COVID’s Dirty Secret: Our Elites Have No Idea What They’re Doing
The myth of the competent elite has taken hold again, as we crawl towards our latest president begging for the impossible.
Boris Johnson spent his entire adult life roleplaying as Winston Churchill, yet he’ll almost certainly go down as the next Anthony Eden: a gifted, ambitious politician who got exactly what he wanted but at the worst possible time.
Poor BoJo. It was supposed to be so simple! All he had to do was finish off Brexit. Then he could spend the next 10 years holding court with his old journalist chums in a Fleet Street pub. He’d grab his crotch and shout, “Here’s an exclusive from Number 10, lads!” while a chorus of hacks from The Sun laughed themselves silly. It would have been glorious.
Instead, the PM’s press team is fighting off rumors that he occasionally takes naps.
The vibe is basically the same though. Mr. Johnson—the first prime minister to openly keep a mistress in 10 Downing Street, whose Wikipedia page asserts that he’s fathered “at least six” children with as many women—wants everyone to know he’s still one of the boys. He can boot and reboot with the best of them.
Boris Johnson is like most politicians: he loves everything about government except governing. He’s in it for the private planes, the fancy dinners, and the endless armies of flatterers who line up to kiss his bottom. He reminds one of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the dictator of Turkmenistan, who’s spent his entire reign making terrible music videos with his grandson, and who built an entire city out of marble just for the weird aesthetic.
That is to say, Mr. Johnson is not the stuff of which tyrants are made. Whatever you think of Britain’s anti-COVID regulations, they’re not his idea of a good time. In the whole of the United Kingdom, nobody’s private life has suffered more than Mr. Johnson’s.
So what’s driving his government’s draconian policies? Well, let’s ask him.
Back in November, Mr. Johnson asked Parliament to support a new nationwide lockdown order. It would have ruined (and, in fact, did ruin) Christmas for millions upon millions of Britons—including Mr. Johnson. Yet as he explained to his colleagues, “Faced with these latest figures, there is no alternative but to take further action, at a national level…and I reject any suggestion that we are somehow slower in taking measures than our European friends and partners.”
There you have it.
Of course, there was an alternative. The alternative was to accept that, maybe—just maybe—the COVID pandemic is beyond our governments’ control. It takes years for scientists to properly understand how a novel virus works (and that’s assuming it doesn’t constantly mutate, as COVID has). Sure enough, “experts” have waffled constantly on the best public policy response to the coronavirus. Herd immunity or lockdowns? Masks or no masks?
Don’t get me wrong: when it comes to COVID, I’m a big-brain centrist. If wearing a mask will help stop the spread, I’ll wear a mask. I don’t really care. My point is simply this: in ages past, statesmen like Mr. Johnson would have responded very differently to a viral pandemic. He—a priapic newspaper columnist who once promised that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW”—wouldn’t have felt personally responsible for eradicating COVID-19.
What changed? Not our politicians. If anything, Mr. Johnson stands as a living rebuke to those who believe the global elite are using this pandemic to seize greater control of public life. BoJo doesn’t want to govern Britain; he doesn’t even want to govern himself.
The difference is that we the people are demanding that they rule us with an iron fist.
Mr. Johnson knows that, when he goes up for reelection in 2024, he will be held personally responsible for Britain’s COVID death toll. His constituents won’t blame their hospitals, or their virologists, or their pharmaceutical companies, or their public health service—folks who, you know, have some real competence in the matter. They won’t switch doctors, but they may well switch governments. Because Britons think their government is omnipotent—or at least that it ought to be. Like everyone else in the developed world, they believe their politicians should be able to regulate all of life’s problems to death.
I can’t stress enough that, when it comes to COVID, I am perfectly agnostic. I have no idea what’s going on. But then neither does anyone else. Nobody was angry, or even surprised, that it took Pfizer and Moderna nearly a year to develop their COVID vaccines. And nobody will blame them if the virus mutates too quickly for their vaccines to be effective. In the abstract, we understand that these are infinitely complicated, technical questions with a hundred thousand moving parts. Yet when it comes to the government’s response, we expected 100 percent efficiency from day one.
