The Lethal Cost of Leaderlessness


“Leaderlessness” is kinda generous, isn’t it?

The word implies a rudderless ship drifting without any positive control. What we are faced with is actually much, much worse. We do have someone at the helm…..but that someone is a malicious ignoramus who is actively doing us harm, and what’s more, trying to profit of it in the process.

I am writing this from lockdown in Brooklyn, where the streets are as eerily quiet and empty as in a bad science fiction movie, where—if you dare venture outside at all—the occasional pedestrian you meet will scurry out of the way as your paths cross, where half the supermarket shelves are stripped from panic buying, and where the hospitals are already straining at the seams, running out of resources, and pleading for masks and protective equipment for their harried staffs. Everyone we know is hunkered in their crummy apartments, washing their hands raw and disinfecting every doorknob they touch, drinking booze and wondering how long we should expect this to last, and what damage will ensue while it does. How much worse it will get we don’t yet know, but I don’t know anyone in either the medical or homeland security communities who is bullish.

We turn on the TV and are comforted by the calm leadership of Andrew Cuomo (and across the country, Gavin Newsom, among others leading by example). But he is not the president and does not have the full power of the federal government at his disposal. It is telling that these authorities are forced to improvise and work without the assistance of Washington. I guess this is what Steve Bannon was after with his adolescent, self-flattering Leninist bullshit about “destroying the administrative state.” Donald Trump of course doesn’t know V.I. Lenin from a Liverpudlian guitar player, nor gives a toss about any ideology beyond that of lining his pockets and collecting handjobs from his staff. Yet he has accidentally fulfilled Steve-O’s dream through what Ben Wittes and Quinta Jurecic have memorably called “incompetence exacerbated by malevolence.”


Many have written how Trump’s usual version of “statecraft”—lying, bullying, juvenile namecalling—is all but useless against a pandemic. That, of course, has not stopped him from trying. (Principally, with characteristically xenophobic attempts to portray the virus as a “foreign” invasion, attacks on state and local officials who have stepped in the leadership vacuum he created even as he risibly called for “non-partisanship,” and the usual projection over who’s politicizing the crisis.)

Should we be surprised?

In the Eighties, Howard Cosell privately called the young Donald Trump “the luckiest, dumbest SOB I ever met.” Every thinking person has known from the start that this inveterate con man, tax cheat, sexual predator, draft dodger, malignant narcissist, sociopath, racist, and deeply deeply insecure man-baby—a spoiled brat born into obscene wealth who has enjoyed every advantage his whole life, who is possessed of the worst imaginable values (if they can be called that), who never served anyone or anything other then himself a day in his life, and who has no qualifications whatsoever for political office—would be a disaster as lunchroom monitor, let alone as President of the United States.

But truly, nothing yet has so nakedly exposed his sheer unfitness to lead the country like this crisis. That unfitness contains multitudes, from his utter lack of human empathy; to his unconscionable refusal to take any responsibility whatsoever the way even a Boy Scout knows a leader should; to his gleeful scorn for science, expertise, and truth itself; to his juvenile insistence that he knows more about (fill in the blank) than anyone; to his aforementioned nihilistic dismemberment of the bureaucracy; to his pathological antipathy to anything Barack Obama did. (See his recent attack on PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor over that very issue, complete with trademark misogynistic adjective, “nasty.”)

And in the current crisis these traits have all come together in a perfect storm that now threatens to decimate us all.

Last week in the Never Trump conservative website The Bulwark, Barry Rubin wrote:

Confronted with a looming pandemic, the Trump administration wasted its most valuable asset—time. From the moment the outbreak took hold in China, Trump should have made the ramp up of a testing regime his top priority, because the single most effective—and cost effective—weapon against pandemics is aggressive testing.

Instead, Trump spent the interregnum between the outbreak in China and COVID-19’s arrival in America lying to the public about what was happening.

And now that he can no longer deny the existence of the pandemic, he’s lying to us about the availability of the tests he didn’t procure in order to keep America safe.

