Followership in a Time of Crisis…the Virus Crisis – VI

This is the sixth in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, has been especially virulent, as if he alone is solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the misleading, mistaken idea that our fixation on Trump is warranted – as if he were not just the leading actor but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.  

VI – The Protesters

Protesting during a pandemic is hard. I do not refer to protesting online, or to bitching and moaning in private to friends and family. I refer to the old-fashioned kind, when protesting meant taking to the streets to send signals, aural and visual, that made clear just how furious you were, how very, very furious, about whoever or whatever your gripe.  

Recently, famously, were enormous, repeated protests like those in Hong Kong, against the long arm of the Chinese government. Also recently were similar protests in Peru, in Lebanon, in India, in Chile, in France, and in other countries around the world, each one a reflection of extreme dissatisfaction by some individuals and groups with someone or something. In the wake of the pandemic, however, these protests have come almost to a halt. Hardly any marching or mobilizing, hardly any rioting or rallying. Instead people are hunkered down in their homes, forbidden by their governments to congregate, most in any event discouraged by the dangers of the virus from doing anything other than what they are being told.

To be sure, there have been some exceptions to this general rule – protesters have not been silenced altogether. Chilean activists have projected images of crowds on to empty streets. In Hong Kong, a union of medical workers went on strike to take issue with the government’s response to the outbreak. And, as Erica Chenowith and her colleagues have pointed out, during the virus crisis protesters, activists, have found new ways of expressing their angers and frustrations. There are walkouts and car caravans. There is crowdfunding and mask-making. There are technologists developing new ways of checking individual temperatures and monitoring high-risk areas, and experimenting with drones to deliver supplies.

In the United States have also been sporadic, episodic protests that more closely resemble the old-fashioned kind – though only occasionally have they involved large numbers of people gathering in proximity. In general, protests engendered by the pandemic have fallen into two categories: those against big business and those against big government.

The first group of protesters consists in the main of underpaid and undervalued employees demanding improved working conditions – especially in corporate behemoths such as Amazon and Walmart. While the chorus of their complaints has not been large, loud, or disruptive enough to penetrate the body politic, it has been persistent enough to garner some attention in the press, some attention among the public, and some attention by their employers who incline to straddle the line between punishing the dissidents on the one hand, and giving in to their demands on the other.

Amazon, for example, fired a warehouse worker in New York City, Chris Smalls, who helped lead a walkout on Staten Island. Though the company denied firing Mr. Smalls for political activity, it has a track record of doing what it legally can to preclude its workers from publicly taking issue with company policy or in any was organizing. Some Amazon workers terminated during the pandemic claimed to have been singled out and, ultimately, pushed out because they pressed for better workplace conditions. Amazon, in turn, has continued to insist they were fired because they violated unrelated company policies.  Meantime, sometimes, Amazon workers are getting an important ally – the law. Case in point: New York State. On April 22, Letitia James, the state’s attorney general, sent Amazon a letter that read in part, “While we continue to investigate, the information so far available to us raises concerns that Amazon’s health and safety measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are so inadequate that they may violate several provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.” In France, incidentally, the law is much clearer about who is responsible for what. In response to concerns raised by Amazon employees through their union representatives (yes, their union representatives), a judge found in favor of them and against their employer. Amazon was effectively forced to rectify working conditions at several warehouses rendered unsafe by the coronavirus crisis. As is the company’s wont, its first response to the judge’s ruling was to scream bloody murder. It’s second response was to enter detailed discussions with Amazon employees about how to improve workplace safety.

Walmart has similarly suffered the slings and arrows of bad publicity when a small number of intrepid employees spoke publicly about what they claimed were unacceptable working conditions. Early in April a 21-year-old cashier at a Walmart in New Orleans, Maya Smith, walked out of her workplace in protest. She aired her grievances against Walmart on New Orleans Public Radio, claiming that the company forbade its workers to wear masks and gloves, even those who “interacted with everyone” and had to “touch everything.” “It’s really unsafe and unsanitary to be working in those conditions, knowing what’s going on,” she charged.  

Ms. Smith is indicative of countless women and men in similar situations. People who are essential workers – but who nevertheless are low wage workers not afforded even the few scant health care protections recommended by government agencies during the virus crisis. Walmart is the largest employer of African Americans and Latinx workers in the country. The problem is, of course, the usual one. Even in the best of times, not to speak of during a pandemic, low wage workers organizing on their own behalf is difficult, extremely difficult. Union membership now is small, and Income inequity has increased during the time of Trump, not decreased, which makes it even harder for workers like these to fight for their rights. There are organizations such as United for Respect (UFR), which describes itself as a “multiracial national nonprofit organization fighting for big and bold policy change” that will improve the “lives of people who work in retail.” But the mountain it hopes to scale is high. Safe to say that while UFR protesters have made a very, very small dent in the nation’s conscientiousness, on the nation’s conscience, they are not in any case on Trump’s radar.

Protesters that are on Trump’s radar are some like those in Michigan who in mid-April decided they were tired of their governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, telling them what to do and when to do it. They were tired, in other words, of being told to stay in the house and away from work until such time as the government rescinded its restrictions. In fact, so many were so fed up that thousands clogged the streets of the state capitol, Lansing, demanding they be free to get out and do what they want when they want. The Washington Post described the scene this way: “They drowned [the] downtown in a cacophony of honking. They blared patriotic songs from car radios, waving all sorts of flags from the windows – President Trump flags, American flags and the occasional Confederate flag ….   Many got out of their cars and crashed the front lawn of the capitol building, with some chanting, “Lock her up!” and “We will not comply.”

