For some time, Trump and his White House have acted as if they only have a public-relations problem to contend with. When Trump designated Mike Pence as leader of the administration’s coronavirus task force, the vice president promptly moved to tighten messaging and take control of public appearances by government experts. Reuters reported yesterday that the White House is insisting that top-level coronavirus meetings be treated as classified—a designation that inhibits scientific transparency and excludes important experts without security clearances.
But a lack of message discipline is not what caused the stock-market crash this week. Investors see all too clearly that the federal response to the coronavirus has been disjointed, lagging in even providing the basic test kits to determine the magnitude of the threat.
Annie Lowrey: The stock market is tanking. Do nothing.
Under any presidential administration, every major disaster is a mess. While some threats to human health and national security are in some way predictable, the government agencies that respond to them are always at a disadvantage. The entire emergency-management apparatus—the incident command response, as it’s known in homeland-security jargon—is positioned to activate only after the terror attack, hurricane, oil spill, or disease outbreak is under way and some amount of death and destruction have already happened. By the time the federal government gets involved in the first place, going back to the status quo ante is no longer a choice.
An administration does have the power to engage citizens in mitigating the consequences of a disaster. The problem for Trump, however, is that doing so would mean providing both numbers and hope.
Entire communities, no less than the professionals in charge of managing any emergency response, benefit from situational awareness. Which is to say, average citizens need factual information not only about the magnitude of destruction but also about the seriousness of the response. Regardless of the nature of a crisis, people need information about how many have been killed or harmed, about which agencies are providing how much aid, about how many hospital beds, shelter beds, meals, and gallons of water are available.
The Trump administration is providing numbers about tests, but those numbers seem untethered from reality. Pence said Monday that more than 1 million coronavirus tests had been distributed and that 4 million would be distributed by the end of this week. Also on Monday, The Atlantic could only verify, based on local data, that 4,384 people had been tested in the United States.
Read: The dangerous delays in U.S. coronavirus testing haven’t stopped
The administration’s lack of candor does nothing to give the public hope. Citizens need to know that their government and its leaders adequately understand what has gone wrong and that they are capable of ameliorating it. After a disaster, the measure of a successful government response isn’t whether everything returns to normal. It’s whether people foresee opportunities for improvement. Most people can sense when they are being lied to, and they appreciate leaders who will tell them the truth.