GUEST COLUMN: The Content of His Character: Reflections on Donald J. Trump on MLK Day

This is an excerpt from a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia, originally published on Commpro.biz on January 18, 2021.

National Archives, Public Domain

Today we commemorate the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On this day it is important to note that the man who for two more days is the sitting president has spent nearly a decade systematically attacking the very dream Dr. King described in his 1963 Lincoln Memorial Speech.

Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency were themed to evoke an America before the civil rights wins that began to dismantle some of the worst abuses of the Jim Crow era. And it happened right before our eyes, as Trump embraced white supremacist policies and normalized white nationalism.

And twelve days ago, on the Elipse just a mile from the Lincoln Memorial, Trump inspired a crowd filled with white supremacists to invade the U.S. Capitol, where some hoped to assassinate the Vice President and Speaker of the House.

That evening, after watching the Capitol assault on television, Trump told the attackers, “We love you. You’re very special.”

Dancing with White Supremacists

In my latest book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, I track what I call Trump’s dance with white supremacists. Throughout his campaign and presidency, Trump has followed a recognizable pattern: He signals to white supremacists, and they signal back. Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, has frequently referred to it as a “wink-wink-wink” relationship.

It began nearly ten years ago, when private citizen Trump addressed the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and declared he would run in 2012 to unseat President Barack Obama. He revived the long-discredited birther conspiracy that Obama was secretly Kenyan and Muslim. This got the attention of white supremacists. He continued pounding the birther theme for six years, straight through to the last month of his 2016 campaign.

White supremacists perked up even more in his 2015 campaign launch when Trump declared that Mexicans are rapists, when he called for a wall on the southern border, and when he later promoted a total and complete ban of Muslims entering the United States.

In early 2016 Former Klan leader David Duke endorsed Trump and urged his followers to volunteer for his campaign. He said, “Voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.”

In late August 2016, Trump named Breitbart News co-founder Stephen Bannon to lead the Trump campaign. Bannon had previously said that Breitbart was the “platform for the alt-right.” The phrase “alt-right” was coined in 2010 by Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist who later was one of the Charlottesville organizers, as a less menacing phrase for white nationalism. After the election Trump named Bannon his senior White House strategist. In this way, the alt-right had a direct channel into the White House.

God Emperor of White Supremacists

On the day Trump was declared president, white supremacists celebrated and took credit for putting him in office.

The Daily Stormer wrote:

“We won, brothers. All of our work. It has paid off. Our Glorious Leader has ascended to God Emperor. Make no mistake about it: we did this. If it were not for us, it wouldn’t have been possible… And the great news is, we’re going to be given credit for it.”

David Duke tweeted:

“This is one of the most exciting nights of my life -> make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump! #MAGA”

Richard Spencer tweeted:

“For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback. #Trump.”

Making Whiteness Great Again

Ten days after the election, in an auditorium of the Ronald Reagan Office Building several blocks from the White House, Spencer addressed the white nationalist group he ran. He said,

“We willed Donald Trump into office. We made this dream our reality. . .  And this Trumpian dream is only the beginning . . .  We demand to live in the world that we imagine… For us it is conquer or die. This is a unique burden for the white man, that our fate is entirely in our hands… That is the great struggle we are called to. We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace. We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures to ever populate the planet. We were meant to overcome—overcome all of it. Because that is natural and normal for us. Because for us, as Europeans, it is only normal again when we are great again.”

Spencer closed his speech with a rousing call,

“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory.”

Spencer raised a glass up high with his right hand, in an apparent toast. Members of the audience rose and gave a Nazi salute extending their right arm out to the front. One man gave the salute multiple times, shouting “Sieg Heil!” – literally, “Hail Victory” in German.

In August of Trump’s first year Richard Spencer, David Duke, and other white supremacist leaders organized the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

Trump and others insisted that the Charlottesville protest was about the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. But it was much more.

On its website, The Daily Stormer admitted that the Charlottesville protest was not simply about a statue:

“Although the rally was initially planned in support of the Lee Monument, which the Jew Mayor and his Negroid Deputy have marked for destruction, it has become something much bigger than that. It is now an historic rally, which will serve as a rallying point and battle cry for the rising alt-right movement.”

One of the organizers, Michael Hill, president of the white nationalist group League of the South, tweeted to his followers:

“If you want to defend the South and Western civilization from the Jew and his dark-skinned allies, be at Charlottesville on 12 August.”

The Daily Stormer posted on its Facebook page:

“Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop: Auschwitz.”

“Battle cry” is not a casual reference. The Daily Stormer live-posted during the protest, including this:

“THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A WAR! WE HAVE AN ARMY”

After counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by a neo-Nazi, President Trump said that there was hatred and bigotry on many sides. The Daily Stormer wrote:

“Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.”

Two days later President Trump said there were “very fine people, on both sides,” David Duke tweeted a thank-you to the President.

Daryl Johnson, former domestic terrorism expert at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, wrote a Washington Post column in which he noted the alignment of the white supremacist agenda and Trump’s policies and priorities:

“Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, militia extremists, and other radical right-wing zealots march side-by-side at pro-Trump rallies across the country. Trump’s endorsement of the border wall, the travel ban, mass deportations of illegal immigrants — these ideas were touted on white supremacist message boards merely 10 years ago. Now they’re being put forth as official U.S. policy. Such controversial plans have placated white supremacists and anti-government extremists and will draw still more sympathetic individuals toward these extremist causes along with the sort of violent acts that too often follow, like Charlottesville.”

Fifteen days before the 2018 midterm elections, President Trump declared himself to be a nationalist. He addressed a rally crowd and said,

“You know, they have a word, it sort of became old fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am, I’m a nationalist, OK. I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word!”

The following year, when Trump called for four congresswomen of color to “go back to where you came from,” The Daily Stormer wrote,

“This is the kind of WHITE NATIONALISM we elected him for.”

The Final Days

Capitol police in the House chamber protecting members of Congress.

In Trump’s final days in office the twice-impeached president has said he will not attend the inauguration, which Twitter interpreted as,

“[E]ncouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending.”

And now Trump has an army: groups of white supremacists – Proud Boys, Boogaloo movement, QAnon, and others – who are mobilizing to replicate what happened on January 6. The FBI is warning about possible violent armed attacks on the January 20 inauguration and on symbolic targets in all 50 states.

