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Crisis and leadership: The presidential role in restoring trust

Some crises come without warning, and as such, they are unavoidable. Others slowly progress from a simmer to a boil until they spill over, scalding all they touch. Over the past two decades, our nation has faced two major crises, is currently in the midst of a third with the global pandemic and may be on the precipice of a fourth: modern-day civil war.

Our country’s leadership helped see us through the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ensuing military conflicts and rebound from the 2008-2009 financial and economic crisis. Both times, the commander in chief became the leader we needed in that moment, working to unseat a terrorist regime and save a monetary system from total collapse.

Today, we have a not-so-quiet storm brewing. Futurists, politicians and everyday Americans can not only sense, but see the change in atmosphere. Protests, civil unrest and political figures openly disparaging each other are early warning signs of the next crisis — a potential modern-day civil war.

Another civil war on American soil? Though mention of it seems alarmist, it is not inconceivable.

If debate over federal and state rights sounds familiar, it should, and if small, heavily armed factions in the street are disconcerting, they should be. There has been heated debate regarding deploying federal law enforcement or military assets to respond to civil unrest. Rise in dangerous political rhetoric and disregard for propriety are all cause for concern. This, underscored by major political figures verbally attacking and unabashedly censuring one another, suggests we are on the verge of a complete democratic breakdown.

We are in the midst of a national movement for racial equality in a society where individuals and organizations are being “cancelled” without being given an opportunity to explain or make amends; violent activism is rewarded and seen as the next generation’s rite of passage; parts of cities are being occupied and institutional law and order rejected; monuments of historical and controversial figures are defaced or forcibly removed; there is less of an appetite for facts and dialogue; there are discussions regarding the legitimacy of elections; and individuals with popularized views can seemingly act with impunity.

The Civil War began amid an uncertain economy, a battle over state and federal rights, oppression of a particular part of our population and the pending election of an individual with strong political views. Similar conditions exist today. A breakdown of trust among fellow citizens, institutions and political decorum is incendiary — especially in the midst of a crisis — and will lead to another, new crisis if not restored. This restoration of trust must come from our top elected leaders.

However, sharp ideological polarization is a major issue. Americans are further apart politically than at any point in recent history, and conflicts between the two major political parties are much more intense today than in 2016 or 2012. According to the Pew Research Center this year, 91 percent of Americans consider conflicts between party coalitions to be “either strong or very strong.”

In November 2020, America will forever be changed. Expectations of the president-elect will be higher than ever and more vital than ever to meet. Election results will cause nearly half of the U.S. population to be in disbelief, devastated or both. Many, perhaps even the candidates themselves, will reject the results and be dissatisfied with any concession.

Still, the president-elect will have an opportunity — to learn from past crises, rise to the occasion and be the commander in chief that the country needs in this moment: one who unites communities and people, acknowledges mistakes while embracing history, chooses Americans over political party, exhibits humility as well as strength and seeks to understand the true heart of our nation. Equally as important, our next president will need to inspire hope and should not simply say what needs to be said, but actually believe it.

The president-elect has a choice — to be empathetic or apathetic; claim victory or acknowledge a hard-fought campaign with grace; understand those who followed a candidate with different approaches to problems or alienate alternative views. These choices will define our future, and either help or hurt our trust in one another and confidence in government, both of which are sorely needed. The National Academy of Public Administration’s recent Election 2020 paper on engaging Americans and improving public trust notes that 84 percent of Americans think confidence in government can be improved, and 86 percent think similarly when it comes to the level of trust people have in one another.

The nation will be watching, listening and learning from the president-elect’s first words and expressions. The polarization of our society did not form quickly, and it will undoubtedly take time and compassion to reverse it. Let us hope the upcoming election is not a catalyst or culmination of events leading to a potential next crisis — a civil war — but rather the restoration of civility and unity, a testimony to the importance of presidential leadership in times of crisis, and a clear demonstration of how democracy, though less than perfect, remains the best form of government in the world.

James-Christian B. Blockwood is a former career senior executive at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, term member at the Council on Foreign Relations and inaugural Presidential Leadership Scholar. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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