The Germs Of August
Today I received the following e-mail from an academic historian. He asked me to keep his identity protected. He shared with me some personal information about himself and his wife, who works in the medical field, so I would know his bona fides. I’m posting what he sent to me, but scrubbing it lightly to protect his identity. He describes himself as on the left:
My position at the university has given me a good view of what the academy is doing in response to COVID, which is mainly not understanding that a severe disruption is coming. Also, my best friend—also a historian—has been a fellow at [a Roman academic institution] this year, and has witnessed what is taking place in Italy close-up. They just closed the whole [institution] down today. I also correspond with several former students in the Chinese mainland. One actually asked yesterday if I needed him to send me masks and medicine, for (his words) “when the situation deteriorates in America.” What a world.But the most important thing is that my wife is [experienced in dealing with epidemics, and is now working on her state’s COVID-19 task force]. In effect, I am uniquely placed to see and trained to interpret what is happening now.You are right that people have not yet understood or accepted what is coming. There won’t be a vaccine soon. Setting up tent cities in Walmart parking lots is not going to do it. Nor will monetary policy, nor fiscal. Our hospitals are unprepared. People really will start suffering and dying. It will seem like it is happening all at once—Wuhans everywhere, out of the aether—but in reality, it has been happening slowly. Our public health officials are and have been working hard, but there are not very many of them and nobody listens to them anyway. Their warnings were dismissed for weeks by the Feds and they have watched the news with incredulity and rage. The CDC has been mismanaged by political appointees. Most importantly, Trump denigrated their expertise and denied that anything was happening while making everybody come to the lectern and wax about his genius and decisiveness. Public health workers are overworked and tired already (my wife is working 70-80 hour weeks while on duty), and it hasn’t even started in earnest yet. They will work hard to the end, and some of them will get sick and die. But they know in their hearts that Trump will lie and blame them for everything. As a consequence, morale is low.The only tools left to fight the pandemic are the authoritarian ones, and in a time of pandemic, Trump has vast, vast powers. We ought to expect that he will soon start talking about all the powers he has that nobody ever knew about (“People are saying I have tremendous rights….”). Cities will be quarantined, interstate travel halted, et cetera. Expect is a national quarantine by April, with international borders shut down. The greatest source of anxiety is that nobody knows what kind of erratic, destructive things Trump will do next. But everybody knows that nobody can stop him.I think you misunderstood Trump’s Nero tweet. It was not a demonstration of his ignorance. It was a promise. “Coronavirus” seems a more and more portentous name every day.
Last night, I was rewriting the final chapter of my forthcoming book, Live Not By Lies. My theory about how soft totalitarianism would finally come to America needed updating for this coronavirus time. Watch this interview with Donald McNeil, the chief science correspondent for The New York Times, explaining why China’s harsh authoritarianism seems to be working to arrest the virus:
this guy rules
— rat king (@MikeIsaac) March 13, 2020
China bungled its early response massively, but is proving that its authoritarian system, with its totalitarian surveillance capabilities, could save the nation. China’s tactics are abhorrent to people in liberal democracies … but may not be so once Americans and Europeans, impoverished by collapsed economies, start dropping dead like flies. Americans will discover a Strange New Respect for a strong state.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has authorized the country’s internal security agency to tap into a vast and previously undisclosed trove of cellphone data to retrace the movements of people who have contracted the coronavirus and identify others who should be quarantined because their paths crossed.
The unprecedented move to use data secretly gathered to combat terrorism for public health efforts was authorized on Sunday by Mr. Netanyahu’s holdover cabinet. It must still be approved by Parliament’s Secret Services Subcommittee.
We have the same tracking capabilities here. China has used them in its country to gain control of the epidemic. Eventually, our government will do the same.
It will not end there, though. The system will stay in place after the crisis has passed, and most Americans, traumatized by the pandemic’s destruction, will be happy with that. It will then be deployed to protect the “health and safety” of the body politic by monitoring political and religious dissidents. The logic of what we have all seen on campuses — speakers shut down because their points of view supposedly threaten the health and safety of “vulnerable minorities” — is going to be deployed by the state against dissidents of the political and religious right. The rhetoric of public health is going to be unassailable after this crisis passes — and the political right, having destroyed itself over its Trumpian response to the crisis, will be unable to stand up against it.
It’s coming, eventually. But I also believe that the professor is right for the shorter term about the possibility of Trump seizing emergency powers.
Either way, the end of liberalism is upon us. I don’t think any of us foresaw that it would come from a virus. For that matter, most people on both the left and the right don’t even see how bad it is likely to get. They still think we’re in normal time, but in truth, it’s August 1914.
UPDATE: A political scientist says, “Y’all, come on, chill out”:
You wouldn’t believe how cliched it is for an historian to lose a bit of perspective commenting on the affairs of the day. That’s how I found today’s post.– It may be the case that in the US vs China battle for global status, this is a bad blow. But that applies only to the American system of government, not liberal democracy writ large. Remember (and believe me, countries in East Asia will), China’s own totalitarian system gave us this disease in the first place, through (I feel probably at this point) a lab safety failure and then through clamping down and failing to deal with the problem. Other liberal democracies (South Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Denmark, Germany, etc.) have dealt with things very well, in their own ways.– It just simply is not the case that this pandemic will create new precedents or tools for future totalitarianism. While emergencies CAN be used to usurp power, the fact is that the vast majority of the time, emergency powers are used for emergencies…and then wax away. This is especially the case for very “sharp” emergencies with clearly defined parameters (think wildfires or pandemics). In our system of government, even with an engorged federal system, there are checks and balances that prevent their abuse, especially again when the shape of the emergency is clear (unlike, say, terrorism). For abuses to become permanentized, it must serve a distinct political interest, be able to overcome checks and balances of other institutions, and gain a permanent organizational form (this process is what I study as an academic). That last one is why I’m so confident nothing of the sort will happen in the US. Federal pandemic response already relies heavily on state and local authorities: because Trump has been so out to lunch, that is even more the case this time. There simply isn’t anyone in the position to build, deploy, and use the kind of thing that Israel is doing. It takes real vision to build an authoritarian system, vision which Trump doesn’t have.– Same goes for online teaching, by the way. If anything, this may be the final blow against the people who have been trying to push it. Because it is going to suck, and students are going to hate it. There are already plenty of great online options for people looking for that kind of thing: the vast majority of students who are not going “online” are doing so by choice, in many cases for the social benefits/fun of college (and that’s true from your frat boys to your super high achievers- just different social benefits). So having to leave their friends, lose the fun of the spring semester, miss graduation, etc., and to have to take crappy poorly-done online courses in their parents basements…will not be well-received.– We are already at the point where, outside a handful of major cities (New York, Seattle, Boston, DC, maybe Chicago, San Fran, maybe a few others), the measures taken are more than sufficient to stop the spread of the virus before it exceeds the healthcare threshold. I think things will be just bad enough in those places that you won’t get too much grumbling about whether it was an overreaction, but it will be close. In the vast majority of places, these measures will have stopped massive community spread. And because of the age structure of the US + our patterns of life, you have a smaller and less vulnerable 60+ population (again, outside a handful of big cities). In Italy and Spain, many people live in multi-generational housing and/or see family members frequently because they live where they have always lived. This is increasingly rare in the US. I realize this is not an apocalyptic prediction, but I believe it is closer to the truth based on the evidence. The question now is going to be how to get the economy restarted without starting the spread of the disease up again.