FIRST, a haunting absence: From the middle of March until the end of May, great cities like New York bore the gray face of demise—their streets were empty, their businesses shut, and the rush of bodies that brings life to urban sidewalks transformed into hospital wings crowded with the dying and the dead. Then an explosive presence: protesters streaming into the streets in cities and small towns across all 50 states, decrying a history’s worth of law-enforcement brutality against Black people and, across the nation, meeting with violent resistance from the powers that they sought to change. In an endless-seeming flow of videos, we saw officers of the law beating, gassing, and firing rubber bullets on peaceful protesters and news media alike; we saw high-schoolers being arrested, facedown on the pavement, after new sunset-hour curfews; we saw sleepy suburbs patrolled by armed guardsmen whose presence, rather than supplying protection, seemed intended mainly to stoke fear.
The common factor in the ghostly retreat and the ensuing chaos was bad leadership from the top. Even President Trump’s own former defense secretary, General James Mattis, issued a bracing indictment of those in power: “The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience,” he said in early June. “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.” His words echoed calls for change from voices across the political spectrum and heralded a crisis of American leadership, one that has been gathering for some time. Ever since the advent of photography and the TV screen, our leaders’ mandates have seemed to rest in large part on the strength of their public image: There was the much-reprinted photograph of the Allied heads of state meeting to bring World War II to an end; there was the image of Martin Luther King Jr. on the Washington Mall, and of Gloria Steinem sitting with Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan before the National Women’s Political Caucus, calling for change. In recent years, though, mere images of leadership have lost their strength—especially as President Trump has tried to lean on their power. Near the peak of COVID-19 transmission, he held a media briefing several times a week at 5 p.m., standing tall at the White House podium like generations of leaders before him. Yet his counsel betrayed the image he reached for.
“So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous—whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light, and I think you said that hasn’t been checked—but you’re going to test it. And then I said, ‘Supposing you brought the light inside the body!’ ” he exclaimed on April 23, on a live broadcast before a baffled nation. “Then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because, you see, it gets in the lungs.” He later elaborated, “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.” He pointed at his head.Leading Women
FROM TOP: New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern; actor Keke Palmer; Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin.FROM TOP: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images; Gadi Schwartz/NBC News; ANTTI AIMO-KOIVISTO/Lehtikuva/AFp/Getty Images
Well, maybe we do know. Does he? By the end of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, death tolls in the U.S. had passed 100,000. A study at Columbia University calculated that 36,000 of those deaths would have been avoided if the federal government had advocated social distancing just one week earlier. The president responded by calling the university, one of this nation’s oldest and most esteemed, “a liberal, disgraceful institution.”
Also on Memorial Day, a 46-year-old Black man named George Floyd was arrested, ostensibly on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill in a deli, by a white Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin, who pressed Floyd’s neck against the pavement with his knee for nearly nine minutes, as three other officers looked on, until Floyd choked to death. When protests emerged, and officers in riot gear were caught on camera plowing vehicles into crowds, the president praised law enforcement for doing a “great job.”
By then, however, the American people were no longer having it—not from the president, not from crisply uniformed agents of law enforcement, not from the mayors who came to their defense. Along with Floyd’s death, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky recharged a movement. The Black Lives Matter protests of this summer have been among the most widespread and impassioned in our history. They have helped show that the public has ceased to recognize authority by its old outward signs. In a May address to students graduating from historically Black colleges and universities, Barack Obama said, “This pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing”—a stinging remark from someone who had occupied the highest office himself.
Yet leadership had not vanished from the scene this spring and summer—far from it. Amid daily, hourly struggles for health, life, and good guidance, Americans learned to lead from the bottom up. During the early peak of the pandemic, working parents became managers, dividing time, attention, and guidance between their careers and their children—a task made hard because those two roles had to coexist in the same space. Outside the household, medical professionals and other essential workers rose to new occasions, leading on the floors of hospitals and nursing homes, often faced with the heaviest of decisions—who gets a life-preserving ventilator and for how long. We read about the efforts of doctors such as James Mahoney, a father of three and lifelong mentor to young physicians of color, who put off retirement to work in New York’s hospitals during the COVID-19 epidemic and died after contracting the disease himself. Yet there were thousands of other essential workers whose faces were not broadcast. We rarely learned these heroes’ names.
Nor did we know the names of most young leaders in the streets, or of the millions of Americans who came out to support them. This had become the new model of leadership in America: distributed, close to home, borne not by reputation but by daily proof.