Heaven knows I’m not asking anyone to be kinder to our elected officials. On the contrary: I hope that we’ll all be much harsher. We’ve set these absurdly high expectations which they can’t possibly fulfill, yet if they want to win re-election, they have to try. And so they grasp for ever-more extreme regulations. Eventually, the government will outlaw breathing in public, and most of our countrymen will cry, “It’s about time!”
I know this is immensely frustrating for the anti-maskers and COVID truthers among you. Believe me, we’d all rather blame a cabal of powerful bureaucrats and financiers. At least that would mean someone’s in control. It would also mean there were easy answers to the pandemic, even if those answers were kept hidden from the public.
Yet this is the basic delusion that underlies every conspiracy theory, from the moon landing to 9/11, from QAnon to COVID. It’s the myth of the competent elite. The truth is at once much simpler and far more depressing: our masters have no idea what they’re doing. They never have, and they probably never will.
Our own government has tried and failed for 20 years to occupy Afghanistan. It can’t even pave the roads. How does anyone seriously believe it could orchestrate a global pandemic?
My fellow anarcho-monarchist J.R.R. Tolkien put it very well, I think:
If we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to “King George’s council, Winston and his gang,” it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy.
As the Gipper once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” But surely the nine most laughable would be, “I’m from Donald Trump…”
This would all be fine and dandy, if only it meant that, once the pandemic is over, we all saw our elites for what they are: feckless, selfish bastards. I doubt that will happen. But I’m quite sure they’ll spend the rest of the pandemic digging themselves a deeper and deeper hole.
Here’s an example from this side of the Pond. The cornerstone of Joe Biden’s campaign was his complaint that Mr. Trump hadn’t taken COVID seriously enough. He’d been too lax on lockdowns and mask mandates, he’d botched the vaccine rollout, etc. etc. Mr. Biden promised that, if he were elected, “the adults would be back in charge.” They would “believe science.” He even pledged to vaccinate 100 million Americans in his first 100 days in office.
Well, Mr. Biden is in for a rude awakening. The day after he was installed as president, a reporter asked him whether 1 million vaccines in 100 days was ambitious enough. “C’mon man, give me a break,” Mr. Biden whined. “It’s a good start.”
Nope. Sorry, Joe. Nobody gets a break in politics. There’s no such thing as a “good start” in government. You’re our papa-in-chief now. It’s your job to keep all the little manbabies who elected you safe and warm. Leave no boo-boo unkissed and no blanket untucked. Otherwise your voters will turn on you in a hot second.
Mr. Biden quickly upped the ante. “With the grace of God, we’ll be able to get that to 1.5 million a day,” he announced in his first official presser. At the time of writing, reporters hadn’t finished consulting their Ouija boards to determine whether 1.5 million is a more acceptable sum.
This much is certain: Mr. Biden will soon realize—as every other president has before him—that he’s been charged with an impossible task: effectively governing the American people. And in 2024, Mr. Trump will come back to rub his failure in his face. When he does, let him remember that nobody forced him to run for president. He asked for it.
And I’m sure he’ll just be fool enough to ask for a second term. If the lockdowns and mask mandates haven’t ended by then, Mr. Trump’s manful advice to the country—“Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life”—may appeal to more voters. As for any remaining manbabies, they will scrutinize Mr. Biden’s record and they will find it wanting. “C’mon man, give me a break, it’s a good start” won’t cut it.
I wish you the best, Mr. President, as all patriotic Americans ought to do. I hope you succeed beyond Jake Tapper’s wildest fantasies. You’ll certainly be in my prayers. Just let me give you one last piece of advice: Donald Trump will invite you to his second inauguration, but nobody will blame you if you stay home.
Michael Warren Davis is the author of the forthcoming book The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).