The Lincoln Memorial is locked down, as is the National Mall up to the Capitol, protected by fences, razor wire, and more than 25,000 national guard troops in full combat gear including automatic weapons.

The Dream, Deferred

Dr. King’s dream was that we would judge people by the content of their character.

At the end of the Trump presidency, we see that he fails the character test. The tone is set from the top. Trump has spent a decade trying to dismantle Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy. In his celebration of white supremacists and glorification of violence, he is the very antithesis of Dr. King.

GUEST COLUMN: American Exceptionalism: 2020 Didn’t Have to Be This Way

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.

GUEST COLUMN: How Your Restaurant Can Prepare for the Next COVID Wave and Survive the Crisis

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.

GUEST COLUMN: Advice to Joe Biden from a Crisis Manager

This guest column by Helio Fred Garcia was released on CommPro.biz on November 2, 2020.

Here’s where the United States stands on the eve of the election: We have more than 9 million confirmed COVID-19 infections. We’re at nearly 100 thousand new cases daily; more than a thousand daily fatalities. We’re well on our way to be at a quarter million fatalities in a matter of weeks; half a million by the inauguration.

I have previously called the nation’s COVID-19 response the single-worst handled crisis, and the single largest leadership failure, in the nation’s history. Over the weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci told The Washington Post that the nation needs to make an “abrupt change” and that we’re “in for a whole lot of hurt.”

If Donald Trump is re-elected, we can expect the situation to continue to get exponentially worse. He continues to deny the severity of the virus.

The White House science office announced this week that among Trump’s accomplishments are “ending the pandemic.” Stanford University researchers reported this week that Trump’s “superspreader” rallies in the summer through September 22 resulted in at least 30,000 infections and 700 fatalities. And that is before his own diagnosis, and his ramping up the frequency of the rallies through election day.

If Joe Biden is elected, there will still be 70 days before he takes office, and things can get much worse in that time.

We don’t have the luxury of waiting. A President-Elect Biden will need to use all the moral and political authority he can wield to get politicians and citizens to fundamentally change the way the nation is responding to the pandemic. And to recognize that all the other crises, from economic to mental health, derive from the failure to respond effectively to COVID-19.

Foundational Principle of Crisis Response: Take Risk Seriously

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.

Trump never took the risks seriously, at least in public. As early as February and for months after, he told Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward what he knew about the virus:

  • It is spread in the air.
  • You catch it by breathing it.
  • Young people can get it.
  • It is far deadlier than the flu.
  • It’s easily transmissible.
  • If you’re the wrong person and it gets you, your life is pretty much over. It rips you apart.
  • It moves rapidly and viciously.
  • It is a plague.

But he was telling the nation the opposite.

The Washington Post has documented the scope and frequency of Trump’s lies while president: In his first 827 days in office, he told 10,000 lies or false statements, he told 10,000 more in the next 444 days. By July 2020, he was averaging 23 lies or false statements per day. By mid-October, it was more than 50 every day.

Last month Cornell University’s Alliance for Science published the first comprehensive study of COVID-19 misinformation in the media, and concluded that President Trump is likely the largest driver of the such misinformation.

And that misinformation had consequences. An analysis in mid-October by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness concluded 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. (Note that South Korea and the United States had their first cases on the same day. Our death rate is 78 times theirs.)

Columbia University, National Center for Disaster Preparedness

Advice from a Crisis Manager

I don’t have Joe Biden’s ear. But if I did here’s what I’d tell him and his team:

1. Create a true whole of government response.

We have never had a whole of government response, unlike most of our peer countries. Even at the federal level, we’ve had a fragments of government response. Different parts of the federal government had conflicting policies; political appointees micromanaged what had previously been independent agencies; there was inconsistency over time. And the states have been left to figure it out on their own.

Where Biden and his team don’t have authority (before inauguration, with states, cities, and counties), use persuasion and call for clear, consistent, and consistently-implemented policies and practices to stop the spread, treat the people, and treat the consequences of the poor response.

2.  Immediately call for full implementation of the Defense Production Act.

Call for surging the manufacturing of ventilators, medical supply, testing equipment, personal protective equipment, and sanitization technologies.

Although President Trump has invoked the act in limited ways – to require meat processing employees to work in violation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and for limited amounts of masks and testing equipment, he has not surged supply.

In July, the soon-to-retire head of the Defense Production Act program at the Federal Emergency Management Agency lamented that there was no national strategy: “Why isn’t this administration using the act to prevent shortages?”

A former legal advisor to the National Security Council concluded that, “What the federal government — the president or secretaries possessing delegated authority — have not done yet is use the D.P.A. to create a permanent, sustainable, redundant, domestic supply chain for all things pandemic.”

3.  Call on all governors, mayors, and other executive branch leaders to implement a national masking, social distancing, and contact tracing policy.

Masks save lives and slow the spread of the virus. Of the 105 counties in Kansas, only 21 have mask mandates. A study last month by the University of Kansas found that counties with mask mandates saw a plateau of new cases at 20 per 100,000 people. But counties without mask mandates saw a serious spike in new cases to 40 cases per 100,000 people.

Similarly, a Vanderbilt University study last week concluded that hospitals with fewer than 25 percent of patients from counties with mask mandates had a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations; hospitals with more than 75 percent of patients from counties with mask mandates saw essentially no change in COVID-19 hospitalizations from July to late October. 

Vanderbilt University

Finally, a University of Washington Study published in Nature Medicine says that up to half a million Americans could die of the virus in the next four months, but that up to 130,000 of them could be saved if 95 percent of Americans wear masks consistently in public.

4. Call on Congress to provide financial relief to states, businesses, families, and healthcare institutions.

The economic crisis is a direct result of mishandling the public health crisis. Now it isn’t just families and small businesses at risk, but also states, which are required to balance their budgets. States may need to cut essential services at precisely the moment when they will be most needed to keep people safe. And health care institutions are stretched thin and need assistance.

The next round of stimulus relief has been stalled because of election-year dynamics. But a clear Biden win and changes in the House and Senate could provide an opportunity to accelerate support.

5. Offer free testing

Knowledge is power. The availability of testing is still spotty and its reliability not clear. Biden should call for an army of testers, contact tracers, and managers to coordinate universal access to testing, an infrastructure to process tests quickly and reliably, and a further infrastructure to provide timely notice, notification, and referral to medical care when needed.

