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

This is the seventh 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.  

VII – The People

For all the different clusters that constitute the president’s followers, the followers that matter most even in these crazy times, are we the American people. For as I write it still holds that come November we the American electorate will get to decide if President Donald Trump should serve another four years as president of the United States or if, instead, he should be obliged next January to cede the Oval Office to someone else.  

“We the People” has a great ring to it. “We the people” sounds so idealistic it’s almost romantic, as if we the American people were one, unified in what we believed, unified in who we trusted, unified in how we thought we should move from the present to the future. This idealization of the American body politic is even further exaggerated during a time of national crisis by what is called the “rally ‘round the flag effect.” The effect is felt when times are tough, when on account of war or another national trauma the American people come together. An example was how we were in the aftermath of 9/11, when Americans of every stripe joined, when the American flag was on proud display at home and in the workplace, on cars, on clothes, and on the tops of state capitols. In the three weeks immediately following the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the nation’s oldest flag manufacturer went into overdrive, more than tripling its previous production. The nation was one.       

That was then. Now though things are different. Times have changed. Prior to the pandemic Americans were famously divided: politically divided; economically divided; culturally divided; divided by race and class and gender and sexual orientation; divided by geography and demography; red states and blue states; Republicans and Democrats; conservatives and progressives; a miserably fractious Congress all too accurately reflecting a woefully fractious America.

Which raises this question. Given that times have changed yet again – the post-pandemic context is dramatically different from the pre-pandemic context – will we change in response? Will we the American people feel much differently, think much differently, act much differently next July than we did last January? Importantly, will we become a nation a little less divided, a little more unified? And, specifically, will we, we the American electorate, we followers, prefer in increasingly large numbers to have a leader in the White House who is other than Donald Trump?

As the first of this series of posts pointed out, Trump has been famously able to hold on to his base. Whether this base will remain in place until Election Day is, however, not certain, especially in light not only of the health crisis but, additionally, of the financial crisis. There are, however two measures that provide some indicators. The first of these is the high level of American fear. Trump’s numberless reassurances going back months that everything will soon be fine is having only limited effect. To be sure, some states and some regions of the country are, as the president puts it, “opening up.” But as of this writing the American people are failing to respond as he would wish. A bipartisan majority of Americans say they want to continue to protect themselves during the pandemic by sheltering in place rather than going out to eat or to shop. Moreover, it seems clear that we the people prefer to follow the lead of the experts – as opposed to that of the president. According to a recent Reuters poll, 72% of adults say that people should stay at home “until the doctors and public health officials say it is safe” to go out.

To be sure, this number obscures some of the familiar divides. Once again there was a considerable partisan difference: 88% of Democrats agreed with the majority about waiting to go out until the experts say it is safe, whereas only 55% of Republicans did the same. Nevertheless, on this issue voters who identify as Republicans are drifting toward voters who identify as Democrats: the numbers of Republicans who agreed with Democrats about staying at home at least for now nearly doubled in the two-week period between late March and mid-April.        

Which returns us to what so far has been Trump’s unshakable base. Suffice for now to point out there is cognitive dissonance among Republicans: on the one hand most say they want to shelter in place no matter what Trump says; on the other hand fully 84% of Republicans say they approve the way the president is handling the virus crisis. (Notably only a puny 15 % of Democrats say the same.)

It is widely agreed that the new coronavirus is a moving target. We cannot now know how much damage it will ultimately inflict on the economy. More to the point, we cannot now know how much damage it will ultimately inflict on the nation’s health. Nor can we know when it will finally be vanquished by a vaccine, or effectively neutered by a remedy that will preclude our getting seriously sick and then still sicker.

What we can know though is this. That however dominant a figure during this pandemic is, inevitably, the American president, neither he nor any other leader can control the action. Moreover, as indicated at the start of each of these posts, Donald Trump has never, not for a moment, been the only player in this drama. As time passes, the critical role of his followers, including those in his close proximity such as Mike Pence and, yes, Anthony Fauci, will emerge more clearly. For leadership is never a person. Leadership is a system with three parts – leaders, followers, and contexts – each of which is of equal importance.     

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