The Delusional Fight against the Invisible Enemy

Today Americans celebrate another Memorial Day to honor the men and women who died serving the U.S. military.  And in November, Veterans Day will be celebrated to commemorate the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, which ended World War I. These celebrations along with other military monuments provide insights into America’s military culture.

America’s military culture with its countless wars is one that presidents know the value of.  Though they may not like to start a war, presidents know that if there is one thing that can revive their floundering presidency, it is a war. And they know that if they start a war and is victorious, they will be immortalized in the annals of history. That is why presidents like to use the term “war president” even for a non-military crisis − it gives them an aura of power and it’s good for reelection.

Declaring war on an invisible enemy might seems somewhat delusional like Don Quixote fighting windmills he thought were giants.

Presidents who have not presided over a war will seize on the opportunity to declare war on a non-military crisis.  George H. Bush did this in his war against drugs and now we have Donald Trump who has declared war on the indivisible enemy, coronavirus (COVID-19).  Trump seems to have an obsession with the military even though he has no military background.  He has bragged about loving the military, doing more for the military than any other president, and even wanting to have a 4th of July military parade.

To fight a war, you have to have an enemy and that enemy must be a real entity. In Bush’s drug war, the enemy was the Narco traffickers.  Trump’s war is with COVID-19 or the “invisible enemy” as he likes to call it. Declaring war on an invisible enemy might seems somewhat delusional like Don Quixote fighting windmills he thought were giants.

The last time a major pandemic affected the world was in 1918 with the Spanish flu.  This pandemic was responsible for 50 million deaths across the globe and 675,000 here in the US.  Woodrow Wilson was the president then and he was viewed by many as one of the most capable presidents.  Historians ranked him in the top 10 president’s list, however, in recent years he has slipped in the rankings because of publicized links to racism.

Woodrow Wilson and Donald Trump are on the opposite ends of personality spectrum. Wilson’s biographer, J. Perry Leavell, described him as a complex man with extraordinary strengths and glaring limitations in his character. Donald Trump in contrast is not a complex man he is an open book that shows all his flaws in black and white.

Despite their contrast in personality, both Wilson and Trump had two things in common−an alleged racist background and ineffective leadership in handling their pandemic. In Wilson’s case, he totally ignored the pandemic and devoted most of his attention to World War I.  Sandra Opdycke in her book wrote,

President Woodrow Wilson had been extraordinarily closed-mouthed about the epidemic from the first. Historians have been unable to find a single occasion on which he mentioned it in public.

Author John M. Berry made the same conclusion in his book where he wrote,

Wilson had made no public statement about influenza.  He would not shift his focus from the war, not for an instant.

Trump on the other hand took command of his pandemic (even though he had a task force that was led by the VP Pence) and muzzled the medical experts.  He conducted his frequent briefings, like his reality TV show, The Apprentice – self-evaluation of his performance, self-adulation, lavishing praise and those on his team, making medical suggestions, and insulting reporters who asked him questions he did not like.

Unless you are affected by the halo effect, it is easy to see that Trump does not meet any of these attributes. 

We don’t have to wait for history to tell us if Trump was an effective “war president” in dealing with COVID-19. Trump’s negative leadership traits are not conducive to handling a crisis.  The death toll from this virulent virus−now over 90,000 and climbing− is testimony to his failed leadership.

Sarah Kovoor-Misra an expert in crisis management states in her book, Crisis Management: Resilience and Change, discusses the attributes that are essential for crisis management, she writes,

The following attributes have been found to be important in perceptions of integrity in countries, such as the United States, Germany, Austria, and China:

  • Guided by a strong personal moral code/values
  • Value behavior consistency
  • Fair and just
  • Word-action consistency
  • Consideration and respect for others
  • Openness and transparency

Unless you are affected by the halo effect, it is easy to see that Trump does not meet any of these attributes.  If we use a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest grade and 5 the highest, most American presidents would rate at 3 to 5.  If we compare Trump with Obama (since he does this frequently) both men will occupy the opposite end of the leadership spectrum.  Unless you simply hate Obama for no good reason other than his race, he certainly rates a 4 or 5.  On the other hand, since Trump does not meet any of these attributes, he is rated a 1.

Six specific reasons why Trump’s leadership is at the low end of the spectrum on the crisis management of COVID-19 are:

  1. He planted the seeds of divisiveness − he called COVID-19 a hoax by the democrats, referred to it as the Chinese virus; called CNN fake news; and he criticized Democrat governors like Gavin Newsome (CA), Andrew Cuomo (NY), and Gretchen Whitmer (MI).
  2. He marginalized or blamed established medical institutions – Trump muzzled the Center for Disease Control (CDC) by dictating what public health guidelines to put out. He blamed the World Health Organization (WHO) for the spread of the pandemic
  3. He created controversy and confusion – he encouraged protestors in Virginia who wanted the state to reopen by tweeting “liberate Virginia.” He promoted the drug hydroxychloroquine.
  4. He fired key administration personnel – Trump instead of focusing on winning the war on COVID-19 instead fired the vaccine expert Dr. Rick Bright who was the director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) because of doubts he raised on hydroxychloroquine that Trump was promoting. In addition to this firing, he recently fired two Inspector Generals.
  5. He blamed his predecessor –he frequently blames Pres. Obama for leaving him with nothing to fight the pandemic and saying that he was grossly incompetent.
  6. Lacks a sense of empathy and compassion for victims – with the exception of World Wars I and II, COVID-19 with a death toll of over 90,000 and climbing, has killed more Americans than all the other individual wars. The lugubrious effect of this has not registered on Trump as he consistently brags, seek recognition, and even fire people for no justifiable reason.

Throughout the effort to mitigate COVID-19, Trump has done the one thing that a leader should not do −being indecisive. We have seen this on the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), testing and contact tracing, the failure of a comprehensive strategy, and the flip flop over who is responsible for opening the economy (Trump or the governors).

So, for Trump does not appear to be winning his war against COVID-19.  One of the U.S.  Strength in military operations is the smart bombs it has in its arsenal.  The smart bombs are useless against the invisible enemy, COVID-19.  It doesn’t appear that Trump has any smart weapons in his arsenal to fight the invisible enemy. This is unfortunate for the country, because the death toll will only continue to rise.

With Trump pushing for a premature opening of the economy without testing strategies still uncertain, we will continue to be at the mercy of COVID-19.  And as Dr. Bright predicted during his testimony before a House subcommittee recently, we can only hope that this does not happen.  Too many people have died and too many lives have been devastated by the invisible enemy, COVID-19.