COVID-19 lays bare the US’s deep problems, with some help from Trump

With the COVID-19 pandemic laying waste to the country, and President Trump’s chances of re-election fading,  the United States is at last beginning to look more deeply into its problems.

There are problems within the United States’ political system, including the role of the mainstream media. And within the media, I mean particularly the ‘respectable’, liberal media like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic magazine.

For the past four years, these media, with the Democrats, have been obsessed with Trump and removing him from office. ‘If only America could be rid of Trump and go back to the way things were’, seemed to be the message. The fear and loathing of Trump has been all consuming.

Only rarely have the commentaries I’ve seen acknowledged the need to look beyond Trump, and to recognise that the US political system is broken not because Trump is president, but that Trump is president because the system is broken.

For much of his presidency, the obsession with Trump focused on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. Russian-born American journalist and novelist, Keith Gessen, in a profile of Russian president, Vladimir Putin in the Guardian in February 2017, concluded that if Trump were impeached, he would celebrate as much as the next American. But, he said, ‘the Russia card is not just bad politics, it is intellectual and moral bankruptcy. It is an attempt to blame the deep and abiding problems of our country on a foreign power.’

Today, with the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and, to a lesser extent, the Black Lives Matter protests, there is now a growing realisation that the causes of America’s problems go back decades and reflect the abiding belief in American ‘exceptionalism’, the belief that America’s history is inherently different from that of other nations; it has a unique mission to transform the world; and its history and its mission make it superior to other nations.

In the New York Times last month, David Brooks wrote in a column, ‘The national humiliation we need’, that: ‘Our fixation on the awfulness of Donald Trump has distracted us from the larger problems and rendered us strangely passive in the face of them. Sure, this was a Republican failure, but it was also a collective failure, and it follows a few decades of collective failures.

‘On the day Trump leaves office, we’ll still have a younger generation with worse life prospects than their parents had faced. We’ll still have a cultural elite that knows little about people in red America and daily sends the message that they are illegitimate. We’ll still have yawning inequalities, residential segregation, crumbling social capital, a crisis in family formation.

‘Trump’s rise in 2016 was a symptom of all these crises, long before he had a chance to become an additional cause of them.’ America was experiencing ‘a pervasive loss of national faith’, he said.

In a similar vein, a few weeks later the Washington Post ran a feature by Dan Zak about American exceptionalism and US’s unique vulnerability to COVID-19. Perhaps Americans had ignored the pre-existing conditions for too long, he suggested.

‘In 1979, Jimmy Carter admitted to a national “crisis of confidence,” in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate and energy shortages. But then we shut our eyes and pictured Ronald Reagan’s “shining city,” as wealth oozed upward. We believed Bill Clinton’s pep talk about how our best qualities excused our worst, which included prioritizing mass incarceration. We cloaked George W. Bush’s costly foreign policy in pageant-style patriotism and then believed Barack Obama’s insistence that Americans were not as divided as we seemed.

‘Meanwhile, big banks crashed the economy and got bailed out, white people in rural areas started dying “deaths of despair,” black people kept getting killed by police at disproportionately high rates, and more Americans turned to conspiracy theories to make sense of it all and prescription pills to blunt the pain.’

In a historical essay in the New York Review of Books last month, David Rothkopf,  a former editor of Foreign Policy magazine, writes that: ‘Acknowledging that Donald Trump is very likely the worst president American democracy has ever produced and that we, as citizens in that democracy, must accept a general responsibility for choosing such a man, is only the first, and perhaps easiest, step we can take in remedying the situation.

‘If the worst presidents are produced by their historical moment, enabled by their parties, and reflective of deep divides and flaws in American life, simply voting them out is insufficient. We must address the root causes that enabled a man as profoundly flawed and corrupt as Trump to win high office.

‘Some of those causes are long tied to our history. We mythologize that history, idealize our heritage, and promote a notion of American exceptionalism. That has become untenable….This country was built not only on high ideals and ideas of liberty, but also on racism, genocide, greed, and corruption. And just as the supporters and enablers of slavery did in the mid-nineteenth century, those who today gain from structural inequality and exploitation will fiercely resist justice and reform….

‘Trump is a sign that we as a nation have lost our way.’

And outlining in the Atlantic’s daily newsletter his September cover story, ‘How the pandemic defeated America’, science writer, Ed Yong, writes: ’For a country that prides itself on exceptionalism, America has been most exceptional in its failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic and to protect its people. Despite biomedical might, formidable scientific expertise, and immense wealth, the United States squandered every possible opportunity to control the virus.’

Almost everything that led to this catastrophe was predictable, Yong writes. Experts raised alarms years ago, but their warnings went unheeded.

‘We need a full accounting of everything that happened, every weakness and every failure. We need to grapple with the multitude of pre-existing vulnerabilities that have accumulated in the U.S. for years, for decades. Unless we fix that broken foundation, the country will be at the mercy of even worse plagues to come.’

In October 2016 (so before his election victory), I argued the upside of Trump was that he had shaken the political establishment to its core and had the potential to blow wide open the limited scope of political debate, which was a good thing. In February 2017, I wrote that if Trump precipitated a crisis of political legitimacy in the US, it was what was needed.

That moment has arrived.

I said in my 2016 article that politics and the media define quite arbitrarily what warrants debate and discussion. Much that is important is excluded. I noted that American communication theorist Daniel Hallin, in a book on the Vietnam War, had distinguished between three spheres of political debate: the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate controversy, and the sphere of deviance.

Only matters falling within the second sphere gained attention. Debate needed to expand the sphere of legitimate controversy to encompass more of the sphere of consensus – what was understood to be broadly agreed and accepted – and the sphere of deviance – what was judged to be unworthy, ridiculous or dangerous.

Welcome as the recent shift in perspective is, the debate needs to go deeper still, and not just in, and about, the US. The problems are not America’s alone. None of the recent US media commentaries cited above mentions climate change and other environmental crises (apart from a passing comment by Rothkopf that Trump had, among his many flaws, ‘gutted environmental protections’).

COVID-19 is a global calamity, but its story is also an allegory. Just as the US ignored the scientific warnings about pandemics, we ignore the scientific evidence that modern Western lifestyles have become fundamentally unsustainable and hostile to our wellbeing and quality of life.

This is the root cause of our perilous situation.

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Richard Eckersley researches progress and wellbeing: www.richardeckersley.com.au.

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