TOM PLATE WRITES – Adept moral leadership at the top, whether in Washington or Hong Kong, is central to any serious public-health strategy. ‘Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed on the world,’ famously wrote the poet William Butler Yeats in 1919. 

One hundred years later, here we are, all of us more or less in it together, imagining a coronavirus state-of-nature, even as many of us have all but ankle-braceleted ourselves to our homes.  

We are socially distanced in the extreme – virtually spaced out in this new world order. The erosion of the authority of the Trump Presidency proceeds apace, its poignancy heightened now by the unexpectedly higher stakes. In America last week, young people on vacation blatantly ignored or rebelled against the ‘social distancing’ injunction of authorities by crowding beaches in surfside folic or jamming public parks. There may be more to this than adolescent irresponsibility. It may be that governance, for many young (as well as some older), lacks sufficient credibility and trust. In effect, incompetence could breed corona-criminals: felony plague breeders.   

With the Trump administration in power, the credibility/trust issue remains in the forefront – and has been put into the spotlight as a public health issue. The almost-daily ‘pandemic task force’ briefings from the White House have offered both informational ups – respected National Institutes of Health immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, telling it like it is — as well as embarrassing downs – President Donald Trump, telling it like it isn’t. 

Dr. Fauci’s comforting command of the issues and facts notwithstanding, the White House show frequently paled compared with other briefings- especially the densely factual corona-seminars of New York State’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “We are all First Responders,’ commented Cuomo, memorably. Good work seems to mark some European and Asian presentations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, prior to her own self-imposed quarantine, addressed her nation with a speech widely admired for its grip on facts and reality. In Asia, the governments of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen are shepherding their people through the crisis with clarity and competence. The practice of governance may not be as elusive as pilot-wave theory, but it takes brains as well as guts to get thing right. The coronavirus, said PM Lee, “is going to catch fire in many countries, and take a long time to burn out….”

The Presidency of the United States remains an important position no matter who holds it, and US decisions can affect the world. While it makes little sense to overdo the deficiencies of incumbent Trump, as the U.S. media is wont to do, the intellectual shortcomings of the only president we have become an increasing worry.

One suggestion for President Trump: Let others do the talking

when a technical or medical point needs to be mad; perhaps

allowing yourself to become prisoner of your health advisors is not

such a bad idea. Although the notion of becoming a ‘wartime’

president appeals to your sense of macho, you are not the best

general against an enemy you can neither see nor clearly

understand. Until relatively recently, you denied that a major crisis

actually was in the making. How can that be forgotten? 

Nonetheless, many of us are doing what we are being told to do. Medical and public health authorities rate enormous respect. But this is generally less the case with political authorities, most certainly in America. There appears to be no potent vaccine for the epidemic of lying or blundering.  In some parts of the world, this would seem true the higher you go; it may even be truest, in some places, the very highest you go.

How to objectively assess leadership qualities is the timely subject of a hot new book by the clear-thinking and celebrated American academic and former U.S. State Department official Joseph S. Nye, Jr. The Harvard University professor’s latest opus, ‘Do Morals Matter: Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump,’ offers wisdom in helping evaluate very different presidents, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Trump.  A fair man, Professor Nye, recognizing that any White House occupant has a tough job even in the best of times, is no political assassin: ‘It is too soon to assess the benefits and thus do a balanced assessment,” but adds: “… [Trump’s] lack of respect for institutions and truth [has] produced a loss of soft power.” ‘Soft power’, the famous term that Nye all but invented, is essential balm in any system that does not rely as heavily on compulsion and punishment as do some others. 

Lack of trust in government in this time of crisis is the public enemy of public health. We note how its representatives pose, with all the mantle of necessary lawful governance, before all-absorbing and transmitting TV cameras. Officials have ex officio the instructional voice that we, the public, have conferred on them either by active consent or passive forbearance. The idea often under conveyance is to follow their instructions or bad things will happen.  We either trust that their intentions are honorable, that their incoming data is accurate and that their comprehension as well as use of it is both realistic and proportional to the threat; or we ignore them entirely– or openly rebel.  Incompetence of any sort, from any ideology, can cut the cord of trust.

Trump lacks the power of credibility to lead this war in the U.S., much less globally. This is the grave political plague of the moment, and it is serious – a civic coronavirus that may even be contagious globally: rule by blowhard incompetence. It’s no wonder he keeps dubbing it “the Chinese virus.” His idea of the best defense is often the obnoxious offense. 

Clinical Professor Tom Plate is author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ book quartet (Marshall Cavendish International), Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Pacific Century Institute’s vice president. This column originally appeared in the prestigious South China Morning Post, to which Plate is a regular contributor. 


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