By Daniel Mallock (April 2020)
Early Sunday Morning, Edward Hopper, 1930
What does it mean when an era, an age, an epoch—ends?
It is clear in this time of catastrophe that the world is changing, has changed. Never before in world history has an event paralyzed the entire planet, covering humanity with fear and trepidation. In times of war there is always fear and frenetic action and honored sacrifices now there is a stunned silence in the streets and a palpable panic and fear—and the exceptional response from the medical and support community and government officials involved in mitigation efforts.
Trump is a war president, in a sense, because this is a kind of war against, as he correctly says, an “unseen enemy.” The mandated isolation and social distancing now underway raise the tensions and stress because people have no way to react but to shelter in place, day after day. That every casualty is covered in the press, and every celebrity or political leader who tests positive is also covered creates growing panic and fear in the population. Even a trip to the food market is now a stress-filled, almost bizarre, surreal activity passing down aisle after aisle of empty shelves. The shortages and panic buying happening across the country suggest to some that the country itself (and the world, too) is in collapse—which it absolutely is not as of this writing.
The dark core of history—every generation will be challenged.
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From now forward and for future historians everything of the life of civilization will be described in this way—before Coronavirus, and after it. We are not now so lucky to be in a post-Coronavirus world looking back upon the nightmare and almost inconceivable pain, suffering, and damage that it caused—we’re obliged to live through it as best we can.
In the course of this global calamity all those things that one once took for granted as standards of daily life now are open to doubt. There is no question that everything is now “different” and that little will remain unchanged in the aftermath. In this instance we cannot deploy the cliché term “when all is said and done,” because most all have the feeling that the impact of this event will mean, among many other things, that most things will never quite be “all said and done” again.
The pre-virus context in which petty arguments, excessive and heated partisan political rhetoric, and failed philosophies were the order of the day is obliterated—yet many in the political elite seem unaware of this obliteration. The rhythm of daily life is now indefinitely paused as nations teeter on the brink, long-held beliefs and habits are challenged and fall, and we look to the national government to do extraordinary things which, when looking back from some future vantage, may be seen to have not been possible though entirely necessary. Those ideological politicians who oppose a rapid fiscal rescue to the people will inevitably be viewed with suspicion and disdain—it is a war effort now, and all must get on board to defeat the enemy and bring the country to a swift recovery.
Petty partisan bickering must fall to the wayside and ideological differences put aside as the nation goes to war. Joe Biden, the candidate apparent of the party-not-in-power made it a point on March 23rd to criticize Trump’s response to the crisis as a way to reinvigorate his embarrassing, heartless campaign—politicizing a crisis for political gain in the midst of it is always a reeking fail because it puts partisanship above country. The dysfunctional party-currently-not-in-power is assured to stay that way for the foreseeable future. One of the most vicious, radical, and hateful democrat opponents of the president complimented his response to the crisis on March 21, writing via twitter, “Politics aside, this is incredible and the right response in this critical time.” This unexpected and truly surprising thing could not have happened only two weeks before. On March 24th, a Hollywood actress thanked Trump via twitter for his excellent leadership during the crisis. The intolerant response from the hyper-tolerant, social media celebrity-watching, utopianist leftists of twitter was exactly as you might expect. Yet even as some radicals temper their tone, and most of the country rallies around the president and his teams, others in the party-not-now-in-power consider the emergency more a political opportunity than anything else. Opportunists, the cynical, and the troubled always try to make gains when others suffer and the country itself is in crisis. “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) worked to scupper the phase-three coronavirus relief package on Sunday after Majority Whip James Clyburn (D., S.C.) told caucus members last week that the bill was ‘a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.'” While most Americans consider the crisis something to survive as best they can, and look for ways in which they can help—others believe that their revolutionary moment has arrived. Such a viewpoint is cynical and self-serving at best, repellent at worst.
Faced with a horrific threat of mass casualties such as those now experienced in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, world leaders must make this decision: destroy the economy of your country, lockdown the population, and bring commerce and the norms of daily life to an almost total standstill or face the end of your country and your society. It is an “end of the world” scenario that puts leadership in an almost impossible position.
President Trump rightly characterized the extraordinary response of the federal government as necessary to save lives saying that things can be replaced but lives cannot. The crisis leadership shown by the President, Vice President, and their team of top medical experts has been impressive and inspirational. Trump recently correctly described himself as a “wartime president.” That this is a true statement is self-evident.
