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Health + Wealth Day 2: Cities, the Pandemic, and Understanding Donald Trump

“There is nothing in the mayor book anywhere that says how to deal with a worldwide pandemic,” Mayor Van Johnson of Savannah, Georgia told the audience at the Health+Wealth of America conference on Wednesday. He kicked off the program with Valarie McCall, Chief of Communications, Government & International Affairs for the City of Cleveland. “It’s been a year of highs and lows,” Johnson continued, touching on the demonstrations for social justice, a “hotly-contested presidential election that never seems to end, and now an election here in Georgia that will determine the makeup of the United States Senate. So, I mean, it’s been a year of highs and lows. It’s been a year of constant change.”

 “Cities really are ground zero in this pandemic fight,” McCall said. “Cities across the United States have had to go at it alone. You have cities who’ve had to unite together.” Johnson added that Georgia had particular difficulties during the pandemic with a push-pull between state and local governments, especially in terms of mask mandates.

But a central issue of the city leaders’ discussion was racial inequality. “We cannot be the United States of America but be more divided in our own communities than we are united,” McCall said, emphasizing how urgent it is that her own city of Cleveland and the whole country come together as a united community. “We might be different, we may look different, we may talk differently, may come from different parts of the world and other communities, but…we’re supposed to be united.”

“Now you see police departments banning strangleholds and chokeholds,” Johnson agreed. “I was proud of America… we said, ‘We can do better, and we deserve to do better.’”

Later in the day, we continued on a city theme, discussing responsible innovation in America’s cities with David Heller, CEO of construction giant The NRP Group, and Brett Lindsey, CEO of broadband service provider Everstream. One of the challenges many people are facing right now is the ability to access the internet.

“People don’t really understand that if you have folks living in a housing project, the idea of spending $30-$40-$50 on internet service, compared to buying food and shoes for your kids and whatever else you need, they’re going to take the latter. They’re going to pick what they have to have,” Lindsey explained. But he added that today,  “there is a fundamental shift in how we think about the internet. It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s required. If you’re a family today, whether you’re older, young, have kids or don’t have kids, you have to have the internet in your home. It’s like water, electricity, gas.” The bottom line, he said, is that ”we don’t give it to people in need the way that I believe we need to.”

The urgency of this challenge is even greater right now, with the rise of online schooling, unemployment and telemedicine. “If you don’t have access to internet, you can’t go find a job if you’ve been unemployed,” Lindset continued. “Ninety-plus percent of jobs are only posted online anymore…People are making legislative changes to make sure that that will help people get access to health care, but it all gets back to having bandwidth in homes.”

And when it comes to responsible innovation in cities, diversity and inclusivity is so important—something that has been underscored by the events and tragedies of this year.

The two executives spoke passionately about the need for diversity in businesses. “You have to have a representation of customers that you serve within your own business so that you can appreciate the differences between all of us,” Lindsey said. “We have made diversity one of our key values for our entire business, something that we view as a responsibility.”

“It’s incumbent upon the business owners, people in cities to keep this flame alive and to keep it moving,” Heller agreed.

As we neared the end of the conversation, Heller said he’s been deeply impressed this year by the strength of the American people, and especially of business owners. “I just believe in the resilience of the American people,” he said. “I’m impressed by it—incredibly impressed—through all of COVID.”

We ended the day with a “master class” on Donald Trump with Anthony Scaramucci, founder  of SkyBridge and former chief communications director in the Trump White House, who was joined by Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Scaramucci started by giving a little bit of background on his time serving with the Trump Administration. “When he asked me to serve, I think that was my pride and ego speaking and I was overly tempted by that,” he said. “Obviously I made a mistake inside the White House and frankly, you know, if guys like Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus were just more upfront with me and didn’t want me anywhere near the White House and they just said that to me upfront, it would have caused me to recalculate my decision-making. But that’s Washington, that’s the way things work. I got an 11-day Ph.D. in the shenanigans of Washington…. I got fired, I did something fireable, made a mistake with a reporter. I said something about Steve Bannon, which I actually thought was funny…But, you know, I got fired, I deserved to be fired. I’m accountable for that firing. And frankly, I tried to stay loyal to the president and to the Republican agenda after my departure, but frankly it became impossible and at some point you have to ask yourself where your personal integrity and your patriotism lives over partisanship. And so that’s really my journey.”

Once Wolff was situated inside the White House, where the President had agreed to allow him to report his book, he said “Oh my god, the basic language in which we have traditionally talked about politics doesn’t apply here–can’t apply here. My fundamental contribution to this historic era was to say, ‘Holy God, the president is a fruitcake. And that’s very hard to bring a political analysis to.”

Scaramucci didn’t argue. “Had I had looked at it more objectively, I would have said what Michael just said–‘Wow this guy’s a fruitcake. I can’t go work for him.’ But I didn’t do that. I hit the cognitive override switch. I was tempted by the forces of my own ego by my own pride.” Scaramucci said. “I have to own that mistake for the rest of my life.”

Wolff noted that Scaramucci was hardly alone in this revelation. “I’ve gone through off-the-record conversation after off-the-record conversation—it is the exact thing which most everyone, and I’m talking almost everyone except a very, very narrow circle that remains around the president, feels having had this experience of being close to Donald Trump. As a matter of fact, I think the closer you have been to Donald Trump, the more horrified you are by Donald Trump.”

But, Scaramucci urged keeping a note of compassion and realism in our analysis. “Don’t forget that he’s a human being,” Scaramucci said. “Because what happens to us is we sometimes demonize these figures that are sociopathic or ‘fruitcake’ as Michael is saying, and I don’t want to ever do that.” When asked about Trump’s level of compassion – “I wouldn’t describe it as niceness, but there’s a sadness there, there’s a level of self-loathing, and a level of insecurity there.”

And what happens next, now that Joe Biden has won the presidency?  Wolff says his own analysis was deeply influenced by the fact that not only did Trump retain pretty much all the voters he had in 2016, but he gained millions more. That was not what Wolff expected, and now he believes it will inspire Trump to continue to resist acknowledging any sort of defeat.

“There isn’t a Donald Trump that could go off and lick his wounds and go off and evaluate the experience that that he’s had. There’s only one Donald Trump…He is a man who wholly exists in public.”

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