The protest in Michigan – which was not, incidentally, the only one of its kind – was large enough and noisy enough to get the nation’s attention. Though a majority of Michigan residents continued to support Whitmer’s handling of the virus crisis, right wing groups promoted the event through e mails and social media posts, Fox News covered the event all day long including in prime time, and, in spite of the fact that the protesters in Michigan flagrantly violated his own administration’s guidelines, President Donald Trump could not help himself.  He could not resist. His inordinately divisive tweet? “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”   

Again, pandemics and protests are not natural allies. Protests suffocate when they are deprived of fresh air. And protestors stay away when a virus requires they stay in. Still, “not natural allies” does not mean outright enemies. Low wage workers are being heard at least by some of the people some of the time. And as it turned out, those protesters in Michigan were at the vanguard of men and women nationwide itching to get out and “open the country back up.” Think of them as Trump’s troops – shouting from the streets of Lansing that which even he dared not shout from the corridors of Washington power.  

Followers in a Time of Crisis…the Virus Crisis – V

This is the fifth in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, has been especially virulent, as if he alone is solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the misleading, mistaken idea that our fixation on Trump is warranted – as if he were not just the leading actor but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.  

V – The Experts

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for thirty-six years, has become during the coronavirus crisis a celebrity. His calm, serious, and yes, elderly, appearance and demeanor; his readiness to respond reasonably honestly to whatever the reporters’ questions; and his long experience and extensive expertise in viral epidemics; have made him the administration’s most prominent medical professional. They have also made him one of America’s most admired men. In a mid-April poll conducted by none other than Fox News, 80 % of Americans approved of Fauci’s response to the pandemic, whereas only 50% approved of Trump’s. And just this past weekend the nation’s leading comic barometer, “Saturday Night Live,” enshrined Dr. Fauci by having him played by none other than Oscar-winning middle-aged heartthrob, Brad Pitt.      

But though Fauci has become the best known of the medical experts, he is by no means the only similar professional to have been involved from the start. Since early this year, when it became known, at least to those in the know, that a virus crisis might be looming, were more than a handful of American scientists and physicians who knew about the new coronavirus. For example, as reported by the New York Times, early this year was the start of an e mail chain that came to be known, variously, as Red Dawn Breaking, Red Dawn Rising, and, later in the inevitable progression, Red Dawn Raging. It was hosted by the chief medical officer at the Department of Homeland Security, Dr. Duane Caneva. According to the Times, what started originally as a chain that included just a small core of medical experts gradually grew to include dozens. (See Eric Lipton, “Email Chain Shows Alarm Experts Felt in Early Days,” April 14, 2020.)               

Just a few outtakes reveal the extent to which several medical experts understood early on the possible magnitude of the national threat. They further reveal the extent of the frustration that the administration was not doing more to forestall a crisis that increasingly seemed imminent. Among the experts was growing “anger as their advice seemingly failed to break through to the administration, raising the chances that more people would die.”

  • On January 28 Dr. Carter Mecher, a senior medical advisor at the Department of Medical Affairs, wrote that “Any way you cut it this is going to be bad.” He went on, “The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe.” Moreover, even then Mecher was raising the possibility that mitigation might mean closing schools, colleges, and universities.  
  • The same day, January 28, Dr. James Lawler, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Nebraska who advised Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on health issues, wrote sarcastically about “great understatements in history.” They included describing Pompeii as “a bit of a dust storm” – and the coronavirus as just another “bad flu season.”   
  • On February 17 Dr. Eva Lee, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology who frequently worked with the federal government, wondered why, if the cruise ship Diamond Princess had become infamous in this circumstance for “the worst form of social gathering,” it would it be any “different than a mall with everyone walking around for 3-6 hours, eating, drinking, touching everything?”      
  • By late February, concern among medical experts who were tracking the virus was turning to alarm. On the 23rd, Robert Kadlec, the top disaster response official at the Department of Health and Human Services, responded to Dr. Lee, “Eva is this true? … So spreading and its wide scope is unavoidable because there exists these very healthy individuals who can spread effectively – even during incubation period -while they remain perfectly healthy.”

On February 21 Kadlec had convened the White House coronavirus task force – which included Dr. Fauci, Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services – in what by then was a state of high alert. Kadlec was hardly oblivious to the threat posed by a possible pandemic. In fact, one year earlier he had conducted a hypothetical exercise, a war game if you will, called “Crimson Contagion”  in which it was projected that in a pandemic Americans could suffer 110 million infections and more than a half a million deaths. Now, though, the threat of such a pandemic was real, which meant that Kadlec’s task force had to decide how to proceed. Specifically, it had to decide when to recommend abandoning “containment” in favor of “mitigation” – at least until such time as a vaccine was widely available.* More to the point of this post, the task force as a group, and each of its members as individual, had to decide how to proceed if the White House, if President Trump, remained impervious or perhaps oblivious to their cry of alarm.

