With President Trump’s re-election campaign foundering and polls showing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden surging to a formidable lead in the presidential race, we’ve begun to hear a resurgence of a refrain that’s been sung over and over again since Trump’s shocking win in 2016. As soon as Trump goes down to defeat and is replaced by a Democrat, we are told, the country will quickly reset, with the derangements, scandals, and furious political hatreds of the past three-and-a-half years rapidly fading from the scene. Before you know it, America will be back to normal.
This has always been a fantasy, but it’s an especially delusional one now. The fact is that America’s problems are much vaster than Trump. The big, bad Orange Man is a symptom (both an effect and a cause) of a political system and national culture losing its bearings and spiraling down toward what looks distressingly like a collective nervous breakdown.
Take COVID-19. Trump and his party deserve considerable blame for its handling of the pandemic — first for downplaying the danger, then for failing to take advantage of several weeks in lockdown to set up a nationwide program of testing and tracing, for encouraging Republicans to view the virus through a culture-war lens, for foolishly treating the country’s public health and economic well-being as sharply opposed to one another rather than deeply intertwined, and finally for largely giving up on public-health efforts at the federal level once the president decided that such measures were harming him politically.
Yet America’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic is not simply a function of the Trump administration’s incompetence and incontinence. For one thing, the worst initial outbreak in the country — among the deadliest in the entire world — took place in and around liberal New York City, where the city’s mayor has distinguished himself by the ineptitude of his leadership and the state’s governor was responsible for instituting nursing home policies that led directly to enormous numbers of deaths.
Meanwhile, in more recent weeks media reports have emphasized that the current surge in new cases of the virus is taking place in a series of red states (Florida, Texas, Arizona) that may have reopened too quickly and haphazardly, and where many individuals seem strongly opposed to public mask-wearing to mitigate the spread of the virus. Yet deepest-blue California is also experiencing a surge in new cases — and there is mounting evidence that the Black Lives Matter protests of the past month (which were cheered on by many public-health authorities) may have spread the virus among the young people taking part in them.
This isn’t a Republican fail. It’s an American fail.
What is the source of the failure? It has many names — individualism, cultural libertarianism, atomism, selfishness, lack of social trust, suspicion of authority — and it takes a multitude of forms. But whatever we call it, it amounts to a refusal on the part of lots of Americans to think in terms of the social whole — of what’s best for the community, of the common or public good. Each of us thinks we know what’s best for ourselves. We resent being told what to do. If wearing a mask is unpleasant, we don’t want to be forced to do it. In fact, a governing authority — or really, anyone, even fellow customers at a grocery store — reprimanding us for failing to do our part for public health is enough to make us dig in our heels and stubbornly refuse to go along.
Who are you to tell me what to do?
This can lead to terrible consequences during a pandemic, when just breathing around our fellow citizens can spread a debilitating or deadly disease. But it goes well beyond COVID-19.
As the Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond recently argued in a deeply troubling tweet thread, hostility to government doesn’t produce a world of morally responsible individuals going about their lives free from external authority. It leads to a world in which individuals defer to different kinds of authorities instead — and sub-national ethno-racial groups in particular. This is clear enough on the far right. But it can also be seen happening on the left, where (in Hammond’s words) “the liberal core of American elite ideology … [is] being succeeded by something new based in racial consciousness.” Let’s call this new racial consciousness “anti-whiteness.”
As Hammond notes, this doesn’t imply a moral equivalence between right-wing retirees shouting “white power!” from their golf carts and left-wing protesters pulling down or defacing monuments to people united by little more than their white skin. But it is to note that both are examples of political factions embracing a tribal sensibility — white nationalism in the first case and anti-whiteness in the second — over and against an identity tied to the political community as a whole and its complicated collective history. Both are also examples of those factions enacting their new-found tribalism by lashing out against shared public order and authority.
This is the doom loop into which we appear to have fallen. It’s a politics of centrifugal forces that issues not just in partisan polarization and a vacated ideological center, but in an emptying out of any public, common life at all. The siloing of ideas and even reality online, along with the race- and class-based segregation of physical space that has long been a feature of American society, are feeding off of and amplifying each other in the crucible of a country confronting a deadly contagion, economic free-fall, and serious spike in urban gun violence.
Many Black citizens have understandably lost faith in law enforcement. Businesses are shuttering. Police are pulling back from enforcing public order. Acts of lawlessness are increasing. Leading newspapers are under pressure by activists and some of their own employees to abandon the ideal of objectivity in favor of a “moral clarity” that amounts to outright political advocacy. People are dismissing and mocking the advice of experts in public health.
This isn’t what a liberal society is supposed to look like. It isn’t fascism either. It may well be the early stages of a 10,000-front civil war. But more likely it’s something else — a glimpse of a shattered country in decline, lacking consensus about much of anything, fractured into mutually antagonistic factions, and overseen by a government at any given time considered illegitimate by large portions of the nation and unable to muster the capacity to accomplish any public goal with competence.
A debilitating collapse in state capacity — that is what we’re seeing, and it is both an effect and a cause of our incorrigible suspicion and distrust of authority of all kinds. Sometimes that suspicion is justified, sometimes it isn’t. Either way, a nation of 330 million people will not be able to thrive in even the best of times with a government unable to provide basic public goods.
But in the very bad times in which we find ourselves right now? That’s when things could really get ugly.