interesting times

Reality Arrives to the Trump Era

“How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.” Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

Plagues routinely start with denial. In his great novel, The Plague, Albert Camus describes a scene at the very beginning, after several rats in a town started dying identical deaths:

‘These rats, now?’ the magistrate began. [Doctor] Rieux made a brief movement in the direction of the train, then turned back toward the exit. ‘The rats?’ he said. ‘It’s nothing.’ The only impression of that moment which, afterwards, he could recall was the passing of a railroadman with a box full of dead rats under his arm.

This is not to excuse the negligence of the Trump administration and the CDC. But it helps explain it. Plagues are such an enormous disruption of regular life that it is always hard to accept that we are engulfed in one. This is why plagues, of course, always tend to have the advantage over people. Soon enough, however, the direness of the situation began to set in:

In a very few days the number of cases had risen by leaps and bounds, and it became evident to all observers of this strange malady that a real epidemic had set in … Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky … In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves … They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.

Those of us who have already been through a plague experience in our lives know this all too well. As the clear signs of a new and deadly epidemic began to emerge among gay men in the early 1980s, most people ignored or downplayed or even joked about it, and many of those most at risk shut their eyes.

Randy Shilts, in his epic tale of this nightmare, And the Band Played On, relays the first guidance from the American Association of Physicians for Human Rights: “Sensitive to concerns that the group not be ‘sex-negative,’ the guidelines assured gay men that there was nothing wrong with having sex, but they should check their partners for KS lesions, swollen lymph nodes, and overt symptoms of AIDS.” Even the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York — an activist group formed to confront the reality of this new plague — put “the accumulated wisdom of homosexual physicians in one phrase: ‘Have as much sex as you want, but with fewer people and HEALTHY people.’” Even though it was by then clear that asymptomatic carriers were just as capable of transmitting the virus, denial was too strong.

In San Francisco in early 1983, epidemiologists had a curious resemblance to the CDC now. After the first quarter’s AIDS incidence report came out, Shilts writes:

Dr. Andrew Moss concluded that ‘in some cohorts of gay men in San Francisco, AIDS incidence rates in the thirty and forty year old groups are now of the order of 1 to 2 percent.’ Only later would studies show that by this time in 1983, the 62 percent of gay men who still engaged in risky behavior had at least a 25 percent chance of being intimate with someone infected with the new virus.

So the estimate was off by a factor of ten, which informed my decision to self-isolate a week ago.

Bathhouses — which facilitated even higher rates of transmission — stayed open. The gay press needed the ads from the bathhouses, and the bathhouses were profitable; and the liberationist culture that had only recently emerged simply could not concede that liberation, in this instance, was laced with death.

The same denialism can be see in Camus:

That the regulations now in force were inadequate was lamentably clear … The only hope was that the outbreak would die a natural death; it certainly wouldn’t be arrested by the measures the authorities had so far devised … There was enough for immediate requirements, but not enough if the epidemic were to spread.

Which is the case with ICU beds right now in the U.S. Even when the deaths mounted in The Plague, the public resisted facing the reality:

Our townsfolk apparently found it hard to grasp what was happening to them. There were feelings all could share, such as fear and separation, but personal interests, too, continued to occupy the foreground of their thoughts. … It was only as time passed and the steady rise in the death-rate could not be ignored that public opinion became alive to the truth … These figures, anyhow, spoke for themselves. Yet they were still not sensational enough to prevent our townsfolk, perturbed though they were, from persisting in the idea that what was happening was a sort of accident, disagreeable enough, but certainly of a temporary order.

“A lot of people think that goes away in April, with the heat,” President Trump said on February 10. “It’s going to disappear one day, it’s like a miracle,” he said over two weeks later. “It will go away, just stay calm,” he insisted as recently as this past Tuesday. Many of his supporters declared the epidemic a hoax, or insisted it was nothing more than the regular flu — even though it is estimated to be at least ten times as lethal. Yes, these denialist declarations are driven by tribal politics. But they exist beyond the Trump cult, and are also propelled by the ancient human resistance to accepting that our normal lives are over, that we live in a new paradigm, and there is no escaping it.

It’s like watching a movie when the screen suddenly and unaccountably slips out of focus, or keeps freezing for a few seconds, and you wait for the reel to be corrected, or get back to where it was, but it doesn’t. After a while, you begin to realize that this is the movie, that you will have to learn to watch it in a new way, and that waiting for a return to normal is a delusion — a very human delusion, but false nonetheless.

It is rare that the authorities act swiftly enough and drastically enough to stop a plague from growing. Even with the difficult-to-catch HIV retrovirus, by the time it was very clear that the best course of action was no sex or very safe sex, the die was cast. Plagues are dynamic things and are fueled by complacency. With this coronavirus, which is far, far easier to catch, we had obvious warning signs from China, but assumed a travel ban would keep the U.S. safe. We had a chance to roll out WHO testing kits, to ensure that if there were an outbreak in the U.S., it could be contained. But the Trump administration decided to produce an American version of the test, which was screwed up by errors, delaying it for weeks. And so we had no real grip on the spread or incidence of the virus, which is asymptomatic in most cases to begin with. We had no idea where it was, and we still don’t. It might have been possible to contain the illness even a few weeks ago. But we were flying as blind as the authorities in 1918 — even with 21st century technology. So now we have a pandemic that can only be managed rather than stopped.

