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Zaleski: Failure is not exceptional

In North Dakota, leadership fumbled because of politics and a presumption of exceptionalism that has proved to be a myth.

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Leadership matters. The failure of leadership during the COVID crisis is a lesson in governing misfeasance presided over by stumblebum partisans from Washington to North Dakota.

Failure was brewed in the White House and oozed down to red state governors who took their cues from the liar-in-chief. They rubber-stamped President Trump’s wrongheadedness, thus creating an unworkable, fractured 50-state approach to the pandemic, rather than a coordinated, coherent national strategy that the president should have championed. Instead of presidential inspiration, malleable Republican governors were pummeled by lies, misinformation and Trump’s blame game. It was a “hey, not my job” display of ignorance, arrogance and hubris. When early efforts to contain the virus collapsed, Trump blamed everyone and everything except his own culpability. When Republican governors realized they’d been snookered, and said so, he turned on them. The lowlights:

“It’s a hoax,” said Trump. More than 260,000 Americans have died from the president’s “hoax.”

"It will go away, just like that, by Easter.” It’s Christmas season and nearly every state is setting records for new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

" COVID, COVID, COVID. That’s all they want to talk about. Just wait. After the election it will go away.” Since Election Day the nation has seen another surge, which was predicted by experts and dismissed by Trump and his lemmings. Go away? Not at all. President-elect Joe Biden is focused on the pandemic and talks about it every day.

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"We’re rounding the corner, folks,” Trump lied, days before voters gave him the boot. We’ve rounded the corner and have run into a wall of infection higher than the surge in March and April.

In North Dakota, leadership fumbled because of politics and a presumption of exceptionalism that has proved to be a myth. Gov. Doug Burgum was praised for his early reliance on science and data, but in short order he wandered into a realm of pollyannaish wishful thinking. Instead of firm implementation of public health protocols, he assumed North Dakotans would “do the right thing” regarding wearing masks, social distancing and avoidance of large gatherings. They did not. He tossed the COVID hot potato to local officials, effectively ducking under the cover that local governments would do the right thing. Some did, most did not, despite Burgum’s spot-on early warnings that the virus does not respect county and city lines or political persuasions. He should have known also that the virus does not respect platitudes and sloganeering.

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"North Dakota Smart” has not lived up to Burgum’s billing. Statistics show with devastating clarity that the behavior of North Dakotans during the worst weeks of the crisis was not smart. They endorsed a contemptible president’s divisive rhetoric. They spurned the data and science that the governor said would define North Dakota’s COVID policy. His pledge evaporated in the heat of Trump-influenced in-state political machinations. Burgum’s capitulation contributed to the state’s status as one of the worst for COVID cases and positivity rate, when a few months earlier it was one of the best. The state earned the damaging headline “North DaCOVID,” which went viral. Not the smartest way to be “Legendary.”

Burgum’s myopic trust in “the light touch of government” was slapped away by Trump-driven politicization of face masks. Burgum waited too long to order a statewide mask mandate, apparently believing North Dakotans are exceptional and different and care about one another. We are not different when it comes to majority membership in the Trump cult. The record and rhetoric reveal that North Dakotans don’t care about neighbors and loved ones if caring conflicts with their fealty to a failed president. The state’s dreadful COVID record is their legacy.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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