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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.

LOGOS IN THE NEWS: Helio Fred Garcia Quoted in Luxury Daily

On January 15, 2021, Logos president Helio Fred Garcia was quoted in an article in Luxury Daily on the crisis the Trump Organization now faces given the criticism and controversy around the president, particularly after the storming of the U.S. Capitol. The article describes how the Trump Organization’s brands have suffered as a result of the president’s political profile, with partners increasingly moving away from the brand and long-standing contracts being terminated.

“Successful recovery from a crisis depends on how quickly and effectively the expectations of the people who
matter to the organization are met,” said Garcia. “Because all of President Trump’s businesses, including his luxury business, include his name, it is difficult for business partners, customers and other audiences to distinguish the brand from the man. All of Trump’s eponymous businesses are synonymous with Trump the person. It’s virtually impossible at
this point to separate the two, which was by Trump’s design.”

“Those who still support Donald Trump would likely still support the brand should another family member step in,”
Garcia noted. “However, for people who do not support Donald Trump, they are almost certain to avoid any business with the Trump name or that is run by a family member, since the associations are so close.”

This crisis is particularly acute given the criticism of the president following the storming of the US Capitol and his second impeachment in his one-term in office. “Criminal charges brought against a business or its leader almost always present the potential for things to get worse, especially if the charges are of the magnitude and quantity that are likely to be brought against Trump,” Garcia noted. “However, criminal charges are not an immediate death sentence for a business.”

Garcia advice for those in relationship with the struggling brand: “For businesses and leaders that do not support Trump but are still in business with him, time is of the essence to dissolve that relationship. Businesses that are slow to cut ties may suffer backlash as the lack of urgency to sever the relationship could be perceived among those who matter as too little, too late.”

Read the full article here.

LOGOS IN THE NEWS: Helio Fred Garcia Interviewed on In House Warrior

On January 7, 2021, Logos president and author of Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, Helio Fred Garcia, spoke with Richard Levick on In House Warrior, the Corporate Counsel Business Journal’s daily podcast. Their conversation, which happened the day after insurrectionists attacked the U.S. Capitol, focused on the patterns of language that lead to violence. Garcia explained how the insurrectionists’ attack is just the latest in a long pattern of violence provoked by President Trump’s incendiary language. Listen to their full conversation here:

LOGOS IN THE NEWS: Helio Fred Garcia Quoted in Christian Science Monitor

On January 7, 2021, Logos President and author of “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It,” Helio Fred Garcia was quoted in an article in Christian Science Monitor on his personal response to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by insurrectionists on January 6. In the article, people from across the country react to the insurrectionists attack and reflect on what this means.

Below is an excerpt from this article:

Take the American story of Helio Fred Garcia. His family emigrated from Brazil in the 1960s. As a New York City debate champion in the 1970s he won a coveted spot as a congressional page during the Watergate summer of 1974.

He had come from a country with a military dictatorship, and when President Richard Nixon resigned, he thought there might be tanks in the streets.

“And it didn’t happen,” he says.

Six years ago, he attended a reunion of former pages at the U.S. Capitol. He felt a bit overwhelmed.

“When my wife and I were able to walk onto the House floor, tears ran down my cheeks – I’m tearing up a little right now,” says Mr. Garcia, now president of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group, and author of “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It.”

So, unsurprisingly, after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building on Wednesday his emotions ran especially deep.

“I was heartbroken when I saw my sacred chamber being desecrated and attacked . . . For us, it really is a sacred place. It is a temple of democracy,” he says.

Read the full article here.

LOGOS IN THE NEWS: Helio Fred Garcia Quoted in CNN

On the night of January 6, 2021, Helio Fred Garcia was quoted from his book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, in a CNN op-ed about the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters.

In Words on Fire, Garcia explains the pattern of how the president’s incendiary language inspires some people to commit violence against rivals, critics, and dehumanized and demonized groups. The CNN article notes how the storming of the US Capitol was part of this escalating pattern, and that the move by social media platforms to restrict or shut President Trump’s posts comes too late.

The article reads:

“In addition to lying more as he realized he could get away with it, [President Trump] also began to use more abusive language. As Helio Fred Garcia wrote in his 2020 book “Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It,””over time, the frequency and intensity of Trump’s language (on social media as well as in speeches and with the media) changed. Without anyone or anything to stop it … he became more aggressive and his language more directly incendiary when discrediting his political rivals.” And, predictably, Garcia noted, after Trump insulted members of different groups, hate crimes against them spiked. So, let’s be clear: This is not the first time he has incited violence.”