Late in the drama-heavy month of March, President Trump invoked presidential war powers for the first time in his presidency by signing an executive order stating that he would use the Defense Production Act, if such use became necessary. As of March 24, using this war power authority has not been necessary because the private sector has been more than cooperative to requests from the government, particularly for ventilators and masks. Additionally, private firms are volunteering support and donating product, thus negating the need to use this war power. But, even with the corporate volunteerism so widely seen, this may not be enough under the present crisis and broken promises result in harsh responses from the White House: on the 27th, President Trump activated the Defense Production Act and ordered General Motors (GM) to quickly make and deliver large numbers of ventilators, just as they had promised they would do and did not, at least fast enough for the president’s satisfaction. As the crisis continues this Act is likely to be invoked again.
Trump is wisely reluctant to use these exceptional presidential emergency powers. “‘We’re a country not based on nationalizing our business,’ Trump said. ‘Call a person over in Venezueladeeply confused, ideologically-driven Democrat politicians who have no problem at all with nationalizing private businesses. April is surely set for much more and weightier drama to come.
As of this writing, the count of Covid-19 victims rises daily locally and nationally, and across the planet, though in Italy the number of new cases has declined for the last four days thus suggesting an end to the nightmare, at least in that country. Those countries late in mitigating the spread of the contagion will likely pay a higher cost in both economic damage and lives lost. We go deeper into lockdown and know that the president is correct to take these extreme measures at the behest of his medical advisors. However, daily shifts in the situation suggest that things may not be as dire as first thought.
Dr. Debra Birx, one of the lead medical authorities on the White House Coronavirus Task Force suggested on March 26 that the extreme predictions first embraced are not supported by the data. “’When people start talking about 20 percent of a population being infected, it’s very scary,’ she said during Thursday’s White House briefing. ‘But we don’t have data that matches that based on the [actual] experience.’” It is also clear that these national lockdown measures cannot be extended for many weeks or even months because the consequences of the closures will collapse the country.
Some countries, such as Brazil, appear to be minimizing the critical nature of the outbreak and taking little or no action. President Jair Bolsonaro said, in a televised speech in Brazil on Tuesday, March 24th, “‘Our life needs to go on, jobs must be maintained, families’ livelihoods must be preserved. We must return to normalcy.” It will be important to follow the situation in such countries in the coming weeks. It seems likely that some countries, at least as national political entities, will not survive this crisis with Iran, in particular, impacted.
The virus appears to have peaked in its country of origin, China, which gives hope to every other country on the planet that the contagion apparently has a finite course to run and then receeds. Doubt in the veracity of claims made by the government of China is widespread, and President Trump has reiterated his anger toward the Chinese Communist Party by describing the contagion as the “Chinese Virus” at several press briefings. Allegations of racist intent against the president continue to arise in leftist media outlets and among troubled and virtue-signaling leftist politicians and their fellow travelers, but the country as a whole seems unimpressed by such out-of-context and petty criticism of Trump. The virus began in Wuhan, China, so the name “Chinese Virus” is literally accurate and cannot be a racist epithet. Trump clarified the matter on March 23rd when he declared via twitter, “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States, and all around the world. They are amazing people, and the spreading of the Virus….is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form. They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER!”
What is becoming troublingly clear is that the virus epidemic that began in China was kept hidden by the Chinese Communist party which delayed the rest of the world in responding to the threat. By using the term “Chinese Virus,” Trump is signaling to the government of China that they will be held accountable for their negligence and secretiveness that increased the impact of this global catastrophe and is not in any way meant as an insult to Chinese people or Asian Americans. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, is currently stranded in Rome with his wife, the American Ambassador to the Vatican. Gingrich is not shy about blaming the Chinese government directly for the global catastrophe.
Little is known of this new virus (thus the term “novel”) and therefore projections of timelines for national and global recovery can only be speculative. The expectations for the near future of the country are grim with large halls, hotels, and convention centers converted to hospitals out of some dystopian nightmare. At least one cruise line has offered the president their ships to serve as floating hospitals.
On March 24th, Trump dramatically announced that he would like to see the country “open” by Easter (April 12, 2020). This target date may be more aggressive than many medical professionals would prefer but not doing so might put the entire country at risk for economic collapse and all the attendant miseries and hardships, disease, crime, and human misery that that would entail for the country and for the world that relies so heavily on American monetary and military support. On March 24, Trump said, “‘We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu. We don’t turn the country off,’ Trump said. ‘You can destroy a country this way by closing it down.’” President Trump suggested that “hot spots” could remain locked down and those areas less affected could begin to return to normal operations. This seems a reasonable, and perhaps existentially necessary approach. There is a growing feeling in the population that the national shutdown is an overreaction that will cause more damage and loss than the virus itself, that the cure will be worse than the illness.
This is the new national life within which old matters and issues of contention are now out of context with many extremists and fools exposed as the frauds and hucksters they always were. Where are the identity politics champions touting the victimhood of this group or that and demanding attention, respect, recompense, and government largesse? Where are the utopianists, the jacobins, the globalists? Everywhere there is a growing silence from leftist political cranks and extremists as the government moves rapidly forward to save lives and save the country itself.
