How to Corrupt the King
Posted July 06, 2021
Myth, Fiction, and real history are replete with tragic tales of strong leaders who find themselves hopelessly misled by trusted advisors. Sometimes it happens to a person one would least expect, the man who seems strong, internally driven, independent-minded — even uncorrupted — and impervious to manipulation.
It happens at all levels of society. The pastor, the mayor, the CEO, the prince, the king, the queen... the president. It’s a tragic story both ancient and modern.
The problem always begins with the creation of an information bubble. Strong and successful leaders are hounded and vexed by enemies on all sides. This reality feeds a justified paranoia. They know there are plots against them. They worry constantly about whom they can trust. Access is limited for a reason.
They pull aides in ever more tightly, in ever narrower circles of influence. Opinions among the group become self-reinforcing. The flatterers survive of course but the people who really have influence are those whom the leader believes — rightly or wrongly — are offering what the leader imagines to be unvarnished truth, revealing facets of reality from which they are otherwise protected.
These are the conditions in which they can encourage the leader to make decisions that even contradict his core instincts. These people wear him down artfully, explaining that principles are fine but this time it is essential for his survival that he make an exception.
How Did This Outrage Happen?
One might have supposed that the Donald Trump would be impervious to such manipulation. He was not. On March 16, 2020, he went on television to announce the closure of the US economy. He explained how many people you could have in your home. He said to shut businesses and schools. He had already blocked travel from Europe four days earlier, but now he urged against all nonessential travel. Then he said it would only be a short pause, 15 days, and then there would be a celebration at having defeated the virus.
The announcement, he believed, would swell national confidence that he had the virus under control. It did the opposite. It unleashed primal panic, both among the public and among political leaders. Governors and mayors participated in the cascades of disease freakout and slammed everything shut, wrongly believing that their decisions would somehow drive the virus out.
Of course the lockdown did not last two weeks.
Two weeks later, it happened again: Trump did not demand or announce an opening, but rather prolonged closures. His much-touted Easter reopening came and went. He believed he had done the right thing but the same people who pushed him to do this failed to give him an exit strategy.
Watching this from the outside, it was obvious that something was going very wrong at the White House. His words and actions contradicted everything he stood for, not only in his presidency but his entire life. He was wrecking what he believed he had created.
The authors of Nightmare Scenario — an informative but dreadfully biased book — sum it up as follows: Trump “had spent the first three years of his presidency stripping back regulations and restrictions, complaining about the ‘deep state’ and government overreach. He was now putting into place the biggest restrictions on Americans’ behavior in the past hundred years.” [Emphasis my own.]
I’m personally astonished at how little public discussion there is of this shocking reality. As much as people admire (or hate) Trump, and as much as he will forever own his folk-hero status, it was he who did this, on his own volition. It started in the middle of March. He didn’t come around fully to realizing that he had been tricked until some four months later. By then, the damage had been done, and his opponents not only smelled blood; they had every intention of riding out this disaster until election day, in one of the most shocking displays of policy sadism in US history. It finally worked: every pollster affirms that it was the handling of the pandemic that doomed him.
Who and Why
The two advisors on which he depended for advice were of course Doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, two career government bureaucrats. According to the book, even by March 2020, she was convinced that Trump could be beaten by Biden. Did she plot the lockdowns to make sure that would happen? The book doesn’t say, but does say that she was more emphatic about lockdowns than Fauci.
Neither she nor Fauci gave him a clear understanding of viruses and traditional wisdom from public health. Maybe they could not; maybe they just enjoyed watching him wallow in panic. He was determined to keep the Coronavirus out and reduce and eliminate cases. That was impossible of course, and anyone with their training surely knew that. So they daily fed his internal sense of alarm about cases in the US.
So his advisers had him trapped. His metric of success was as few cases as possible. Every day, they would show up with the bad news of rising cases. Every chart, every bit of data, every new announcement of community spread he interpreted as a personal failure. He does not like to fail. Finally they sprung it on him: he needs to press pause on the whole economy in order to achieve his own goals. By then, he was ready. It took him only a few seconds to say yes.
Maybe hindsight is always easy, but one might have supposed that he would have sought other advice from experts on viruses and public health. But so it is with leaders in this position. They ultimately depend on courtiers. If one or two with a hidden agenda show up within the inner circle — often because of vaunted expertise in an area that pertains to a new crisis — they can wreck everything. And that is precisely what happened.
Too Little, Too Late
Thousands of books will appear on this topic in the coming months and years but we already have a sketch of what went wrong at the White House. It’s a tragic tale and one that had a near save at the end. Trump finally figured out that he had been led down a destructive path, and worked to reverse himself. He bought on the compelling and brilliant scientist Scott Atlas from Hoover, and gave him access and power.
At this point, Atlas came to dominate the tiny virus commission that had done so much harm and sewn so much confusion — straightening out not only that group, but finally reorienting Trump. He came to realize that this virus would not be bested by wartime tactics and rhetoric. We had to learn to live with the virus. When Trump personally came down with it and had a near brush with a real health disaster, he was more convinced than ever.
Rather than owning up to his past mistakes, Trump tried a different strategy in the last weeks of the campaign. He decided to disregard the topic completely in speeches, other than to toss off a few bromides. It was fateful because it made him seem to be in denial of the sufferings of the country. Not only from the virus, but from the egregious policy decisions enacted by all levels of government.
Sadly — and as much as we want this last year to be behind us — we are still vexed by these events. The Republican Party is vexed, and torn. There are very influential people who really want Trump to move on to punditry and business dealings. He seems to have other ideas, and his grass-roots base does too. Trump seems to want to run again. And that puts him on a direct collision course with the strongest-possible candidate that the Republicans have had in many years, namely Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida.
This is why Trump spoke in Florida last week. Notice that the governor was not there. And there are hints in the press that Trump took offense at that. My friends, this is not a good dynamic playing out here. It could get worse as time goes along. Trump is not inclined ever to do what DeSantis did, which was to admit that the lockdowns were never a good idea. Until Trump does — and speaks honestly and openly about what happened in 2020 — it’s hard to see a path to another term.
It’s fascinating, isn’t it? No matter our technology, our education, our sophistication in every area of life, what ultimately causes history to turn in crazy, unexpected, and terrible directions is the most old-fashioned of human foibles: the willingness of leaders to be flattered and unwillingness to admit their own fallibility.
What lessons can you and I take from this? Remember that the trap always begins with an information bubble. To maintain clear judgment, to make the best possible decisions, the single most important method is to recognize the bubble’s existence, break out of it, and seek out and value alternative sources of information.