The United States set ominous new coronavirus records yesterday. Our total confirmed cases surpassed the 3-million mark, and our death toll rose above 130,000. Hospitals in Florida and Texas were running out of ICU beds. The infection rate in several states was higher than it was at the peak of the outbreak in New York City. Doctor Fauci warned that we are still “knee deep in the first wave” of the pandemic. Trump and the White House, on the other hand, were treating Covid like it’s on the wane, using words like “embers” to describe the surges reported in more than half of our states.
In his New York Times column on Monday, Paul Krugman argued that our failed response to the coronavirus had less to do with our culture and more to do with a lack of leadership at the top. Krugman wrote:
But why did America bungle Covid-19 so badly?
There has been a fair bit of commentary to the effect that our failed pandemic response was deeply rooted in American culture. We are, the argument goes, too libertarian, too distrustful of government, too unwilling to accept even slight inconveniences to protect others.
And there’s surely something to this. I don’t think any other advanced country (but are we still an advanced country?) has a comparable number of people who respond with rage when asked to wear a mask in a supermarket. There definitely isn’t any other advanced country where demonstrators against public health measures would wave guns around and invade state capitols. And the Republican Party is more or less unique among major Western political parties in its hostility to science in general.
But what strikes me, when looking at America’s extraordinary pandemic failure, is how top-down it all was.
Krugman went on to detail how Trump and his circle led many conservatives, by example and goading, to ignore or reject science in order to re-open businesses more quickly, hoping to juice the economy in time for the November election. And while I agree that Trump’s toxic example was and is a big part of our national failure to minimize the epidemic, it also seemed that Krugman glossed over the condition of the soil that Trump tilled.
Why were so many of our fellow citizens ready to rail against science and demonize Doctor Fauci? It wasn’t just the libertarianism and selfishness pointed out by Krugman. It was also due to a large segment of our population’s embrace of various forms of magical thinking. No other advanced western nation has so many fundamentalist Christians willing to adopt a mythology of the End Times and a Second Coming–reinforced by countless books and videos–that’s nearly on a fantastical par with Harry Potter. It’s big business. Don’t believe me? Read the Book of Revelations and you’ll hear a lot about flying serpents and dragons. Mormons believe Jesus visited the United States two thousand years ago. Scientologists believe aliens seeded life on Earth. Many Evangelicals believe that if you accept Christ as your personal savior in the right way, He will speak to you. Many prosperity gospel adherents believe that if you accept a certain version of Jesus and God, and behave a certain way, you’ll get rich. And so on.
When our citizens place the supernatural above the concrete evidence staring them in the face, it’s no wonder many Trump supporters say he was “sent by God” or that he is “a messenger from God.” No wonder so many Trump supporters are willing to believe that our government is run by an international “deep state” cabal (headed by Satan worshiping George Soros) that wants to replace capitalism with communism and do away with the white race or similar nonsense. No wonder so many Trump supporters have embraced the grotesquely warped and ridiculous Q-Anon fantasy that supercharges the Soros conspiracy to lunatic heights. No wonder so many people are willing to accept that a reality TV show host who inherited a bunch of money and spent it building condos while chasing women and cheating on his wives is somehow a business genius–despite all evidence to the contrary, including six casino bankruptcies.
This plague of magical thinking has been reinforced by televangelists and bogus “news” outlets like Fox and InfoWars. It’s also the product of several decades of the demonizing of scholarship and higher education. For years blathering idiots on Fox have been screaming about coastal “elites” and liberal professors in their ivory towers indoctrinating students into socialism, blah blah blah, while the real “God-fearing” Americans toiled in the Bible Belt. This kind of propaganda takes a toll, and makes the populace more receptive to autocratic con men like Trump, who stoke fear and division while appealing to the unspoken resentments and grievances of people whose privileges and cultural advantages have been eroding. It produces thousands of people who refuse to wear a simple mask during a pandemic because they will suffocate or because it’s against the will of Jesus or because it’s part of a conspiracy of foreign bankers (code for “Jews”) to make American men docile and impotent.
This November may be our last chance to preserve something resembling the democracy and culture we valued before Trump took over. Trump’s own niece said this in her new book:
If he is afforded a second term, it will be the end of American democracy…
Keep resisting Trump and keep working to “vote his ass out of office.”