I did not want to write another book about Donald Trump.

In June 2020 my book Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It was published. I had spent 18 months writing it. That book documents Trump’s playbook of forms of language that inspire his followers to commit acts of violence against people whom Trump has dehumanized or demonized.

The book was intended to be a warning flare: helping engaged citizens and civic leaders recognize how certain kinds of speech had predictable dangerous consequences. And also equipping them to call out those who use such speech and to hold those leaders accountable for the consequences of their actions. Four years later we see this phenomenon writ large every day. Just last week the judge in Trump’s New York hush-money payments trial ordered Trump to stop making statements about his family and to not make statements about witnesses, court staff, prosecutors, and their families, as such statements put people’s lives at risk.

I turned in the finished manuscript to my publisher in January 2020, just as COVID-19 arrived in the United States.

As president of a crisis management firm and a professor of crisis management – and, at the time, with 40 years in the business – I was familiar with the public health playbook. I had studied, lived through, counseled clients, and advised students who wrote graduate theses about public health emergencies. I had taught case studies about these emergencies – from the 1918 influenza outbreak, to swine flu, to bird flu, to Zika, to SARS in China, to MERS in South Korea, and to Ebola in the U.S. and West Africa.

There is a process for managing infectious disease outbreaks, and Ebola showed that the U.S. was pretty good at it.

Therefore, I was astonished in the early months of the pandemic that the U.S. was not following the infectious disease management playbook for COVID-19. Rather, it was making all the predictable mistakes that I and my colleagues always warn our clients against.

I began to document what was happening. The consequence of that documentation is my next book, out today: The Trump Contagion: How Incompetence, Dishonesty, and Neglect Led to the Worst-Handled Crisis in American History.

 

Leadership and Crisis Response

Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their most difficult challenges. Inspired leaders rise to the occasion, igniting and inspiring their people to a common purpose. Ineffective or malign leaders often fail to rise to the challenges before them and almost always make matters worse.

Leaders have it within themselves to determine whether they will rise to the challenge or not.

One of the central themes of the book is this: Crisis management works. But only when leaders follow the principles of how to manage a crisis effectively. There is a rigor to effective crisis management. Leaders who understand and deploy that rigor typically help their organizations get through the crisis far better than those who don’t. Most failed crises are the result of not following that rigor, often with devastating consequences. One of the common patterns of failed crisis response is making decisions based on a leader’s personal preference, or self-protection, or the leader’s inability to self-regulate.

COVID-19 is the largest and most widespread crisis in our lifetimes; one that every institution and individual on the planet experienced in some way. It is a deeply human phenomenon, and also an opportunity to compare how different leaders and different organizations – indeed, how different nations – managed their part of the crisis. And we can compare the consequences and draw lessons.

The book begins with foundational principles of effective crisis response, to set the context for how to evaluate individual leaders’ responses to crises. The book also compares two nations’ approaches to COVID-19. The Republic of Korea followed all crisis management and infectious disease management protocols.  The United States did not. As a consequence, the U.S. death rate for the first full year was 49 times that of Korea’s.

The first confirmed American case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on January 20, 2020. Exactly one year later, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. The time in-between was the single deadliest year in American history to date. In that year alone, 446,000 Americans died of COVID-19. But Trump’s neglect during that catastrophic year also set up conditions that led to continued fatalities in 2021 and to the present day.

By May 2022, more than 1 million Americans had died of the virus, and the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned that misinformation about COVID-19 had become the leading cause of death in the United States. The scientific consensus is that more than half of those deaths – some estimates range to more than three quarters – were preventable.

It did not need to be this way.

The suffering, the hardship, and the sacrifice could have been avoided. But the United States, alone in the world, intentionally refused to follow or mandate basic public health steps: no national masking, distancing, testing, and contact tracing policies.

As my book goes to press, 1.2 million Americans have died of COVID-19. That’s one in every 270 Americans who were alive before COVID-19. Most of those fatalities were preventable; by some counts, between 800,000 and 1 million. And the person most responsible for keeping Americans safe failed to do so.

