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Updated: Aug 24, 2020

April 17, 2020

America has a system of government we like to call “Of the People, By the People.” “For the people” was also in there originally. The phrase is credited to Abraham Lincoln, speaking at the end of the Civil War in 1863: “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Which gives me chills every time I read it.

Nowadays we usually just go with the shorter, snappier, “Of/by,” but the point is, we are the bosses of our mayors, our Congresspeople, our governors, and yes, our President, and not the other way around.

Sure, we call them our leaders, but they’re supposed to do what we want. We elect them to represent us, not to rule over us. In fact, they are actually public servants, or so we keep hearing.

Well, it sure doesn’t feel like that in the Trump era.

It’s pretty clear that this President doesn’t even want to listen to his advisors — not to mention science, medical providers, or people who have experience with the virus in other countries. The President who is famous for saying “I alone can fix it” appears to be listening to his own counsel.

But he is freaked out. And I have to say, in his defense: any national leader with coronavirus inside its borders would be freaked out. That, I sympathize with. His obstinance, not so much.

Because his freaked-outness is compounding his already-chaotic thinking, Trump may be the last person any of us should listen to right now.

But it’s natural that our governors, desperate for direction, keep looking to the White House. Maybe we all revert to hierarchy in times of crisis: state governments look to the nation, local governments to the state. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers a pretty-much-daily scolding to Trump for his dereliction of duty, who bounces it right back: “Testing is the states’ responsibility.” Also PPE. Also pretty much everything else. Recently Trump even announced he would be cracking down on governors who weren’t coping well with the responsibility of testing, um, the entire population: “No excuses!” he shouted at them.

Meanwhile, We The People, are frozen in place. (Literally. Stuck at home. Many of us also pinned to the couch, watching the President rack up two hours at the podium, boasting, lying, and mentally wandering, with expressions of glazed alarm on our faces.) We want someone to tell us what to do, but those daily press conferences are making a lot of us think that whoever that someone is, please let it not be Trump.

Since February we’ve been waiting for our leaders to help us. To roll out a plan. Even just to come up with some way of testing us, so we know who has the virus and who doesn’t. We’re watching our economy burst apart and burn like the Challenger. Every day that passes makes us feel more stunned and helpless, like kids watching their parents fight, hit each other, break things, and drive away, taking everything we love and depend on with them.

But I don’t think our leaders are looking at the situation like that at all. Seems like a lot of THEM are waiting to see what WE will do.

Will we obey the stay-at-home orders? Will health care workers walk off the job? Will people keep watching the White House briefings, and will we all (Trump’s team pleads) show solidarity with the President, as populations typically do in times of crisis?

Will we please not make a fuss about them giving $500 billion of the people’s disaster relief to corporations?

Maybe it's time we start asking ourselves a few questions. Like, how long should we continue to be the adults in the room?

It's becoming evident that We The People have a lot of power. They (the "ones in charge”) know that perfectly well. But it seems like a lot of us don’t want to use that power, or maybe even acknowledge it. We keep waiting to be saved instead.

I was thinking yesterday, maybe we are all locked in some kind of power struggle — except instead of everyone trying to grab it, like most power struggles, we’re all desperate to give it away. Please, you handle it. Please.

No one feels equal to this challenge. It’s just way too big.

Who can blame us?

But into this vacuum some really impressive leaders have started to appear. Andrew Cuomo, whom I jokingly call “my new boyfriend.” Gretchen Whitmer, who steadfastly resists the call of Trumpers to restore their “liberty” instead of trying to save their lives. Gavin Newsome, Ned Lamont, Larry Hogan. And many more.

Then too, the mayors: London Breed, who listened to Bay Area health experts so well that San Francisco’s numbers are lower than any other major city’s. Keisha Lance-Bottoms of Atlanta, cool-headed and resolute. Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, Dan Gelber of Miami Beach. And like the governors, many more.

But I think we do have to continue to be the adults in the room. Because, you know, who better? That “of the people, by the people” thing carries responsibility. We must let our governments know we expect them to do sane, smart, proactive things right now. Our will, not thine, be done.

As for President Trump, the biggest Daddy of them all: what kind of parent says, as he recently did, “I take no responsibility” for the fact that this country’s response is the worst in the world? Who says "I alone can fix it" and "[My] authority is total" and in the next breath says, "I haven't heard that. I'm not hearing that. Next question" whenever a reporter at one of those pressers asks an uncomfortable question, like "What's happening with testing?" or "Why did the U.S. wait so long to respond to the crisis?"

As long as our national leadership keeps evading and lying, the big questions will keep coming. It's just we need to re-think who should be giving the answers.

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