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Lessons for Leaders from the Worst-Handled Crisis in American History

Updated: Jun 13

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

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.


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