“The only thing it wants is targets,” a George Mason University Ph.D. candidate in computer science, Adam Elkus, wrote of the coronavirus in March.
“It does not think,” he went on, “it does not feel, and it lies totally outside the elaborate social nuances humans have carved out through patterns of communication, representation and discourse. And this, above all else, makes it a lethal adversary for the West. It has exposed how much of Western society … is permeated with influential people who have deluded themselves into thinking that their ability to manipulate words, images and sounds gives them the ability to control reality itself.”
In each stage of the American response to the coronavirus, this delusion has been at work. In the first stage it was liberals and portions of the public health establishment who treated the virus as something to “be spun or narrativized away,” trying to define the real contagion as xenophobia or racism rather than the disease itself.
By the time this effort at reality-denial collapsed, the baton of narrative delusion had been passed to President Donald Trump, who spent crucial weeks behaving as though the power of positive thinking could suffice to keep his glorious economy afloat.
Eventually the plunging stock market and the rising infection rate forced even Trump to adapt somewhat to reality. But the next delusion belonged to some of his conservative supporters, who embraced the idea that the economic carnage was just the result of misguided government policy and that if the government simply spoke the right magic words of reopening, something close to normal life would immediately resume.
Now finally, amid the wave of protests against police brutality, the baton of words-against-reality has been passed back to the public health establishment, many of whose leaders are tying themselves in ideological knots arguing that it is not only acceptable but essential, after months circumscribing every sort of basic liberty, to encourage mass gatherings to support one particular just cause.
With this last turn, we’ve reached the end of the progression, because it means the original theory behind a stern public health response — that the danger to life and health justified suspending even the most righteous pursuits, including not just normal economic life but the practices and institutions that protect children, comfort the dying, serve the poor — has been abandoned or subverted by every faction in our national debate.
Yes, there are ongoing liberal attempts to prop up a distinction between mass protests and other forms of non-distanced human life. But these attempts will fall apart: There is no First Amendment warrant to break up Hasidic funerals while blessing Black Lives Matters protests, and there is no moral warrant to claim that only anti-racism deserves a sweeping exception from rules that have forbidden so many morally important activities for the past few months.
For the record, I still believe those rules were mostly right. The lockdowns lasted too long and imposed too much in certain places, and the George Floyd protests reflect pent-up energies that had to be released. But the rules bought time for warmer weather and social adaptations and hopefully a slower spread, they bought time for hospitals and masks and medical equipment, they brought us at least some distance closer to a vaccine. They did so without creating the total economic calamity that many on the right were prophesying.
That the rules are now dissolving amid ideological double talk from health authorities says something important about the American capacity for political delusion. But it doesn’t prove that we were wrong to implement them — not when there are thousands of people who are still alive because we sustained restrictions for a time.
The progression I’ve described, though, in which all sides have embraced delusions or found something to value more than public health, does signal that there will be no further comprehensive attempt to fight the virus. Trump and conservatism won’t support it, the public health bureaucracy won’t be able to defend it, and we didn’t use the time the lockdowns bought to build the infrastructure to sustain a campaign of actual suppression.
So in this sense we are back with Elkus’ original point. All the virus wants is targets, and if it doesn’t ultimately find another hundred thousand victims, or more than that in some autumn second wave, it will not be political decisions or public health exhortations that save us. On the left and right we’ve exhausted those possibilities. Now only some inherent weakness in our enemy can save us from many, many deaths to come.
Douthat writes for The New York Times.