What is new, and what is familiar, in the Trump Administration’s response to the Coronavirus emergency? This talk addresses these questions by putting Trump’s handling of the current crisis in the context of how previous presidents have handled not just previous epidemics (such as the Swine Flu scare of 1976, and the Influenza epidemic of 1918-19) but a range of other great disasters. One obvious continuity has to do with the expectation that the federal government will take charge and that the President will personally guide the national response. In both cases, these norms date back to the Great Society era of the 1960s. Another important parallel concerns the politicisation of disaster. During the past half-century, as expectations of presidential leadership have mounted, so too have the political stakes: Presidents can win new political capital by responding effectively to a disaster, but (and this is a more common pattern) they can also sustain lasting damage in cases where they fail to meet these expanded expectations of White House direction and empathy. A third parallel has to do with the public policy implications of presidential leadership: I will argue in this talk that White House direction frequently comes at the expense of sound public policy. As for differences, Trump has not displayed the sort of empathy towards disaster victims that previous presidents have in times of crisis. And whereas the trend in US disaster management ever since the New Deal has been towards greater centralisation, the national response to COVID has been notable for the degree to which state and local governments have taken the lead. Gareth Davies is the newly-appointed Professor of American History at UCL’s Institute of the Americas, having been Associate Professor at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. His award-winning books include From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism, 1964-1972 (1996). He has also produced an edited collection on the Reagan presidency, and is currently writing a book on the US response to natural disasters.
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