It was decided that Kadlec and his group would meet with the president to present him with a plan named, “Four Steps to Mitigation.” But it never happened. For reasons ranging from a presidential blowup, to administration infighting, to a procedural glitch, the effort stalled. Moreover, once the stock market crashed in the wake of Dr. Nancy Messonier’s public warning about the dangers that lay ahead, the possibility of a more reasoned, conciliatory approach came to an end. (Messonier was the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. In issuing the warning, it appears that she jumped the gun or, at least, that she did not coordinate her remarks with Dr. Kadlec.) Trump became even more defensive than he usually is. Azar’s authority was further reduced. Additional messages that could be interpreted as alarmist were forbidden. And Vice President Mike Pence was put in charge of the administration’s response to the coronavirus. It could reasonably be concluded that by the beginning of March the window of early warning was closed. What the experts thought they knew in early January, and what the experts were sure they knew by late February, did not get heard when it matter most, early on; or where it mattered most, in the highest reaches of the White House.

This brings us back to Dr. Fauci – and to his associate at President Trump’s repeated (up to now) and repetitive (up to now) daily news conferences, Dr. Deborah Birx. In recent days, Dr. Birx has found herself in the decidedly unenviable position of having to defend, more or less, the president who had made the particularly egregious error of suggesting that an injection “inside the body” of a disinfectant such as bleach could help combat the virus. Birx has been assailed by those who found her semi-defense of the president inexcusable. And she has been defended by those more sympathetic to what they see as her impossible position. Impossible because she is on the one hand charged with protecting the public interest, and on the other hand reporting to a man for whom the public interest has usually seemed not primary but secondary.

Which returns us again, inevitably, to Dr. Fauci. Fauci is faced with a similar if not the same dilemma. How to straddle the line between personal politics and public responsibility? Fauci is not a novice. Not only is he a veteran of the political wars, he is a veteran of the culture wars. In the 1980s he played a central if not the pivotal medical role in the virus crisis that was H.I.V./AIDS. It’s why all along he has claimed a simple credo: “You stay completely apolitical and non-ideological, and you stick to what it is that you do. I’m a scientist and I’m a physician. And that’s it.”**  

Still, I cannot help but wonder – as I did in the case of General James Mattis – what exactly is a good soldier? Does a good solder go along even if he, or she, thinks that going along is the wrong thing to do? Or does a good soldier not go along if he, or she, thinks that not going along is the right thing to do?

A counterfactual: What if some of the good doctors, even all the good doctors referenced in this post had spoken truth to power early in the year? Had spoken out loudly and clearly and, if necessary, publicly, not in March or April but in January or February? Would things have turned out differently?  What, in short, are the virtues in cases like these of speaking out – versus those of shutting up? 


*For a fuller description of the sequence of events see, Eric Lipton, David Sanger, Maggie Haberman, Michael Shear, Mark Mazzetti, Julian Barnes, “Despite Timely Alerts Trump Was Slow to Act,” New York Times, April 12, 2020.     

**Quoted in The New Yorker, by Michael Spector, “The Good Doctor,” April 20, 2020/

Followers in a Time of Crisis…the Virus Crisis – IV

This is the fourth in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, has been especially virulent, as if he alone is solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the misleading, mistaken idea that our fixation on Trump is warranted – as if he were not just the leading actor but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.  

IV – The Administration

This post is based on information that reporters – primarily from the New York Times and Washington Post – recently obtained in an effort to uncover what happened during the weeks immediately preceding the president’s publicly confirming and finally responding to the dangers posed to the American people by the coronavirus. These are the key questions: 1) who knew what? 2) who knew what when? 3) who did what? and 4) who did what when?

The purpose of this post is not to reiterate yet again what Trump missed or, rather, chose to avoid. Or to point yet again to the sluggishness of his response to the threat posed by the virus. Rather it is to ask whether those who saw the crisis coming should have done any differently. The individuals and groups here named are ultimately free agents. None was forced to do what they did. So, the question that arises is, given their status as followers – they were the president’s subordinates – were they courageous or were they timorous? This is not about finger-pointing. Who knows how any of us would respond if we saw something bad happening but felt we were caught in a workplace trap? Rather it is about raising age-old questions such as: Should we adhere to hierarchies? Should we follow orders? Or should we instead follow the dictates of our conscience?      

Here just a few examples of organizations, groups, and individuals caught early this year on the horns of such dilemmas.

  • Some Pentagon officials first heard about the new coronavirus as early as last December.
  • Warnings about the virus began to appear in intelligence reports in early January.  
  • At about the same time similar warnings made their way to the National Security Council.
  • On January 3rd, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, received a call from his Chinese counterpart delivering an official warning about the new coronavirus.   
  • Also in early January, Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was alerted to a potential virus crisis.
  • And, so was Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services.
  • And, so was Matthew Pottinger, Trump’s Deputy National Security Advisor. Almost immediately Pottinger, well known as a China hawk, urged more aggressive action against the virus, including calling out China.  
  • Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney served on the initial coronavirus task force throughout the month of January.
  • On January 18 Azar called President Trump to alert him to the coronavirus. Evidence is Trump, distracted by his impeachment, paid Azar scant heed. Evidence also is that Azar did not press the issue.    
  • By late January it was well known within the White House that Americans were being threatened by a new, dangerous virus. Nevertheless there was considerable infighting – including about who would pay for protective equipment – and considerable reluctance directly to confront the president.
  • The president, in turn, continued to stick his head in the sand. In other words, during the early months of 2020 there is no evidence that despite the increasing level of alarm among members of the administration, the president was paying much attention. Nor is there any evidence that members of the administration forced the issue. Evidence in fact is to the contrary – that none among those closest to the president were willing to take the risk of confronting him on the matter of the virus.
  • A memo dated January 29 , that was sent to among others the president, written by senior White House aide Peter Navarro, clearly and accurately predicted the dangers posed by the coronavirus.
  • At a meeting on that same day, January 29, Azar assured the president that the coronavirus was under control. According to an April 22nd article in the Wall Street Journal. Azar went on to claim that the “U.S. government had never mounted a better interagency response to a crisis.”  
  • On January 30th. the World Health Organization declared the virus a global health emergency.