And this is not entirely a function of the Trump administration’s incompetence. Look at Italy. What’s needed is a set of draconian measures at a time when the epidemic is still small, and normal life is in full swing. But in a period when relative normalcy still prevails, such draconian measures will inevitably seem completely panicky for most, slowing economic activity and growth and making a government instantly unpopular. In Western democracies, this makes a plague far harder to stop. Appeasement of plagues, like appeasement of dictators, never works.

President Trump is not the only complacent figure. In Britain and Germany, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Angela Merkel have all but resigned themselves to an inevitable culling of the population, and have imposed few draconian measures by fiat. Only yesterday, Johnson was unwilling to shut down soccer matches — before the soccer authorities decided to do it on their own.

And if you want to see a classic example of how a virus spreads, just look at the House of Commons, where the entire political class crams into a tiny space cheek by jowl — even after several members of Parliament, and the the Health Secretary, have already fallen ill. Watch this video of a health minister coughing and spluttering at the despatch box. It’s madness. But the alternative — a suspension of Parliament; measures to end all public gatherings, restaurants and bars, and theater productions; mandatory self-quarantining for everyone, sick or well, for a couple of weeks — seemed utterly bonkers even a few days ago. But they would have helped a lot a month ago.

With Trump, we have a deeper crisis, of course. Trump is incapable of admitting error, numb to any form of empathy, narcissistic even in a communal crisis, and immune to any kind of realism. He simply cannot tell anyone bad news. And he cannot keep a story straight, which is essential for public health. His only means of communication is deceptive salesmanship. He defunded the federal body designed to tackle such emergencies, and his Cabinet is packed with incompetence, corruption, and fealty. He cannot summon trust among at least half the country, and he has willfully destroyed confidence in the public institutions we desperately need to get through this.

In this, he is a typical man-at-the-bar pontificator, or shock-jock tweeter, whose strange theories are matched only by his own refusal to be tested for the virus, even though we now know he has been exposed. He is in charge of public health but can still blithely say something completely untrue — like everyone coming into the U.S. is being tested, or that anyone who wants a coronavirus test can get one, to give two damning examples. Rather than concede a failure, Trump will always lie. He is utterly unfit to be president, and always has been. We had a chance to remove him from office before a catastrophe struck, but the Senate kept him in power. This is their responsibility too.

It’s still unfair to blame all this on one man, when we have all been complacent because we are human, and the way we have responded is almost exactly how almost every community in the past has responded as plagues set in. But from here on out, we have to grapple with the fact that we are on our own. Trump is singularly incapable of addressing this credibly or effectively, with anything like the right mix of realism and hope the crisis demands.

He is immune to data, resistant to any facts that might suggest his own administration’s failure, and his prime-time address was deeply unsettling and off-kilter. We have been so, so lucky to have avoided a major crisis for the last three years, but our luck has now run out. We can rarely halt a plague, but we can manage one with the least human collateral damage. It seems to me that we may be headed, instead, for another 1918, mitigated only by antibiotics to deal with the bacterial infections that a century ago piggybacked on viral infections and multiplied the victims.

The only thing we now know for certain is that a description of this era as surreal is now out of date. At some point, reality was bound to step in, of course, and it’s been quite amazing how long we have been able to postpone it. But this is now as real as it gets. And it is just the beginning.

The Right Look

If I were to point out a possible future for a sane post-Trump conservatism, I’d point to one Rishi Sunak. I don’t blame you for not knowing his name yet, but he recently became Boris Johnson’s chancellor of the exchequer, responsible for Britain’s finances and economy, the second most powerful figure in the British government. He’s the grandson of Indian immigrants to the U.K., went to Oxford and Stanford, and became a hedge-funder. First elected to Parliament in 2015, his handsome smile has been matched only by the perfect fit of his suits. He’s said to have a personal fortune of $250 million, helped by marrying the daughter of one of the richest men in India. A member of a thriving minority group in the U.K., he’s a Hindu, known for lavish parties on his Yorkshire estate, and called by the locals the Maharajah of the Dales. And he isn’t yet 40 years old.

But what really marks him is his abandonment of Thatcherism. He unveiled a budget earlier this week that borrowed at levels no Tory has supported in decades. He pledged a massive infrastructure investment of up to $750 billion over five years. He made no attempt to lower the debt, the key aim of the Cameron and May governments before Johnson. The Financial Times noted that “the youthful chancellor delivered not just an end to austerity. He marked a shift from the low-tax, low-spending Conservatism of Margaret Thatcher towards a new rightwing model, embracing higher spending funded by borrowing. The goal of returning national debt to levels seen before the financial crisis has been jettisoned.” At the same time, “investment in roads, rail, housing, broadband and capital projects as a proportion of the economy will rise to levels not seen since the 1970s.”

