We loved New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s toughness when it came to his coronavirus briefings. Not only New Yorkers but large swaths of the country took great comfort in these briefings during a time when the presidential response was wildly disorganized. They drew 59 million online views and bred the term “Cuomosexuals”. He won an Emmy for the things. In them, Cuomo told us hard truths. He seemed strong and in control, even as he bemoaned his lack of it. “What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000?” he asked of the federal government. “You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.” Even the jokes he made established his control of the situation. “Well I’m authorized, you know, by St. Patrick, that’s who,” he said about his decision to cancel St. Patrick’s Day celebrations last year. “Oh yes, I have the highest authorization, sure.” In the beginning of a dislocating crisis, this felt like exactly what we needed. Someone who could be funny and poignant, but hardline and in command. Someone to stick up for us.
Since his twin sexual harassment and nursing home scandals broke, many have lamented that the man that so deftly guided us through the early days of a global pandemic was the same man who harassed women on and off his staff and ordered nursing homes to readmit elderly hospital patients with COVID-19 who were still recovering and then covered their deaths up. Others have noted that Cuomo’s long history as a political bully has left him with few friends in Albany now that he is vulnerable. But all of this might be more than a coincidence. The same tough guy act that made Cuomo shine in a crisis likely led him to think he could get away with preying on women and manipulating nursing home data. And we, the public, are partially to blame for endorsing it.
Cuomo’s transformation into something of a star in the early days of coronavirus is part of a larger trend. In a New York Times op-ed, Naomi Klein points out that in times of emergency, we often defer to strong and decisive leaders. Rudy Giuliani was a great example of this as mayor of New York City in the wake of 9/11. Giuliani was steady, passionate, dogged, and reassuring in his response to the attacks, and for it got dubbed “America’s Mayor.” The New York Times recounts that “what was most difficult to bear about Mr. Giuliani’s mayorality—his operatic personality, his head-throbbing certainty—became points of strengths in the disorienting weeks after Sept. 11.” Giuliani later went on to be a shill for Donald Trump. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was known for his combative political style and garnered wide popularity for leading his state through Hurricane Sandy. His top aides later closed two lanes of the George Washington Bridge and created massive gridlock that blocked emergency vehicles in the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey as an act of retaliation towards its mayor for not endorsing Christie’s reelection. When we feel under attack, we want strongmen. But why, in all of these cases, did these strongmen end up so epically disappointing us?
When someone commits sexual assault or harassment, the motivation stems from the perpetrator’s desire for power and control. Throughout his political career, Cuomo has aggressively vied for power and control and was repeatedly a bully as he pursued it. In the wake of his nursing home scandal, Cuomo called a Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim, yelled at and berated him, and said he’d destroy him if he didn’t put out a statement supporting him. Before that, Cuomo publicly undermined New York City Transit President Andy Byford, who oversaw a dramatic increase in subway on-time performance, until he quit. Cuomo’s actions reveal, if not abject jealousy, a strong thirst for control. Cuomo had spent years trying to fix the M.T.A. and encountered seemingly endless problems as he did so. Byford was getting great press. Byford said that people who worked for him, and even people who worked for people who worked for him, were being summoned and given directions around him by the governor’s office about how the subway or bus system should be run. Here was a man who was fixing one of New York City’s most pervasive and persistent problems. And Cuomo bullied him out of the job.
Before that, Cuomo did everything in his power to kill the Working Families Party, which supported his 2018 primary opponent Cynthia Nixon and made a mission out of pulling candidates further to the left than Cuomo. He pressured local unions to leave the party, telling them to “lose my phone number” if they didn’t, which drained the party of clout and financing. Seven people in state politics told POLITICO that the governor or his top staff had told them or their close associates that he wanted to destroy the party. He then told Letitia James, who was attempting to become the nation’s first ever black Attorney General, that he would not endorse her unless she publicly refused the party’s support. This put her in a highly compromised position, as she needed funds but the party had been her longtime ally and was the reason her political career took off. Until his victims came forward, we didn’t view Cuomo’s use of his political power to bend people into submission as anything more than what it was. But perhaps we should have seen it as predictive of sexual harassment. Furthermore, our endorsement of that political persona could have been a catalyst. Most of us brushed off Cuomo’s abject bullying as the harsh yet necessary rough-and-tumble behavior of a seasoned bureaucrat. Why wouldn’t he interpret that as permission to extend that persona to other areas of life?
The same personality traits that comfort us in times of crisis are causing us serious problems in everyday governance. We love strongmen when we feel lost, but they use the same qualities to betray us later. I’m not here to knock anyone who likes their whiskey straight and speeches booming. I’m not saying that being forceful at times makes you a sexual predator or an accomplice to Donald Trump. I am saying that being a bully in one area in your life might lead you to become a bully in another. Being a strongman during an epically popular time in your career might draw you to a politician who espouses strongman tactics. It might lead you to overlook their other failings. This is especially true if the individual in question receives our celebration for being such a way. Our national love affair with tough guy politicians has created more problems than it has solved. It is time we start seeing these traits as predictors of serious problems.