In my next post I address the how the experts handled themselves during the first several months of this year, specifically the medical experts. Here I confine my further comments to three players: Pottinger, Navarro, and Azar. All three of these men understood relatively early on that a health crisis was looming – and that it was highly likely to be very costly. Costly to the national health and welfare – and costly to the financial markets. But none of these men blew the whistle. While they tried in various ways to be heard internally, not one of the three was ultimately willing to invoke the ire of the president. Moreover, none of the three was willing to do what it would have taken to be heard externally. They did not go beyond the confines of the White House to, for example, alert the press to the dangers posed by COVID–19.

Pottinger was relatively proactive internally. Beginning in mid-January he convened daily meetings about the coronavirus, and he alerted his boss, Robert O’Brien, the national security advisor, to the growing danger. But for various reasons Pottinger’s warnings were sidelined. And for various reasons he was willing to go along without strongly dissenting.   

Navarro was similarly alert early on to the possibility or even the probability that the coronavirus could put millions of Americans at risk of illness or death, and cost the U.S. trillions of dollars. On January 29th he sent what the New York Times called “the highest-level alert known to have circulated inside the West Wing.” In other words, Navarro saw the problem not only early but clearly. In his late January memo, he wrote, “The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus crisis on U. S. soil. This lack of protection elevates the risks of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions.” One month later Navarro wrote another, similar memorandum, warning of an “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infest as many as 100 million Americans with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.” It is not clear who exactly saw both memos or, more to the point, who exactly read them carefully. What is clear is that, again, Navarro did not challenge the president on this issue. Nor did he ring the alarm outside the corridors of White House power.         

Azar’s actions during this same period, during the early weeks and months of this year, are more ambiguous. On the one hand he also understood early on the level of threat posed by the virus. Moreover, he tried on several occasions to get others, including the president, to pay attention, to heed the warnings. But on the other hand, Azar has been called to task for backing down in the face of a president who was reluctant or even refusing to hear what he had to say. Azar was, after all, during this entire time Secretary of Health and Human Services. The virus was, therefore, in his bailiwick, in what was supposed to be his wheelhouse. Which is precisely why Azar could be charged with being too cautious by half. By trying to straddle a fine line between pleasing his boss and telling the whole truth and nothing but, he ended in limbo. He never did ingratiate himself with the president. And he never did level with the American people or for that matter members of Congress. By April Azar was effectively marginalized, if not, as Secretary of Health and Human Services, long for this world.

Whatever subordinates such as Pottinger, Navarro, and Azar knew, and whenever they knew it, at every turn they had a choice. The choice they made was to continue to play by the president’s rules – because they wanted to continue working in the White House. At no point did they directly confront Trump. And, at no point did they blow the whistle. For all practical purposes then, at a critical time in the virus crisis they remained silent witnesses. Whatever their private reservations or personal misgivings, during the initial critical period, the first few months of this year, they followed where the president led.

Followers in a Time of Crisis…the Virus Crisis – III

This is the third in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, has been especially virulent, as if he alone is solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the misleading, mistaken idea that our fixation on Trump is warranted – as if he were not just the leading actor but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.  

III – The Media

Social media are today’s tabloids. They tend toward the extremes at both ends of the political spectrum, generally attracting those who agree with the messages they send, generally distancing those who do not. But even in this time of tweets and trolls, old media, specifically cable television networks, play a significant role as influencers. Here too we incline to consume media that confirm – that confirm our preexisting biases. Liberals, then, gravitate toward cable networks such as MSNBC and CNN, that relentlessly diminish and demean President Donald Trump; whereas conservatives gravitate toward Fox News, a network dedicated to nothing so much as extolling Trump’s various virtues.

Fox News is, of course, the legacy of legendary media mogul, Roger Ailes. (Ailes has also come to be known for fostering at Fox News a culture of sexual harassment, which, though, is beside the point of this post.) Under Ailes’s leadership, Fox News became two things simultaneously: first, a remarkable story of unmitigated media success; second, a reliable extension of the Republican Party. Fox News became so successful a hybrid of politics and entertainment that it did not simply have viewers, it had fans. It had fans so relentlessly rabid and tirelessly dedicated that the network became a money-making juggernaut. At the same time, Ailes’s ties to the Republican Party, as well as those of Rupert Murdoch, Ailes’s empire-building boss, became stronger while proving enduring. Stronger and enduring to the point where, during the administration of Donald Trump, Fox News became, in effect, an extension of the White House.

Ailes’s ties to powerful Republican politicians went all the way back to his association with Richard Nixon. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s Ailes was a Republican Party stalwart, reliably available, eager even, to serve as media consultant and political guru so long as he deemed the association in his best interest as well as in the interest of his baby, Fox News. The connection continued to shortly before Ailes’s death. To the time of Trump, in other words, who Ailes helped to win the White House, while Trump in time on drew on Fox News to enable him to dominate the American media landscape as no other politician since Franklin Roosevelt.                