Toryism is an intrinsically adaptive political instinct. The Conservative Party shifts right and left as time passes, always eager to hold power, and rarely as ideological as during the Thatcher era. Sunak is also an immigrant success story, the son of small business owners, and a supporter of Brexit. In one stroke, he defies the idea that a post-Brexit U.K. will be reactionary or racist. He co-authored a think-tank study on British racial minorities, “A Portrait of Modern Britain,” and how to empower them. And he is proving how much easier it is for the right to turn left on economics than for the left to turn right on culture.

Yes, the future fiscal outlook is grim — Sunak spent the first third of his budget speech on measures to contain the coronavirus — and disentangling from the E.U. is bound to be economically hazardous. But as a package for a contemporary conservatism, he’s hard to beat.

A Welcome Concession by the New York Times

It took them many months, but it’s a good thing that the editor, Jake Silverstein, and primary author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, of the New York Times’ 1619 Project have finally conceded that they did make a mistake in claiming that the retention of slavery was a primary reason for the American revolution. Or in Hannah-Jones’s even stronger words: “We may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.”

A special issue of the magazine last year had been devoted to affirming that the true origin of the United States was 1619, when slaves were first brought to these shores, rather than 1776, when the colonies won independence from Britain. It was a project to place white supremacy, rather than individual liberty, as the core meaning of America, and to show how little had changed in this respect over the centuries. It claimed that it was telling the truth about America for the first time. It was designed to reveal, in Hannah-Jones’s words, “our true identity as a country and who we really are.”

Silverstein’s concession is a marked shift from his position back in December, when he was adamant that he would not concede anything to the many historians who had criticized the project, especially over Hannah-Jones’s assertion about slavery’s centrality as a motivation for the Revolution. He wrote:

“We disagree with [the historians’] claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted … I think it would be useful for readers to hear why we believe that Nikole Hannah-Jones’s claim that ‘one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery’ is grounded in the historical record.”

Silverstein went on to note outrage among some southerners when an American slave, brought back to England, was granted freedom once he got there, and when the British offered freedom to slaves who joined the British army. And this was one real aspect of the broader complaints of the colonists.

But now, Silverstein has had to “recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.” But the larger claim that the desire to retain slavery was the motivation of the Founders themselves remains uncorrected in the essay. Even now, Silverstein insists that this is merely a “clarification,” and not a “correction” — and it feels to me like a compromise in an internal New York Times’ argument. Hannah-Jones, for her part, defends herself by saying that “writing sweeping passages of history is not easy, and sometimes there is a tension between journalistic inclinations & historical ones.”

All of this is welcome, and Hannah-Jones and Silverstein did the right thing. I hope more such “clarifications” follow. But it seems to me that the real tension here was not between journalistic inclinations and history but between ideological inclinations and history. The entire point of the 1619 Project, after all, was to “reframe” American history, to make 1619 its core beginning. And it was to buttress that argument that Hannah-Jones and Silverstein wildly overstated the salience of white supremacy to American independence.

And look, educating people about the brutal horrors of the slavery regime, as uncovered by recent historians, and the staggering cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy of many of the Founding Fathers is only a good thing. The hideous reality of slavery has been euphemized too long. But the upping of the ideological ante, the decision to call the issue a “project,” the placing of slavery at the center of the revolution, and the intent to deploy it as simple, incontrovertible, historical truth to schoolkids takes things much further.

It is, in fact, history as filtered through the ideology of critical race theory, which regards the entire American experiment as an exercise in racial domination, deliberately masked by rhetoric about human freedom and equality. And that’s fine in the pages of, say, The Nation or Jacobin — explicitly political journals of opinion and polemic. But the paper of record and the Pulitzer Board, both of which sponsored and promoted the issue, are surely different. They aspire to factual, honest journalism — not ideological reframing, repackaged as empirical reality. They imply a liberal view of the world, in which the race of authors is far less important than the cogency of what they have to say, in which history is not predetermined by analyses of “structural oppression,” but by fact and contingency. The Times is supposed to be more about empiricism than activism. And to be fair, there was a lot of good journalism in the issue — it was just skewed and distorted to fit into a single argument about America’s racist “DNA.”

Maybe that old empirical era is over — as the activist staffers impose their ideological project on the old guard. Or maybe this “clarification” is a sign that certain standards have not entirely been abolished, and that liberalism itself has not been thrown completely out of the Gray Lady’s windows. Maybe this final, reluctant concession is a sign that someone at the Times realized what they had done, and pushed to undo just a little bit of the distortion. Which is, in my mind, a reason for hope.

See you next Friday.

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Andrew Sullivan: Reality Arrives to the Trump Era