choices were never masks OR jobs but masks FOR jobs — the more your employees and customers wear them, the more your business can stay open and flourish.
The big things Trump got wrong were twofold. The first was how to lead in a pandemic. The quality of our leadership in general is always a serious business, but in a pandemic, it becomes a matter of life and death. Leaders at every level — teachers, scientists, principals, presidents, school superintendents, hospital directors, CEOs, mayors, governors, media, parents — are all being looked to for direction today more than ever because so many people feel disoriented and unmoored.
Donald Trump proved to be the worst kind of leader in a pandemic: a morally reckless leader.
“When it comes to living in the face of uncertainty, people tend to fall along a spectrum, reflecting their attitudes toward individual freedom versus responsibility and their disposition toward risk-taking,” explained Dov Seidman, the founder and chairman of LRN, an ethics and compliance company, and the How Institute for Society, which promotes values-based leadership.
You can see this spectrum starkly in how people contracted the virus and dealt with COVID-19, Seidman said. “First, there were those along the spectrum who were just unlucky and unfortunate — wrong place, wrong time when a tiny invisible pathogen was present.”
Second, he added, “there were frontline workers, heroes, who bravely ran toward the virus to help save others and were infected by it in the process. Third, there were individuals who were reckless and did not wear masks or stay 6 feet apart, harming themselves, their family, friends and co-workers, too.”
And finally, said Seidman, there were the leaders: “There were those in positions of power and authority — whom people were trusting for lifesaving guidance. Some shouldered their responsibility, knowing that in this time of crisis more people than ever would heed their advice and emulate their example, if they behaved accordingly. Other leaders, though, did not lead that way; they actually encouraged people to ignore the science and let down their guard. That is moral recklessness.”
That was Trump.
As a result, Seidman concluded, “today, we have a real crisis of leadership and authority — people don’t know who to trust and what to believe. But what is clear is that leaders who can put more truth into the world than they muddy and put more trust into the world than they erode matter now more than ever — those are the leaders we admire and whom history will remember well.”
Trump and Fox News and Facebook will not be among them. They will be remembered for how much truth they muddied and how much trust they eroded, which together have helped to compromise our country’s cognitive immunity — our ability to sort out facts from fiction — and our social immunity — our ability to face this crisis together.
The second big thing Trump got completely wrong is: You don’t mess with Mother Nature.
This pandemic was a natural systems event. But Trump looks at the world through markets, not Mother Nature. He and his advisers consistently downplayed the virus so as not to panic the market, whose rise they saw as Trump’s ticket to reelection.
At a White House briefing back in March, Kellyanne Conway literally sneered at a reporter who implied in her question that the virus was not being contained.
“Do you not think it’s being contained in this country?” Conway barked at the journalist. “You said, ‘It’s not being contained,’ so are you a doctor or a lawyer when you’re saying it’s not being contained? That’s false. You just said something that’s not true.”
Of course, it was true. While Trump and his advisers were playing down the virus to protect the market, Mother Nature was silently, inexorably, exponentially and mercilessly spreading the coronavirus around our nation, irrespective of state boundaries or political affiliations. Conway herself now has COVID-19.
In a pandemic, Mother Nature asks you and your leader three basic questions: 1. “Are you humble? Do you respect my virus? Because if you don’t, it could hurt you or someone you love.” 2. “Are you coordinated in your response to my virus, which I evolved to find any crack in your individual or communal immune system?” 3. “Is your adaptation response to my virus grounded in chemistry, biology and physics? Because that is all I am. If it is grounded instead in politics, ideology, markets and an election calendar, you will fail and your community will pay.”
When it came to Mother Nature, Trump was not humble, he did not seek national coordination in response to the virus and he did not ground what strategy he had in chemistry, biology and physics, but rather in ideology, politics, markets and an election calendar. Our nation has paid a huge price for that.
Trump wanted us to believe that we had only two choices: open the economy and ignore the virus, as he claims to prefer, or close the economy and fear the virus, as he claims Democrats prefer.
It’s a fraud. Our real choices were to open the economy smartly or to open it recklessly.
That is, open the economy by doing the easy things, like wearing masks and social distancing, so people could shop, go to school and go to work with a reasonable prospect of not getting sick, as Biden proposes, or open the economy recklessly, without masks, and force people to risk getting sick every time they go to work or school, as Trump demands.
Trump did not respect Mother Nature or us. All I can do now is pray that enough Trump supporters have learned that — and vote against him between now and Nov. 3. The lives and livelihoods of many Americans depend on it.
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.