 

Bearing Witness

The Trump Contagion is my attempt to bear witness to the decision-making that unnecessarily cost so many lives and disrupted life as we knew it. The book demonstrates the American President’s incompetence, dishonesty, and neglect that made the U.S. COVID-19 response the single worst-handled crisis in American history. I believe it is also the single largest failures of leadership in American history.

This book also provides valuable lessons to help leaders avoid similar failures when they manage future crises.

As the pandemic was breaking, my firm began conducting Zoom workshops at public events and for clients – including units of the U.S. armed forces – on how to manage through the COVID-19 uncertainty; how to keep their employees safe; how to anticipate what will come next.

I began to teach the COVID-19 case study, even as it was developing, in my crisis management classes, first at Columbia University and then also at New York University.

And I began publishing alarm-sounding essays, including a column in Forbes in October 2021, titled “Crisis Management Lessons from the Pandemic: Take Risks Seriously.”

But even then, I didn’t think I’d write a book about it.

However, as the magnitude of the nation’s failure became clearer over the months and years, I recognized that we were in unprecedented times. And that the torrent of misinformation, our fractured political climate, all the controversies involving criminal and civil litigation against Donald Trump, combined to distract from both the magnitude of what happened and the likelihood of a recurrence in future crisis, either by Trump or others.

As with my prior book, I felt called to sound the alarm, but this time with even greater urgency. In particular, I felt called to help leaders learn from the nation’s failures and to help them avoid making the same mistakes.

I did not want to write another book about Trump. But I did.

Because crisis management works. But only when we take crises and risks seriously and understand how to respond to crises effectively. And because we can learn from the failures of the past to prevent another tragedy in the future.

 

The Trump Contagion is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle editions on Amazon.com.

Helio Fred Garcia is President of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group. He teaches ethics, crisis, leadership, and communication at Columbia University and New York University.

On Friday, June 10, 2022, Logos president Helio Fred Garcia delivered a Columbia Engineering Alumni Day lecture on the US response to COVID-19 at the first in-person reunion of graduates of Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Garcia is an adjunct associate professor of professional development and leadership in the Professional Development and Leadership program at Columbia Engineering. He delivered one of three lectures in the school’s alumni association REUNION 22 LECTURES on-campus event.

In his lecture, Garcia focused on the intersection of crisis response and ethics, and demonstrated how COVID-19 – as a crisis that simultaneously affected every institution and every individual on the planet – provides a useful case study to see the patterns of effective and ineffective crisis response and ethical decision-making. Garcia quoted the Greek philosopher Plato, who noted: “To understand something difficult, study the biggest instance of it that we can. That’s because the patterns are easier to see. And the pattern is then laid up on heaven for anyone who wishes to contemplate it.”

Garcia began his lecture by laying out the foundational principles of effective crisis response:

  1. Show you care.
  2. Take risks seriously.
  3. Work to mitigate those risks early.

He then contrasted the U.S. response to COVID-19, the worst in the industrialized world, and the Republic of Korea response, among the best. Both nations had their first confirmed case of COVID-19 on the same day, January 20, 2020. South Korea followed the principles of effective response and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines; the United States did not. After one year, the South Korean death rate was 1 fatality for every 39,000 South Koreans; the U.S. death rate was 1 fatality for every 809, or a fatality rate 49 times Korea’s.

Garcia also highlighted the ways that misinformation and the modeling of unsafe practices led to hundreds of thousands of preventable COVID deaths. He quoted the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who in May 2022 called misinformation the leading cause of death in the U.S.

You can watch the full lecture here:

At Columbia Engineering, Garcia teaches ethics and integrity for engineers for all incoming undergraduate, MS, and PhD students. He also teaches graduate electives in advanced ethical decision-making, crisis prevention, crisis response, and leadership communication. Garcia is the author of five books, most recently Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It. His next book is The Trump Contagion: How Incompetence, Dishonesty, and Neglect Led to the Worst-Handled Crisis in American History.

