What's Tony Thinking

Trump Facing a Test of Leadership


The Coronavirus is starting to hit home. The first U.S. fatality was right here, in King County, Washington. Our son who travels internationally a good deal experienced the jitters of the traveling public and industry this week. In church this morning, where turnout was low, we were instructed to forego handshakes and hugs during the greeting of peace. Planned get-togethers and events are being reviewed and some cancelled.

Nobody seems to really know how this is going to go. I certainly don’t. But few have been comforted by the President’s leadership to date. As Peggy Noonan commented in her “Convictions” column at the Wall Street Journal yesterday, “It is in a crisis that you see the different between showmanship and leadership.”

At least four of the President’s habitual tendencies are going against him now.

One, is his distrust of experts. He always knows more than they do. He’s the smartest person he knows. But the mark of a truly smart person is to know the limits of their knowledge. They know the value of experts and the value of giving serious attention to those who have dedicated their lives to the treatment of things like infectious diseases. Apparently the White House forbade Tony Fauci, the widely-respected head of the National Institutes of Health, from making scheduled appearances on several Sunday morning news shows. Why? Probably because Fauci looked more presidential than the President.

Second, for Trump everything is about him. Any questions or criticism are a Democratic party “hoax.” Another attempt to get him. How he fares, looks, is flattered (atta boy Mike P.) or criticized is what something like this is all about for this man. If there every were an issue where you needed someone who understands, “This isn’t about me,” now would be the time. But Trump personalizes everything.

Third, this is not a man capable of accepting responsibility. He’s never, he tells us, done anything wrong. He has had nothing, ever, to apologize for. And if things are going south during a pandemic, it’s someone else’s fault. As he said this week, “I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democratic candidates standing on the stage making fools of themselves.” How petty. How cheap. It’s always someone else who is to blame.

Fourth, it’s hard to trust what a serial liar tells you. Various websites, books and fact-checkers have documented Trump’s distortions of the truth and outright lies for sometime now. They are legion. In a crisis, you want someone who doesn’t distort information, spin it or twist it. Someone who understands the importance of truth and accuracy. You want someone you can trust. What we have is someone who has spent the last three years showing us he cannot be trusted, that he will say whatever suits his perceived self-interest.

Will this add up to a moment of decision for Trump and for the country about his leadership? Hard to say. Will his “base” continue oblivious to his manifold deficiencies?

I’ll give Peggy Noonan (a Republican, by the way), who knows what it’s like in the halls of power during a crisis the last word, well, almost the last word. “Leaders in crisis function as many things. They are primary givers of information, so they have to know the facts. They have to be serious: they must master the data. Are they managerially competent? Most of all, are they trustworthy and credible?”

On a much smaller scale, I’ve been at the helm for a few crises myself. I learned that providing accurate information lowers the temperature. I learned that the best way to help others remain steady is to be steady yourself.

Trump’s level of self-focus is that of an adolescent. He has not thus far shown himself to be a serious person. Will he now?



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