During Trump’s presidency, the success of Fox News has continued unabated. In 2019 it generated some $2.7 billion a year for its parent company, 21st Century Fox, and it remains the most watched of all cable news networks. Simultaneous to this success, has been the relationship between Fox News and Trump’s White House, which in the last three and a half years solidified into symbiosis. Fox features a fervid pro-Trump lineup in primetime, including anchors Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and Sean Hannity. This has meant that when times were, are, tough – such as during the current virus crisis – Trump has been able to rely on his media cronies to continue to be his toadies. For example, when the president was proselytizing, relentlessly, for hydroxychloroquine as a possible or even probable remedy for COVID-19, Ingraham served as his Fox foil. She declared the drug a “game changer.” She booked guests willing to describe it as a “miracle turnaround.” And she charged that anyone who questioned the efficacy of the drug was in “total denial.” Ingraham backed off only after Trump himself did, when the evidence and the experts began increasingly to imply that enthusiasm was not in order, but that caution was.        

The links between Fox and the White House are not only professional, they are personal. They range from Bill Shine, the former co-president of Fox News, who went for a time to the White House to serve as director of communications and deputy chief of staff. To Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox co-host who has been for some time the steady girlfriend of Donald Trump, Jr. To Fox anchor Hannity, a close friend of Trump, who former Fox star, Bill O’Reilly, recently called “the most powerful guy in the country” because Trump seems to do what Hannity effectively tells him to do.

Given the enormous reach of Fox News, the network has been a fabulous foil for Trump, a follower as force multiplier that has enabled him throughout his brief political career to exercise power and influence far beyond what he could possibly have achieved without the network in tow. There is, though, an irony here. For while Trump appears the leader and Fox the follower, Fox will defer to the president only so long as it’s in the network’s best interest. Should the president stumble – specifically, should the pandemic push him to lose his footing – Fox News will scurry in front rather than stay out back.

Followers in a Time of Crisis…the Virus Crisis – II

This is the second in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, has been especially virulent, as if he alone is solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the misleading, mistaken idea that our fixation on Trump is warranted – as if he were not just the leading actor but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.  

II – The Party

From the beginning, when Donald Trump first declared himself a presidential candidate, has been a staunch band of Never-Trumpers. It originally comprised and still does a seriously determined, if ultimately deeply ineffectual, small group of Republicans who all along refused to recognize Trump as their leader.

This group – which has had a series of names from Meeting of the Concerned to The Lincoln Project – has never been particularly productive. It has not at any point in the process had much of an impact – not during the campaign when Trump’s inexperience and lack of expertise, not to speak of his dubious and salacious behavior, were amply in evidence. And not during his time in the Oval Office when he was able to escape from under a mountain of evidence that testified to his personal, political, and financial corruption, and that included sworn witnesses at only the third presidential impeachment and trial in American history.   

The obvious question is why. Why, given the failed presidency of Donald Trump, and given the president’s own screamingly glaring deficiencies, did the Never-Trumpers fail to get any traction? It will not suffice to look at whatever their inadequacies. In fact, they consisted in the main of highly accomplished men and women with extensive political experience. So, we need to look elsewhere, at the large majority of Republicans who all along opposed the Never-Trumpers – at those who supported Trump early on and have continued to do so no matter his flagrantly flawed personal character and woefully inadequate political performance.

In my previous post I addressed the wellspring of Trump’s power – his base. That large majority of Republicans voters who for years have deeply believed that Trump could do no wrong – or, even if he did, it weighed less than what he did that was right. This brings us to Party professionals, specifically to Republican members of the U. S. Senate who have similarly stood staunchly by the president, no matter his “screamingly glaring deficiencies.” More than any other group of Americans – including wealthy Republicans who continue even now to pour money into Trump’s coffers – it has been Republican Senators who have been Trump’s enablers. Who have made it possible for Trump to remain in office even when it seemed the deck was stacked heavily against him.

To be clear, not every Republican Senator has fallen into line. But those who did dare to deviate from the norm – which was to follow the president in lockstep – have paid for their resistance by being sent into exile. An example was Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a traditional Republican conservative, who early on believed Trump was poisoning the party. Flake’s private disillusionment and public disaffection earned him no end of abuse from Republican right wingers, who in no time flat caused Flake’s numbers to collapse. It’s why he decided (in 2018) not to seek reelection. So while his declaration of independence from Trump – who he finally described as “reckless, outrageous, and undignified” – no doubt salved his conscience, and no doubt earned him the silent admiration of a few fellow Republicans, it also ensured that for the duration of Trump’s reign, Flake would be far, far from the corridors of power.

If Flake was an exemplar of a Republican Party dissident, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been the exemplar of a Republican Party faithful. For his own self-interested reasons, McConnell has protected Trump at virtually every turn, up to and including prohibiting witnesses at his impeachment trial, therefore effectively guaranteeing the president could and would remain in office. In a recent article in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer quotes well known Never-Trumper, Bill Kristol: “Under McConnell’s leadership, the Senate, far from providing a check on the executive branch, has acted as an accelerant. Demagogues like Trump, if they can get elected, can’t really govern unless they have people like McConnell.” Kristol goes on to add that Trump’s base would have stuck by him in any case. “But the elites might have rebelled if not for McConnell. He could have fundamentally disrupted Trump’s control, but instead [he] has kept the trains running.”        

