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Siemens '21: COVID-19 and the search for presidential virtue

Over the past two months, we have watched the Trump administration flounder in its response to the largest public health crisis in the world’s recent memory. Once again, glaring administrative incompetence has met executive egotism in the face of a national catastrophe. And once again, the American people are left to face the devastating social and economic consequences of the president’s ineptitude, with the most vulnerable among us paying the steepest price.

Still, the dangers posed by another four years of this administration would far transcend those that have been illuminated by our most recent dilemma. While it is true that President Trump’s pandemic response has shed a uniquely unflattering light on his personal deficiencies, these immediate concerns pale in comparison to the potential longer-term impact of his incompetence on American society and democracy. His staggering inadequacy, not just as a world leader but more fundamentally as a democratic citizen, has undermined the credibility of the American presidency and highlighted the dangers of narcissistic demagoguery in our republic.

Throughout U.S. history, and in particular during moments of widespread fear and uncertainty, Americans have looked to their president as a source of guidance and relief. For better or worse, we assess a president not only by his successes or failures as an executive, but also by his capacity for symbolic leadership — his powers of persuasion, his personal integrity and his capacity to bring people together during times of crisis.

At the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln used his platform at Gettysburg to remind the Union soldiers of their critical role in protecting American democracy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wielded the power of the presidential bully pulpit to instill public confidence in his administration, reassuring Americans of their government’s ability to effectively manage a severe economic depression and a world war. And President George W. Bush’s forceful public outreach in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks functioned dually to comfort and to condemn, to denounce violent extremism and to warn against domestic Islamophobia and bigotry.

To be clear, these men were far from perfect. But in facing their respective moments of crisis, each modeled a defining, and I would argue, prerequisite presidential characteristic: civic virtue. These presidents treated the public with respect. They demanded collective unity and celebrated Americans who made personal sacrifices for the common good. They called for us to think deeply about our roles not as individuals, but as members of a broader national community, and they faithfully carried out their oaths to preserve, protect and defend the American political compact.

But now we have President Trump.

Trump’s leadership style — if “leadership” is what we must call it — has emerged in stark contrast to the civic-mindedness that we have come to expect from the Oval Office. In recent weeks, the president has misrepresented the severity of the threat that we now face: He boasted in a February interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity that the U.S. had “shut down” the disease. Then later that same month he referred to the virus as the Democrats’ “new hoax.” He has undermined the credibility of public health authorities and openly attacked members of the free press. He has disregarded every critical deadline to build up the nation’s emergency medical response infrastructure and implied that he will condition aid to impacted populations on the reverence their representatives show him. He has publicly weighed lives lost against the diminishing returns of stock market speculators, and has come out favoring the latter.

And even in those rare moments when it appears as though the president may finally be taking the danger seriously, he has quickly receded into economic tunnel vision. On March 26, as the United States surpassed both China and Italy in its total number of reported diagnosed cases, Trump maintained that we may be positioned to reopen frozen markets by April 12. Though he has since revised his public stance to extend social distancing guidelines, it remains clear that the president is driven not by any broader concern for the national welfare, but rather by self-preservation — a frightening prospect when the difference between good and bad public policy puts countless lives at risk.

Such examples of the president’s most recent misbehavior should come as no surprise. President Trump’s extraordinary mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic — while sufficiently troubling on its own — is merely symptomatic of a deeper affliction: his narcissism-warped reality.

Time and again, Trump has proven that his mission to protect his fragile ego is bound to eclipse any concern for the value of truth. The president has made a hobby out of ignoring inconvenient facts, disparaging expert opinion, firing members of his administration whom he perceives as disloyal and discounting any advice that contradicts his purportedly infallible intuition. Why should we expect his approach to this crisis to be different? Might he now defer to the scientific experts he has so often belittled in the past? Show respect for the Democratic governors he has habitually derided via Tweet? Admit that his administration’s response to the global pandemic has thus far been inadequate — or better yet, work to improve it?

In some perverse sense, Trump may have been right to dub himself a “wartime president.” After all, if every critic is an adversary and every criticism a declaration of war, is the president not always at war?

I will give credit where credit is due, for President Trump has made one thing abundantly clear: Narcissism and civic virtue are, in fact, mutually exclusive attributes. Still, it seems to me patently ridiculous that we have been forced to reckon with the reality that a narcissist — a person whose egomania has led him toward a bizarre contempt for the lives of his own citizens — is not fit to be our president. To echo George Conway’s prescient analysis: “Simply put, Trump’s ingrained and extreme behavioral characteristics make it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency.”

It is this dangerous confluence of our president’s two greatest deficiencies — severe administrative incompetence and civic disregard — which has landed our nation in its current unenviable position. In the absence of effective presidential leadership, we have found ourselves incapable of mounting an effective response to a global pandemic threatening to kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of our fellow citizens.

Over three years into this catastrophic administration, I understand that it may sound painfully cliche once again to describe President Trump as “unpresidential.” But today, the description is no less accurate, nor the administration any less catastrophic. In truth, Trump’s coronavirus response has served only to amplify this once worn-out critique; his mismanagement has conspicuously revealed the importance of virtuous presidential leadership and the all-too-human cost of its absence.

Olivia Siemens ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to



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