I wake up in the middle of the night most nights these days. I have to imagine that is true for many Americans. Pandemic anxiety. Must be great for the sales of anti-anxiety meds.
It is not the course of the disease that worries me, as much as the condition of the host. America is not showing well; we are not leading the world in how to deal with the struggles of the 21st century. Wars on social media. Open hatred in the public square. Now a viral pandemic. We used to be a light unto nations, or so we imagined ourselves. Immigrants flocked to our shores, because, as a Soviet colleague said to me in hushed tones thirty or so years ago, “Ah, America.”
I wake up in the middle of the night because the America we once imagined ourselves to be on our best days is slipping away. The America we have always been on our worst days has gained the upper hand.
Reading a collection of letters entitled “Pandemic Journal” in the New York Review of Books — there, I said it, I have now labeled myself for eternity — at a little after 3am, I was struck by two letters in particular. Writing from Oakland, California, Anastasia Edel described the vaguely post-apocalyptic experience of raiding the rapidly depleting grocery aisles. “If growing up in the shortage-ridden Soviet economy taught me anything, it’s that you can’t outsmart malfunctioning lines of supply and demand.”
It was a line that evoked visits to Soviet Russia; a world as full of poetry and ironic humor as it was bereft of the consumer goods we have always taken for granted. We have choice as well, our KGB minder insisted during a middle-of-the-night conversation on a train from Leningrad to Moscow in 1984. This week, in Moscow, there will only be vanilla ice cream. So this week I will choose vanilla.
It was Anastasia’s closing words that hit home. “The one thing that’s worth stockpiling is decency, that silver lining of our lives back in the USSR, with its near-permanent state of national emergency. Today, in America, where decency has taken a beating over the past four years… Decency won’t save us, but it will make our altered lives more tolerable, come what may.”
Would that her words would find their way to the White House. Since the middle of March, when Donald Trump pushed Mike Pence aside and decided to lead the daily Pandemic Task Force briefings, they have deteriorated into little more than Trump’s newest reality show, a platform for the attention-craving, adulation-seeking and grievance-airing that have defined his presidency since his American Carnage inaugural address. Now, as the virus grinds its way across the country, he has reaped that which he sowed. Less wartime president than fabulist, his daily performances have descended in little more than lies and blame and historical revisionism and shouting matches with reporters. The utter, gaslighting indecency of it all.
Donald Trump has always been — Sarah Sanders was quick to remind us — a counterpuncher. It was always a poor analogy, as he was always more akin to an angry, petulant five-year-old in a sandbox, unable to control his emotions. Now, as American carnage is being visited across the city of his birth, we are craving a leader who can comfort and reassure us, offer us a vision of our collective path forward, and — perhaps most of all — model the decency that surely still lies within each of us. That is simply not something that this President can do.
Writing from London in the Pandemic Journal, Ian Jack could as easily have been talking about our president when he suggested that governing over a nation under siege by a pandemic was not what British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed up for. “I have to admit,” Jack wrote, before Johnson himself landed in the intensive care unit with the coronavirus, “that Johnson doesn’t look too good himself. Frankly, he looks scared and out of his depth. Being Prime Minister wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was meant to be a kingly occupation in which he could forever exercise his irony and good cheer and make his subjects laugh.”
Johnson, who positioned himself early on as Donald Trump’s doppelgänger, is more the golf course, Mar-a-Lago, affable Donald Trump than the pathological narcissist as Ted Cruz warned early on. But more to the point, the Brits have their national culture to fall back on, memories of London during the blitz, as Ian Jack reminded us in his letter.
In their pieces in the Pandemic Journal, Ian Jack and Anastasia Edel each call us back to national culture, and the shared sense of suffering that can stiffen people’s back, allow humor to prevail during the darkest hours, and decency to triumph. If culture is forged in a nation’s past and reinforced from the top, we are on tremulous ground indeed.
On the one hand, day after day, we are witnessing individual acts of heroism from doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers across the nation, and the decency that Edel speaks to is evident in our daily lives. But it is not enough. From our earliest days, America has been torn between the light and the dark, to an extent that from time to time we have not even been able to agree on which is which. It is in those moments when our character as a nation has been most sorely tested the Presidency and Presidential leadership has mattered the most. Now, we are being tested once again, and it remains to be seen which America will emerge to define the nation when we get to the other side.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.