On Saturday, April 23, 2022, Helio Fred Garcia participated in a panel discussion on Science and Partisanship at the National Undergraduate Conference on Scientific Journalism. The conference was hosted by the National Undergraduate Consortium for Science Journalism, which is a consortium of 17 undergraduate journals across the nation, chiefly interested in STEM research at the undergraduate level.

This year’s conference brought together hundreds of student-scientists and multiple undergraduate research journals from across the nation to discuss research ethics and practice, the publication process, the role of student journals, and more.

In addition to Garcia, the panel discussion on Science and Partisanship featured Professor Mark Cane from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, The Earth Institute, and Columbia University, and Professor Daniel Cornfield from Vanderbilt University. The panel was moderated by Taylor Ginieczki, NUCSJ Director of Civic Engagement and student at the University of Oregon.

Watch the full video of that panel discussion here:

On April 21, 2022, Logos president Helio Fred Garcia participated in the inaugural Global Brand Convergence, a free online experience for higher education students, faculty, and professionals around the world in public relations and marketing. Garcia participated in a panel discussion on “Crisis in an Enduring Pandemic,” alongside renowned communicator and crisis advisor Dr. Guanpeng (Steven) Dong.

Conceived by Jacqueline Strayer, the Global Brand Convergence was designed to connect and create a community to share ideas, innovations, and concepts to advance them in the classroom and in the profession. The inaugural event boasted more than 500 registered attendees from 50 countries and 54 colleges and universities.

In their session, Garcia and Dr. Dong discussed lessons learned from of how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled by the US and by China and several core principles and best practices in crisis response. Garcia and Dr. Dong have worked together in several capacities over the past 10 years, and in 2019 Dr. Dong was awarded the Logos Institute Outstanding Leader Award.

Watch the full panel discussion, moderated by Iliana Axiotiades here:

In addition to Garcia’s participation in the event, Logos Consulting Group was proud to be one of the sponsors for this annual event. To learn more about the Global Brand Convergence, visit https://www.globalbrandconvergence.com/.

On January 19, 2021, Logos Associate Holly Helstrom was quoted in a Forbes article about the struggle many organizations are facing around COVID-19 vaccination policies. The article details how companies are split in terms of whether or not to require employees to get the vaccine respectively.

Helstrom, an Adjunct Instructor at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering who teaches a course on First Amendment rights for employees, explained that an employer has the legal right to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine policy if they’re a private sector at-will employer.

“Refusal to get a Covid-19 vaccine if your employer is requiring one could get you fired and your employer would be within their legal rights to do so,” said Helstrom.

Helstrom advised organizations to use its values to guide vaccination decisions. “Having clarity on one’s values, whether from the employer or employee perspective, can make the decision easier,” she said. “If individual liberty is more important to you than job security, your decision when navigating this question as an employee will be much easier.”

Read the full article here.

This is an excerpt from a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia, originally published on Commpro.biz on January 4, 2021.

The first American case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on January 20, 2020.

Exactly one year later Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States.

What happened in the United States in between is different from what happened in other developed countries.

Twenty million Americans contracted COVID-19 between the first case and the end of the year.

2020 was the single deadliest year in American history. The first U.S. COVID-19 fatality was on February 6. By year end another 351 thousand Americans had died from the virus. For context, that is more than all the U.S. combat fatalities in World War II and Vietnam combined, but in a single eleven-month period rather than in the 24 years of those wars. For several weeks in December we were seeing the equivalent of a 9/11 casualty rate every day, with total 2020 COVID-19 fatalities equal to 118 separate 9/11 attacks.

Much of this was avoidable. And yet, here we are. So the question is – why did this happen?

Everything Changed

It was a year that changed everything: what it means to be “at work” or “at school”; how we visit the doctor; how we greet each other; how we shop for groceries and other goods; how we say goodbye to loved ones as they take their final breath.

It was a year of great trauma: medical, emotional, spiritual, economic, social.

And it was a year that saw great sacrifice and some of the best of humanity: in the front-line medical workers, in the agility of many companies to re-imagine their business models and their product offerings, in the emergence of a new class of heroes – postal workers, delivery drivers, and grocery clerks, who risked infection to keep us supplied.

