From the Irish Times

Irish Times
April 25, 2020
By Fintan O’Toole


Over  more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide  range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and  hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that  has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.

However  bad things are for most other rich democracies, it is hard not to feel  sorry for Americans. Most of them did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016.  Yet they are locked down with a malignant narcissist who, instead of  protecting his people from Covid-19, has amplified its lethality. The  country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history  seemed so pitiful.

Will American prestige ever recover from this  shameful episode? The US went into the coronavirus crisis with immense  advantages: precious weeks of warning about what was coming, the world’s  best concentration of medical and scientific expertise, effectively  limitless financial resources, a military complex with stunning  logistical capacity and most of the world’s leading technology  corporations. Yet it managed to make itself the global epicentre of the  pandemic.

As the American writer George Packer puts it in the  current edition of the Atlantic, “The United States reacted ... like  Pakistan or Belarus – like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a  dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to  head off mass suffering.”

It is one thing to be powerless in the  face of a natural disaster, quite another to watch vast power being  squandered in real time – wilfully, malevolently, vindictively. It is  one thing for governments to fail (as, in one degree or another, most  governments did), quite another to watch a ruler and his supporters  actively spread a deadly virus. Trump, his party and Rupert Murdoch’s  Fox News became vectors of the pestilence.

The grotesque  spectacle of the president openly inciting people (some of them armed)  to take to the streets to oppose the restrictions that save lives is the  manifestation of a political death wish. What are supposed to be daily  briefings on the crisis, demonstrative of national unity in the face of a  shared challenge, have been used by Trump merely to sow confusion and  division. They provide a recurring horror show in which all the neuroses  that haunt the American subconscious dance naked on live TV.

If  the plague is a test, its ruling political nexus ensured that the US  would fail it at a terrible cost in human lives. In the process, the  idea of the US as the world’s leading nation – an idea that has shaped  the past century – has all but evaporated.

Other than the Trump  impersonator Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who is now looking to the US as  the exemplar of anything other than what not to do? How many people in  Düsseldorf or Dublin are wishing they lived in Detroit or Dallas?

It  is hard to remember now but, even in 2017, when Trump took office, the  conventional wisdom in the US was that the Republican Party and the  broader framework of US political institutions would prevent him from  doing too much damage. This was always a delusion, but the pandemic has  exposed it in the most savage ways.

Abject surrender

What  used to be called mainstream conservatism has not absorbed Trump – he  has absorbed it. Almost the entire right-wing half of American politics  has surrendered abjectly to him. It has sacrificed on the altar of  wanton stupidity the most basic ideas of responsibility, care and even  safety.

Thus, even at the very end of March, 15 Republican  governors had failed to order people to stay at home or to close  non-essential businesses. In Alabama, for example, it was not until  April 3rd that governor Kay Ivey finally issued a stay-at-home order.

In  Florida, the state with the highest concentration of elderly people  with underlying conditions, governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump mini-me, kept  the beach resorts open to students travelling from all over the US for  spring break parties. Even on April 1st, when he issued restrictions,  DeSantis exempted religious services and “recreational activities”.

Georgia  governor Brian Kemp, when he finally issued a stay-at-home order on  April 1st, explained: “We didn’t know that [the virus can be spread by  people without symptoms] until the last 24 hours.”

This is not  mere ignorance – it is deliberate and homicidal stupidity. There is, as  the demonstrations this week in US cities have shown, plenty of  political mileage in denying the reality of the pandemic. It is fuelled  by Fox News and far-right internet sites, and it reaps for these  politicians millions of dollars in donations, mostly (in an ugly irony)  from older people who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

It  draws on a concoction of conspiracy theories, hatred of science,  paranoia about the “deep state” and religious providentialism (God will  protect the good folks) that is now very deeply infused in the mindset  of the American right.

Trump embodies and enacts this mindset,  but he did not invent it. The US response to the coronavirus crisis has  been paralysed by a contradiction that the Republicans have inserted  into the heart of US democracy. On the one hand, they want to control  all the levers of governmental power. On the other they have created a  popular base by playing on the notion that government is innately evil  and must not be trusted.

The contradiction was made manifest in  two of Trump’s statements on the pandemic: on the one hand that he has  “total authority”, and on the other that “I don’t take responsibility at  all”. Caught between authoritarian and anarchic impulses, he is  incapable of coherence.

Fertile ground

But this is not  just Donald Trump. The crisis has shown definitively that Trump’s  presidency is not an aberration. It has grown on soil long prepared to  receive it. The monstrous blossoming of misrule has structure and  purpose and strategy behind it.

There are very powerful interests  who demand “freedom” in order to do as they like with the environment,  society and the economy. They have infused a very large part of American  culture with the belief that “freedom” is literally more important than  life. My freedom to own assault weapons trumps your right not to get  shot at school. Now, my freedom to go to the barber (“I Need a Haircut”  read one banner this week in St Paul, Minnesota) trumps your need to  avoid infection.

Usually when this kind of outlandish idiocy is  displaying itself, there is the comforting thought that, if things were  really serious, it would all stop. People would sober up. Instead, a  large part of the US has hit the bottle even harder.

And the  president, his party and their media allies keep supplying the drinks.  There has been no moment of truth, no shock of realisation that the  antics have to end. No one of any substance on the US right has stepped  in to say: get a grip, people are dying here.

That is the mark of  how deep the trouble is for the US – it is not just that Trump has  treated the crisis merely as a way to feed tribal hatreds but that this  behaviour has become normalised. When the freak show is live on TV every  evening, and the star is boasting about his ratings, it is not really a  freak show any more. For a very large and solid bloc of Americans, it  is reality.

And this will get worse before it gets better. Trump  has at least eight more months in power. In his inaugural address in  2017, he evoked “American carnage” and promised to make it stop. But now  that the real carnage has arrived, he is revelling in it. He is in his  element.

As things get worse, he will pump more hatred and  falsehood, more death-wish defiance of reason and decency, into the  groundwater. If a new administration succeeds him in 2021, it will have  to clean up the toxic dump he leaves behind. If he is re-elected,  toxicity will have become the lifeblood of American politics.

Either way, it will be a long time before the rest of the world can imagine America being great again.


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