I’m heavy on The Bulwark this week because it has been among the most incisive in its skewering of Trump’s criminally negligent behavior in the coronavirus crisis. (Malpractice would be an appropriate word, don’t you think?) A full accounting is available elsewhere, but to cite merely the latest outrage, it emerged this week that the US intelligence community has since January been warning of a coming pandemic, only to be ignored and shut down both by craven Trump toadies within the administration (is there any other kind?), and by Trump himself. As if to further prove the point, hand in glove, we also saw an unprecedented letter from nine (nine!) high-ranking former officials in the US Intelligence Community lambasting Trump as a threat to national security.

Another Never Trump conservative, the Washington Post’s Max Boot, is the first pundit I’ve read to say what many of us are thinking:

I weep in anger and frustration imagining what might have been if Hillary Clinton—a sane, sensible adult—had won. We couldn’t have avoided the coronavirus, but we could have ameliorated its effects. We could be South Korea (102 deaths) rather than Italy (4,825 deaths and counting).

Brace yourself, Max, for the hypocrites who will now accuse you of “politicizing” the pandemic and reveling in human suffering, when of course it is their boy who has amplified that suffering, and exponentially so. It is not politicizing the crisis to point out that the President made it far worse than it needed to be, and continues to fail us and be derelict in his duty in the most egregious ways imaginable.

“What if” is a game far too painful to play right now. But November 8, 2016 looms ever larger in my memory as a tragic error for which we continue to pay dearly.


This past week there was rightful outrage over US Senators like Richard Burr (R-N.C.) who was publicly toeing the Trump party line that “all is well!” while privately telling his wealthiest constituents just how bad this was going to be, and to top it off, engaging in insider trading to dump stock ahead of the coming stock market plummet.

But as Jennifer Rubin (yet another conservative) of the WaPo writes, did these Senators have that information and Trump didn’t? Or as she fittingly puts it, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Are we to believe that senators were receiving hair-raising briefings on the magnitude of the impending pandemic but that Trump was not? That’s not a rhetorical question. Trump is so averse to negative information he might have been kept in the dark by his own advisers. As frightening and irresponsible as it might be, he might be getting all his information from Fox News, which is nothing more than state TV reflecting his own biases and conspiracy theories.

If Trump got no briefings telling him otherwise and believed the gibberish spouted by Fox News, he is the most negligent and incompetent president in history. However, if he knew otherwise — if he knew that the pandemic was coming and would have devastating consequences — then he betrayed his country in some futile attempt to keep the stock market pumped up for as long as possible. (Yes, this would be illogical because eventually the market would crash, but remember that Trump’s thinking is extremely short-term, focusing on whatever gets him through today’s news cycle.)

And the world record for venality continues to be lowered.

As I write this, Trump, Mnuchin, and McConnell are trying to ram through a $500 million slush fund masquerading as a “stimulus package” ostensibly to stanch the economic damage caused by the pandemic. They are as shameless as price gougers selling hundred-dollar bags of ice to hurricane victims. Their plan provides for no oversight, and amounts to a Brinks truck full of unmarked bills that Trump and the GOP can dole out to their friends and cronies and corporate patrons without any accountability or sense of responsibility for millions of economically vulnerable ordinary Americans. (This on the back of a deficit-busting trillion dollar giveaway to the richest Americans and corporations in 2017.)

Similarly, Trump and his mob consigliere Bill Barr are trying to use the crisis to usurp even more unchecked power, calling for chilling permission to suspend civil liberties and other constitutional rights.

Leave it to this criminal administration to find a way to further entrench the autocracy (and fill its wallets) on the back of a crisis that it fomented with its Keystone Kop ineptitude.

Meanwhile, at his increasingly frequent press conferences, which have taken the place of campaign rallies as a way for Trump to indulge his ego and obtain free column inches, our idiot-king demands the ritual of lavish bootlicking praise from his minions, with Mike Pence taking the lead. The pathetic neediness of this monstrous infant has always been appalling, but in the middle of a global public health emergency is it especially blood-boiling.

