Analogies between the first months of the French Revolution and our current moment are easy to draw. Anthony Fauci, the infectious-diseases expert whom President Donald Trump often sidelines or ignores, is Jacques Necker, the popular finance minister to Louis XVI. Necker’s firing in early July 1789 was viewed widely as a calamity: “It was like losing your father,” the mathematician and astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly wrote in his memoirs. The recent spike in American gun and ammunition sales recalls the Parisians who stormed the Bastille Fortress in the hope of finding weapons and gunpowder. (They incidentally released a handful of individuals imprisoned there, but that was not the crowd’s original intent.) The conflict among city, state, and federal officials over coronavirus-related closures directly parallels 1789’s municipal revolutions, in which some cities had leaders who quickly proclaimed devotion to the new National Assembly, while the leaders of other cities remained loyal to the old structures of absolutist royal power and the mayors and aldermen of yet others were violently deposed.
That comparisons can so easily be made between the beginning of the French Revolution and the United States today does not mean that Americans are fated to see a Reign of Terror or that a military dictatorship like Napoleon’s looms large in our future. What it does mean is that everything is up for grabs. The United States of America can implode under external pressure and its own grave contradictions, or it can be reimagined and repurposed. Life will not go back to normal for us, either, because the norms of the past decades are simply no longer tenable for huge numbers of Americans. In a single week in March, 3.3 million American workers filed new unemployment claims. The following week, 6.6 million more did the same. Middle-class Americans who placed their retirement savings in the stock market have recently experienced huge losses. Even before the pandemic, black Americans on average had only 7 percent of the wealth of white ones (Native Americans, even less). Among non-Hispanic white Americans, deaths from drug abuse, suicide, and alcohol continue to rise. Nearly 2.5 million people are incarcerated. Trust in existing institutions (including the Electoral College and Congress) was already vanishingly small. Is it safe to go grocery shopping in a pandemic? Should we wear masks? Nobody knows who to believe.