The world has loved, hated and envied the US, Now, for
the first time, we pity it
By Fintan O'Toole
April 28, 2020 "Information
"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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.'
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Fintan O'Toole is an Irish columnist,
literary editor, and drama critic for The Irish Times,
for which he has written since 1988. "Source"
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