6. Respect science.

Restore true independence to CDC, FDA, HHS, and other public health operations of the US government. Take the advice of the science/public health experts to guide policy choices.

Public health should not be political. But the COVID-19 response has been highly-politicized. In a post-election environment, there is an opportunity to reset expectations and to get and follow the best advice of the scientists and public health experts.

It is the nature of science that it is self-correcting. When scientists are grappling with new challenges, they adapt understanding to what the evidence and data show. That should not lessen support for science, but actually increase it. Science isn’t dogma.

One of the first challenges post-election is whether, when, and how to go to a national shelter-in-place order similar to what some states did in the Spring. Britain just established a month-long lockdown. The decision on whether, when, how, and for how long to do something here should be based on the science   and on the actual risks we face, not on political calculation.

7. Assure Americans’ access to healthcare.

One week after the election the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case in which the U.S. government and state attorneys general will ask the court to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Despite Trump’s promises for months that a plan for better healthcare will be revealed “in two weeks,” there is no evidence of such a plan. Biden and his team must act quickly to create an alternative if the Court should nullify the healthcare that so many Americans rely upon.

In the meantime, the federal government should subsidize COVID-19 prevention, treatment, and recovery for the uninsured or underinsured.

These are not political recommendations: they’re crisis management recommendations based on the severity of the risks. The tragedy is that taking the risks seriously when Trump first knew about them could have prevented all of this suffering.

Leadership courage matters.

GUEST COLUMN: Trump Leading Source of COVID-19 Misinformation, Says Cornell Alliance for Science

A version of this post appeared in CommPro.biz.

Last week Cornell University’s Alliance for Science published the first comprehensive study of coronavirus misinformation in the media, and concluded that President Trump is likely the largest driver of the such misinformation.

Lost in the News Cycle

In any other administration this would have led the news for at least a week.

But the report came five days after President Donald J. Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. It came four days after publication of a massive New York Times investigation that revealed that President Trump paid no federal income taxes for years. It came just two days after the debate debacle in which the President refused to condemn white supremacy and seemed to endorse the Proud Boys. And it came just hours before the news that the President and First Lady had tested positive for COVID-19.

I wish the President and the First Lady a speedy and complete recovery.

But it is important that this news not be lost, and that the President be held accountable for the consequences of his words, actions, and inaction.

Language, Inaction, and Consequences

I am a professor of ethics, leadership, and communication at Columbia University and New York University. This summer my book about Trump’s language and how it inspires violence was published. I finished writing Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It in February. But since then the effect of Trump’s language has been even more dangerous.

In the book, I document how charismatic leaders use language in ways that set a powerful context that determines what makes sense to their followers. Such leaders can make their followers believe absurdities, which then can make atrocities possible. If COVID-19 is a hoax, if it will magically disappear, if it affects only the elderly with heart problems, then it makes sense for people to gather in large crowds without social distancing or masks.

There’s just one problem. None of that is true. But Trump said all those things. And his followers believed him. And the President and his political allies refused to implement policies to protect their citizens.

What The President Knew, and When The President Knew It

As I write this, 210,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 and the President is being treated for it at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.

But it didn’t have to happen. 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 in March, and had maintained a constant masking and social distancing policy, 150,000 of fatalities could have been avoided.

Trump knew about the severity of the virus in February and March.

In taped discussions Trump told Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward what he knew about how dangerous COVID-19 is:

  • It is spread in the air
  • You catch it by breathing it
  • Young people can get it
  • It is far deadlier than the flu
  • It’s easily transmissible
  • If you’re the wrong person and it gets you, your life is pretty much over. It rips you apart
  • It moves rapidly and viciously.
  • It is a plague

But he was telling the nation the opposite.

“Infodemic” of COVID-19

The Report Cover

President Trump likes to label anything he doesn’t agree with Fake News. But it turns out that he’s the largest disseminator of misinformation about Coronavirus.

Cornell University’s Alliance for Science analyzed 38 million pieces of content published in English worldwide between January 1 and May 26, 2020. It identified 1.1 million news articles that “disseminated, amplified or reported on misinformation related to the pandemic.”

On October 1, 2020 the Alliance published its report. It notes,

“These findings are of significant concern because if people are misled by unscientific and unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they may attempt harmful cures or be less likely to observe official guidance and thus risk spreading the virus.”

Its conclusion:

“One major finding is that media mentions of President Trump within the context of different misinformation topics made up 37% of the overall ‘misinformation conversation,’ much more than any other single topic.

The study concludes that Donald Trump was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic.’

In contrast only 16% of media mentions of misinformation were explicitly ‘fact-checking’ in nature, suggesting that a substantial quantity of misinformation reaches media consumers without being challenged or accompanied by factually accurate information.”

But Trump may be responsible for more than the 37% of the news stories that name him. The report says that

” a substantial proportion of other topics was also driven by the president’s comments [but did not explicitly name him], so some overlap can be expected.

Graphic from Cornell Alliance for Science Report

The most prevalent misinformation was about miracle cures. More than 295,000 stories mentioned some version of a miracle cure. (Note that the study looked only at stories that were published before the end of May, long before the president’s statements about a vaccine being ready by the end of October.)

The report notes that Trump prompted a surge of miracle cure stories when he spoke of using disinfectants internally and advocated taking hydroxychloroquine.

The second most prevalent topic, mentioned in nearly 50,000 stories, was that COVID had something to do with the “deep state.” The report notes,

“Mentions of conspiracies linked to alleged secret “new world orders” or ‘deep state’ government bodies existed throughout the time period and were referenced in passing in conversations that mentioned or listed widespread conspiracies. Indeed, President Trump joked about the US State Department being a ‘Deep State’ Department during a White House COVID press conference in March.”

The third most prevalent misinformation was about COVID-19 being a Democratic hoax, mentioned in more than 40,000 stories.

 

Human Consequences of Misinformation

The report closes with a warning: Misinformation has consequences:

“It is especially notable that while misinformation and conspiracy theories promulgated by ostensibly grassroots sources… do appear in our analysis in several of the topics, they contributed far less to the overall volume of misinformation than more powerful actors, in particular the US President.

In previous pandemics, such as the HIV/AIDS outbreak, misinformation and its effect on policy was estimated to have led to an additional 300,000 deaths in South Africa alone.