Whatever we might think of McConnell, he has been, up to the current crisis anyway, extremely effective as Majority Leader. He has set much if not most of the Republican Senate agenda. He has passed many if not most Republican Senate bills. He has obliged Republican Senators nearly invariably to toe the line. And he has been able successfully to manage up – to manage the president despite their differences always in style and sometimes in substance.

McConnell has been, then, an exceptionally powerful leader – while being at the same time an exceptionally abject follower. Not for nothing is the title of Mayer’s piece, “Enabler-in-Chief.” The Senate Majority Leader has presented the president with Republican heads served on a silver platter.

A final note on the critical connection between this post, on the Republican Party, and the previous post, on the Republican base. As Mayer reports, in 2017 McConnell took a brief break from his feckless fealty to the president. After the white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville, and after Trump claimed there were “fine people on both sides,” McConnell issued a statement condemning the “KKK and neo-Nazi groups.” For his indirect criticism of the president, the Majority Leader was punished. He was punished by Trump’s base who in droves withheld their approval from McConnell until he reversed course – until he began again to back Trump with unswerving dedication. Said one local operative, McConnell’s support of Trump during the fight to seat Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, “rescued him with conservatives, who said that finally he was acting like a Republican and supporting our President.”

Followers in a Time of Crisis … the Virus Crisis – I

This is the first in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, is especially virulent, as if he alone has been solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the erroneous idea that our fixation on Trump is warrented – as if he were not just the leading actor in the virus drama but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.  

I – The Base

“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” So said Donald Trump in Iowa in January 2016, when he was campaigning for president. He was not suggesting he was intending to kill. He was boasting there was nothing he could do that would deter or derail his most fervent and fervid followers. They would, he predicted, remain fervent and fervid – loyal to him personally and politically, loyal to him above all. To a remarkable degree Trump was proved right. Despite gaping flaws in his character, and despite gaping flaws in his personality, and despite gaping flaws in his performance, what Americans came to call Trump’s “base” has continued to stand with him.  

Estimates of the size of his base vary, in part because its size has varied over time. For example, in the immediate wake of his 2019 State of the Union speech, President Trump’s approval rating among Republicans was a sky high 97 percent, whereas in the immediate wake of the coronavirus crisis his approval rating among Republicans was only 87 percent. What? “Only 87 percent”?! As recently as early April 87 percent of Republicans still thought the president was doing a good job?! Yes. Moreover even by late April evidence was that the country’s deeply entrenched partisan divide was still precluding the president from losing more than a few percentage points on his overall rating.

Let me be clear: numbers like these can deceive or, at least, mislead. For example, most polls do not distinguish between weak approval ratings and strong ones. Case in point was last fall, when polls indicated that whereas 74 percent of Democratic registered voters strongly disapproved of President Trump, only 50 percent of Republic registered voters strongly approved of him.  Still, even his detractors agree that his base – his core group of diehard followers – is approximately one third of American voters. Moreover, at least until the current crises – the public health crisis and the financial crisis – the president’s approval ratings have stayed remarkably stable. Whereas in every other recent administration, the president’s numbers were irregular, so far at least Trump’s numbers have been regular. His approval ratings were never as high as Richard Nixon’s, or George W. Bush’s, or Barack Obama’s – but they have, again, so far at least never sunk so low. As Don P. McAdams noted last winter in the Atlantic, “Unlike all other presidents [Trump] has never exceeded a 47 percent approval rating. But he has rarely dipped much below 37 percent. He has a sizable core of support that refuses to shrink.” This after all the damning evidence unearthed by the investigation of Robert Mueller, by the impeachment proceeding, and by the repeated indications of everything from financial corruption to sexual misconduct.               

The stability and durability of Trump’s base has never been fully understood. McAdams provided a psychoanalytical explanation: he speculated that Trump enables his admirers to “feel a rush of excitement and allure.” They enjoy, he writes, being in the presence, really or virtually, of such a “beautiful figure – or a powerful, creative, dynamic, charismatic, or intriguing figure.” Tim Alberta, in contrast, provided a political explanation: To consider Trump’s “unwavering support” within the Republican party is to recognize “the essential ingredients of American life: instinctual outrage and involuntary contempt, geographical clustering and clannish identification, moral relativism and self-victimization.” (Alberta’s book on Trump and the Republican party is titled, American Carnage.) For further insights I suggest the best literature on charismatic leadership: far from implying a casual connection it describes the powerful bond between the charismatic leader and his (charismatic leaders usually are men) enthralled followers.

Whatever the source of the base’s unswerving support is, obviously, less important than its effect. Its effect has been to give Donald Trump a rock-solid foundation on which to stand first during his campaign, and then after he became president. Its effect has been to enable him to do whatever he has done – and is continuing to do even now. It is impossible to understand the leadership of the American president without understanding the followership of the Americans who make up his base.      

Leadership and Lactation – in the Wake of the Pandemic

I have written frequently and extensively on leadership and lactation. On the impact on women and leadership first of being pregnant, and then of breast feeding. I have argued that this impact is on the one hand considerable and, on the other hand, virtually entirely ignored by both the leadership literature and the leadership industry.

What is ignored in the endless conversations about why so few women are in positions of leadership, especially leadership at the top, is not the issue of childcare. In fact, the topic of work/life balance for women especially has been addressed ad nauseum. Rather what has been relegated is the physiological, psychological, and sociobiological impact on women who are pregnant and who subsequently, immediately after delivery, proceed to breast feed.

