“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” That’s how Donald Trump proudly described his approach to Covid-19 in an interview with veteran journalist Bob Woodward for a new book. To many voters, certainly Trump voters, it probably sounded sensible enough: surely a responsible President would want to avoid panic?
But on the front page of the Washington Post, and in media outlets around the world, it was seen as proof positive of the President’s deceitful and dangerous instinct to lie to his own people for political or economic ends. To the contemporary liberal technocrat, this kind of paternalistic obfuscation is the worst crime, the very opposite of good leadership. It is the hallmark of populists and demagogues — Bolsonaro, Duterte, Putin, Trump — for whom projecting strength is the only goal, with scant regard for truth, evidence, or transparency.
But while the coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly exposed the shortcomings of the populist approach, it has been an equally gruesome period for the technocratic leadership style. Many Western governments, Britain’s in particular, have moved from making responsible attempts at passing on information about Covid-19, to actively trying to generate fear in their populations. An overabundance of data, a desire to be seen to be proactive, and a fear of political repercussions if they are not, has led us to the weird place where a British Health Secretary thinks “Don’t Kill Your Gran” is a clever slogan to encourage better adherence to Covid-19 regulations.
So how did we get here?
As an example of the opposite philosophy of leadership to Donald Trump, Matt Hancock is a reasonable place to start. Although nominally part of a radical populist government, like most members of the current Tory cabinet Mr Hancock is really a child of Tony Blair. He came of age learning from the man many in David Cameron’s team referred to as ‘the Master,’ and then received his professional apprenticeship from George Osborne, who deployed the Blairite toolkit with brazen glee.
The central tension in this type of politician-technocrat is between a theoretical veneration of “transparency,” sharing data and basing decisions on available scientific evidence, and a deep respect for “messaging” and techniques of influencing the media and voters with compelling communications. These two instincts came together in the Cameron years with the creation of the “Nudge unit” of behavioural insights experts, and the hero-worship of political campaigners like Lynton Crosby.
According to this theory of leadership, convictions don’t count for much: politics is a science, and leaders are little more than vectors, conveying carefully calibrated versions of externally-validated truths to the masses in order to secure maximum support and compliance. Reports from the cabinet subgrouping in charge of Covid policy suggest that the new ‘rule of six’ was chosen instead of eight not for epidemiological reasons, but for purposes of “messaging clarity”. It was thought that, since the number six was already out there, it should be retained for simplicity’s sake; eight would only complicate things. And so the lives of England’s 55 million citizens are to be drastically altered “for the forseeable future” according to the principles of campaign science.
Every one of Matt Hancock’s public statements on Covid-19 is shaped by this way of thinking, ticking all the boxes of good “messaging” (with occasional admissions of failure, plenty of “data”, lots of rationale behind decisions, a reasonable, dull tone), while simultaneously managing to seem entirely disingenuous. He assumes an unbroken posture of confidence about everything connected to the pandemic — causes and effects, outcomes, the centrality of government “interventions” in every movement of the virus — when everybody knows there can be no such confidence. Every datapoint is carefully selected to make it look like the politicians have been in control all along, and that they know exactly how to manage the problem: the rock-solid claim that local lockdowns are working a treat when they may well make no difference; no mention of the significant decoupling of case numbers and hospitalisations that has been witnessed across the world, or what the risks of over-reaction might be; the endless references to — of all places — Belgium as the new model for the UK, despite it having had the highest death rate of any country in Europe.
More generous souls will conclude that he’s doing his best but is out of his depth; others will simply feel they are being gaslighted.
Against this background, a flourish like “Don’t Kill Your Gran” may not sound technocratic, in its sheer callousness and its low register. But really it is fully in line with the method: attempt to ‘nudge’ the population with a carefully-chosen attention-grabbing phrase. It’s the opposite of Donald Trump’s strategy, designed to increase fear rather than prevent it, but it ends up coming full circle and sounding almost Trumpian.
Ultimately, the Hancock approach fails on human grounds. Any notion that leaders should be reassuring does not enter the equation, nor any concern that fear is inherently dangerous, nor the unknown wider consequences for those millions of “grans” separated from their families and denied their own agency in this way. According to the utilitarian calculus of the contemporary technocrat, a phrase like ‘don’t kill your gran’ will be deemed a success if it positively impacts the metrics: the Health Secretary is reduced to a company departmental manager who has been incentivised on a single Key Performance Indicator (Covid-19 infections) and so ends up distorting the entire business to maximise his bonus.
But ‘nudging’ is not leading. The net effect in the population of adding a little fear here, a little scolding there, a little optimism there, is not loyalty, only alienation and mistrust. Feeling they are being expertly (or in-expertly) prodded by government only makes people more suspicious. The conspiracy theories that have flourished during Covid-19 (5G, the “plandemic”, Bill Gates masterminding the whole thing to sell vaccines, etc) are to no small extent the result of this leadership philosophy gone wrong.
So what would good leadership look like during this period? Neither extremes of quixotic strongman Trump, nor politician-technocrat Hancock, that’s for sure. It would involve respecting, but putting firm boundaries around, the contributions of scientists; being clear what your bigger-picture values are and how society should best mitigate the risks without being overwhelmed by them; admitting what you don’t know and yes, offering reassurance even when you’re not sure. Sadly, examples of this combination are hard to come by, and the Covid-19 era is a lot more frightening for that absence.