If similar or worse outcomes are to be avoided in the present COVID-19 pandemic, greater efforts will need to be made to combat the “infodemic” that is already substantially polluting the wider media discourse.”

In my book, I help engaged citizens, civic leaders, and public officials recognize dangerous language and then confront those who use it. I urge such citizens and leaders to hold those who use such language responsible for the consequences.

I wish President Trump a full and fast recovery. He and those closest to him have now been affected by their own denial of science. I hope that now he can start to model appropriate safe behavior.

But even as Trump is being treated in the hospital his campaign says it will stay the course, including an in-person rally for Vice President Mike Pence the day after the vice-presidential debate in several days. This is both irresponsible and dangerous.

I urge civic leaders, engaged citizens, and public officials, regardless of party, to stop having super-spreader events such as in-person rallies. And finally to begin modeling responsible behavior: Wear a mask, maintain social distancing. Masking and distancing are not political acts; they are a civic responsibility.

GUEST COLUMN: Perhaps the Largest Failure of Leadership in U.S. History

A version of this post appeared on CommPro.biz.

Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their most difficult challenges. Effective leaders rise to the occasion and ignite and inspire their people to a common purpose. Ineffective or malign leaders fail to rise to the challenges before them, and almost always make matters even worse. In two of my books – The Agony of Decision and Reputation Management – I describe the ten most common mis-steps in crisis response.

Crisis Mis-Steps #1 & #2

The most common mis-step is to ignore or deny a problem. In the aftermath of the U.S. government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, the late General Electric CEO Jack Welch reflected on a common pattern of ineffective crisis management. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, he described predictable stages of crises that are handled poorly:

“The first stage of that pattern is denial…”

Welch says that one of the hallmarks of good leadership is to acknowledge the reality of what is happening without denial. He says leaders need to,

“dispense with denial quickly and look into the hard stuff with eyes open.”

And he describes the temperament that is best suited to handle crises:

“a forthright, calm, fierce boldness.”*

*(“The five stages of crisis-management” by Jack Welch, The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2005, p. A20. No longer available online free of charge.) The second most common mis-step is to diminish the significance of the problem. In The Agony of Decision I identify the U.S. Roman Catholic Church’s ignoring, diminishing, and hiding the systemic abuse of children by priests for decades as a signal example of these two mis-steps, and as one of the worst handled crises of all time. But now there’s another, and it may be even worse. As this post is published, the United States has just crossed the threshold of two hundred thousand confirmed COVID-19 deaths, with about one thousand two hundred Americans dying from the virus every day.

 

Trump Admits in March That He Is Downplaying COVID-19

In the last ten days, we learned that Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward has recordings of 19 conversations with President Donald Trump, 18 of which served as the basis for his some of the content in his just-published book, Rage. According to Woodward, on January 28, 2020, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien told Trump that COVID-19 would be,

“the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”

In a call Trump made to Woodward on February 7, Trump described what he knew about COVID-19:

“It goes through air, Bob, so it’s tougher than the touch. But the air, you just breathe the air. That’s how it’s passed.”

He then explained that COVID-19 is more deadly than flu:

“It’s also more deadly than even your most strenuous flus. You know, people don’t realize this, we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year [to the flu] here. Who would ever think that, right? This is more deadly. This is five percent [death rate] versus one percent or less than one percent [for the flu], you know, so this is deadly stuff.”

A Washington Post analysis by reporters Robert Costa and Phil Rucker notes,

“At that time, Trump was telling the nation that the virus was no worse than a seasonal flu, predicting it would soon disappear and insisting that the U.S. government had it totally under control.”

On March 19, when there were 265 confirmed COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S., Trump told Woodward that he was aware that young people and children could catch the disease:

“It’s not just old people, Bob. Today and yesterday some startling facts came out. It’s not just old people. Young people too, plenty of young people.”

But he also told Woodward that he was playing down the risks:

“To be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

It is not clear what he meant by creating a panic, since many observers have pointed out that Trump doesn’t mind scaring people about other topics. My own sense is that he was worried about panicking Wall Street and causing the stock market to crash. Indeed, the S&P had fallen 34 percent in the month before this interview, and the Dow Jones Industrial Index was about to complete its worst first quarter since 1987. Woodward notes that the tone was set at the top, but that others in the White House also denied the severity of the pandemic. He told The Post’s Philip Rucker:

“I think there was denial across the board… [Trump is] a one-man band [who is] going to do what he wants to do on impulse or on information he has… He’s a bulldozer to the staff and, quite frankly, to the country… And he just says what he wants, and so there’s no control. And this is one of the problems of the Trump presidency, that he doesn’t build a team. He doesn’t plan.”

On April 5, 2020, Trump told Woodward,

“It’s a horrible thing. It’s unbelievable. Can you believe it? It moves rapidly and viciously. If you’re the wrong person and if it gets you, your life is pretty much over. If you’re in the wrong group; it’s our age group.”

On April 13, 2020, Trump told Woodward,

“It’s so easily transmissible. You wouldn’t even believe it… This thing is a killer if it gets you. If you’re the wrong person, you don’t have a chance. So this rips you apart. It is a plague.”

Crisis Mis-Step #5: Lie

The fifth common crisis mis-step is to lie. The Washington Post has documented the scope and frequency of Trump lying while president: In his first 827 days in office he told 10,000 lies or false statements, he told 10,000 more in the next 444 days. By July 2020, he was averaging 23 lies or false statements per day. And Woodward’s book now reveals just how dangerous Trump’s lies were. In his interviews with Woodward, Trump acknowledged knowing the following about COVID-19:

  • It is spread in the air.
  • You catch it by breathing it.
  • Young people can get it.
  • It is far deadlier than the flu.
  • It’s easily transmissible.
  • If you’re the wrong person and it gets you, your life is pretty much over. It rips you apart.
  • It moves rapidly and viciously.
  • It is a plague.

But he was telling the nation the opposite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgZAazfHo7k

The Consequences of Downplaying the Severity of the Pandemic

As the president was downplaying the pandemic, there was no whole of government response, no national testing policy, no national masking policy, and no agreement on the severity of the disease. And tens of thousands died. On September 10, Dr. Irwin Redlener, founding director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness and its Pandemic Resource & Response Initiative, told The Daily Beast that Trump,

“has blood on his hands.”