Expectations have rarely been higher and the response from political leadership seldom more all-encompassing. In times of extraordinary emergency, and certainly in this current crisis that is global in scope, it is clear that every response is a local and national one. There is a circling-of-the-wagons happening in every country though compassion continues to grow unabated. This local reaction centered around guidance from the federal authority is as far removed from globalism as one might expect. Utopianism and globalism are founded on the idea that humans and systems are perfectible—both untruths. Few now discuss the EU or the UN or other globalist, utopianist bodies—even EU member states all have national-level (and not supra-national) responses to the crisis. All attention is focused on leaders at the city/town, state, and national levels for direction and emergency aid. Because they cannot respond to an existential crisis such as Coronavirus, and because humans have an inherent desire/need in an emergency to take care of their own people first, the supra-national globalist constructs are suddenly becoming irrelevant. The sudden irrevelance of organizations once thought critical and desirable will be followed by the same fate for some/many well-known individuals whose true unpleasant and false natures will become apparent for all to see. These self-exposures, and subsequent realizations will be painful for some. The callousness and shallowness of many individuals will soon be bared for all to see as the intense pressure of the crisis brings people and structures to their breaking points.
As every country on the planet is brought to its knees by Coronavirus some painful truths are now once again reasserted and their opposite exposed as frauds. Some years ago (1974) Ernest Becker published “The Denial of Death” and won a Pulitzer prize for it. It is a difficult book though exceptional, and now has a new mirror in that while we mainly have difficulty accepting the fact that we all must die eventually, we also cannot accept that we are ultimately all biological creatures. The devastation, death, and economic destruction now underway due to Coronavirus savagely rams the point home of both the limits and fragility of our lives.
Atheists, perhaps, are reinvigorated by this tragedy—look, they might ask, where is God? You see, we are just biological machines! But the assertion misses the point because our biology is not what we are, it is merely the vessel within which we navigate and experience our sometimes painfully limited existence on this planet.
The Coronavirus is a great humbling event for all of humanity as our biological fragility is both reiterated and cruelly attacked. Governments, systems, and organizations are stretched to their limits and sometimes break, our leaders pressed to the very walls of the great city on the hill, and our people stressed to exhaustion—the hubris of the world ought to melt away. But the political games, bitter, contentious opposition, and the failure to rally behind the president (and the country itself) by some opposition leaders and their blinkered followers show that, at least in this great country, such has not happened.
The days ahead look dark and ominous. National lockdowns continue across the world with no one able to speculate as to when it all might end and some level of normality return to daily life; even the president’s partial reboot date of Easter, 2020, is speculative. But all seem to know that while there will be an end, nothing will ever be the same.
There are many who seem incapable of comprehending the enormity of the global emergency as they romp at “spring break” or gather with friends and strangers deluded that the sufferings of others do not involve them as they muddle through their self-involved and sadly shallow lives. These are the outliers, the skews of the species who, within their dysfunctional community of the self-absorbed, selfish, and arrogant, are outside the family of humanity. One troubled young person recently publicly apologized for his arrogant selfishness and thoughtless lack of concern for others; more such mea culpas will follow.
It is difficult to exaggerate the extreme sufferings occurring now in the world and the damage being done to businesses, industries, economies, nations, families, and individual lives. Prior to the Coronavirus and its attendant lockdowns loneliness and depression were seen as growing problems particularly among younger people. That the effective response to this outbreak depends upon compliance with mandated isolation and “social distancing” is a painful irony. It is clear that the psychological fallout from the quarantines and the sudden unexpected losses, sacrifices, and the sufferings will be enormous—it seems almost a redundancy to write the sentence.
The forward momentum of the culture had been to bring more people together, to build closer bridges between individuals and groups to find the commonalities that ought to unite us all. We are all now united in sadness, solitude, horror, grief, and suffering—the bitter ironies of life.
One can speculate about what a post-Coronavirus world and political order will look like but such speculation is of little value while the crisis is underway. The world will be a different place when we come out of this on the other side. Everything will be different, and everyone affected in their own way. In the midst of world-changing tragedies such as this, it is difficult to fully comprehend the enormity of the thing.
There are many on the front lines of this fight from delivery drivers, supermarket stockers and cashiers, to EMTs, nurses, and doctors, police, fire, and community and political leaders, and many others. All of these people go about their daily efforts as heroes and we look to them for their fortitude and self-sacrifice as a model for ourselves. Covered by compassion for those afflicted with this disease and full of grief for those who have died and will die we will find our way as a nation to the end of this horrible time.
