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Wanted During a Pandemic: Presidential Leadership

We need calls to solidarity and assurances that our sacrifices have meaning. So far, Donald Trump hasn't measured up.

President Trump speaks to the press after meeting with Republican Senators in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, May 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

One of the few advantages of the coronavirus crisis has been the opportunity to engage our moral nature. As our normal lives and routines are disrupted, it’s laid bare where we place our value and hope. Some of us have been shocked by the loss of a loved one. Most of us have realized how much we rely on relationships that are now physically distanced. As the oft-cited theologian Paul Tillich wrote, those who endure suffering are taken beneath the routine busyness of life, where they find they are not who they believed themselves to be.

But the simple crucible of isolation and suffering is insufficient—because suffering without hope leads to disillusion. And from disillusion we turn inward, unable to rise to the challenges and sacrifices that exceptional circumstances require. In the aftermath of World War I, a deep sense of despair fell over Europe. Historian Joseph Loconte recounts how in the wake of the Great War, “The concepts of decline and collapse, of sickness and death, infected nearly every cultural endeavor: intellectual, artistic, literary, scientific, philosophical, and religious.” Unlike the Second World War, the First was characterized by an acute meaningless, viewed as a pointless ordeal of human slaughter.

The coronavirus does not pose nearly the crisis of confidence. However, the present suffering does suggest some of the meaninglessness of The Great War, having left people without an explanation and led them to sink into cynicism and despair. The pandemic is a war that lacks the clarity of a war.

One solution to all of this is good leaders. Leadership at its best can help give to suffering an arc of meaning, a sense of common cause outside ourselves that we can identify with. Leaders remind us of the struggles we have overcome in the past and equip us to deal with the trials of the present.

Our leaders can also unite our diverse population and rouse the elements of our moral nature we all share. They can recall us to our shared values when circumstances drive us to forget them, asking of us compassion, sacrifice, and love of neighbor and countrymen.

In the United Kingdom, the prime minister (also the Crown) often supplies that leadership. And no one before or since has done so with such vigor and effect as Winston Churchill. In the months leading up to his premiership, Churchill gave a number of broadcast speeches that sketched the outline of the coming war. Historian Geoffrey Best writes that “these broadcasts before he became Prime Minister…[were] fulfilling an immensely important function. No other public figure had come forward with a convincing explanation of why the war was being fought.”

Eighty years ago, Churchill assumed the post of prime minister as Neville Chamberlain lost the confidence of Parliament and Lord Halifax balked at the open position. The morning after Churchill’s appointment, Germany began its Blitzkrieg attack, sweeping across the Low Countries of Europe in a matter of days. Within the course of a week, the fall of France was imminent.

On May 19, Churchill gave his first address to the nation as prime minister, laying out the grim threat of a German invasion. Erik Larson writes in the Splendid and the Vile, “The speech set a pattern that would follow throughout the war, offering a sober appraisal of facts tempered with reason for optimism.”

Churchill emphasized the significance of the challenge while clarifying its meaning: “It would be foolish, however, to disguise the gravity of the hour. It would be still more foolish to lose heart and courage.” He continued: “After this battle in France abates its force, there will come the battle for our Island — for all that Britain is, and all the Britain means. That will be the struggle.” Churchill steeled the British public for the worst while reminding them of their strength and ability to meet the challenge. As Larson explains, “Churchill demonstrated a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and above all, more courageous. John Martin, one of his private secretaries, believed that he ‘gave forth a confidence and invincible will that called out everything that was brave and strong.’”

In America, the presidency has historically been the platform for that loftier call. From Washington to Lincoln to FDR, history’s example has shown that alongside the presidency’s political power rests an equally if not more important rhetorical power. The president can not only unite the country but mold the public imagination.

Today we lack leadership and unity. Our national narrative around the coronavirus is viciously polarized, cynical, and base. That narrative is split between re-opening and staying closed, between saving our economic life and saving human life. We’re ping-ponging between charts that show collapse and recovery. We’re bickering over death counts to score political points. Some of us have even declared masks the latest battleground in the political correctness culture war.

What’s gotten lost in this mix is not only clarity but foresight. No one is preparing America for what is to come and the true scope of the consequences. This confusion may become even more pronounced as the virus runs its course at different speeds across the country.

President Trump is not the cause of most of this. Our national politics have been polarized for years and both parties have proven unable to manage long-term threats. But the presidency is one of the few, perhaps the only, platform that can provide an antidote to the present delirium. And one of the most enduring legacies of this administration will be the vacuum of leadership that Trump has demonstrated. The president may have had moments at a press conference or speeches that rose rhetorically to the challenge, but they’ve been drowned out by the Twitter tirades, tribalism, and dishonesty. Churchill’s speeches helped embody and define his character to the public. President Trump’s character and credibility are anchored to his Twitter feed.

As we enter the third month of lockdown, there’s a palpable hunger for the unflinching calm and hope of great leadership. We can see glimpses of it in local and regional leaders whom many have rallied around. People from across the country have tuned in to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s live-streamed coronavirus briefings, and major cable news networks have broadcast them live.

A couple of weeks ago, thousands watched a video of a speech by President Bush, displaying all the hallmarks of leadership. He recognized the medical as well as moral threats that the disease presents: “The larger challenge we share is to confront an outbreak of fear and loneliness,” he said. And in the face of such a challenge, he recalled our fortitude in past trials: “We have faced times of testing before. Following 9/11, I saw a great nation rise as one to honor the brave, to grieve with the grieving and to embrace unavoidable new duties, and I have no doubt, none at all, that this spirit of service and sacrifice is alive and well in America.”

These displays of leadership are much needed but insufficient to the scope of the crisis. The presidency is the platform for times like these. Cuomo’s briefings are specific to the New York region. Bush’s speech was streamed during the Call To Unite virtual event, sandwiched among pop culture celebrities, religious leaders, and other past presidents (Bill Clinton spoke as well).

In reality, the pandemic is not a war. Where the one asks many of us to go fight an enemy in battle, the other asks many of us to simply stay home. In many ways, the metaphor of war is insufficient to capture the meaning of this pandemic and can be abused. But this only makes the clarity of leadership even more important than in wartime.

Churchill was honest and direct with the British people. He prepared them for the worst while also giving them something to strive for. We need similar calls to service and sacrifice, reminders that love of neighbor can mean social distancing, and an honest forecast of what’s to come, whatever the political consequences. While most of our attention is right now focused on the immediate policy failures and successes of the pandemic, it’s important to also recognize the absence of moral leadership. We can’t measure this void like we can the effects of shutdowns and aid packages, but the lack of common meaning and solidarity will be felt all the same.

Grayson Logue is a writer living in New York and a contributor to Providence Magazine.

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