Anyone who is familiar with team sports knows that if team members are not working together during the game, then the team is not going to do well. As such, good athletes set aside the conflicts they might have with teammates when on the field and come together to win. This does not, of course, mean that a good athlete will blindly accept whatever a teammate or coach has done or might do. For example, a good athlete would not allow a teammate to cheat or a coach to abuse athletes. As another example, a good athlete would not tolerate a teammate who engages in domestic abuse or dog fighting just because they are on the same team. While humans do form various competing teams, during this pandemic we should strive to see ourselves as all being on the same team—we are playing a deadly game of humans versus viruses.
Since we are all on the same team, we should adopt the attitude of good athletes when they are on the field: we should strive to set aside our differences and come together to achieve victory. To the degree we fight, bicker and compete against each other, we are hurting the team. To the degree we cooperate, we are helping team human. As would be expected, the greater the power and influence a person has, the more important it is that they work with the team and set aside less important concerns—at least for the duration of the game. While it would be unreasonable to think that everyone will be a good team player, there is still the minimal expectation that team members will not actively try to cause senseless conflict or interfere with the players who are trying to win. Unfortunately for the world, there are those who are not only bad at being team players, they are actively causing harm.
While there are examples outside of the United States, my accountability lies mainly within the borders of my country—as an American, I bear some responsibility for my leaders and fellow citizens. As should be expected, my focus will be on Trump. As the president, he is analogous to the head coach of the team—he should be directing the team to victory, inspiring the players and….well…doing his job properly.
As is to be expected, Trump has been engaged in his usual behavior. While this is bad in normal times, the harm he does is compounded by the fact that we are in a pandemic. As noted in other essays, rather than being honest about the facts of the pandemic, Trump and his allies downplayed it and then floated stories about hoaxes. Rather than listen to medical experts, Trump and his fellows spread disinformation and misinformation. Trump and his fellows also delayed our response to the virus, something that will cost use dearly. What Trump and his fellows should have been doing is playing for the team: presenting the truth and acting. To use an analogy, Trump was like a coach who refuses to acknowledge that an opposing team is coming to play and is a serious threat. Like a bad coach, Trump insisted that his team would not need to practice and prepare, that it would be an easy win. And, of course, these were all lies told to the detriment of the team.
Now that the human versus virus game is underway in the United States, Trump steadfastly sticks to his core qualities. First, he has engaged in conflicts with various governors. Part of the problem is that Trump seems to see the government as his business and sees things in transactional terms. That is, he sees himself as engaged in business deals rather than in terms of being the leader of a country in crisis. Another part of the problem is that Trump is ruled by his ego and cannot help but engage in petty fights. He takes things very personally, something that has generally not been true about other American presidents. For example, while Bush was criticized about his handling of Katrina, Bush did not withhold help because governors failed to appease his ego. Trump insisting on these petty vendettas divides us. To continue the team analogy, Trump is a like a coach who retaliates against assistant coaches to the detriment of the team if they fail to appease his ego and offer him the praise he thinks he deserves. Criticism, however legitimate, is met with hostility and punished. This actively harms the team and hence Trump is in the wrong.
It could be objected that the governors are also to blame—they need to be aware that Trump is a narcissist and do their very best to navigate his flaws in order to get what their state needs. So, if the governor of NY needs to praise Trump in order to keep Trump from vindictively denying the state full assistance, then he must praise Trump. While this makes some pragmatic sense, this is clearly morally horrific. In a democratic country it is not the duty of governors or citizens to appease the ego of the president in order to get them to do their job properly. It is the duty of the president to do their job, even in the face of criticism. That is how responsible democracy is supposed to work. If Trump cannot step up and do his job, he should step aside. Going back to the team analogy, if a narcissistic coach is damaging the team, the solution is not for the assistant coaches to work harder to appease his bloated yet delicate ego. The solution is to get a new coach.
Second, Trump has begun advancing the conspiracy theory that medical professionals are stealing protective equipment, citing an unnamed distributor who (allegedly) claimed that the hospital was buying too much equipment for its needs. Pushing this conspiracy theory is damaging because it can create hostility towards medical professionals—the very people we are relying on to keep us alive and healthy. Trump rather likes conspiracy theories and commonly uses the tactic of shifting blame from himself—this theory allows him to try to shift negative attention onto health care workers and to put the blame for shortages on thefts. But this does the team no good. Going back to the analogy, this would be like the head coach unjustifiably accusing the team trainers of stealing supplies and trying to blame them for his failure to ensure that the needed supplies would be available for the big game.