On that front, Shay Khatiri, also of The Bulwark, described Trump’s vicious and asinine attack on NBC’s Peter Alexander, who had the temerity to politely ask, “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”

“I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say….I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism, and the same with NBC and “Con-cast.” I don’t call it—I don’t call it “Comcast,” I call it “Con-cast”…..Let me just tell you something: that’s really bad reporting, and you ought to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism. Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows. I’ve been right a lot. Let’s see what happens…..You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Khatiri continued:

This is the very definition of a softball question, and any ordinary, competent politician could have handled it with ease. In fact, not much later, the same reporter asked a similar question to Vice President Mike Pence, who gave a fine answer, saying that his message to the American people is “Don’t be afraid. Be vigilant.” Clear, concise, with some reassurance but no false promises—a good response….

The fact that Trump responded the way he did suggests either that he was lashing out angrily because he felt attacked by the question, or that he continues to calculate some benefit with his base in bashing the press.

I’m encouraged to see several articles recently arguing that the press has a responsibility to stop playing Leni Riefenstahl at these partisan campaign events disguised as governmental functions, which serve only to spread disinformation that will actively kill people. But I am not hopeful that the entire Fourth Estate will resist the urge for sensationalism.


We may look back on this period, grimly, as the moment when Trump’s lifelong run of incredibly undeserved good luck finally ran out—and we all paid the price. In time, his profile may recede in the face of this truly epoch-changing event, as the ravages of the coronavirus dwarf him and he takes his ignominious place in presidential history as a footnote, not even a Herbert Hoover.

Or Trump may yet survive it, as he has survived all the previous crises and scandals and crimes that rightly ought to have brought him crashing down. His approval rating for how he has handled the pandemic (not general approval, but specific to this crisis) stands at 55%, which is astonishing. How anyone can think—let alone five and a half out of ten Americans—that he’s done a good job is jawdropping, and can be explained only by hyperpartisanship, self-delusion, failure to pay attention, or simple stupidity. But it’s also hard to imagine that those numbers will hold as the death toll rises and life continues to be profoundly disrupted and the attendant economic catastrophe worsens.

Is it petty or small to focus on culpability and politics and poll numbers when the impact of this crisis is so much larger? Maybe. Trump sure doesn’t think so, though I hate to descend to his level. But I can’t yet get my head around the broader consequences of this epic emergency, and the focus of this blog has from the start been on the unfitness of this president to lead, an unfitness that is at the very heart of this crisis, and never on starker and more dangerous display.

Trump wants to cast himself as a wartime president, but the analogy doesn’t hold. The coronavirus isn’t an enemy he can demonize; it’s an unstoppable force of nature that is impervious to his bullshit. Moreover, he’s imagining a wartime president who wins the war, not one who ignored all the warnings from his generals that an enemy army was massing on the border, then pretended they hadn’t invaded for the first four weeks before he mobilized any soldiers to fight back.

Let us also remember that of our four most recent wartime presidents, LBJ, Nixon, and Bush 41 all failed to serve second terms, as did Carter, who was done in by a war-like foreign policy crisis. And the one wartime POTUS who did serve two full terms—Bush 43—went out with historic disapproval as a result.

If we’re going to have a wartime leader, can it be someone other than Captain Queeg?

The truth is, despite the many predictions careening around the Internet, both optimistic and pessimistic, of course no one can say with certainty how this pandemic will play out, not in terms of casualties, nor Trump’s fate, nor the long-range reshaping of American (and global) life. The one thing we can know for sure is that it is likely to unfold over a longer period and with greater repercussions than many of us currently assume.

