Who Do You Trust in a Pandemic: Donald Trump or Angela Merkel?

Andreas Kluth

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Say there’s a pandemic and you have a choice. You could camp on the set of a reality television show that’s run by its star actor. Or you could wait it out in a chemistry lab that’s administered by the university dean in consultation with all the doctors. Where would you feel more confident as news of the virus rushes in from all sides?

That, in a nutshell, is the contrast in style displayed this week by U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The metaphors aren’t far-fetched. Trump really did star on a reality TV show, and Merkel really does have a PhD in quantum chemistry. Since Trump’s election in 2016, he and Merkel have been the yang and yin of world leaders, diametrical opposites in every way. The coronavirus shines a stark light on those differences.

By definition, a pandemic is global and tests politicians everywhere, from South Korea to Italy. In general, it seems to bring out each leader’s essence. China’s President Xi Jinping, for example, dealt with the initial outbreak in Wuhan in characteristically authoritarian form, locking down entire populations and dictating behavior top-down.

Trump and Merkel, for their parts, came in for a lot of criticism in their initial handling of the crisis. Trump, as is his wont, tried to brush off the danger with macho bluster, suggesting it’s yet more fake news spread by Democrats to make him look bad. Next, he began posing as the alpha male among scientists and lab rats, barely hiding his disdain for experts and their expertise. “I like this stuff, I really get it,” he boasted. “People are surprised that I understand it.” Surprised they were; reassured they weren’t.

Merkel, meanwhile, was conspicuously absent in recent weeks. This was mainly because her party and country are in the midst of a leadership transition, and Merkel wanted to discreetly stay out of the news to avoid eclipsing the candidates. But as the cases started mounting, her silence wasn’t tenable anymore.

On Wednesday, Trump and Merkel both changed tack. Trump, enthroned behind his desk in the Oval Office, reverted to familiar tactics, such as scapegoating and creating a sense of “us” versus “them.” Calling Covid-19 a “foreign virus,” he blamed not only China but also Europe for being slow to act. For good measure, he announced a suspension of travel from Europe, explicitly exempting his Brexit buddies in the U.K. His vocabulary mixed terms of war and law enforcement, with “tough measures” to “defeat” the “threat.”

Merkel spoke at a big press conference Berlin. She was flanked by her health minister, Jens Spahn, as well as the head of Germany’s public health institute. With balanced and matter-of-fact answers, the three jointly fielded journalists’ questions.

Merkel conveyed no sense of “us” and “them.” Instead, she rejected the idea of closing the European Union’s borders, emphasizing that the virus was already circulating within populations and that this was a test of “our solidarity, our common sense, our open-heartedness for one another.” Again and again, she nodded to the experts next to her and deferred to scientists not even in the room. Without embellishment, she reported the pessimistic end of the “expert consensus,” warning that between 60% and 70% of people in Germany may become infected eventually.

Trump’s attempt at leadership relies on signalling command and control: over resources, doctors, experts, the domestic population and foreign countries, ultimately even a virus. He asserts certainty where there is none. And he tries to rally support by appealing to those he considers to be on his side against those he deems outsiders.

Merkel not only acknowledges but emphasizes that our main problem is that we don’t yet know much — whether the virus will recede in warmer weather, say, or how many people have already been exposed. She explicitly defers to experts. She urges solidarity over exclusion. She’s not promising victory but preparing Germans for a possibly long and uncertain, but joint, struggle, in which bans and prohibitions will play a smaller role than voluntary cooperation and grit.

The whole government will do “whatever is necessary” to prevent the worst, she said. And suddenly, a chancellor who’d for months been considered a lame duck was back as the seasoned crisis manager she is — not “tough” but measured, not commanding but credible, not presumptuous but trustworthy. The coming months will show which style of leadership fares better in a real crisis. I'm a dual citizen of the U.S. and Germany. And I'll choose the lab.

To contact the author of this story: Andreas Kluth at akluth1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg's editorial board. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.

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