Actually, all the king’s loyal subjects knew, all along, that he was naked. “But,” they said to themselves, “the economy is doing well, the stock market is up, and I really like his tax cuts. And besides that, we really don’t want to give any satisfaction to the damn anti-royalists by conceding anything. Much more fun to “own” them by denying reality, which really pisses them off.”
Then, invaders were seen over the horizon. And the Dear King told all his subjects to take off their actual clothes and to don, instead, the magical invisible protective clothing that he wore.
That’s when the king’s loyal subjects decided it might be wise to rethink this thing.
Today, the Washington Examiner Editorial Board interrupts its anti-progressive screeds long enough to tell us that Trump risks creating more coronavirus panic by trying to prevent it. I quote:
Seeking to avoid panic about the spread of the coronavirus during a Feb. 26 press conference, President Trump praised his administration’s response, which he implied would mean a minimal number of cases in the United States. “When you have 15 people, and the 15, within a couple of days, is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done,” Trump said.
This past Thursday, Trump tweeted, “With approximately 100,000 CoronaVirus cases worldwide, and 3,280 deaths, the United States, because of quick action on closing our borders, has, as of now, only 129 cases (40 Americans brought in) and 11 deaths.”
So, in little more than a week, Trump went from touting 15 cases as low to claiming 129 cases and 11 deaths were low.
By the time you read this, the number of cases will surely be even higher. The only reason the U.S. number seems relatively low is that the U.S. has lagged behind other countries in testing. As testing capacity ramps up, many more cases will inevitably be found.
Trump is obviously attempting to prevent widespread panic, something that has rattled financial markets in recent weeks. But his efforts to downplay the spread of the coronavirus are more likely to accomplish the opposite and create more panic in the long term by setting false expectations.
When the public is told that the problem is under control and is being handled well, even as the number of cases continues to explode, people are more likely to conclude that the authorities are clueless and that things are spiraling out of control.
Winston Churchill’s World War II performance is so often cited as the gold standard in crisis leadership that it’s become almost cliche to bring up. But it’s worth noting that his speeches weren’t merely “rah rah” speeches about how the British were going to lick the Nazis in two weeks. Before his inspiring rally cries about victory, he famously promised “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” and “many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.” Churchill understood that, during a crisis, it’s important, even when trying to be encouraging, for leaders to build trust and prepare the population for the worst.
It’s perfectly appropriate for Trump to want to avoid widespread panic, but it would be better to do so while preparing people for the likelihood that things are going to get worse before they improve. A prudent message would communicate the following: It’s inevitable that there are going to be more cases. Given that it’s a fast-moving virus, we’ll be learning more about it each day, so that may require adjusting our approach based on what’s working and what isn’t, but we have amazing experts, doctors, and scientists in this country who have devoted their lives to studying how to respond to public health issues such as this, and we are confident that we will get through it.
If Trump keeps up his current approach of minimizing the problem, it’s only going to shred his credibility by making people dismiss his future reassurances.
His approach of downplaying coronavirus may be aimed at minimizing political blowback and calming markets, but unrealistic statements will only make matters worse on both fronts.
At this point, if coronavirus becomes a much more significant health emergency, Trump’s early statements such as, “The 15, within a couple of days, is going to be down to close to zero,” are going to be severely damaging politically. Such pronouncements will sound like President Barack Obama’s riff on the Islamic State being the “JV squad.”
As far as markets are concerned, there will be volatility as long as there is uncertainty, given the wide range of possible outcomes about the effects of coronavirus. The best way to reassure markets would be through a competent public health response. Lots of happy talk that quickly gets overtaken by events is only going to make investors more nervous.
While it’s impossible at this point for Trump to change what he’s already said on coronavirus, there is always time for him to modify his approach and adopt a more sober-minded strategy.