Thursday, March 12, 2020


I don't have to tell you that President Trump is egomaniacal -- but that's not why the coronavirus pandemic is being mishandled by his administration.

The problem is that Trump is bad at bring an egomaniac. Other people with big egos actually learn how to do something well and center their egomania on that. Trump is bad at everything (except possibly showmanship and Twitter), and he pursued the presidency despite having no applicable skills or experience.

Egocentric people frequently surround themselves with subordinates who are smart, competent, and hardworking, then take credit for what those people do. That, in fact, is what presidents are supposed to do in a situation like this. No one expects a president of the United States to be an expert on viruses, medicine, public health, or epidemiology. When a national crisis arises that requires experts in those fields, we expect a president to formulate and execute policy in consultation with those experts. We expect the president to take credit for what the experts say and do. We expect the president to enable the experts to do what they do best.

Trump can't do that. Trump has the worst case of Dunning-Kruger effect in the history of the human species: He believes he has a mastery of a wide range of subjects about which he knows absolutely nothing. (“People are really surprised I understand this stuff,” he said during a visit to CDC headquarters last week. “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.”) He can't stand ceding the spotlight. Any other president would be happy to stand to one side and defer to experts on epidemics and communicable diseases who are on the government payroll, because the message that sends is: The president has consulted with the best people in order to keep us safe. But when Trump said, in his 2016 Republican convention speech, "I alone can fix it," the scripted line reflected a genuine belief. He really does believe he's better than other people at everything, including people who've devoted their lives to subject areas he's never even thought about.

Since the beginning of this crisis, Trump has believed that denial and happy talk will make him look better than getting a firm grasp on the subject and seeming to be a calm, reassuring leader who has the problem well in hand. Trump's pal Rudy Giuliani managed to win praise even from critics for (briefly) seeming calm and well informed after 9/11, while not downplaying the tragedy. Trump is a New Yorker, so he watched this unfold in real time -- but in the coronavirus crisis he's still stuck on Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking. He's believed for weeks that he'll look bad if he acknowledges the depth of the problem, even though he'd actually look good if he told the uncomfortable truth. Giuliani is an egomaniac, too, but he was a competent one in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He didn't approach it in cover-up mode, like a salesman trying to sell an overpriced condo with a mold problem. That's Trump's approach to the coronavirus pandemic. A smarter egomaniac would be doing a much better job.

No comments: