President Donald Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic will cost him his job this November, Communication Studies Professor Joseph S. Tuman predicts.
Tuman, twice a candidate for Oakland mayor, is the author of “Political Communication in American Campaigns,” “Communicating Terror,” “Freedom of Expression in the Marketplace of Ideas” and “Speak Up!: An Illustrated Guide to Public Speaking.”
Tuman is following COVID-19 rhetoric closely. We asked him for his perspectives on the political fallout from the global crisis.
This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How would you grade the public briefings and responses from elected officials?
I wish our president could speak with some confidence. He gets the failing grade, in my judgment.
By and large, most of the governors have done an excellent job.
It’s a little bit analogous to the time right after 9/11. President Bush did the totally right thing. That night, still on 9/11, he gave a brief talk to the country. He said what people needed to hear, which is he’s there, the government is in control, the military is ready and we will start the rebuilding process in New York right away. What he was saying was, “I’m on top of this — you can go to bed and sleep comfortably now.”
That endeared him to a lot of people because he was there, exhibiting and speaking to the qualities of leadership that we needed at that point.
Now, back to the question about these daily talks. It’s reassuring when you have a governor who communicates that he or she is on top of the issues. Even if they don’t have all the solutions, just that they grasp the scale, reach and the depth of the problems is reassuring to people.
Beyond having a solution, you follow through. You show where it’s working, and if there are places where it’s not working, you communicate: “You know, this idea didn’t work so well, but here’s how I’m going to tweak it, and we’re going to try it again.”
This particular president lacks the capacity to show empathy for people. Not sympathy, but empathy. He lacks the ability to empathize, to share a sadness or a sense of joy with what people feel at that moment. When they feel like he’s not connecting with them, that’s beyond the lying; it’s another reason they don’t trust him.
If he changed these things about his own behavior, he’d have a much easier time running for re-election.
He got away with it in 2016. I don’t think he will get away with it this year. I don’t see it.
How will President Trump’s response affect his prospects for re-election this fall?
We started two months behind every other country because we had a government that treated the seriousness of this pandemic with the same contempt that it had — as in no seriousness — for climate change. Ignoring the science, ignoring the warning signs and just saying it’s not real. Now we’re paying the price for that. Trump will, too.
Frankly, he can’t win this re-election unless she shores up his base and attracts new voters as well. And he’s not doing anything to promote either of those things. These briefings, in many ways, are responsible for that.
If he were smart, he would let other people do the talking. Mr. Trump, in the end, is his own worst enemy. He really is. It’s his own inability to self-moderate and to, once in a while, realize that you can communicate a lot more with silence than babbling with incoherent nonsense.
What should other candidates be communicating during the crisis?
Biden’s message will be to make sure that voters see this election as a referendum on Donald Trump, and keep the focus on Trump. Biden doesn’t need to talk about himself except when he’s asked to.
Polling clearly indicates that Donald Trump is unpopular right now. Stay with that recipe.
How can people wade through misinformation and disinformation to form informed opinions?
When I’m teaching critical thinking, I encourage my students to not only use their own judgment, but also to look for different sources.
Let’s say somebody has made certain claims in favor of Mr. Trump and asserted some positions. Do a Google News search to see if, indeed, those stories pop up and if they’re coming from a reputable newspaper.
If we’re talking about certain words or terms in a claim that’s been made online, I always encourage people to go to Google Scholar. Because of the rigors of academic writing, you always have far more sources of authentication than you would find in a newspaper article.
If you want to dig from there and start looking at those other articles cited in the footnotes and the endnotes, you’ll have a much broader and bigger picture. You’ll also understand how people will take some of those things that look like they’re from neutral academic journals and use statements out of context. This is part of the way that people promote lies in discourse.
Dig in and research a little bit. Look at the academic scholarship to see if it’s jibing with what you’re reading in a newspaper. And if it’s not, why is that?
— Matt Itelson