Recently, I wrote a column arguing that the blundering of the Trump administration, while real and deadly, may not be responsible for the bulk of America’s coronavirus fatalities.
A few days later, courtesy of Bob Woodward’s omniscient tape recorder, we received a reminder of the president’s culpable failures in the pandemic’s early days – which offered ammunition to readers who found my column to be obtuse.
Some asked, does it matter if we could somehow rigorously establish that instead of being responsible for 140,000 out of our 190,000-and-counting American dead, Trump’s bungling is “only” responsible for 30,000 of the fallen? In the middle of an electoral referendum on his leadership, the brute fact of presidential failure is all we need to know.
Framed this way, the debate about Trump’s coronavirus culpability resembles other debates in the Trump era, dividing those who treat the president’s incompetence or malice or authoritarianism as an emergency that throws every other problem into shadow from those who think that the trends that gave us Trump are still the more important forces and that the president himself captures too much of our attention.
Because I’m a member of the latter club, let me suggest a few realities that become visible if you look at America’s pandemic response through a wider lens than “Trump lied, people died.”
One thing you see is that some failures in the American response are less about the president’s faults and more about a debilitating preexisting condition in his coalition – a folk-libertarian hostility to all federal policymaking, disconnected from the common good.
This folk libertarianism is deeply American, not just conservative, and has many antecedents (there were anti-mask leagues during the Great Influenza). Some of its impulses are healthy curbs against public-health overreach and local tyranny.
But in the Republican coalition today they have too much power, or too few checks. Which is why conservatism as a culture has produced so much “it’s just the flu” contrarianism and so little in the way of policy innovation from its elected leaders – some of whom are currently impeding a new wave of coronavirus relief, to their own party’s likely detriment.
Crucially, Trump himself is not the prime mover here. He ran against some of these impulses in 2016, as a more pro-government Republican than his rivals. And in the coronavirus era, he has often seemed more a captive of his coalition’s culture, echoing its loud media voices and deferring to its don’t-look-at-us lawmakers, than the originator of its pathologies.
Some anti-Trump liberals might nod along to this point. But then the second thing you see when you look beyond Trump is more congenial to conservatives – the reality that our public health bureaucracy, full of liberal technocrats rather than Trumpistas, has also been a locus of pandemic failure.
Some of these failures have (like Trump’s) been failures of messaging: the early attempts to discourage mask stockpiling, the public health hypocrisy surrounding the George Floyd protests. Others have been failures of will and imagination: the absence of challenge trials for vaccines (in which young, healthy participants agree to be vaccinated and then infected with the virus), the predictable expert resistance to at-home testing. But the most important one was the straightforward bureaucratic calamity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that delayed effective testing for a fateful month.
An effective president might have addressed some of these problems. But overall, they are problems with structures and habits rather than personalities – an institutional decadence that predated Trump and will persist when he is gone.
Certain Trump critics do recognize this more general incapacity. But they are often tempted to depict it as uniquely American – embracing what Shadi Hamid recently described as a kind of upside-down exceptionalism, in which our country is a failed state, “the inverse of the shining city on a hill.”
Hence the importance of the third thing you see when you look beyond Trump – the fact that so many countries in Western Europe, to say nothing of our neighbors in the Americas, have had death rates similar to ours.
This reality speaks not of exceptionalism but of convergence – and the possibility that the trends of the early 21st century have left us sharing more in common not only with France and Spain but also with Mexico and Brazil than most Americans might expect.
This, too, may matter long after Trump is gone. Where there are crises, in this dispensation, they are likely to be general rather than just American. Where there is decadence, it is the shared experience of late modernity. And if renewal comes to an exhausted West, it will not necessarily come through America alone.
Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist.