Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Trumpism Could Be the Future of Pandemic Politics

The pandemic is changing everything, including politics. And if Joe Biden and Democrats don't get ahead of this, then Trumpism will be the future.
April 21, 2020
Trumpism Could Be the Future of Pandemic Politics
A man waves a US flag in front of the Colorado State Capitol building during a demonstration to protest coronavirus stay-at-home orders at a "ReOpen Colorado" rally in Denver, Colorado, on April 19, 2020. - Hundreds protested on April 18 in cities across America against coronavirus-related lockdowns -- with encouragement from President Donald Trump -- as resentment grows against the crippling economic cost of confinement. (Photo by Jason Connolly / AFP) (Photo by JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images)

1. The New World

Nick Eberstadt is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. Lex Luthor levels of smart. He knows a great deal about economics, demographics, and Asia.

And this piece of his that quietly dropped over the weekend scared the pants off of me because it turns out that Nick’s outlook almost exactly aligns with my general view, the top-line version of which is:

People have no idea how bad this is.

All of the talk about “re-opening” America is a based on a fantasy view of what has happened to our world. Everything is changed. Everything.

It changed so fast that people still haven’t caught up to the new reality.

And it cannot change back to anything even a little bit like January 2020 until there is vaccine. Until then, we live in a different world than the one we inhabited 12 weeks ago.

Anyway, you should read Eberstadt’s entire piece, but I’m going to pull out a couple nuggets for you that everyone in America—and especially anyone who ever talks to Joe Biden—should grok deeply:

We are still very much in the “fog of war” phase of the calamity. The novel coronavirus and its worldwide carnage have come as a strategic surprise to thought leaders and political decision-makers alike. Indeed, it appears to be the intellectual equivalent of an unexpected asteroid strike for almost all who must cope in these unfamiliar new surroundings. Few had seriously considered the contingency that the world economy might be shaken to its foundations by a communicable disease. And even now that this has happened, many remain trapped in the mental coordinates of a world that no longer exists.Such “prewar” thinking is evident everywhere right now in the earliest phase of what may turn out to be a grave and protracted crisis. Here in the United States, we watch, week by week, as highly regarded financial analysts from Wall Street and economists from the academy misestimate the depths of the damage we can expect—always erring on the side of optimism.

After the March lockdown of the country to “flatten the curve,” the boldest voices dared to venture that the United States might hit 10% unemployment before the worst was over. Four weekly jobless claims reports and 22 million unemployment insurance applications later, U.S. unemployment is already above the 15% mark: north of 1931 levels, in other words. By the end of April, we could well reach or break the 20% threshold, bringing us to 1935 levels, and 1933 levels (25%) no longer sound fantastical. Even so, political and financial leaders talk of a rapid “V-shaped recovery” commencing in the summer, bringing us back to economic normalcy within months. This is prewar thinking, and it is looking increasingly like the economic equivalent of talk in earlier times about how “the boys will be home by Christmas.”

This is moreover a global crisis, and vision has not yet focused on the new realities in other leading powers and major economies. . . .

Envisioning the post-crisis “new normal” is extraordinarily difficult at this early juncture—not that much less demanding, perhaps, than imagining what the postwar world would look like from the vantage point of, say, autumn 1939.

Please read the whole thing.

And as you do, focus on these three ideas:

  • What happens to globalization and how much choice will America even have in the matter?
  • The idea of open-borders immigration is now dead. Absolutely, positively, dead. Any political movement that does not recognize this will become irrelevant.
  • Nationalism will rise even further. That seems inevitable. Is there a healthy way to channel (or divert) these impulses? Or is Trump-Orban-Putin-ism the only possible endpoint for modern nationalism?

These are political questions and the time to start thinking about them—and acting on them—is now. A political movement which waits until some “new normal” forms to turn its attention to these challenges will be too late.

And we should all now have a healthy understanding for just how much destruction “too late” can cause.

2. Two Jokes

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a walking, talking joke?

Ask the Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins, who over the weekend—in the midst of a global pandemic that was about to go over the 40,000-dead American mark—used the WSJ’s prime real estate to, well, just have a look:

Yup. Gotta get to the bottom of Hillary’s emails. Don’t let up now, Holman!

And then there’s Alex Jones. On Saturday Infowars staged a protest in Austin. About 200 highly-intelligent patriots showed up to demonstrate to America that they will not be . . . cooped up at home? Told to wear masks? Who can say, really. They chanted about firing Fauci and making America free again and I have to assume that these folks must all really hate Donald Trump, since he’s the one who asked for a period of national social distancing and has total control over whether or not Fauci gets fired.

They must think that Trump is a total traitor. I bet they were this close to chanting “Lock him up.”

Except that someone at the rally then made an announcement. I can’t tell from the audio who it is. Maybe it’s Jones or one of the other Infowars guys.

Here’s what the person says over a bullhorn: “It’s now confirmed, AP reporting, that the bioweapon came out of the Chinese Wuhan laboratory.”

Big news, if true!

But I’m less interested in fact checking this than in the reaction of the protestors.

They cheer.

Like, they really cheer. Like it’s a . . . good thing that 40,000 Americans have now been killed in an act of war by a nefarious Chinese bioweapon? Because that’s a better scenario than the virus being a zoonotic accident?

I’ll be honest: I’m not following the logic there. I would have thought that if COVID-19 was a Chinese bioweapon then things are a lot worse, because it means we have to get into, like, a shooting war with a country that has a billion people. And we kind of have a lot on our plate right now.

Plus—and I’m not just saying this because I’m trying to cover for President Trump—it would mean that Trump has been really, really derelict in his duties as commander-in-chief.

Boy these Infowars people must really hate him. It’s like they’re suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome or something.

Anyway, there’s some inaudible stuff and then the guy on the megaphone says “The Chinese Communists launched the bio attack.”

And there’s more cheering.

As my buddy Ryan Kinney notes: So we’re under attack from a Chinese bioweapon designed to destroy America. But also . . . open up?

3. Holy Water

This is one of my favorite Joan Didion essays, which is saying something because she lives up on the high shelf with Tom Wolfe. It’s from Esquire in 1977 and it’s about water. Drink it in:

Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive. The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is. The water I will drink tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood is by now well down the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River, and I also think about exactly where that water is: I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the forty-five-degree stone steps that aerate Owens water after its airless passage through the mountain pipes and siphons. As it happens my own reverence for water has always taken the form of this constant meditation upon where the water is, of an obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves, in the movement of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirs and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale. I know the data on water projects I will never see. I know the difficulty Kaiser had closing the last two sluiceway gates on the Guri Dam in Venezuela. I keep watch on evaporation behind the Aswan in Egypt. I can put myself to sleep imagining the water dropping a thousand feet into the turbines at Churchill Falls in Labrador. If the Churchill Falls Project fails to materialize, I fall back on waterworks closer at hand—the tailrace at Hoover on the Colorado, the surge tank in the Tehachapi Mountains that receives California Aqueduct water pumped higher than water has ever been pumped before—and finally I replay a morning when I was seventeen years old and caught, in a military-surplus life raft, in the construction of the Nimbus Afterbay Dam on the American River near Sacramento. I remember that at the moment it happened I was trying to open a tin of anchovies with capers.

Right? Unbelievable. Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.