Dr. Redlener elaborated,

“If we had the leadership we needed, I’m pretty certain we would have been under 100,000 fatalities—and probably under 50,000 if we had been aggressive from the beginning.”

The Daily Beast explained,

“Redlener didn’t just pull that number out of thin air. In a May study, Redlener’s Columbia University colleague Jeffrey Shaman and co-authors simulated aggressive, coordinated, ‘counterfactual’ U.S. responses to the pandemic. They asked what might have happened if Trump had followed expert advice and locked the country down no later than early March. In that case, 35,000 American lives would have been saved through early May, Shaman and his team found.

Dr. Redlener extended that calculation through September, and concluded that as many of 150,000 of the fatalities to date could have been avoided, but were caused by Trump’s incompetence.

“The pandemic didn’t have to be so bad. Other countries with better leaders avoided the worst outcomes. America has suffered among the worst possible outcomes because, in Trump, America has a weak, dishonest leader, Redlener said.”

Dr. Redlener noted,

“This is criminal negligence. If [Trump] didn’t have this thing called sovereign immunity, I would see this as basis for being charged with criminal negligence.’”

The President Continues to Model Irresponsible Behavior

  Two days after Bob Woodward’s release of the audio of President Trump acknowledging that COVID-19 is airborne, transmitted through breathing, and is deadly, President Trump held a campaign rally in Michigan. There were thousands of people at the rally, with no social distancing and very few masks. CNN asked some of the attendees why they were not wearing masks. One said,

“Because there’s no COVID. It’s a fake pandemic, created to destroy the United States of America.”

Told that President Trump had admitted to Bob Woodward that there is a virus and it is deadly, the Trump supporter said,

“That’s his opinion. The truth is that the CDC says that only less than 10,000 people have died from COVID.”

Another said,

“I’m not afraid. The good Lord takes care of me. If I die, I die. We gotta get this country moving. What are we going to do? Wear masks and stay inside for another year? Where will that get us?”

Several days later, Trump held an indoor rally in Nevada, also without social distancing and with few masks. This was a violation of Nevada law, but Trump went ahead with the rally. The Washington Post warned that the rally could become a superspreader of the virus. It said that Trump’s,

“… appearance Sunday was not a misunderstanding but a deliberate defiance of rules intended to keep people safe, rules that were advanced by Mr. Trump’s own White House…. Mr. Trump’s rhetoric was also disconnected from the reality of a nation still staggering under the pandemic wave, with at least 191,000 people killed and 6.5 million infected. ‘We will very easily defeat the… virus,’ Mr. Trump sunnily declared. ‘That’s what’s happening. And we’re already making that turn. We’re making that round beautiful last turn, but it should have never happened.’ Mr. Trump plays a huckster’s game, thinking he can fool enough of the people all of the time. The clock is running out on this gambit. The nation is long past his misplaced bravado and happy talk. Behind it lies reckless abandon with people’s health and well-being.”

Failure to Pass the Leadership Test of a Lifetime

In their March 19 interview, Woodward named COVID-19 the leadership test of a lifetime, but Trump disagreed. And Trump continues to speak and act in ways that are contrary to what he told Woodward about the disease. And people continue to die. In an August 14 interview, when the death count was more than 168,000, Trump told Woodward, about his leadership of the COVID-19 response,

“But nothing more could have been done. Nothing more could have been done.”

  With two hundred thousand American fatalities so far, three quarters of which could have been prevented through decisive and consistent leadership, Trump’s handling of COVID-19 may be more than the failure of a leadership test of a lifetime. It may well be the worst handled crisis, and the most significant failure of leadership, in United States history.

GUEST COLUMN: The Last Full Measure…

Versions of this post originally appeared on Daily Kos and CommPro.biz on May 25, 2020.

To me Memorial Day is personal.

And today I’m angry.

But I get ahead of myself.

West Point

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where for 25 years my father was a civilian professor, and where he and my mom are buried.

My Dad was very close to his students. They often came by the house to get a bit of a refuge from the stresses of cadet life: take off the uniform, smoke a cigarette, have a beer. Talk literature and music and language. And my brothers and I often played with them: throwing around a football or playing catch with a baseball. They were young men, 18, 19, 20, 21 years old. They seemed so grown up to me.

At the time, 1967, I was ten and had only a vague idea of what the cadets were. I knew they were students and were about to become soldiers. I was taken by the spectacle of the parades, with cadets in grey uniforms and high-plumed hats carrying rifles or swords and marching in tight formation.

Cadets on the Parade Ground, USMA, West Point

Cadets at the time were not permitted to leave the post, nor to have visitors from off post. But when they graduated in June there was an influx of civilians, of friends and family to watch the graduation parade, to attend the graduation ceremony at the football stadium, and then to watch their cadet get married.

During June Week, as it is called, it seemed as if there was a different wedding every hour at the Most Holy Trinity Church, colloquially known as the Catholic Chapel. My two younger brothers and I were altar boys.

As it happens, we were the only family with three altar boys. And because serving a weekday wedding required getting pulled out of school, the church found it easier to use my brothers and me for all three-altar-boy events. The church got standing permission from our parents. Then, like clockwork, a military sedan driven by a soldier would pull up to the school, the principal would pull each of us out of class, and we’d be driven the three miles to the church. We’d serve as many weddings as were scheduled, and then either be driven back or walk home.

In June Week in 1967 my parents attended many of those weddings. Some of their favorite students were getting married. And we kids had gotten to know the grooms quite well. They also typically brought their brides and both sets of parents to the house to meet my folks the day before the wedding.

The typical career path for a newly-graduated cadet was this: Quick honeymoon, then report to Fort Benning, Georgia, for infantry training with their new platoons. Then deployment to Vietnam as second lieutenants commanding platoons of about 30 men.

Tet

Battle of Hue, 1968

In late January 1968, eighty thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops launched a coordinated attack on more than one hundred cities and towns in South Vietnam. It started on the lunar new year, known as Tet, and this attack was dubbed the Tet Offensive. Although it turned out to be a tactical failure by the North, it cost Americans dearly. In the first week alone the U.S. lost 2,547 killed in action, making it the deadliest week of the war. That year more than 16,500 American were killed in action, making 1968 the deadliest year of the war.