And it was a year that intensified much that had already been fraying in the fabric of American civic life: hyper-polarization in politics, mistrust of each other and of civic institutions, and the shattering of social and political norms.

In the time of the pandemic we saw the explicit elevation and endorsement of white supremacist and conspiracist groups, such as the Proud Boys and QAnon. But also the largest civil rights protest in American history, with more than 25 million Americans marching in support of Black Lives Matter – and this in the days and weeks following the first wave of reopening after two months of stay-at-home orders.

After decades of one party discrediting science – from refusing to accept the reality of evolution, to redefining when human life begins, to denying the reality of climate change – we saw millions of Americans deny what scientists, public health experts, and their own doctors told them: that the virus is real, that it is deadly, that you can transmit it even when asymptomatic; and that masking, distancing, and handwashing are keys to prevention. The American population seemed to divide into those who believe what science teaches and those who choose not to. But as a popular T-shirt and internet meme noted, Science Doesn’t Care What You Believe.

The pandemic coincided with one of the most bizarre and contentious presidential election campaigns in American history, in which despite no evidence of fraud the sitting president refused to acknowledge defeat and lost more than 50 lawsuits challenging the results. And who for the eight weeks between the election and the new year seemed to give up on being president. He stayed out of sight and silent on anything having to do with the pandemic, even as fatalities approached the 350 thousand mark and infections soared to 20 million, and as he rage-tweeted about the so-called “massive fraud” that had prevented his re-election.

But the hardships were real and were devastating. In the weeks before and after Christmas, hospitalization rates reached record highs, with whole regions, including southern California, reporting zero intensive care beds available. At least one Los Angeles hospital started treating patients in the gift shop; another in a cafeteria; yet another in its chapel. But the real shortage was of medical personnel to treat the record number of patients. Doctors began talking about the need to choose which patients to treat, and which to leave to die.

The nation saw the infection rate grow by a million cases every few days. And despite pleas from public health officials and hospital front-line workers, Americans continued to travel for the holidays, risking what health workers called a surge on top of a surge. And some governors refused to require citizens to wear masks in public. Florida’s governor even forbade Florida cities and counties from requiring masks and social distancing in their jurisdictions. And the White House, the State Department, and other federal agencies held dozens of holiday parties indoors and without a masking requirement: yet more super-spreader events.

Incompetence

It did not need to be this way.

Much of the suffering, the hardship, the sacrifice could have been avoided. It resulted from a lethal combination of incompetence, dishonesty, and neglect.

The United States, alone in the world, intentionally refused to follow or mandate basic public health steps: a national masking, distancing, testing, and contact tracing policy. There was no whole of government response; at best there were fragments of government responses. And some parts of the government seemed to be at war against other parts. Indeed, some parts of government seemed to be at war against themselves, such as the White House Pandemic Task Force, where in a single press conference the politicians would contradict the public health experts, and vice versa.

The president and other senior government officials modeled the opposite of the public health guidelines, remaining unmasked in public and holding super-spreader events where the crowd was unmasked and packed close together – in violation also of local masking and distancing ordinances.

Continue reading here.

On December 22, 2020, Logos Associate Holly Helstrom was quoted in an article on Workable.com on the best practices for a COVID-19 vaccination policy for businesses. Workable, a recruitment software company, surveyed a variety of legal experts on whether and how employers can mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for their employees.

Helstrom, an an Adjunct Instructor at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering who teaches a course on First Amendment rights for employees, explained that an employer has the legal right to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine policy if they’re a private sector at-will employer.

“This is a product of how US labor law and the Constitution are written,” Helstrom noted. “Employers can and have fired employees based on lifestyle choices related to their health, including if they smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. Refusal to get a COVID vaccine if your employer is requiring one could get you fired and your employer would be within their legal rights to do so.“

Read the full article here.

On December 16, 2020, Logos Associate Holly Helstrom was quoted in an article on Healthline on how at-will employers can mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for their employees.

Helstrom, an an Adjunct Instructor at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering who teaches a course on First Amendment rights for employees, explained that an employer has the legal right to mandate policies around lifestyle choices and employers have fired people for lifestyle choices in the past.