Again, women are primates. Further, primates who are pregnant are affected by being pregnant, and primates who are mothers take their mothering seriously. In fact, primates who are mothers take their mothering far more seriously than primates who are fathers take their fathering. Given this – given this radical, natural difference between women and men, specifically between mothers and fathers – what is to be done so far as leadership is concerned? The question is not unimportant. After all, 86% of American women in their early forties are mothers. And, after all, less than 7% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women.  

Up to now, staying home more, rather than going to work and remaining at work, all day long, five days a week, has not been much of an option. Though in the last quarter century companies have made major strides in providing alternatives to full time work, including part-time and flex-time, women and, not incidentally, men as well, have been reluctant to work from home for fear of being branded. Being branded if not as a slacker then as less than totally dedicated, less than tirelessly driven. In other words, virtually from the moment of conception all the way through to at least early childhood, women who have been ambitious to lead have found it difficult to reconcile the level of their ambition with the changes in their bodies and psyches, and with their need, their want, after a baby is born to nurse and to nurture.

And now there is this – a pandemic. The coronavirus crisis which has every expert in every field predicting where we will be one year, two years, and five years from now. These predictions are all over the place – with a single exception. With notable regularity we are being told that the nature of work will change – permanently. More specifically, that in the future working from home will be far more prevalent, far more acceptable, and even desirable than it was in the past. In the Financial Times Simon Kuper speculates, “Homeworking will be easier after the pandemic. If white-collar employees end up working from home just half the week, the fall in commuting would slash their emissions, pollution and rush-hour traffic while boosting national happiness.” In the New York Times Timothy Egan suggests, “Millions of people may settle into another workplace following the world war on the coronavirus – their homes. Up to half the jobs in the United Sates could be done, at least partly, from home, by one estimate. Currently, fewer than 4 percent of jobs allow this. The benefits of telecommuting – in terms of personal time, on the environment, on the psyche and on production, could be enormous.” And, in the New York Times Claire Cain Miller makes a similar point, “For white-collar, salaried workers, coronavirus is, in a way, offering a natural experiment, by forcing companies to let people work from home, create their own schedules and spend more time with their family. It could convince companies that constant face time is unnecessary.”          

Women with ambition often decide it best for professional purposes to conceal their being pregnant. Women with ambition often decide it best for professional purposes to obscure their need, their want, to tend more to their infants. Women with ambition often decide it best for professional purposes to work full tilt outside the home even when they have small children. Fact is that in each of these cases women with ambition will be far better positioned if working from home becomes mainstream.

The Leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel – Continuing in a Crisis

In May 2019 I posted an article on the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I situated her in three different contexts: in Germany, in Europe, and in a world in which women leaders were still strikingly scarce. (A link to the previous post is provided below.) To these three contexts must now be added a fourth: the coronavirus crisis. More precisely, the coronavirus crisis consists of two crises that are linked, though they are also separate and distinct. The first is a public health crisis unlike any the West has experienced in some one hundred years. The second is a financial crisis that some experts warn could be the most damaging since the Great Depression.     

Several months into the first of these crises – which is of course responsible for the second – Germany is ranked among the best in the world in its response. According to several indicators, most dramatically death rates, Germany has performed at a high level. It has contained and mitigated Covid-19 to the point where the entire country is beginning to lift the restrictions the virus has imposed. To be clear, no German, least of all the Chancellor, is resting on their laurels or claiming the crisis is over. Rather, in keeping with her leadership style more generally, Merkel is providing a measured plan, a careful countrywide blueprint for reviving economic activity while continuing to fight the virus.

The reasons why Germany – along with other countries such as Taiwan, Israel, Singapore, and Iceland – has ranked high in its response to the crisis are of course multiple. Above all, Germany has an unusually robust public health care system which features, among its various virtues, enormous capacity. Germany has more spare beds in its intensive care units than Italy has altogether. In fact, Germany has so much excess capacity it is treating people with the virus from Italy, Spain, and France. Germany further has in place, and has had virtually from the start, the essentials for controlling contagion: widespread testing and tracing, in that order.

Merkel has been Chancellor since 2005. So, she must get considerable credit for Germany’s high level of readiness for a public health care crisis. She could not of course possibly have foreseen the coronavirus in its specifics. But she and her team obviously foretold that Germany might face a health care challenge of some sort, for which they concluded the country should be properly prepared.

This particular crisis also fed into this particular Chancellor’s particular strengths. This is, after all, above all a health care challenge. A challenge that only health care experts – scientists – will be able ultimately to meet. Merkel, then, met her moment. For in her original incarnation she was a scientist, a physicist, which has made her in an all-important way the perfect person to lead the German people through the thicket of Covid-19. Moreover, her famously laconic leadership style perfectly suits the temper of the time. Since the start of the crisis Merkel has been calm and considered, communicating regularly, reliably, and reasonably with her constituents.

Predictable then that in the wake of the pandemic Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approval ratings have been extremely high. Fully 72 % of Germans recently surveyed said they were satisfied with the government’s handling of the virus crisis. This while at the same moment that President Donald Trump’s numbers dropped – significantly. In a new poll reported by Trump favorite, Fox News, his approval rating is rather a meager 43% while his disapproval number is 54%, up 9 points since March.  