Many of those killed were new second lieutenants from West Point.

Starting in mid-February and continuing throughout the year, the green military sedan would pull into the school parking lot, and my brothers and I would depart to serve at a funeral, which also requires three altar boys. As often as not, we recognized the families. We had served their weddings the prior June.

The funeral took two parts: a funeral mass, and then a formal burial at the West Point Cemetery, about a mile from the Church. There was a funeral procession, including muffled drums, bugles, and a part of the West Point Band, on the route between the church and the cemetery.

As the senior altar boy I led the procession, carrying a large crucifix as if it was a flag. Behind me my brothers walked side by side; one carrying a censer filled with smoking incense, the other a silver pitcher of holy water. The priest would later use these at the graveside, waving the censer to diffuse the smoke from the incense and sprinkling holy water on the coffin. Then the honor guard, flag bearers, the hearse with lights on, and then the long line of cars, also with their lights on.

Along the route of the procession we marched in solemn slow steps, accompanied by the rolling beat of the muffled drums, echoing out continuous four-beat rolls: rrr-rrr-rrts (pause), rrr-rrr-rrts (pause)… a full mile to the cemetery.

At the cemetery, after the priest had performed his rites, the military took over. Each funeral was the same. First, a column of seven soldiers fired a three-volley 21-gun salute. Then a bugler some 100 feet away played Taps. Then the honor guard, standing around the coffin, ceremonially lifted the American flag, folded it in half lengthwise, and then diagonally twelve times, making a tight triangle with the blue field and white stars facing up.

L to R, My brother Chuck, not yet an altar boy, Tom, and me.

A member of the honor guard, in dress blue uniform, then walked to the widow or parent, knelt, bowed his head, and holding the flag between open white-gloved hands softly said, “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service. God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America.”

For me the Vietnam War was personal. I experienced the war not only on TV, not only, in the post-Tet coverage, when President Johnson announced that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination of his party to run for president again. I experienced the war through the tears of widows holding newborn babies, and the widows and Gold-Star parents of my Dad’s students, clutching blue triangles with white stars, holding back tears at the cemetery.

Today

Vietnam news coverage featured what was known as the Five-O’clock Follies; the nightly news briefing in Saigon where military leaders spewed nonsense about how we were winning the war. One Associated Press reporter at the time called it “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd.”

Today we have the same, where the President spews absurdities about how he’s winning the war on COVID-19. He rambles about injecting disinfectants and promotes a dangerous and unapproved drug. He calls for houses of worship to open even as his public health experts argue that it’s still dangerous for large groups to gather.

This weekend we are approaching the same number of American fatalities as we experienced in the Vietnam and Korean wars combined. But we have suffered these losses in two months rather than in 25 years. The New York Times Sunday devoted its entire front page to the names and information of one thousand of them. That’s merely one percent of the fatalities so far. It just happens to fall on Memorial Day Weekend.

More relevant, we have a president who dishonors those who wear the uniform.

He viciously attacks Gold-Star families.

Trump called for a “total and complete ban” of Muslims entering the United States. Five thousand Muslims serve in uniform; we are fighting next to Muslim allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.

He calls immigrants “animals” and an invasion. Today 65,000 immigrants serve in the U.S. military, putting themselves on the line for their adoptive country. That’s about five percent of all who wear the uniform. More than 20,000 of them are not U.S. citizens.

Some never will be. Military Times reported in 2018 on a U.S. Government Accountability Office report:

“Over the past couple of years, stories of non-citizen veterans being deported have made major headlines. As it turns out, there is a process in place that provides extra consideration for those immigration cases, but federal officials haven’t been following it.”  A review of the GAO report and others suggest members of the military, before and after discharge, face increasing risk of deportation, naturalization denials and slowdowns, and/or expulsion from the military due to their immigration status under the Trump administration.

Duty, Honor, Country

U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Cody W. Torkelson

So on this memorial day, my thoughts are with the families of those whose weddings and funerals my brothers and I participated in. And with all Gold-Star families.

And with one family in particular: Khizr and Ghazala Khan, immigrants from Pakistan, whose son gave the last full measure of his devotion. Captain Humayun Khan, who was Muslim and an immigrant, served in the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004. He saw a suspicious car approaching a guard post. He put himself between his troops and two suicide bombers. He and the bombers were killed in the explosion. His troops were saved. He was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. True American hero.

GUEST COLUMN: Trump’s Liberate Tweet Puts Lives At Risk

This post was originally published in the Daily Kos, a progressive political opinion site. This guest column was adapted from material in my forthcoming book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront it.

Almost exactly a month ago, I raised the alarm about the increase in incivility against Asians and Asian Americans, provoked in part by President Trump’s use of “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” to describe COVID-19. The FBI has since warned that a wave of hate crimes against people perceived to be Asian or Asian-American is under way.

Now, this incivility has turned towards our healthcare workers and government officials.

It began nearly two weeks ago, as people began protesting outside of government buildings demanding that states reopen. Resentment has been building about stay-at-home orders since early March, encouraged by conservative media and some government officials – including President Trump.

On April 16, Trump announced new guidelines from his administration on how states should lift stay-in-place orders to restart the economy, titled “Opening Up America Again.”

“Based on the latest data, our team of experts now agrees that we can begin the next front in our war, which we’re calling, “Opening Up America Again.” And that’s what we’re doing: We’re opening up our country.  And we have to do that.  America wants to be open, and Americans want to be open. As I have said for some time now, a national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution.  To preserve the health of our citizens, we must also preserve the health and functioning of our economy.”

The guidelines outline a phased process that governors would lead based on their specific circumstances. This came days after Trump claimed he had “ultimate authority” to reopen states, as governors across the east and west coasts vowed to not reopen their states until the pandemic subsides.

 

Incendiary Tweets

The next day, Trump flipped his script. Several small protests had popped up across the country against the stay-at-home orders. That morning, Fox News aired a segment about a group called “Liberate Minnesota,” which planned to protest the state’s stay-at-home order outside of the governor’s house.

Minutes later, Trump tweeted,

“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” followed by “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINA, and save your great 2nd amendment. It is under siege!”