“Employers can and have fired employees based on lifestyle choices related to their health, including if they smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol,” she said. “Refusal to get a COVID vaccine if your employer is requiring one could get you fired and your employer would be within their legal rights to do so.”

Helstrom explained that, “your employer is within their legal rights to require you to get a COVID vaccine, if you work for a private sector at-will employer.” However, she did note that rules around vaccination for unionized workers “would likely be a subject for bargaining.”

The except is from an op-ed by Helio Fred Garcia published on December 2, 2020 in Modern Restaurant Magazine.

The COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis has radically reshaped the dining experience and caused a devasting impact on a once booming industry. A September survey by the National Restaurant Association found that 43 percent of full-service operators and 33 percent of limited service operations do not expect to still be in business in six months of things continue as they are. And restaurants are anticipating a total loss of $240 billion this year as a result of the pandemic.

In many ways, the ingenuity of owners and managers has enabled many restaurants to survive this prolonged crisis. As restaurants have introduced innovative solutions to continue serving their customers, such as curb-side pick-up, delivery and drive thru options, or expanded their business to grocery services, the industry has seen marginal gains since the spring. But it has not been enough.

The unfortunate reality is that it is unlikely the industry will be able to bounce back in the coming months. And the restaurant experience when we finally emerge from this pandemic will likely look much different than it did before.

So, what can restaurants at this point in this crisis?

Take Risks Seriously

The US response to COVID-19 pandemic is, in my opinion, the single worst handled crisis in our nation’s history. At the time of writing this, more than 10 million Americans have contracted COVID-19, and nearly a quarter million people have died. And this could have been avoided.

A study published in October by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness found that between 130,000 to 210,000 American fatalities would have been avoided if the nation had consistently applied policies equivalent to what other developed democracies had done.

A foundational principle of crisis response is to understand the scope and specifically the risks that a crisis represents, and then to do all that is necessary to mitigate those risks. The longer it takes to do that, the worse the crisis will get.

As we have seen, the federal government, in particular the current occupant of the White House, failed to take the risks of the pandemic seriously. And President Trump continues to diminish or ignore the risks of COVD-19, even as infection rates spike and more members of his administration test positive for the virus.

The changing of administrations may turn the tide of the country’s response, but we have quite some time before President-Elect Biden can enact meaningful change. In the meantime, the continued lack of a coherent federal response before the inauguration will likely to cause even more harm.

As cases surge across the country, restaurants need to take the risks of COVID-19 seriously. And that means recognizing that half measures won’t work in the long run.

While it may be tempting to continue indoor dining as we head into winter, the growing infection rate, as well as sporadic mask-wearing and social distancing policies across the country, will likely make indoor dining less safe, putting both customers and employees at risk. Restaurants need to recognize and take these risks seriously, and to be prepared to take decisive action early to protect their customers and their employees.

Foresee the Foreseeable

Many crises are not foreseeable. But months into this crisis, there are some thing we can foresee.

We are now in the third wave of the pandemic. In early November, we saw back-to-back record highs for daily cases. The likelihood, if things remain unchanged, is that we will reach a quarter million deaths by Thanksgiving.

President-Elect Joe Biden has signaled that he will take a far more aggressive approach to COVID, and has begun revealing a national strategy. In his acceptance speech, Biden declared, “We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality, or relish life’s most precious moments… until we get this virus under control.” He continued, “I will spare no effort — or commitment — to turn this pandemic around.”

Restaurants need to be prepared for Biden to enact some form of restrictions for as long as necessary to control the virus.  That means restaurants have time to prepare what will foreseeably be one of Biden’s first acts as president.

Take the Pain

No one wants the country to shut down. There is a real and lived cost for all of us in this moment of collective crisis, one that will be felt for years to come. But one of the principles of crisis management is that sometimes we need to take the pain in the short-term in order to thrive in the long-term. This is one of those times.

Restaurants have already taken the brunt of the pain during this pandemic. And previous governmental relief for the restaurant industry has fallen short.

