Wells: I don’t mean to be cheeky with the question, because, of course, I know that we’ve been through horrific times in this country, but it feels incredibly critical right now.
James Hamblin: People keep using the word unprecedented. And yet when I hear you talking about unprecedented times, I take it seriously.
Fallows: I’ll give you my voice-of-history overview here. I did a piece for The Atlantic a couple of years ago where I said that I realized that every article or book I’d ever written had really been about just one question: Is America going to make it? The story of the U.S. is trouble and the response to trouble.
But one thing that’s particular to this moment is that national leadership is the worst in my lifetime, and arguably the worst in our history. We’ve never had a head of federal government as unmatched to the duties of that role as we currently do. The question is how all the other sources of resilience and health in the country balance that singular but very important point of dysfunction and the party that supports him too.
Wells: What does good leadership during a crisis look like?
Fallows: In my sordid youth, I worked as a speechwriter in the Carter White House, and what’s interesting beyond party and beyond era is that in a time of crisis, every effective leadership message boils down to a very simple matrix. If you look at FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech or if you look at George W. Bush after 9/11 or Reagan after the Challenger explosion, they always do three things.
First, they express empathy and compassion. We recognize this has been hard and terrible. We recognize you are scared. We recognize that people have lost loved ones and lost livelihoods. I recognize, as the sort of head of the national family, recognize how terrible this time is. The second thing they do is express long-term confidence. We’ve been through hard times before. This is hard. But we know how to persevere. The third thing they do is provide a plan. Tomorrow, we’re going to do this. Next week, we’re going to do that. A year from now, we’re going to be in this position.
That is just the three-part summary of what any leader says in a time when that leader’s people are distressed, injured or wounded, afraid, et cetera. And we have not heard a single message of that sort from the White House.
I think there’s kind of phantom-limb pain. People recognize they should be hearing it, and they are hearing it from mayors and they are hearing it from governors and they are hearing it in their communities. And that’s the contrast.
Wells: Phantom-limb pain is an interesting way to describe that. I feel like I have totally felt that.
Hamblin: I like that comparison as well. If governance has become so dysfunctional, how can we as a country unite against the virus? It feels like, initially, nearly everyone was unified around the need to shut down and take extreme measures to prevent this, but now it’s growing into a wedge issue. How do we keep that from getting worse?