We might have first noticed a balance shifting with the rise of social media, which returned the task of taste to anybody with a screen. We surely noticed it in the disturbing revelations of the #MeToo movement, which made clear that too many supposed leaders in America had been hiding evil acts behind positions of status and power. #MeToo chipped the luster of celebrity, but it also showed that groups of people often overlooked, or not listened to, could show us something critical that our visible public leaders had not. For the first time in a long time, we were letting those people become our guides.\
AROUND THE WORLD, some heads of state understood how to build trust in the midst of a pandemic, and their actions made the failures of leadership in the U.S. all the more stark. New Zealand’s 39-year-old prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, showed herself to be a leader who could notice and adapt—and quickly. Ardern closed New Zealand’s country’s borders to all nonresidents on March 19 and put the entire country into shelter-at-home six days later. “Go home tonight and check on your neighbors, start a phone tree with your street, plan how you’ll stay in touch with one another,” she advised when she announced the lockdown. By late April, daily new cases were in the single digits or zero, and Ardern’s approval rating—her real mandate of leadership—edged above 80 percent in one Colmar Brunton poll. Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, kept her country to an astonishing seven deaths, as of this writing, thanks to shrewd management of materials and testing and good quarantine policy. Finland, under its 34-year-old prime minister, Sanna Marin, and her largely female cabinet, imposed a strict lockdown and harnessed social media creatively, enlisting influencers to spread accurate and trustworthy information.Role Models
FROM TOP: Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; Santa Clara public-health official Sara Cody, M.D.; Curtis Hayes Jr., speaking to Raymon Curry during protests in North Carolina.FROM TOP: Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP; Ray Chavez/Digital First Media/The Mercury News/Getty Images; Logan cryus
It did not escape notice that many of the most judicious and responsive leaders around the world were women. A similar pattern appeared on our own shores. Amy Acton, M.D., the former director of Ohio’s Department of Health, became a minor celebrity for her early action and clear public addresses; a group of Bay Area leaders—including London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, and Sara Cody, M.D., the public-health director of Santa Clara County—implemented the first shelter-in-place order in the country; and female mayors such as Muriel Bowser, of Washington, D.C.; Keisha Lance Bottoms, of Atlanta; and Lori Lightfoot, of Chicago, rose in prominence as they took on questions of police brutality and funding with apparent candor.
But as the summer began, the season’s true role models remained the hundreds and thousands of peaceful organizers—many of them young, many of color—marching, pushing for change, and raising their voices in video clips broadcast from the streets. The country watched as the 26-year-old Black actor Keke Palmer eloquently and openly pleaded with members of the National Guard to join the protest—“We need you. So march with us”—and helped get them to kneel in solidarity and mourning for injustice. And it watched as Curtis Hayes Jr., a 31-year-old Black man in Charlotte, North Carolina, channeled, in a few perfect lines, a history’s worth of desperation and imparted to a 16-year-old an extraordinary plea for more productive progress. “What you see right now is going to happen 10 years from now—at 26, you’re going to be doing the same thing I’m doing!” he cried. “Y’all come up with a better way, ’cause we ain’t doing it.”
The country also watched as several of the old podium leaders began to step back and allow new voices on the ground to lead. Elizabeth Warren and Mitt Romney—two political actors not often aligned—both showed up to join Black Lives Matter protests in early June, allowing themselves to fall behind the leadership of young Black people pushing for change. And, beginning in the early summer, the alternative to Donald Trump for the presidency—Joe Biden—began to adapt the kind of leadership that he’d exemplified for decades. Before the events of this spring and summer, Biden was the image of an old-school American politician: shaking hands and hugging babies, stumping at crowded rallies, standing tall on the dais and flashing his bright smile for the lens. But the pandemic and the protests seemed to move him to reexamine his standing in the limelight. While President Trump was in front of cable-news cameras, spouting misinformation, Biden lay low. He took time to assemble concrete plans—a daily White House report on testing, a network of emergency hospitals, national real-time tracking of cases—plus measures for economic recovery. Shortly after Memorial Day, when the U.S. death toll of coronavirus reached its grim milestone, he issued an intimate message to all the Americans who had lost loved ones. “I think I know what you’re feeling,” said the former vice president, who lost a wife and a baby daughter in a car accident in 1972 and his son Beau, to brain cancer, in 2015. “You feel like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest. It’s suffocating. Your heart is broken, and there’s nothing but a feeling of emptiness right now.” It was a startlingly direct message, and it sought to suggest that Biden was a leader not for his image but for his everyday experience and his candid speech. When he responded publicly to the early protests, on June 2, he made the theme explicit.
“The country is crying out for leadership,” Biden said. “Leadership that can unite us. Leadership that brings us together. Leadership that can recognize pain and deep grief of communities that have had a knee on their neck for too long.” He went on, “That’s what the presidency is: a duty of care.” That first gesture of that care can be in choosing a running mate. Many are calling for it to be a woman of color, as a way of staying open to the leaders of this time. At the start of this year, a leadership of groundwork and shared stakes across difference seemed to have fallen toward the past. In the fall, it may become the future once again.