However, restaurants will need to be prepared to take the pain of drastically reducing their operations again, of furloughing their employees, or of shutting down for some period of time. This is a difficult decision for any business make. But it is the only way that we as a nation will make it through this crisis, and ultimately the only way the restaurant industry will be able to truly thrive again.

As restaurants will need to make difficult, but necessary, decisions to protect their customers and staff, the restaurant industry can also be proactive in fighting for relief. Since June, the National Restaurant Association, the Independent Restaurant Association, and other have been actively lobbying for expanded relief for the industry. And as the government transitions in January, the industry may find new allies to aid this cause and ensure the long-term viability of the restaurant industry going forward.

Plan for the Future

While it will likely be necessary to take the pain in the short-term, restaurants can also plan for the long-term.

In crisis management, we know that in every crisis there is opportunity. COVID-19 has changed nearly every part of our society and daily lives. As we come out of this crisis, the restaurant industry, like many others, will not look the same as it did before the pandemic. But that does not mean it cannot as good as it was before. Or that it can be even better.

The industry has already demonstrated its resiliency in the creative ways that restaurants have adapted their business models to survive during the pandemic. Should a national shut down happen, restaurants can use that time to be proactive and plan how they will rebuild after the pandemic has ended.

What will the restaurant and dining experience be after COVID-19? Restaurants can take this time to re-imagine what this experience can be like in a post-COVID-19 world, and then organize their resources to re-invent and re-invigorate both their companies and the industry as a whole.

The restaurant industry has a long road ahead to get through this crisis. But by making smart decisions in a timely way, restaurants can get through this crisis – and help us all do the same.

Overnight the world learned that President Trump and the First Lady both tested positive for COVID-19. I wish them a full recovery.

But our challenge isn’t that Trump has COVID-19; it’s that the nation does. And it didn’t have to be this way.

A Teachable Moment: Patterns of Crisis

We are in a very teachable moment.

Crises follow predictable patterns. One is that most harm in a crisis is self-inflicted. Sometimes the initial crisis event itself is self-inflicted. But even when it isn’t, most of the loss of trust, confidence, and competitive position is self-inflicted because of an ineffective response.

A foundational principle of crisis response is to understand the scope and severity of a crisis and the risks it represents, and to respond based on those risks. Donald Trump never did.

On January 28 Trump’s national security advisor told him that COVID-19 would be the single largest national security threat in his presidency.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, Director of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource & Response Initiative

On February 7 Trump admitted to Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward that COVID-19 is spread in the air and is more deadly than the flu.

Three weeks ago Dr. Irwin Redlener, head of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative, estimated that if the nation had gone to national masking and lock-down one week earlier, with a constant masking and social distancing policy, 150,000 of the 200,000 fatalities would have been avoided.

Ten Crisis Missteps

In two of my books, Reputation Management and The Agony of Decision, I describe ten predictable missteps in a crisis:

  1. Ignore the problem. Trump did.
  2. Deny the significance of the problem. Trump did.
  3. Compartmentalize the problem or solution. Trump did.
  4. Tell misleading half truths. Trump did.
  5. Lie. Trump did.
  6. Tell only part of what you did. Trump did.
  7. Blame others for your failures. Trump did.
  8. Over-confess. On this one, Trump did not.
  9. Panic, leading to bad decision-making. Trump did.
  10. Shoot the messenger when you receive bad news. Trump did.

Trump has committed nine of the ten missteps when it comes to COVID-19.

The Human Consequences of the Missteps

COVID-19 cases on October 2, 202

Unlike other crises, this has had significant human consequence. At least 75 percent of the cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. would not have happened. And 150,000 people, according to Dr. Redlener, would still be alive.Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their most significant challenges. Trump failed this leadership test. Given the magnitude of the failure of crisis response after Trump was fully aware of the risks, this may be the single worst failure of leadership in American history.

I have previously published that I believe Trump’s handling of COVID-19 to be the single worst handled crisis, and largest leadership failure, in American history.

Again, I wish both the President and the First Lady a full recovery. But perhaps now we can move to a national masking, social distancing, contract tracing, and testing policy.