This apparent endorsement of the protests, in direct violation of public health guidelines issued by Trump’s own administration, was seen by some as a signal. Far-right extremists believed Trump’s tweets were a call for armed conflict, an event referred to as “the boogaloo.” The term “Boogaloo,” shorthand for “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo,” had been documented in February of this year as a new and growing movement of far-right extremists calling for a new Civil War. Hours after the president’s “Liberate” tweets, more than 1,000 tweets were posted using the term “Boogaloo.”

And, in fact, the 2nd Amendment was not under attack by any governmental or political leader. But protesters took the cue and began showing up in public heavily armed, including with semi-automatic assault weapons.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee immediately recognized the threat posed by Trump’s tweets:

“The president’s statements this morning encourage illegal and dangerous acts. He is putting millions of people in danger of contracting COVID-19. His unhinged rantings and calls for people to “liberate” states could also lead to violence. We’ve seen it before.”

Inslee continued:

“The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies even while his own administration says the virus is real and is deadly, and that we have a long way to go before restrictions can be lifted.”

Over the next several days, anti-lockdown protests spread across the country, with large crowds gathering outside of government buildings and governors’ homes, many without wearing masks and bearing homemade signs such as “COVID-19 is a lie” and “Social distancing = communism.” Many protestors wore MAGA hats. Some protestors carried weapons, flew Nazi and confederate flags, and shouted phrases typically heard during Trump rallies.

 

Attacking Healthcare Heroes

And then the vitriol turned to healthcare workers. As the anti-lockdown protests continued, healthcare workers began counter-protesting on their days off across the country, appearing in scrubs and masks in defiance of those claiming the virus isn’t real. Anti-lockdown protestors began harassing these healthcare workers, shouting insults like “shame”, “traitors”, and “fake nurses.”

Lauren Leander, an ICU nurse in Arizona, described her interactions with protestors as she and her colleagues stood silently in scrubs and masks at an anti-quarantine protest in Phoenix:

“It was heated, people were very fired up about what they had to say… A lot of the top comments we got were about us being fake nurses, there was a huge majority of them that still believe this virus is fake, that it’s a hoax and not real at all. They were convinced that we’re fake nurses and that’s why we weren’t talking.”

Even politicians have propagated this language, questioning the legitimacy of the health workers. Who were counter-protesting. Former Arizona state senator, Dr. Kelli Ward, tweeted on April 21,

“EVEN IF these “spontaneously” appearing ppl at protests against govt overreach (sporting the same outfits, postures, & facial expressions) ARE involved in healthcare – when they appeared at rallies, they were actors playing parts. #Propaganda #FakeOutrage”.

Meanwhile, Trump continued passively supporting the protests.

 

Deflecting Responsibility

In Words on Fire I document a pattern Trump uses when asked to denounce people who commit or threaten violence in the wake of  Trump’s rhetoric. Trump’s response typically includes some or all the four elements below.

Deflect. He does this in several ways. He ignores the call to denounce. He changes the subject. He professes ignorance about the event. He characterizes the event differently. Sometimes he expresses sympathy for victims while not addressing the event that caused them to be become victims.

Diminish. If pressed he diminishes the significance of the event or attempts to create equivalence between the event and more benign topics.

Denounce. After an interval, sometimes of hours, but often of days, Trump issues a written denunciation or reads a statement denouncing the event or person, often in a tone of rote recitation.

Revert. Not long after the denunciation, Trump reverts to his earlier language and behavior, as if his denunciation never happened. This is a constant; it happens after every denunciation.

On April 20, President Trump was asked specifically about whether he was worried that his words may incite violence. It led to this exchange:

Q    You know, these — you referred to these protests earlier.  You know, some of them are getting pretty intense and were actually getting some death threats to some governors who are reluctant to reopen.

He went to Step 1, Deflect:

THE PRESIDENT:  You are, in the media?

Q    No, the governors are getting death threats.  You know, governors of Kentucky, Michigan, Virginia.  They’re getting increased level of death threats.  And are you concerned that your talk about liberation and the Second Amendment and all this stuff —

THE PRESIDENT:  No.  No, no.

Q    — are you inciting violence among a few people who are (inaudible)?

THE PRESIDENT:  I’ve seen the people.  I’ve seen interviews of the people.  These are great people.  Look, they want to get — they call it “cabin fever.”  You’ve heard the term.  They’ve got cabin fever.  They want to get back.  They want their life back.  Their life was taken away from them…

Q    Are worried about violence though?  I mean, some of them (inaudible) threats at them.

He then went to Step 2: Diminish:

THE PRESIDENT:  I am not.  No, I’m not.  I think these people are — I’ve never seen so many American flags.  I mean, I’m seeing the same thing that you’re seeing.  I don’t see it any differently.

Q    There are Nazi flags out there too.

THE PRESIDENT:  They are who?

Q    Nazis flags.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, that I totally would say, “No way.”  But I’ve seen — I didn’t see that.  I see all — of course, I’m sure the news plays that up.  I’ve seen American flags all over the place.  I have never seen so many American flags at a rally as I have at these rallies.  These people love our country.  They want to get back to work.

He has yet to denounce the protestors, despite the fact that the majority of Americans are more concerned about states reopening too quickly than restarting the economy. Why is that?

 

Toxic Spokesman

Trump has played to this base before, since the very beginning of his first presidential campaign. He has frequently used language recognized by white supremacists and white nationalists.

And although Trump may not directly share their views, we know he is not averse to working with people who share the ideology of the protestors.

And he surrounds himself with people who are similarly-disposed.

On April 23, reports came out the Trump’s newly appointed Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, Michael Caputo, had deleted more than a thousand tweets, including tweets from March that included racists and derogatory comments about Chinese people, the very rhetoric that caused the wave of hate crimes the FBI warned about.

Caputo’s tweets also claimed that Democrats were rooting for the virus to kill thousands of people, and conspiracy theories about how the virus was a hoax to hurt Trump.

This man will now be the chief spokesman for America’s healthcare infrastructure.

 

***

We’ve seen the effects of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric before. We know the predictable consequences of that rhetoric. If Trump continues to use language that encourages people to violence, eventually someone will answer his call.

GUEST COLUMN: Coming to America: A Personal Reflection

A version of this post appeared on CommPro.biz on July 24, 2019.

by Helio Fred Garcia

I am an immigrant, an American by choice.

I choose to be an American because of all the places in the world – and I’ve been fortunate to have visited or worked in dozens of countries on six continents – this is one of the few places where your birth circumstances do not determine the rest of your life. And where the national aspiration, still a work in progress, encourages us to be our better selves.

