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Trump vs Ardern and why Covid-19 could determine US Election

Here is my article in today’s New Zealand Herald on the upcoming US Presidential elections.

NZ Herald

3 Nov, 2020 09:09 AM7 minutes to read

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and US President Donald Trump have had markedly different responses to Covid-19. Photo / File

NZ Herald

As many in the free world hold their breath and hope the current leadership nightmare in the US is drawing to a close, does the Labour party’s historic landslide win a few weeks ago provide a clue as to what might happen on 3 November?

The US is in the midst of the worst public health and economic crisis in living memory. Unlike our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, President Trump’s handling of the pandemic has been dishonest and disastrous. I predict that in a few days’ time, voters will turn on him, because in times of crisis, voters expect competent, trustworthy leadership, and they will punish him for failing to deliver.

Let me explain why I suggest this will be the case. History is a chronicle of shocks and disasters, be they wars, economic crises or plagues. Covid-19 is no different. When it struck, it asked some hard questions about leadership and character. Two types of leaders emerged. First, an array of latter-day populists. They tried to ignore the virus. When pushed, they denied and derided or portrayed it as a hoax. Their arrogant self-confidence stuck for a while. But they were soon exposed. The site of mass graves for the unfortunate and intensive care or leading-edge treatment for the lucky ones, including Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, laid bare their folly.

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If we have learnt anything over the past nine months, it is that bombastic populist leaders in Brazil, the UK, India and the US have been singularly unsuccessful in dealing with the pandemic. In contrast, South Korea and Taiwan showed the way, as did countries with competent, empathetic women leaders – Forbes concluding that in September, the two safest countries to be in were Germany and New Zealand.

While not without its detractors, New Zealand’s strategy stood out from the start – the “most decisive and strongest lockdown in the world” and the only western country with an elimination goal. We have largely succeeded in achieving that goal. Many put that down to high-quality political leadership, with the PM’s role described as brilliant, decisive, and humane. Whether you like her or not, she has been widely praised for being courageous, realistic and willing to front problematic issues.

By contrast, President Trump’s handling of the crisis has been inept and devoid of moral leadership. The figure of 227,000 Covid related deaths, and counting, cannot simply be wished away or ignored. Americans have been left to the predations of a deadly disease.

Even though as at September 2020 the US had the world’s highest number of infections and deaths, for reasons that escape me, President Trump took a pot-shot at New Zealand, saying “We’ve done an incredible job” and that New Zealand was “having a lot of outbreaks”. In fact, on that day, we had six new cases, while the US had about 40,000. Had the President bothered to check, he would have found that New Zealand had fewer infections than President Trump’s immediate family a month later, and certainly fewer than in the White House.

Jacinda Ardern was a little more circumspect when asked after her massive election win on 17 October whether she had any message for America. She responded that it shouldn’t matter what side of the House you’re on, we must “try and move beyond the divisive nature that elections can sometimes bring because that can be damaging for democracy”. She also decried the “increasingly polarised world” and remarked that the recent election has shown “that is not who we are”.

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Ardern and Trump met in September 2019. Photo / Supplied

These comments provide a glimpse into what makes the PM tick. In addressing her supporters after the election win, she had a decidedly moderate centrist message, promising “We will be a party that governs for every New Zealander”. For the US, experiencing unprecedented levels of divisiveness and polarization, Ardern’s message is simple – there is an alternative.

The coronavirus crisis has brought two critical issues to the fore; the importance of science and the need to put the general wellbeing of people first. Our biggest strength is our social cohesion and high levels of political participation and trust. Take the estimated turnout at the recent national election – 82.5 per cent of those enrolled, as opposed to 55.5 per cent in the 2016 US presidential election (but it looks like the turnout is going to be a fair bit higher this time around).

In a public poll conducted in May 2020, the Labour Party’s popularity was at 56.5 per cent – the highest for any party ever and as preferred PM Ardern stood at almost 60 per cent, the highest score for any leader in the poll’s history. Nearly 92 per cent of respondents supported the government’s decisive but effective Covid 19 measures. As we know, five months later, on 17 October 2020, we saw a massive swing to the left. In the process, the National Party was decimated, and National’s nemesis and Labour’s handbrake, Winston and New Zealand First, was sent packing.

With the US election just days away, some pollsters predict a backlash and a Democrat landslide. Others say you can’t write Trump off yet. On the other hand, Shawn Tully argues that there is, in fact, a single decisive factor that will determine the outcome – Covid infection rates. He writes that the rise and fall of Trump’s fortunes are closely linked to the number of daily cases.

If Tully is correct, things look bleak for the President as the US enters its third, and potentially worst, wave of infections. But things could have been very different, had he done his job and shown the type of leadership and grit that other world leaders, including our own PM, have. As we know, at the general election, she held up her government’s record in dealing with the pandemic and, said to the electorate, judge us accordingly. The rest is now history.

I believe the PM’s success comes down to five key factors: competence, good crisis management skills, reliance on science, clear messaging and empathy. How does President Trump stack up when it comes to these factors?

Competence is probably not his strong suit. Covid is the only real test he faced, and like a Wallaby in Sydney on Saturday night, he dropped the ball repeatedly. Trump has illustrated over the past year that he has few if any crisis management skills. Instead, he is the crisis that needs constant management. As President, with enormous power at his disposal, he could have taken ownership of the Covid 19 crisis and lead from the front, just as other leaders like Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen did. Instead, he squandered that opportunity to do the right thing and make his mark.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has been praised for her response to Covid-19. Photo / Getty Images

Ardern, Merkel and Tsai embraced science from day one. In New Zealand, during the height of the lockdown when people were nervous and scared about what lay ahead, the PM and Ashley Bloomfield, held daily press conferences. Standing side-by-side they worked as a team, respecting each other, and deferring to each other’s areas of expertise. Optics are important in these situations. This approach was very different from the staged, misleading and at times life-threatening White House briefings.

In terms of messaging, Trump has been all over the place, with no consistency and certainly devoid of a vision or anything resembling a plan. And finally, empathy, this skill has languished in the too-hard basket from day one.

US voters have a clear choice on 3 November – between two very different people. I believe they will look at the qualities that Ardern, Merkel and Tsai exhibit and vote for the candidate who has them, just as we did in New Zealand a few weeks ago. I predict that Trump will reap the reward for his indifference, incompetence, and lack of moral fortitude. I believe voters will punish him for betraying their trust and failing to protect their lives and livelihoods.

– Clive Elliott is a barrister at Shortland Chambers.


Clive Elliott-Barrister

I live and work in Auckland, New Zealand. I am a frequent writer and commentator on intellectual property and information technology issues. I am a barrister, patent attorney, and arbitrator. Before going to the Bar in 2000, I was a partner and headed the litigation team at Baldwin Shelston Waters/Baldwins. I took silk in 2013. Feel free to contact me via phone, email or social media.