Trump’s defenders will, of course, scour the web for reports that validate Trump’s theory of theft. I would certainly expect his defenders to point out that Governor Cuomo said that masks and equipment were being stolen from hospitals. This would seem to allow them to try to accuse the critics of hypocrisy: “interesting how the liberal media gives Cuomo a pass on this while the fake news goes after Trump for saying the same thing!” and to also claim that Trump was right in his claim. However, a look at the details shows that this is not the case.
While it is true that Cuomo said that people are stealing equipment, the people accused of theft seem to have been opportunists looking to sell the stolen equipment, not medical professionals. Trump’s accusation was aimed at medical professionals, though his ardent supporters will probably try to recast him as talking about opportunists in order to “prove” him right.
Trump’s defenders can also try to use the fact that health care workers are stealing supplies. Because of the shortage of equipment (partially caused by Trump’s failure to act in Januar) health care workers have resorted to the morally problematic practice of stealing from each other. Some units have more resources than others and in a time in which the CDC is suggesting the use of bandanas when masks are not available, it is not surprising that people are engaging in theft. Many places are relying on donations, often from relatives, and these can tempt people who have been using the same mask for a week. Or those who are wearing bandanas in place of masks.
I am not trying to morally justify the theft—stealing from other medical professionals for medical use is still wrong. The point I am making is to refute Trump’s claim that medical professionals are stealing equipment that they do not need—that the high numbers requested by NY are due to theft and not need. While medical professionals should not be stealing from each other, even for medical use, they should not need to do so—we could have been well-prepared, and the Trump administration bears some of the blame for this.
Trump’s defenders might, at this point, assert that surely there have been some thefts—for example, some resident surely stole some disinfectant wipes to use at home. While this is certainly true, Trump’s claim is not that there are a few cases of petty theft of some supplies—his narrative is about large-scale theft. There is currently no evidence this is occurring and the need for more supplies in a pandemic certainly seems legitimate.
I do think we should be on guard against people trying to exploit the pandemic for personal gain; I obviously have no objections to leaders expressing concerns that are backed by evidence and not presented in a divisive manner. For example, congress put transparency measures into the COVID-19 stimulus bill aimed at preventing companies, Trump and his family from misusing the funds. As should be expected, the Trump administration has said it will not comply with the law. If the money was going to be used properly, there would be no reason not to accept transparency, so there are certainly legitimate concerns about this.
Trump supporters might, at this point, accuse me of vile hypocrisy: “How can you speak of unity while criticizing Trump? You give lie to your own words, you clown-nosed socialist!” Since I use concerns about inconsistency myself, I am certainly obligated to address such a charge.
The first reply is one of logic: even if I were being a hypocrite, this would not refute my claims. To think otherwise would be to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque. One version of this fallacy involves concluding that because a person’s actions are inconsistent with their claim, their claim must be wrong. But this is bad logic. For example, suppose that Bill Clinton claimed that people should not commit adultery and then committed adultery. This would show that he was a hypocrite but would not disprove his claim.
The second reply is that, as noted above, my view is that we should have critical unity. This is contrasted against uncritical unity in which people are expected to simply go along, most likely with whatever the leaders say and do. Uncritical unity has the potential to be worse than a lack of unity. For example, imagine if everyone simply went along with Trump’s initial claims about the virus and no one ever pushed back against his misinformation and disinformation. We would be in far worse disaster than we are in now. As another example, imagine that in a state controlled by Democrats they went through legal channels and legally seized all businesses and the wealth and property of the wealthiest citizens in order to distribute the resources evenly among the people. People should not, obviously, just say “well, we must unite behind our leaders” and get to work renovating the mansions of the rich into apartments for the homeless.
The critical part of critical unity in a crisis does need to have limits—the criticism should be grounded in truth, based in principle and aimed at addressing real problems. Criticizing Trump’s disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and so on while urging unity is in accord with critical unity. I apply the same standards across the political spectrum. So, for example, if someone provides true claims about a Democratic leader spreading COVID-19 disinformation or refusing to do their job properly because they are spatting with some Republican, then I will be critical of them as well. I will also be supportive across the spectrum when leaders are stepping up and doing the best they can. For example, I disagree with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on some things (although we both went to college in Ohio) but I credit him for his solid and serious response to COVID-19. I am very fond of Ohio and I am reassured that DeWine has stepped up to the challenge.
The lesson here is that we need to have unity in times of crisis (which is obvious), but it would be unwise to have unthinking and uncritical unity (which is equally obvious). While we should work with our leaders, they need to prove worthy of our uniting under their leadership. Trump will, I predict, serve as paradigm historical example of how a leader can actively and stupidly divide rather than unify in a time of crisis.