Wissot: Managing the message fails when that’s all you’re managing
My favorite episode of “I Love Lucy” was the one with Ethel and Lucy putting candies in candy boxes as they rolled down the assembly line on a conveyor belt. At first, the task is easy because the conveyor belt is moving slowly. But once the speed increases they hopelessly struggle to keep up with the pace at which the boxes move past them. The result is hilarious with candies falling to the ground, winding up stuffed in their mouths, down their blouses, under their arms.
Donald Trump’s attempt to manage the messaging around his botched response to the coronavirus reminds me of that show’s episode. When cases of the virus slowly made landfall here in February, Trump blithely said it would disappear with the arrival of warmer weather. In mid-March as the virus began to gain momentum Trump continued to ignore the medical warnings of a looming pandemic.
Ultimately he couldn’t happily talk the virus away. The conveyor belt on which it was traveling was going too fast for Trump to control it with bluster and blather.
When reality plays havoc with the message a politician is tying to convey by contradicting his words with facts which can’t be denied, he quickly loses the battle for credibility and trust.
Managing a message only works if you are also adept at managing the circumstances on which the message is predicated. In that regard, Trump is an abysmal failure. Events unfolding don’t bend as easily to your preferred desires as do the words in a tweet.
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From the day he was inaugurated, Trump has been in damage control mode attempting to minimize the steady barrage of adverse publicity which has greeted his many mistakes and missteps. He dodged bullets coming from both the Mueller Report and the House impeachment verdict by convincing his true believers both were hoaxes, perpetrated by the “deep state” and the “lame media.”
But that was then and this is now. A large swath of the country is struggling with the devastating impact the coronavirus is having on citizens’ lives and livelihood. Facts on the ground cannot be sugarcoated or papered over when pain and suffering is raw and real.
You can’t call the virus a hoax drummed up by the Democrats to hurt Trump’s chances for re-election when people in red states and blue states are getting sick, dying, losing their jobs, and filing for unemployment insurance. Hoaxes can’t hurt you. Disease and destitution can.
Medical researchers at Columbia University reported in the last few days that if the country had “ begun social distancing measures one week earlier than it did in March, about 36,000 fewer people would have died in the outbreak.” And if the social distancing practices had begun two weeks earlier on March 1, “ the vast majority of the nation’s deaths — about 83 percent —would have been avoided.” Right now we are inching up on 100,000 lives lost.
Astonishingly, it was only at a press conference on March 31 that the president very belatedly prepared the country for the worst by saying, “This is going to be a very painful — a very, very painful two weeks.”
But even then, rather than tackling the problems apparent from the small number of tests administered, the increasing number of positive cases identified, the limited number of contact traces conducted, Trump was obsessed with a different set of figures: falling stock prices, rising unemployment rates, sagging approval ratings.
Trump’s greatest failing is an aversion to accountability. Having a germaphobic leader when a pandemic strikes is ironic. Having a head of state who has an accountability phobia is tragic when the country is facing a health crisis worse than any since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919 and an economic collapse approaching the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Look for Trump as the election nears to pivot away from taking responsibility for the country’s rapid descent into dysfunction. Expect to see the blame randomly placed on: China, the World Health Organization, “fake news,” the Obama administration, inept governors, excessive reliance on the recommendations of scientists, deliberately inflated death statistics, cowardly Americans who refused to risk their lives by going back to work and resume shopping to support the economy.
If Trump is searching for a re-election theme song emblematic of his presidency he might consider, “Don’t Blame Me.” It was written for the 1932 musical “Clowns in Clover.”
I kid you not.