The Real Virus

I’ve been thinking a lot about what the virus means–at the symbolic level of culture and politics. While it is of course still too early to know what the biological and economic fallout will be, I wanted to offer some thoughts on what the cultural and political implications might look like.

What the virus represents, of course, is reality. “The times have found us,” Paine wrote. Well, truth, facts, science, and, most importantly, two realities have found us and, at long last, caught up to Trump. 

The first is the importance of expertise to a well functioning government. A central tenet of Trumpism is the replacement of expertise–diplomatic, military, economic, you name it–by impulse, hunch, and gut instinct. Decision making is governed not by the numbers of the expert, but by the nervous system of the leader. Trump’s incompetence, and disdain for competence, somehow never led to a national or global crisis of world-historical proportions for the first three years of his presidency. Yes, we careened and staggered from blunder to scandal to outrage and back again. Yes, the hollowing out of government agencies, the attrition of career civil servants, and the erosion of institutional knowledge began immediately, proceeded steadily, and compounded over time. Yes, Trump has successfully dismantled an astonishing amount of the Obama administration’s sophisticated and well-oiled technocracy. But never has there been a visceral sense that the social order itself is in danger due to government incompetence quite like this. For perhaps the first time in his presidency–in photos and footage, and especially in his Oval Office address–Trump looks lost, small, and even a little afraid.

The second is the reality of global interdependence. “No man shall separate what God has joined.” What the virus demonstrates is that, in reality, the major countries of the world are part of an interdependent economic and ecological system, and that their national interests are best served, in general, by cooperation rather than competition. The Trump administration has resisted and attempted to nullify the gravitational pull of this 21st century reality by tearing apart the fabric of the liberal international order that for seven decades has served as the political and legal skeleton of this system.

At bottom, his efforts perfectly mirror the logic of his work as a reality TV star–the faux logic of fantasy. The show has gone on so long because, amazingly, Trump has been blessed by an absence of major foreign crises for nearly his entire term. Both Bush and Obama were forced to grapple in their first year in office with world-historical crises that came to define their presidencies. Yet, in the same manner in which we came into this world, Trump inherited a pleasant path of least resistance. Whatever crises he faced were self-generated, unforced errors that he not so much dealt with as found a way to divert public attention from by doing something even more outrageous.

Yet what appear like unforced errors from our perspective are, from his, the whole point. What looks like chaos from our standpoint is the deliberate construction of a new order. The blueprint for that order can be found in the writings and speeches of Steve Bannon: the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” During Trump’s inauguration, George W. Bush famously muttered “That was some weird shit” after Trump’s speech decrying “American carnage.”

Except that it wasn’t weird. The great mistake is to see Trump as some sort of radical rupture with the modern conservative movement, and to think that the unprecedented and unwavering support of evangelicals Trumps enjoys as something that needs explaining. Quite to the contrary: he is the one they’ve been waiting for. Bannon’s “deconstruction of the administrative state” is simply a more articulate and concrete version of Reagan’s “government is the problem, not the solution.” Or as Grover Norquist famously put it, he wants a government small enough that he can drown it in the bathtub.

And here is where the virus comes in. The virus can help us see–make it impossible for us to ignore–what the endgame of this project actually looks like. As George Packer documents in this month’s Atlantic Cover, this is how you destroy a government. Put another way, the virus that is infecting our bodies can help us detect the virus that has infected our society.

In the fullness of time, the coronavirus will be a vaccine that inoculates us against this deeper disease. Nietzsche coined an ugly term to describe an ugly thing: “misarchy,” hatred of rule. Like Plato, he thought it was a danger all democracies faced. Drunk, Plato wrote, on the “unmixed wine of freedom,” the citizens of a democracy would be so driven by their appetites, so intoxicated with their freedom, so different and diverse in their tastes and values, that they would come to reject the very idea of government. Incapable of self-rule and intolerant of rule by others, resistant to the very rule of reason and reality itself, they repeal the republican principle of rule by good and wise men (and women! Plato was a progressive on gender equality). The resultant democratic dysfunction and paralysis becomes so unbearable that in their desperation they turn to a man they do not understand, seduced by what Madison warned of as “the artful words of interested men,” who promise to, well, drain the swamp.