Two weeks ago in these pages I quoted at length from Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security and currently chair of the homeland security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This week, again in The Atlantic, she writes:

From a public-health standard, the pandemic will not end for another 18 months. The only complete resolution—a vaccine—could be at least that far away. The development of a successful vaccine is both difficult and not sufficient. It must also be manufactured, distributed, and administered to a nation’s citizens. Until that happens, as recent reports from the U.S. government and from scientists at London’s Imperial College point out, we will be vulnerable to subsequent waves of the new coronavirus even if the current wave happens to ebb.

None of which means that people now hunkered down at home will keep doing so through late 2021. The economic consequences of an indefinite lockdown are unsustainable. And at a certain point, the emotional tensions that staying home imposes upon families, as spouses grate upon each other and children get bored and fall behind on their schoolwork, become a danger to domestic harmony, and maybe even to everyone’s sanity.

It is too late to prevent tragedy entirely; our goal is to manage it within the limits of scientific progress and public tolerance.


In the words of Charlie Sykes, also of The Bulwark, “The temptation is to say we are all in this dystopic nightmare together, but the reality is that we are all in our separate world of worry.”

In closing, as the pandemic begins to roll across the United States like a tsunami, I would be remiss if I didn’t note at least one irony, that of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who just yesterday tested positive. I wish the Senator the same thing I wish for all of our unfortunate countrymen and citizens of the whole world who have been afflicted with this virus, and that is to get well and have a speedy and full recovery.

But I also feel compelled to note that mere days ago Sen. Paul was petulantly blocking a Senate bill to provide coronavirus aid, and scoffing that the pandemic was overblown. His father, the libertarian hero and former Senator Ron Paul (R-Tex.), posted a piece on his blog called “The Coronavirus Hoax.” I also hasten to note that both these men who are irresponsibly spreading disinformation that will cost untold lives are fucking medical doctors. Do no harm indeed.

So guess what’s not closed due to the pandemic? Karma.

Fortunately, Rand has free government-provided medical care, which his libertarianism evidently does not require him to refuse.

Don’t look for the Trumps and Pauls and of the world to come to our rescue any time soon. The federal government has failed us, in keeping with the anti-governmental fetish of men like these. We are on our own at the state level at best. If there was ever a time for the slogan, “think globally, act locally,” it’s now.

Shay Khatiri gets the last word:

This is a moment of great national uncertainty—a public health crisis, an economic crisis, a financial crisis. There is hardly any precedent for this moment: Stores and schools and churches have slammed shut their doors. Streets that once would be bustling are empty. Millions of Americans, after having emptied grocery-store shelves, have bunkered down at home. As Peter Alexander pointed out on Friday, many Americans are scared—and with good reason. They want information and guidance, comfort and hope. In a word, they want leadership.

But Donald Trump cannot provide it. He is on his regular Twitter schedule, tweeting his typical nonsense. He lacks the capacity to empathize, that necessary prerequisite for leadership. Consider the rhetorical record of his entire presidency: his “American carnage” inaugural address, his rallies bashing the press and immigrants, his juvenile tweets, his crowing about every minor victory and bitching about every last grievance. It is a sorry litany of gracelessness and pique, and it has left him utterly unprepared to bear a message of resilience, hope, unity, or sacrifice in the face of hardship.


Illustration: Adapted from an ad by Republicans for the Rule of Law

4 thoughts on “The Lethal Cost of Leaderlessness

  1. Thanks Bob- another good article! Home alone and my mind wanders. Hope Fusci can keep his job.( as he pushes Trump off the microphone to tell some facts. He is the ONLY knowledgable person on stage…Pence is a toadie and believes in The Rapture..and not scientific facts. ( no evolution, no climate change- literal interpretation of the Bible )Pence also did a “heck of a job” when faced with the HIV crisis in is state. He is in charge?!! Do you think it is possible that Pence is incentivized by his deep religious beliefs in these prophesies to bring on Last Days?
    Just asking for a friend.


  2. Thank you Jill! Yes, it’s all very chilling. Thank god for Dr. Fauci! As for Pence, someone with his religious views has no business managing anything scientific. Hope you are well and hunkered down! Stay safe…


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