When Rahm Emanuel, once chief of staff to President Obama, famously advised policymakers that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” he apparently meant that they should always take the opportunity to pursue plans that might be sidelined or even resisted in normal times. In the throes of 2008 Great Recession, he had in mind initiatives in areas like energy production, health care, education, tax policy, and regulatory reform, big questions that had been postponed in earlier administrations. Not surprisingly, his words have resurfaced in the midst of the current crisis, reminding us that a return to “normalcy” will bring full-blown 24/7 conspiracy theory and media wars. Already some are suggesting that Liberals are seeking to enact sweeping change under cover of a public health emergency. The most extreme examples of this ‘speculative journalism,’ to rate it no lower, simply recycle counter-counter-factual bloviation under a new headline. Others are carefully calibrating the amount of blame to lay on the government without appearing to want the epidemic to worsen. These trends seem sure to take over the news once coronavirus is under control. It’s almost enough to make you wish for a continuing pandemic. [Note to trolls: the preceding statement is an example of satirical exaggeration. It is not intended to be tagged as a retweet or cited as evidence of the author’s genuine beliefs. Of course, if you’re reading this at all, you’re clearly not an influential voice.]
Just as in “ordinary times” before coronavirus, the object of our national fixation is TRUMP: the man, the leader, the legend. He is the implied target of every complaint about a shortage of PPE, every caution concerning experimental treatments, every critique of the health system. To be sure, his meandering daily briefings do not inspire confidence, and some of his statements are cynical reactive nonsense. But instead of treating this as perfectly predictable, we obsessively take our collective temperature. Dueling opinion polls repeatedly pose the issue: how is he handling the pandemic? Leave aside the question of how one assesses the response to an outbreak that has not run its course–there is still no adequate testing, no promise of an effective treatment, and no place where its decline can be analyzed scientifically–how can anyone know whether the right action was taken? Rather, as a harbinger of things to come, we are invited aboard the public opinion roller-coaster. In early March, Trump’s approval ratings were under pressure even before the economic impact was clear. A few days later, a new poll announced that a majority approved of his performance. By early April, this bounce had “fizzled”. Now, as of this writing, his ratings have dipped further. So, what?
None of this is about what will work to halt the pandemic. In any case, the most important finding was a forgone conclusion: “Trump does get good marks from Republican voters, with 82 percent approving the work Trump is doing in responding to the virus. But 79 percent of Democrats disapprove.” What’s distressingly “normal” is that these opinions align so strikingly with partisan affiliation. The breakdown of opinion is all too familiar. As of mid-March, for instance, a majority of voters polled (53%) thought they or a family member was likely to get the virus, and just 6% believed the worst was behind us. “About seven in 10 Democrats are that worried (68%) compared with 40% among Republicans.” It’s true that politics is more about emotion than reason, but when you gauge your susceptibility to disease by how you vote, logic has completely left the room.
If, as Sartre said, “hell is other people,” then our daily lives at present should be a sort of paradise. Still, however nice it might be to avoid certain of our fellow citizens, this situation is only magnifying the risk we face on the other side. If we indulge in a steady diet of media punditry, we may come to believe that that the death toll reflects a deliberate indifference to the health of minorities. In the same way, we may decide that political conviction requires us to put others in jeopardy by leaving the house. And what larger end will that serve? At the moment, we have little choice about isolating ourselves, but our reaction to being liberated should be just the opposite. The vast majority of us who will survive this outbreak share the traits of the unfortunate victims: “individual persons with hopes and dreams–brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers,” as the news anchors put it. Many commentators have written about the need to come out of this time as more generous, more compassionate, and more considerate people. That’s a big ask. I would settle for more engaged–and by that I don’t mean with a screen. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste.