Trump’s Optimism Trap

By Peter DeMarco | May 18, 2020

President Trump’s failure to understand and communicate the nature of hope was the fatal flaw in the early weeks of his COVID-19 crisis briefings to the nation. Park your politics and examine how the President fell into the optimism trap.

First, let’s review of President Trump’s statements in the early days of this pandemic:

January 22nd: “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” (note: I was in China conducting client work in January and also took in some the country’s new year celebrations. Many of the Chinese I came in contact with wore masks, but I detected no panic toward what even they called the “Wuhan virus.”)

January 30th: “We only have five people. Hopefully, everything’s going to be great. They have somewhat of a problem, but hopefully, it’s all going to be great. But we’re working with China, just so you know, and other countries very, very closely. So it doesn’t get out of hand.”

February 13th: “In our country, we only have, basically, 12 cases, and most of those people are recovering and some cases fully recovered. So it’s actually less.”

March 10th: “This was unexpected. … And it hit the world. And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” And a day later in a nationally televised address, “The vast majority of Americans, the risk is very, very low.”

The President was communicating optimism, not hope. Optimism is wishful thinking, mind over matter or sometimes said, “if you don’t mind, it don’t matter”… a superficial strain of the positive thinking and the positive psychology movements which hypothesize that reality is a function of your experience. So, your feelings, desires, imagination and inner psychic life are just as real as concrete experiences like eating, working or playing.

Realist leaders believe that reality—truth—is independent of our mind, not something in our mind. Thus, they seek a common understanding of reality with followers. These leaders practice the habit of hope. Think of hope as our hunger or strong desire for some good not available in the present but with the firm expectation of receiving that good sometime in the future.

The realist leader understands that four conditions exist for hope to happen:

First, what is hoped for must be something in the future, not something already possessed. Trump projected optimism early on that this strain of the coronavirus was already contained because he had restricted travel from Asia. But, reality was otherwise. Leaders set goals that followers can understood. Opening back up the economy came into unnecessary conflict with containing and conquering the virus. The President did not explain sufficiently the broader harm occurring to citizens if the economy did not open up. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the disease,” the President warned. The President should have stuck to his goal of reopening the economy on Easter Sunday while insisting that medical experts focus on containing the virus in hot spot areas; e.g., cities, nursing homes, etc. Many citizens died unnecessarily because they avoided going to the hospital for fear of contracting COVID-19. Most hospitals were grossly underutilized and now are in midst of their own financial crisis.

Trump’s 1st Lesson for Leaders: Don’t pretend the problem is already solved or wish away reality.

Second, hope always seeks something good. The good of hope may seem obvious but some leaders “hope” their competitors fail—that’s not hope, that’s hate. To do good is to seek the wholeness of that thing. The 20th century philosopher, Mortimer Adler, defined “the good” as that which we desire and ought to desire. What is good then becomes the standard upon which the leader judges reality. In a crisis, the common good at stake is human health and social stability to avoid panic. But the acute phase is different than the chronic phase of a crisis when other competing goods must be addressed. Trump failed to frame in a compelling way the hierarchy of goods that make up the common good.

Imagine if Trump had explained the common good at stake by saying the following to the media and his political opponents/enemies: “Some of you may see this as an opportunity to exploit my mistakes or our country’s overall lack of preparedness for this pandemic which we all knew was a real possibility but failed to prioritize into our national narrative for several decades. For the next three months, work with me to navigate through this crisis. We can resume our battles after a brief period of national cooperation.”

Trump’s 2nd Leader Lesson: Be clear about the greater good to be pursued and not just a single good. Define the aim clearly and consistently so that followers know what to seek in the future.

Third, hope can only exist if the situation is arduous and the expectation for a future good is difficult to attain. Optimists sell certainty, “Don’t worry, be happy! Everything is going to be just fine.” Early on the President tried to tell people to stay calm and not worry when the experts were growing more and more concerned. On the opposite end of the spectrum, medical experts issued dire warnings and generated despair insisting that the economy could not open up until testing capacity was sufficient, and reaching that sufficient level of testing was going to be very difficult. Since late April, however, the country has had more testing capacity than those lining up to be tested. What does this situation mean? Perhaps while Trump was being positive, the experts along with the media were communicating despair and the reality of the situation was obscured.

Trump’s 3rd Leader Lesson: Hope is never opposed to honesty. People don’t need certainty, they need to hear the truth and understand the risks at stake to achieve the goals needed for the common good. Leaders should trust that the vast majority of people can handle the truth.

Fourth, hope must be possible, since no one can seriously hope for impossible things without falling into wishful thinking. There is no better killer of hope than the media. They make money on bad news. Trump’s self-inflicted wounds due to his undisciplined communications and petty arguments with the press were avoidable. In his desperation for a cure, Trump contradicted medical experts and asserted his opinions where he lacked even the slightest competence as evidenced by his promotion of hydroxychloroquine and his clumsily worded comment about disinfecting the lungs.

Instead, imagine if Trump had said, “Look, we have two evils to contend with: the deadly virus and our collapsing economy. It is possible for us to contain this virus and open up the economy. If we don’t do both we will have far more death and destruction from the ravages of economic despair and bankruptcy.” The greater good of national unity and cooperation would have communicated the hope the country needed to hear.

Trump’s 4th Leader Lesson: Communicate what is possible by explaining the goods at stake and how each person can do his or her part to make that reality possible.

Avoid the optimism trap, know these four conditions to make real hope happen.

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