This post was originally published at smerconish.com
While the Coronavirus has only been with us for a few months, many of the problems we’re facing now in trying to deal with it, are the results of 40 years of societal changes, and while we’ll eventually come out of this on the other side, unless we make some fundamental changes in the way we look at government’s role, we’re doomed to repeat this situation when the next crisis arises.
When disaster strikes, the first thing people do is look to someone to reassure them. For a child it’s their parent, for a citizen it’s the elected official, a mayor or governor if it’s local, the president if it’s national. In the early days of this country it was impossible to look outside your community for a shoulder to lean on, but with the invention of the electronic media, you could get calming words almost instantaneous, provided the spokesperson you were listening to knew how to express both empathy and reassurance. Herbert Hoover was one of the first Presidents to be looked to in a moment of crisis, and unfortunately, he wasn’t up to the task. However in 1933, our newly elected President, Franklin D. Roosevelt set the bar, when in his first Inaugural Address, he uttered the timeless words that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Thus was born the concept of the Comforter in Chief.
For the next 13 years, he expanded on that role, with regular Fireside Chats, where he spoke to the American people directly, telling them that there was a plan and that things would eventually be okay. In the 70 years that followed, many of his successors found themselves forced to picked the mantle; Lyndon Johnson, a number of times after the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Ronald Reagan after the bombing of marine barracks in Lebanon, and the Challenger explosion, Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing and George W. Bush after 9/11. During those moments and others, the occupants of the Oval Office knew what the nation needed to hear, and they delivered.
In addition to being comforted, Americans also want to know that someone was in charge. In times of national emergencies, we looked up to the President, intuitively knowing that he had the best experts surrounding him, advising him. Military people, scientists, economists. Whatever the occasion called for those people would be there and they would carefully devise a plan. And those plans would be presented to not only the people but to the Congress, and to the governors and the mayors and all government officials down to the lowest level in order to ensure that everyone was hard at work, trying to implement those plans. Now granted, those plans didn’t always work out, but there was always the belief that they were devised by people who knew what was needed and most importantly, it was a top down planning model which promised one idea, instituted by all.
In the 1980s however to two major events took place that over time has led to the more and more Americans questioning of abilities of the president and those around him to help in a crisis. The first was the FCC eliminating the Fairness Doctrine. Up until that point, networks thought of their news divisions as loss leaders, a public-service requirement that brought them prestige. With those restrictions removed however, networks started to realize that they could make money off the news, if they just made it a little more entertaining. Hence the beginning of infotainment that dominates today’s media landscape.
The second event was a speech by Ronald Reagan in which he said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” Granted, Edmund Muskie had offered that thought 1976, but it was presented as a joke, not as an indictment of government services. While I believe Reagan’s intention at the time was to suggest that government involvement in causing problems was more inadvertent than willful, over time Reagan and the Republican encouraged the belief that the government was not just incompetent, but out to purposely destroy their way of life.
From that time on, the drum beat of distrust for the government grew from Americans believing that our government was ineffectual and incompetent, to the belief by many today, that their government is deliberately intent on destroying the fabric of their country and undermining all that they believe in. That the deep state is real and run by some secret cable, attempting to destroy democracy and turn the country into whatever it is they’re afraid of.
And that brings us back to where we started, with the fear of fear. According to David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of “Your Brain at Work,” “Our brains are wired to pay additional attention to uncertainty.” In the face of an uncertain situation, one which may be good or bad, Rock says that our brains automatically bet on it being very bad, just in case.
When you add to that, the non-stop infotainment aspect of the news media, according to Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science and public health at UC Irvine, that nonstop media cycle can cause people to overestimate the severity of the threat, even
And that is why we find ourselves today in a worldwide pandemic, enmeshed in massive panic, a reluctance to believe what officials are saying, and questioning a delayed and reactive reaction by federal leadership. Because of a belief that all government is bad, we’ve put a person in office for the purpose of subverting that government. Instead of a president who is understands the need to calm the population, we have somene who has emboldened people to believe that all news is fake, that all scientist are lying, that facts are merely unsubstantiated inuendo. Someone with an ego and narcissism that looks at a deadly pandemic through the lens of how it will make him look. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he tells America that they should, in the words of Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t worry, be happy.” That the pandemic is a foreign invader intent on making him look bad. We shouldn’t be concerned, we’re told, because he has under control and as for that media that is telling you otherwise, remember they’re lying to you. They tell you not to shake hands? Well watch me shake everyone’s hand. Employ social distancing? Watch me insert myself into groups. Been in contact with those who have been infected and you need to get tested? You don’t seem me getting tested, do you?
Without leadership from above, it was left to those without all the resources or more importantly scientific knowledge to institute strategies. Business were afraid of getting sued if employees got sick so they told everyone to work from home. Other business saw that and out of fear of not looking proactive, they sent their employee home. Schools closed and parents asked why their schools weren’t closed also. Were they in the same danger? Who knows, but better to be safe and to follow the lead of others. When some mayors ordered business to close and citizen to stay indoors, other mayors felt they needed to do the same out of fear that their lack of response would be looked at as their being ineffectual.
And so it goes, until finally the president in Washington, who should have taken command earlier, joins the fray, but instead of turning to scientists, health care professionals and other experts, he puts the vice president, who had badly handled a health care crisis in his own state, in charge because he’s loyal, and if things go south, the president can claim it wasn’t his fault, or to quote him directly, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Many of the health care professionals who are brought in, need to tread carefully, not to avoid saying anything could be incorrect, but rather to avoid inciting the wrath of the president by contradicting something he might have said. For every Dr. Fauci, who is willing to tell the truth, there’s a myriad of sycophants, who are more concerned with defending the misrepresentations and outright lies of the president than excepting that one of the most powerful weapons for fighting a pandemic is accurate information.
Ultimately, this pandemic will pass. When and with how many left dead it its wake, is unknown at this time, but it will pass. And while we as a nation do everything we possibly can to hasten that end, we must also look to the future and decide what kind of country do we want to live in and to leave to our children. When the next crisis appears and another one will, are we willing to again accept the absence of discerning guidance from our president with the hope that Governors, mayors and leaders of businesses large and small set into the leadership vacuum or do we want to be able to turn to a Comforter in Chief and know that he or she has our best interests at heart and is doing everything the possibly can to protect us.
For the last few decades we’ll all heard the mantra of “Take Back Our Country,” and it’s time we do, but not from “others”. Not from immigrants who have added so much to our national fabric. Not from people who look, sound and dress differently from us. We need to take back our country from those who would have us believe that our government is our adversary. That our scientists are liars. That our media is our enemy. And that our differences are the cause of our problems rather than the reason we are and will continue to be a great nation.