Donald Trump, the Cowardly Anti-Obama
When it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are hearing three stories. There’s one about human health, one about politics and one about economics. There’s a fourth, however. It’s thus far untold, though it’s arguably the largest for linking the other three. That story is about public trust, especially its new, massive and growing deficit.
As I mentioned last week, businesses can reopen, but they can’t force consumers to resume their previous spending habits. Restaurants, bars, theaters, churches, sporting venues, any public space with a capacity to hold more than five people—none were designed for “social distancing.” In the absence of a vaccine, or the new coronavirus mutating its way into oblivion, all are liabilities. Expecting consumers to trust after witnessing more than 82,000 Americans die is a rough exercise in magical thinking.
Moreover, businesses, especially the giants, are lobbying lawmakers to shield them from future lawsuits seeking damages for getting sick and/or dying. How on earth can businesses expect consumers to trust them when businesses won’t trust themselves? They want the freedom to turn a profit, but none of the social responsibility? The US economy isn’t the only thing in rapid retreat. So is the public’s willingness to trust.
A recent Edelman survey showed for the first time in 20 years less trust in CEOs than in government. According to Business Insider, most of the 13,000 respondents in nearly a dozen countries “said they believe business is not putting people before profits, not implementing enough safety measures to protect employees, and not helping small business suppliers and customers by extending credit or payment terms.”
Richard Edelman said recently the pandemic may inspire a reconsideration of the role of government, specifically its regulation of private enterprise. He said that publicly traded companies should act in the best interest of stakeholders, not stockholders. If they do not show greater concern and care for the broader public interest, “if it’s bad performance by business, just short-term profits, I believe there will be much more government involvement, if not control, over key parts of the economy,” he said.
Trust in government is on the rise—with a huge exception. A new CNN poll shows only 36 percent of Americans trust the president’s statements regarding the new coronavirus pandemic. His job approval, meanwhile, is 45 percent. As John Berman pointed out, that means some of Donald Trump’s own supporters don’t think he’s a trustworthy source of information. (Even fewer trust what they watch on Fox News.)
A poll showing some people support the president despite distrusting him is new, but that cognitive dissonance has probably always been present in the populace. Trump has been unpopular, and therefore weak, since the morning he delivered an inaugural speech written not for US citizens but for “real Americans” living in a confederate and wholly imagined nation within a nation. His legitimacy has always been in doubt. It took an emergency to show that the doubters include more than his dedicated critics.
Some will say the reason is his administration’s bungling of the federal response to the plague, but that doesn’t seem right. Americans are willing to trust a president even if he fails, as long as he demonstrates he’s trying in good faith. Trump isn’t, though. He’s not bothering even to pretend he’s trying. He’s walking away from the crisis, refusing to acknowledge its existence, acting like everything’s OK. The president has always been weak, but what’s new may be the public’s increasing intolerance for that weakness.
Why, though? As I said, the link between competence and job approval is overblown. The actual link, I think, is the one between public trust and courage. A president who demonstrates courage—looking for answers, asking for patience, willing to be held accountable for failure—is a president who can inspire broad public trust. The current president, however, cuts and runs, as they like to say on Fox News. (He literally walked away yesterday in the face of hard questioning by women reporters.) A president who demonstrates cowardice like that is a president who inspires broad public distrust.
That’s bad for him. That’s bad for everyone. If the public can’t trust businesses that refuse to trust themselves, to whom should businesses turn to get the economy going again? In the last major crisis, they turned to a new president who had just won with a huge majority of the US electorate. The work was hard. Barack Obama made mistakes. In the end, however, he led the country through the worst recession in eight decades.
This time, they have the cowardly anti-Obama.
And the crisis is worse.