The clip below is a few days old but still timely, as the Mt. Rushmore Independence Day festivities are set to begin around the time this post goes live. Kristi Noem’s disinterest in following social-distancing rules is the important bit but it’s Ingraham’s sneering air quotes around the words “health concerns” that tell us everything we need to know about how aggressively stupid and destructive populist culture in America 2020 can be.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) told Fox News' Laura Ingraham on Monday that attendees "won't be social distancing," at a large July 3 event at Mount Rushmore where President Trump is expected to deliver remarks. pic.twitter.com/dzqCNRzZ34
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) June 30, 2020
Why would the governor of a state, charged with protecting the welfare of her constituents as COVID-19 cases soar nationally, make no effort to take the most basic precaution against an outbreak? South Dakota isn’t a hot spot (at the moment), but the transmission rate there is above 1.0 and the positivity rate has more than doubled since early June. If the answer is, “The BLM protesters didn’t social-distance during their rallies,” that amounts to saying, “If they were entitled to make people sick, we should be able to go out and make people sick too.” One idiotic act doesn’t require another.
I’m not even saying that Noem should do something heavy-handed to try to enforce social distancing. We have to be realistic about what governors can plausibly achieve in getting crowds to spread out. But at least requesting it would be helpful, and possibly persuasive to some attendees at the margins.
It’s like Trump tweeting this earlier today. How can he not understand that this doesn’t help?
Case counts aren’t going up because we’re doing more testing, they’re going up because they’re going up. His own “testing czar,” Brett Giroir, admitted that in testimony a few days ago, saying, “There is no question that the more testing you get the more you will uncover, but we do believe this is a real increase in cases because the percent positivities are going up.” There’s no two ways about it: Yesterday’s positivity rate was 8.3 percent, which has been typical lately, when we were averaging rates between four and five percent a few weeks ago. That means new infections are outpacing increases in testing capacity. When Trump tries to chalk up the current spike to testing — or, worse, when he says that the virus will “disappear” in time — he’s encouraging the sort of complacency that will lead people to take risks that produce even more infections.
The same Times story I wrote about this morning that had the alarming internal polling for him in Georgia and Kansas included this notable line: “The disconnect between the surge in coronavirus cases and Mr. Trump’s dismissive stance toward the pandemic has been particularly pronounced, mystifying Democrats and Republicans alike.” It’s genuinely baffling. Does he think the governor of Texas, of all places, would have ordered a mask mandate in cowboy country if there were any chance that the explosive increase in cases there was an artifact of more testing? According to “a Republican working on the convention” who spoke to Vanity Fair, Florida’s ballooning outbreak might even lead to the cancellation of the convention in Jacksonville.
If only for that reason, laying aside all other humanitarian and economic incentives, you would think Trump would be hooting at the public to practice maximum pandemic hygiene for the rest of the summer. No mass gatherings of any kind, the whole country masked up from now through August. “If we don’t crush the curve, I won’t be able to give my speech to MAGA patriots.” So why isn’t he hooting?
This poll caught my eye yesterday because it touches on something that’s bugging me increasingly and which I’ve begun to see bubbling up in op-eds this week. It’s a YouGov survey that asked Americans whether they currently view their country, in Reagan’s famous metaphor, as a “shining city on the hill.”
One woman interviewed about the poll responded, “We are banned from Europe right now. How could we be shining?” Exactly. The feeling that’s bugging me and others lately is humiliation. America’s epidemic is foremost a human tragedy, then an economic catastrophe, but overlaying all of that misery is a national humiliation of a sort I don’t think I’ve experienced in my lifetime. There have been many U.S. policy failures and fiascos over the last 30 years but even one the magnitude of the Iraq war could be understood as an undertaking no other country could even hope to attempt. It wasn’t a “Russia or China would have done better” failure, it was an “if we can’t liberalize the Middle East, it can’t be done” failure. We learned hard lessons about hubris and the limits of our power internationally but we didn’t come away doubting our capabilities relative to other nations.
After COVID, we should. A piece at the Atlantic dubs this “the week America lost control of the pandemic,” which captures the anxiety nicely — America has lost control of a problem other western nations are managing quite effectively, as the now famous side-by-side graph of the U.S. and European epidemics demonstrates. Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote a few days ago about returning to the U.S. from France, where life is normal-ish as infections drop precipitously, to discover cases erupting across the south and west coast while we engage in sub-moronic debates about whether face masks are a tool of oppression. “So much for the myth that the American political system and way of life are a model for the world,” he laments.
I don’t often quote David Brooks but his sense of “national humiliation” on a day when we topped 50,000 confirmed cases is justified:
We Americans enter the July 4 weekend of 2020 humiliated as almost never before. We had one collective project this year and that was to crush Covid-19, and we failed…
This failure will lead to other failures. A third of Americans show signs of clinical anxiety or depression, according to the Census Bureau. Suspected drug overdose deaths surged by 42 percent in May. Small businesses, colleges and community hubs will close…
If you don’t breathe the spirit of the nation, if you don’t have a fierce sense of belonging to each other, you’re not going to sacrifice for the common good. We’re confronted with a succession of wicked problems and it turns out we’re not even capable of putting on a friggin’ mask…
I had hopes that the crisis would bring us together, but it’s made everything harder and worse. And now I worry less about populism or radical wokeness than about a pervasive loss of national faith.
This isn’t an “if we can’t liberalize the Middle East, it can’t be done” failure, this is an “it can be done, and others are doing it, and we can’t” national rout. American prestige will never fully recover. Brooks goes on to say, correctly, that by no means is this all Trump’s fault: “It wasn’t Trump who went out to bars in Tempe, Austin and Los Angeles in June. It wasn’t Trump who put on hospital gowns and told the American people you could suspend the lockdown if your cause was just.” It’s a comforting lie to believe that ousting Trump in November will undo the humiliation. The failure here is due to bureaucratic sclerosis and profound cultural decadence, with many adults seemingly unable to care enough about the people around them to modestly adjust how, and how often, they socialize. Internationally, we’ll never live it down. Any residual faith held abroad that America is able to rise to the occasion of meeting grand challenges is dying. They’ll have to find someone more capable to lead the international order.
It’s not all Trump’s fault, and certainly not all Kristi Noem’s. But the fact that our leaders can’t be bothered to so much as encourage the most basic precautions to limit the spread is a symptom of desperate cultural and political sickness. COVID won’t kill us but that might.