Put in historical context, the Trump administration is the endgame of a project launched with Barry Goldwater. As many NeverTrumpers have finally realized, to their horror, modern conservatism was never really about vaunted ideals like states rights, balanced budgets, free markets, personal responsibility, family values, and so on. It was about a segment of white Christian Americans who just didn’t like the modern world, and embarked on a project to, under the guise of an ideology of small government, use the machinery of government to protect themselves and punish those who weren’t like them. The truth is that government wasn’t the problem–it was a proxy, a dog whistle, for the real problem: that they were being forced to be part of a society of people who don’t think, worship, look, or live like they do. What was masked for decades by dog whistles and ideology is now naked and out in the open: that American politics has always been identity politics, and that the dominant identity–white Christians–is losing its grip on power. As a consequence–and with relentless ferocity from Gingrich to McConnell–it has made war on the institutions of power itself. The message is as troubling as it is nihilistic: if institutions aren’t going to work for us, then they aren’t going to work for anyone.

Fortunately, the truth is more complicated. George Will has insightfully noted that Americans are philosophical conservatives, but operational liberals. If you ask the country what it believes, it presents as center-right. But if you look at what the country does, it’s center-left. At the end of the day, when the chips are down–when there is a terrorist attack, or a financial crisis, or a global pandemic–people want government help. They give the finger to the government with one hand, yet accept its aid with the other. To paraphrase the adage, there are no conservatives in foxholes. The sad thing is that the people who most fetishize law and order have done the most to erode what makes it possible; the people who fear chaos, social breakdown, and the rending of the social fabric the most have created the conditions that make it most likely.

The fact that the virus has reached the upper echelons of society–entertainment (Tom Hanks) and government (Brazilian leaders, Trudeau’s wife, Senator Ted Cruz)–reflects something important about its meaning. No one is immune. No one is truly safe. But also, that no one is truly separate and alone. We are all in this together is a cliche, yes, but cliches exist for a reason. It reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr., was right: we form a  “single garment of destiny.” The invisible vectors that support the virus’ spread spread are at once the source of the solidarity that will stop it. The virus reminds us that we are not, as our pathologically individualistic culture tries to convince us, islands unto ourselves; that our nation is not truly separable from the global community and the earth that supports it; and most crucially, that the moral and intellectual character of our leaders really does matter.

Social distancing is about to reveal to us just how social we are, in a way social media never could. And in the case of Trump, it is about to reveal the man behind the curtain:  robbed of his audience, he is nothing. Like Sauron from Lord of the Rings, or Voldemort from Harry Potter, he is a parasite incapable of existing on his own. He draws his power from the crowds that flock to his rallies and the media that follow his every move.

During the 2008 campaign, David Brooks described his experience attending an Obama rally. What really struck him was how different Obama was. Most politicians feed off of contact with the crowd; it is like oxygen for them. As Bill Clinton confessed during his speech at the 2012 DNC: “Ah [sic] love this.” But Obama, Brooks thought, was different: “He didn’t need the crowd. The crowd needed him.”

Trump–as in almost all things Obama-related–is the opposite. Attached to that energy source, he is a god. Cut off from it, he is just a man. Without supporters before him to rile up, without reporters before him to attack, thrust before the cameras and up against the pane of reality, he is revealed for what he is: the opposite of a leader. For what Trump is, at the bottom of it all, is a great follower. He follows the basest impulses in human psyches and cultures, and manipulates them in order to gratify his own. As Plato taught us so long ago, the tyrant is the least free person there could be, led, like an animal, by his lawless appetites, but worse than an animal, because he is capable of better.

And the tyrant is also the most lonely. In the climax of The Dark Knight, as Batman and the Joker duke it out on the rooftops of Gotham City, it dawns on the Joker that his master plan has failed, and with it, his view of human nature and theory of politics.

Earlier in the film, the Joker predicts, “You’ll see. When the chips are down, these…’civilized’ people? They will eat each other.” For the Joker, all the stuff of human culture–art, morality, religion, law–is a thin veneer concealing the awful truth articulated by Hobbes and, later, in less brutal terms, by Margaret Thatcher:  “there is no such thing as society, only individuals.” Life is a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum competition for scarce resources, a ruthless war of all against all.

The Joker’s attempt to prove his theory involves packing two ferries with people, one with regular citizens, the other with convicted criminals, rigging each boat with explosives, giving the detonator to the people in the other boat, and telling them that unless they use it, both boats will explode at midnight. His assumption is that they will blow each other up to save themselves. An assumption they people of Gotham–including the convicts–disappoint. And what Batman says to him is what the nation is going to collectively say to Trump on election night: “What were you trying to prove? That deep down everyone’s as ugly as you? You’re alone.”

But we will never be.