Politics can be a volatile profession, even in Germany, which during virtually the entire post World War II period has stood out for its political stability. There is, then, no guarantee that Merkel will remain in office to the end of her term, in 2021. But given the context of the crisis, it seems increasingly unlikely the German people will opt to change chancellors in other than the regular order.       


Is this Only about Lethargic Leaders – or Equally about Feckless Followers?

The lead headline in yesterday’s New York Times read, “Despite Timely Alerts, Trump Was Slow to Act.” It was similar to a headline in today’s Washington Post, “Signs Missed and Steps Slowed in Trump’s Pandemic Response.”

As the headlines suggested, both articles focused on the president’s sluggish response to what became the virus crisis. Similarly, both articles included the names of other players who worried early on that Trump’s response could prove dangerously inadequate. These others included top White House advisors, experts deep in cabinet departments, and members of various intelligence agencies.  

Whatever their ranks, or their titles, or their levels of expertise, everyone of these other players were subordinates who saw Trump as their superior. Not, presumably, their intellectual superior, better equipped than they to address their escalating concerns. But as their organizational superior – their leader, the chief executive, who was positioned higher than they in the government hierarchy.

It was this hierarchy that stopped these advisors, these experts, and these officials, from speaking up and speaking out in ways they could be heard. Heard not by the president, who remained for too long deaf to their incantations. But by the body politic who was kept out of the loop, who was kept ignorant of what was happening in the ominous present and, more importantly, of what was threatening to happen in the immediate future. Instead, for all practical purposes those in the know kept those of us who were not in the dark. Those in the know remained, effectively, mute – more Bystander Followers than Activist Followers at a time when it was activism not passivism that was desperately needed.

I will have more to say about Followers’ responses to the pandemic in future articles. Meantime it’s up to you to see the global pandemic not only through the lens of leaders, but equally through the lens of followers. Only then can you tell the pandemic in full.

Reconceiving Teaching Leading

On the issue of learning to lead I recently wrote a book, Professionalizing Leadership (Oxford University Press, 2018). The book made essentially two arguments: first, that how we teach how to lead is woefully deficient; and second, that there is a better way, specifically that students of leadership should, like students of medicine and law, be professionally educated, trained, and developed.

Since the book was published things happened – some particularly pertinent. One was a still further decline in M.B.A applications, especially to traditional two-year programs. The other was the corona virus crisis that laid bare the deficiencies in how we prepare people to lead, notably but not only when times are tough.       

About the decline in traditional M.B.A applications there is little to be said that is new, other than that the trend has not only accelerated but is unlikely now ever to be reversed. Signs of a shift are all around, and they abound. In January of this year the Financial Times reported that, “Business school deans warn of a crisis threatening the future of the two-year generalist degree. It comes after four straight years of declining applications at most US institutions.” In April of this year the Wall Street Journal quoted a business school dean who observed that, “When you get to the point where Harvard has declining applicants, you know the two-year M.B.A. is in trouble.”   

To address the issue business school deans – especially deans of schools that are other than top tier – have taken several different paths. Some schools have shortened their programs of study, that is, they have shifted from two-year M.B.A. programs to one-year programs. In fact, the number of one-year accredited M.B.A. programs surged fully 250 per cent since 2012. Other schools have started to specialize. Johns Hopkins Carey Business School is a good example. Starting next fall, the University’s traditional two-year M.B. A. program will build on Hopkins’s already existing strong medical, nursing, and public health schools by concentrating on health. (This decision seems now to have been as prescient as fortuitous, given it was made before the pandemic.) And still other schools adapted to the marketplace by offering part-time programs, flex-time programs, and, of course, online programs.         

About the corona virus crisis there is similarly little to be said that is new, in this case not because it’s been said for years but rather because it’s been said countless, numberless, untold numbers of times in the last couple of months. Our leaders – I’ll confine my comments to leaders in the U.S., though they are hardly the only ones culpable – have not been up to the job. The most obvious example is our political leadership class because they are the most visible. But the same can also be said about leaders in business, and for that matter about leaders in science and medicine who, if they did foresee a crisis of this sort, were clearly ineffective in communicating their sense of alarm. Additionally, leaders not only failed miserably to prepare for this crisis, they failed miserably to manage it. As I write, it seems to be agreed that opening the economy safely and successfully without widespread testing is impossible. It seems similarly to be agreed that our capacity to do such widespread testing is, at least at this moment, nonexistent.

I ask you – is this any way to run a railroad?  

At a minimum the obvious shift in what business schools are doing and in how they are doing it should give us pause. After all, for generations it is business schools especially (though not exclusively) that have professed to teach leadership and management. And, at a minimum, the obvious crisis in public health should give us similar pause. It’s clear that leaders across the board – not just the president of the United States! – have failed in their primary purpose. To keep Americans safe from harm – not just physical harm but financial harm.

There are of course exceptions to these general rules. Leaders with traditional M.B.A.s in hand who have excelled. Leaders who foresaw the possibility if not probability of a pandemic. And leaders who since the pandemic have managed it admirably. I am thinking, for example, of Jerome Powell, Chair of the Federal Reserve, who is being given high marks for his unprecedented response to this unprecedented situation.  

Still, none of us is likely to look back at this moment without cringing at the thought of most of those most directly in charge. Leaders in government and yes, in business and in other sectors as well who failed to pass the test of their time. They, though, failed us because we failed them. We failed adequately to educate them, to train them, and to develop them – to prepare them properly for what could, and did, lie ahead.