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How Peddling False Optimism and Covid-19 Denial Cost Trump Re-election

Legendary leaders like Churchill and Roosevelt knew that to unify people and to earn their trust you need to tell them the truth—even when it’s ugly

White House press briefing on Covid-19. Photo: Flickr.

Narcissists like Trump are, by definition, too self-absorbed to be able to care about the collective welfare. When a president cares more about his chances for re-election than about the death of 250,000+ people and insists that, “We are rounding the corner" when in fact we’re heading into an unprecedented surge in cases, then he does not deserve to lead.

As the darkest days of World War II were approaching in London, just before the Germans started to bomb the densely populated city, destroying property and the innocent lives of civilian women and children, Winston Churchill famously declared, “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering…. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope… and I say, ‘come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.’” Churchill’s anticipation of the struggle was in no way sugar-coated, and the crisis not denied or downplayed: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” he said; yet he never doubted that the people would come together and rise to the challenge to get through the crisis, and indeed they did. Their wholehearted response and dedication, their unity in adversity, has gone down in history as “Britain’s finest hour.”

Graffiti in Shoreditch, London. “Victorious Churchill” by Paul Don Smith. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the nation to prepare them for the crisis they were about to live through. “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt radio broadcast. Photo:

These two legendary statesmen had been fated to lead their nations through the grimmest crises. Yet they have gone down in history as exemplary leaders because they faced the calamity head-on, without sugar-coating it, without denying its existence, without undermining those who would lead the fight. At the same time, they inspired their people with courage, determination and resolution to unify and fight together. They gave them hope that their concerted effort would carry them through the dark days.

That’s leadership. Denialism is not leadership. Offering false optimism is not leadership. Spreading misinformation and ignorance is not leadership. Undermining the experts is not leadership. Dismissing almost a quarter million deaths is not leadership. Had Donald Trump emulated the real leaders of history and been honest with the American people at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and inspired them to pull together and do the right thing; had he respected science and its experts and advised the American people to wear a mask and maintain social distance, today he would be the President-Elect instead of Joe Biden.

WWII London Blitz and children crying amid the destruction. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Instead, Donald Trump persisted in dividing the country by politicizing a medical crisis. Instead of deferring to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he sidelined them and preferred to ridicule and undermine their directors, Drs. Robert Redfield and Anthony Fauci.

Instead, he declared himself to be a greater expert than the leading scientific minds and advocated quack and dangerous remedies, like injecting Lysol into the body. In the now infamous claim to be a natural at science, Trump even implied that his genius at understanding science might be genetic: “You know, my uncle was a great person.  He was at MIT.  He taught at MIT for, I think, like a record number of years.  He was a great super genius.  Dr. John Trump. I like this stuff.  I really get it.  People are surprised that I understand it.  Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’  Maybe I have a natural ability.  Maybe I should have done that instead of running for President.”

Illustration by Antonella Martino

Had Donald Trump said, “this pandemic is serious and we need to hunker down, but we’ll do everything possible to mitigate its damage by following the guidance of the scientists. We’ll put all resources, financial and material, at their disposal, to speed the development of a vaccine and end the pandemic,” more American people would have said bravo and voted for him. Instead, he put obstacles in the way of science and politicized the vaccine development process as well, trying to rush it through the necessary stages so that it could be distributed before Election Day for a boost in his popularity and electability. By so doing, he poisoned the well of trust in the vaccine, because people started to question its safety and efficacy. They lost faith in the one weapon that could put an end to the crisis. The mistrust in the government’s program to develop the vaccine, Operation Warp Speed, was so deep that, “By mid-October, several states—including California, New York, and West Virginia—announced plans to independently review the data for any vaccine the FDA approves.”

I have a deep antipathy towards any theory smacking of conspiracy, but in this case, I am playing with the idea that scientists and pharmaceutical companies were indeed either deliberately holding or slow-walking the final phase of the trials to make sure that the good news of an imminent availability of the vaccine would not come out before Election Day. This in my opinion, was not because they wanted to harm Trump’s chances at re-election or for any other sinister reason, but in order to depoliticize the vaccine and thereby rebuild the trust that would be absolutely necessary to convince people that it was indeed safe and effective. If this is the case, then I applaud them for doing what was the right thing for the American people.

Trump in the time of Coronavirus. (Illustration by Antonella Martino)

As it turned out, “On November 20, Pfizer and BioNTech said they were filing for emergency authorization from the FDA just two days after announcing the conclusion of their phase three trials.”   We have to hope that Trump’s repeated attempts to undermine science, whether that be in climate or vaccines, have not caused any permanent disaffection and suspicion.

What has become clear in the four years of the Trump presidency is that leadership without empathy is not possible. A leader has to be able to imagine himself in the other’s skin to understand what needs to be done, what adversity means for those less fortunate than he. Narcissists like Trump are, by definition, too self-absorbed to be able to care about the collective welfare. When a president cares more about his chances for re-election than about the death of 250,000+ people and insists that, “We are rounding the corner” when in fact we’re heading into an unprecedented surge in cases, then he is not a leader. He is a misguided and cynical denialist fool peddling false optimism who doesn’t deserve to lead a nation. Good riddance.

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