At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump said on a “hunch” that the coronavirus was no more virulent than the flu. Then, against all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions, he claimed that the infected would be able to go to work. More recently, he said the whole country should go back to normal by Easter Sunday, with jammed churches and a happy end to social distancing. He quickly had to reverse himself. Meantime, my hometown of New Orleans has some of the highest infection rates in the country. What explains these outbursts from the president? “I’m a very instinctual person,” Trump once said, “but my instinct turns out to be right.” Except when it isn’t.
Still, Trump has seemingly benefitted from his antics, albeit in a perverse and cynical way. Despite the fact that he has consistently disseminated misinformation at his daily briefings, after failing to prepare for the outbreak itself, his approval ratings for his handling of COVID-19 have jumped to 60 percent, according to Gallup.
We tend to dismiss Trump’s characteristic improvising as unpresidential and maybe a bit comical. We had great fun with covfefe. But the persuasive power of Trump’s improvisations, for all their flaws—in fact, because of their flaws—carries tremendous power. It’s not just with his base. In the same Gallup poll, his approval rating among Democrats for his handling of COVID-19 rose from 7 percent March 2-13 to 13 percent March 13-22.
Americans have missed his improvising’s persuasive power at our peril. Throughout the ages, improvisation has held the power to change culture—think of jazz improvisation’s role in the civil rights movement—and even to change political history. Especially in times of crisis and disaster, we need improvisation and creative rule-breaking. But we also need a critical element in conjunction: empathy.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office set the standard for all administrations to follow because of his readiness to improvise amid the soul-shattering crisis of the Great Depression. His administration tried just about everything to turn around the economy. Not every attempt was a success, but some, like the Works Progress Administration, became legend, building the Hoover Dam and putting historians and composers alike back to work.
When New Orleans was shut down after Katrina, the “Cajun Navy” from west Louisiana—a flotilla of speedboats, airboats and pirogues—spontaneously showed up at the barricades. The National Guard had the good sense to let them through. The Cajun Navy saved many from drowning in attics and dying on rooftops. That was a practical and heroic example of improvisation.
Both FDR and the Cajun Navy’s energy and willingness to improvise to address others’ needs were so successful because they were rooted in empathy, the core characteristic that Trump lacks. Their improvisation was based on love of others. Trump is so in love with himself that he cannot improvise based on anything beyond his own desire for praise and good PR. It is why, thus far, his actions have fallen so woefully short. His approval ratings may have gone up, but he keeps bringing the country lower and lower.
In ancient Greece, the great improvisor was Odysseus, whose great-grandfather (often his guide) was the winged-heeled god Hermes, who is also the Trickster known as the friendliest of the gods. Yet even as Odysseus improvises his way in and out of trouble throughout his year-long journey home, those who suffer the most are the men he leads. Odysseus lost sight of his men because of his determination to get home to Ithaca. Trump is similarly narrow-minded. He is focused solely on returning to the White House, which he once called a “real dump.”
The question we face today is whether Trump’s improvisation will save us collectively from a crisis unlike any we have ever seen—or whether he will fail miserably, and inflict the nation with all kinds of unnecessary suffering. If Trump’s actions continue to be based more upon his self interests and less on the country’s, more on his hunches and less on science, then this crisis will indeed be prolonged.
There is a reason why the American public is riveted by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership during this crisis. He improvises boldly. Look no further than his swift and successful action in creating a containment zone in Westchester County when infections soared. But he speaks with empathy. Dr. Anthony Fauci, too, has become universally admired. He communicates clearly, but with compassion.
It seems impossible that Trump will all of a sudden develop a sense of empathy in the next several months. I would settle for his taking his cues from, and ceding the podium to, Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. They have compassion and open minds, and they live in the fact-based world of evidence and science. They are our way, if there is one, out of this folly.