On March 23rd President Trump at his daily Coronavirus briefing confidently stated that the lockdown of the nation would not last much longer and that the three-month horizon mentioned by some was not going to happen. The president said, “we can’t let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”
There is a painful calculus that is required in such a pandemic outbreak and national/international catastrophe—how much economic damage can the country tolerate before it collapses into depression and perhaps worse, as opposed to how many lives will be lost from the virus if the strict quarantines and closures are lifted? It would appear that this is the very issue that President Trump is facing. Perhaps it was the second failure of Congress to pass the emergency support bill for American families and companies on the 23rd of March that pushed Trump into a re-think of the national response to the virus?
In order to support the ongoing closures and quarantines the government must swiftly send money to families and businesses to tide them over until the recovery begins. Without this monetary support from the government it is likely that the economic costs of the closures will be catastrophic if not existentially threatening to the country. President Trump’s target date of Easter to re-open some areas of the country other than hot spots is certainly founded on these troubling economic truths.
In the Democrat additions to the emergency bailout bill were “higher fuel emissions standards for airlines, and expanding wind and solar tax credits.” Such things are partisan leftist items and completely unrelated to the national emergency. Such additions are a failure of congress and a blight upon our representative democracy. House Minority leader Steve Scalise (R-La) said, “Speaker Pelosi unveiled legislation aimed at exploiting the COVID-19 public health crisis by attempting to force the inclusion of a socialist wish list of policies that have nothing to do with the public health and economic emergency.” (Note: see the list of Democrat additions to the emergency funding bill here.) On March 23rd, President Trump said, “I canceled the deal last night. I said I’m not going to sign the deal because Nancy Pelosi came in and put a lot of things in the deal that had nothing to do with the workers, that had to do with an agenda that they (ed. have) been trying to get passed for 10 years.” Partisan, ideological gamesmanship in the midst of a national/global catastrophe that delays relief and increases suffering will cost the democrats significantly in the near and far future.
As the representatives in Congress (March 25) debate the rescue bill and delay aid to the American people, President Trump suggested in his daily Coronavirus briefing of March 24 that some of his opponents, certainly in the media, want to see the country remain closed (though such lengthy closure may not be required)—so as to gain political advantage over Trump and hinder his reelection chances in November. The president has good reason to be concerned about such partisan/ideological/personal hate-motivated opposition driving extended closure of the countrymay be scientific support for Trump’s desire to reboot non-hot-zone segments of the country by Easter—or not. As of this writing (March 25, 2020) there is no definitive information available as to the consequences as to the spread or containment of the virus that might result from the president’s desire for a mid-April partial national reboot. There is little doubt, however, that, if the country remains closed through the month of April and beyond, the national and personal costs will be beyond consequential—they will likely be catastrophic.
The Coronavirus is not only a health emergency it is also an economic crisis. All the stock market gains of the last three years have been reversed in the last three weeks.
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The medical experts that the president has assembled around himself to respond to Covid-19 can advise him only within their areas of expertise—medicine, epidemiology, and virology. The president wisely has listened to these experts—but there are others whose expertise is economics, business, national security, and national continuity who also must have their say, and the president’s ear.
The virus must be defeated and the country must be saved both at the same time. Difficult questions as to the true catastrophic nature of the pandemic must be asked, and swiftly answered.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading medical authority on the White House Coronavirus Task Force said, in referring to reports that the virus is appearing in parts of Africa where winter is now setting in, that this could mean that the virus could become cyclical, (similar to how flu season comes every year for us). “‘And if, in fact, they (southern Africa) have a substantial outbreak, it will be inevitable that we need to be prepared that we’ll get a cycle around the second time. . . I know we’ll be successful in putting this down now, but we really need to be prepared for another cycle,’ Fauci concluded.”
If the population is struck down with penury as they socially distance themselves from the virus and from one another; if the economy collapses, the future is bleak even if the virus is defeated, or dissipates in the hot summer air; or an effective vaccine is quickly developed and distributed. If the closure of the nation continues for much longer one can imagine soup kitchens and bread lines, and stock traders and the newly destitute leaping from tall buildings as the DOW dives down.
We now know the transmission routes of Coronavirus; we now know the fatality rates; we now know who is most at risk by age and health profile. The president must weigh the health of the entire nation against some who will die during this catastrophe. These are weighty, difficult decisions. The nation must survive and as many people as possible saved from both the virus and from economic death
What does it mean when an epoch ends?
It means that we must meet the challenges head on and never succumb to despair. While we might be the first generation ever to face an event so great in scope previous generations faced their own enormous challenges that, to them, were just as critical and devastating at the time. They recovered and rebuilt their lives—as we will also do.
The days to come will be difficult ones.
And then there will be light breaking over the dark horizon.
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Daniel Mallock is a historian and the author of NYT best seller Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a World of Revolution. For a humorous diversion, please see Mr. Mallock’s “The Biodeconfukulator” (New English Review, August, 2019.).
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