Read the full article here.

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.

Helio Fred Garcia on How Leaders Can Prepare for the US Election

Many crises are not foreseeable, but civil unrest after the election is and leaders and organization should prepare for this.

On Monday, October 19, Logos president Helio Fred Garcia presented a pre-conference briefing on how to foresee the foreseeable and be ready for it when it happens around the US election at the Professional Speechwriters Association’s World Conference.

During this session, Garcia helped attendees understand a mindset to help leaders think through what to do and say ahead of election day, how to organize their thinking (and schedule) for various Election-Day scenarios, and how to prepare for and respond to five possible scenarios for what might happen immediately after the election.

Watch the full webinar here:

LOGOS IN THE NEWS: Helio Fred Garcia Interviewed on Women Worldwide

On Friday, October 23, 2020, Helio Fred Garcia spoke with Deirdre Breakenridge of Women Worldwide about the power of communication to both ignite and inspire positive change, as well as provoke hurt, harm, and violence.
During their exchange, the pair spoke about Garcia’s journey to the field of communication, how communication can be used to either ignite the better angels in our nature or appeal to the very worst impulses within us, and key lessons from his latest book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It. Garcia also spoke about the ways that we have seen the continuation and intensification of the patterns he has outlined in his book in the past several months, including the spread of mis-information, the dehumanization of at risk groups, and more. They also spoke about how engaged citizens, civic leaders, and emerging leaders can hold people accountable who use incendiary language that predictably causes harm.

Garcia’s closing message:  “Words have power.”

Watch the full interview here:

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.

A Tale of Two Leaders: Cuomo v Trump

Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their biggest challenges.

In the COVID-19 crisis we see a contrast of leaders so stark that it can serve as a leadership laboratory for future generations to study.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shows a steady, compassionate, and urgent tone as he informs New Yorkers and the broader world about the reality of COVID-19 in his state. His briefings are direct, honest, consistent, and clear. He sprinkles his commentary with expressions of concern for health workers and hospital patients, he invokes his parents, his brother, and his daughters. And he tells the truth.

President Donald Trump, on the other hand, shows none of these qualities. He bungled the first two months of the pandemic in the U.S. He denied the severity of the virus and downplayed the risk of contagion. He alternates between the rosy – churches full at Easter – and the gloomy – social distancing for much longer. There is still not a whole-of-government response. Rather, there are fragments of a government response. He leaves it to governors to figure out supply chains, even as governors confess that they’re bidding against each other – and the federal government – to secure desperately-needed medical equipment.

President Trump heaps praise on himself and expects others to do as well. He recently bragged during a COVID-19 press briefing that he was the most popular person on Facebook.

Governor Cuomo, who, according to Politico, has a “long-standing revulsion to social media,” has nevertheless “rapidly emerged as an internet star.” (Earlier this week, #Cuomosexual was trending on Twitter.)

President Trump contradicts his own public health experts, who then have to clean up the mess in his absence. He improvises on the existence of testing equipment, medical equipment, and miracle drugs that don’t exist. He violates every principle of effective leadership in a crisis.

Winston Churchill admonished, “You must look at the facts because the facts look at you.” President Trump ignores the facts in front of him and invents new ones.

Trump insists on calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” even though the World Health Organization advises against naming diseases for a particular location because of the stigma involved. And last week the FBI warned about a wave of hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans in this country.

Since the pandemic started my team and I have been studying the best and worst practices in communicating in a COVID-19 world. The best include:

  1. Begin all communication, whether written or verbal, with a statement of values: Don’t dive directly into the facts. Create an emotional connection.
  2. Show you care. Calibrate communication with empathy.
  3. Be direct, no euphemism: It’s confusing and causes unnecessary stress.
  4. Tell the truth, the whole truth: Your stakeholders are in this for the long term.
  5. Address all relevant dimensions of the crisis: A narrow lens is inadequate.
  6. Remember that expectations are dynamic. Calibrate current expectations.
  7. Communicate through multiple levels and channels. Be consistent.
  8. Align on values: Provide detail appropriate to each level and circumstance.
  9. Convey a positive attitude: Convey urgency short of provoking panic.
  10. Express emotion, vulnerability, and humility. Effective leaders do.

Governor Cuomo scores on all elements of this scorecard. The President, sadly, misses the mark. Other leaders can learn from both.