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COVID-19 and the Missing Call to Sacrifice

No, it's not fun. And yes, it's worth doing. Because there are more important things in this world than you.
March 18, 2020
COVID-19 and the Missing Call to Sacrifice
It's not always about you. (Digital collage by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

There’s a condescending meme being circulated by Boomers on the internet right now that you’ve probably seen:

“Your grandparents were called to war. You are asked to sit on the couch. You can do this!”

The lame joke is well-worn: Millennials are lazy and spoiled! Got it! But there is a subtler element that the memesters missed. The contrast in being “called” to something versus being asked to do it.

In America, it used to be common for us to be “called” to a higher purpose by our leaders. It was part of the mythos of our country, one of the reasons we believed in American exceptionalism. Our nation had a purpose—a calling—where other nations had mere interests.

For generations presidents leaned on the idea of there being a calling when they would ask their fellow Americans to sacrifice their self-interest in service of a higher purpose. From Lincoln to FDR to JFK to Reagan, our presidents asked us to do and believe things not merely because they were good for us but because they were important for the whole of the country—or even the world itself.

This call to communal sacrifice has been on the wane in our politics for a while now. The rich and connected—and even most of the middle-class—were inured from sacrifices following 9/11, unless they volunteered to serve. After the last financial crisis, our leaders asked the national credit card bill to carry us through. The grievance-laden politics of ensuring that one’s own tribe gets theirs is present in both of our political parties. (Though it is perhaps ascendent in only one of them.)

With Donald Trump, this trend away from communal interest and towards self-interest reached its apotheosis in the form of a man who is fundamentally incapable of demonstrating any empathy, at all. It’s possible (likely, even!) that past presidents shared Trump’s narcissism. But he stands alone in being unable to summon even the slightest simulacrum of concern for anyone other than himself.

So we find ourselves in a crisis where in order to protect the greater good, we require self-sacrifice from people for whom the threat is very minor, with a leader who is congenitally incapable of understanding such a thing, let alone making a compelling call for it.

There are people in our country right now posturing to insist that what we’re being asked to do right now is too much. Some who have made that case are grifters desperate for #engagement. Others are simple fools.

But outside the world of performative faux-epidemiology there are no doubt well-intentioned people seriously grappling with the cost-benefit analysis surrounding the present challenge.

Why, they might wonder, are they being asked to sacrifice things that are important to their happiness and wellbeing in the face of a disease with risks that are hard to contextualize?

There is a gap between those who have marinated in the expert projections on the scope of the threat and those who are seeing their day-to-day lives massively disrupted for a virus that they are told is a very small risk to them, personally.

That gap is what leads to things like Spring Breakers heading to the beach and Post-Malone fans heading to the latest concert and one last grand finale at Disney World.

Bridging this gap requires leadership, trust, and empathy.

It requires a call to care about our neighbors more than ourselves. At its core, that’s what this quarantine is all about.

Making this call is a challenge in a fractured country, where our politics is oriented towards hating the other, where we are told that owning the libs is the highest purpose, that drinking liberal/billionaire/CNN tears is our aspirational goal, that those coming here to seek a better life are actually rapists and terrorists and invaders.

This should be the opportunity to reject all of that. To reorient the way people think about their responsibility towards each other. This should be a moment for communal grace and healing.

Except that none of this is in Donald Trump’s bag of tricks.

For months, Trump focused only on how the virus impacted him and his sense of self-worth as manifested in the polls and the stock market. He downplayed it, told the public that everything was fine, that they should go to work, that he had things under control.

And then when he finally began to recognize that the virus wasn’t just going to disappear, his press events became centered on a parade of validators telling the nation how wonderful and perfect their president is.

On Monday the severity of the crisis finally seemed to sink in for Trump. And for the first time, seven weeks in, he attempted to make a call for sacrifice. Looking down at a piece of paper, without his trademark bravado, a monotoned president made this ask:

Each and every one of us has a critical role to play in stopping the spread and transmission of the virus….It’s important for the young and healthy people to understand that while they may experience milder symptoms, they can easily spread this virus, putting countless others in harms way. We especially worry about our senior citizens….If everyone makes these critical changes and sacrifices now, we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus and we’re going to have a big celebration altogether.

If you eat your peas, you’ll get one “big celebration” at the end.

A call to arms or higher purpose this was not.

It is in times of uncertainty like this in the past that Americans have turned to leaders for perspective, or guidance, or inspiration on weathering the struggle.

In April of 1942 our grandparents were called to more than just war. On the homefront they were also called to self-denial. During a fireside chat Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to the nation on financing the war efforts and what was going to be required from the American people. In the speech he called for Americans to invest extra income in war bonds and proposed higher taxes, wage stabilizations, and commodity rationing.

To make the case for these unpleasant changes, he didn’t lean on Americans’ sense of self-interest, or focus on his own political interests. He didn’t spend time complimenting his own work to date or shuttling out obsequious staffers to praise his genius.

What he did was lean on the American conscience and our tradition of sacrifice:

As I told the Congress yesterday, “sacrifice” is not exactly the proper word with which to describe this program of self-denial. When, at the end of this great struggle we shall have saved our free way of life, we shall have made no “sacrifice.” The price for civilization must be paid in hard work and sorrow and blood. The price is not too high….

This great war effort must be carried through to its victorious conclusion by the indomitable will and determination of the people as one great whole.

It must not be impeded by the faint of heart.

It must not be impeded by those who put their own selfish interests above the interests of the nation.…

I know the American farmer, the American workman, and the American businessman. I know that they will gladly embrace this economy and equality of sacrifice, satisfied that it is necessary for the most vital and compelling motive in all their lives.

Today Americans need a president to provide a similar call. To embrace the equality of sacrifice that is required so that we will see this pandemic through.

To embrace the equality of sacrifice so that our grandparents and our vulnerable friends will not die in overcrowded hospitals.

To embrace the equality of sacrifice and assist those in our community who work shifts and have lost needed income.

To embrace the equality of sacrifice so that we may come out of this hardship reminded of our shared purpose and obligation to one another.

That call for communal sacrifice is missing right now.

Our challenge isn’t just to wait to answer the call if it comes, but to be the call—to ourselves and each other.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.