I have been able to build a good life here. I married a wonderful person, and together we’ve raised two remarkable young women. I graduated from two of the finest universities in the land and am a professor at both. I’ve worked with or for some of the best companies in the world.

I pass as an American, and I carry with me all of the manifestations of white privilege.

But it wasn’t always so.

Welcome to America – Now Go Home, Or Else!

When I arrived from South America as a young child, I was a different from the other kids. I was an easy mark. Scrawny. With an unpronounceable name, a heavy foreign accent, and a very weak command of the English language.

I was the Other. And I was a target. I was tormented for years by a pack of boys who saw in me an opportunity to feel superior. I was constantly told to go back to where I came from. But what began with taunting and insult and name-calling metastasized into physical violence and sexual humiliation. I was beaten. I was held down by the boys, who took turns peeing on me and then ran off, laughing.

More than 50 years later I carry scars around my eyes where I was kicked with a heavy boot. Now that I no longer have hair, many other scars are noticeable, especially on the top and back of my head, where I was hit with sticks, with rocks, and in at least one instance, with a brick. I also have scars on my soul.

But I was also very lucky. I had a number of caring and gifted teachers who made me their project, investing time and love not only in school but also beyond the classroom. Because of them I came of age on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, as a Page, watching the House consider articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. Since then I’ve met presidents and prime ministers, one king, several princes, one pope, and hundreds of religious leaders of most of the world’s faith traditions. I’ve advised hundreds of CEOs and public officials. I’ve visited the White House on business three times, under three presidents.

But in my seventh decade I still have a visceral fear of being alone with men with whom I don’t have a relationship of authority. I avoid sporting events; I don’t hang out with groups of men. I have only a handful of male friends. My therapist advises me that nearly 50 years after the assaults I still suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m still the cowering little boy terrified of the bullies.

Semper Fi!

My father worked for nearly 30 years for the United States Army, teaching soldiers and soldiers-in-training. He and my mother, who never became citizens, are buried in the West Point cemetery. My Dad always told me that there is no greater honor than to teach people who wear the uniform of the armed forces of the United States.

When I was 21 I became an American citizen. I took an oath affirming that I would protect and defend the constitution and serve the nation. I have done so.

Although I have never worn the uniform myself, for almost 30 years I have taught and advised senior officers of the United States military – mostly Marines. I have taught dozens of generals and thousands of senior officers and NCOs, and also senior members of each of the other armed services. Almost all of this teaching has been on a pro bono publico basis. It’s my form of national service.

Teaching at the Marine Corps School of Infantry – East at Camp Lejeune, NC, 2019

Most of my career has been a form of overcompensation for being inarticulate and powerless. I have worked for some of the top communication consulting firms. For almost 20 years I’ve owned and run a crisis management and leadership communication consulting and coaching firm. Our work helps leaders become better leaders by harnessing their own power with humility and empathy, building trust by connecting meaningfully with others. I’ve written four books about how to use the power of communication for good.

But I’ve also been acutely aware of the use of communication to hurt, to harm, and to humiliate. And of how dehumanizing and demonizing language can lead some people to commit acts of violence.

The Tone from the Top

The Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide defines “dangerous speech” as hate speech that, under the right conditions, can influence people to accept, condone and commit violence against members of a group.

And we’re seeing that kind of speech right now. On July 14 President Trump tweeted about four freshmen members of Congress, all women of color. One, Rep. Ilhan Omar, is a refugee from Somalia, who came to America when she was a child, became an American citizen, and has chosen a career in public service. The others are all American-born citizens. Trump’s tweet:

“So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.

Of course, three of the four did not come from outside the United States. But whether they did or not, “go back to where you came from” is a familiar experience of many immigrants. It is even embodied in U.S. law, as a prime example of racism. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, on its website on Immigrants’ Employment Rights, lists it as an explicit example of the kind of language that may violate federal employment laws:

“Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, ‘Go back to where you came from,’ whether made by supervisors or by co-workers.

Donald Trump’s statement about these four members of the House of Representatives is merely the most recent manifestation an unprecedented phenomenon: the use of language by a president of the United States that inspires some people to commit violence.

Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, speaking of President Trump in February 2019, said,

“People really do listen to their leaders… The civility of our dialogue is deviating downward, such that individuals… feel emboldened and, perhaps, even entitled to take matters into his own hands and carry out acts of violence.”

All four congresswomen report significant increases in death threats against them. But we also see disinhibition that subjects immigrants – and those perceived to be immigrants – to insult, exclusion, and violence.

Ten days after Trump’s Go Back comments, one of my former students, from China, was spit on by a well-dressed man who shouted, “Stupid Asian, go back to your country.” When I posted that on Facebook, another student, from Peru, shared that the day before a client — a client! — asked where she was from, and then asked, “Why don’t you go back there, then.” Many more of my friends, colleagues, and students have since reported similar experiences, with a noticeable uptick this week.

I worry about the effect of Trump’s language, which may influence some of his followers to commit violence against his rivals and critics. But I worry more about the current generation of immigrants. However bad my experience was — and it was pretty bad — back then there was no president of the United States inspiring insult, humiliation, and violence against me and other immigrants.

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Helio Fred Garcia is currently writing a book about language that inspires violence, including Donald Trump’s language. The views expressed in this post are his alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization or individual.

 

 

 

GUEST COLUMN: Trump’s Inauguration Speech by the Numbers: Logos with Bloomberg Politics

President Donald Trump’s inaugural address adjusted his tone, but not his message of a country in dire need of fixing.

Analysis by Adam Tiouririne of Logos shows that The key moment of Friday’s inauguration speech came almost precisely at its midpoint, 722 words into the 1,433-word speech. That’s when Trump transitioned from a litany of America’s past failures to a vision of its future successes, announcing, “from this moment on, it’s going to be America first.” Along the way, he mentioned “America” or “American(s)” 34 times, a record-setting pace of 24 mentions per 1,000 total words.

In addition to mentioning “America” more often than ever, the Bloomberg analysis shows how Trump also used a slew of words and phrases unprecedented in the 228-year history of inauguration speeches — like “carnage,” “robbed,” and “radical Islamic terrorism.”

For more, follow @Tiouririne on Twitter.