More people have now died from the Covid19 virus in the USA than in either Italy or China. It isn’t just Donald Trump that has made for this catastrophic failure of public leadership – it’s a set of ideological blinders on the part of some of those around him. Responding effectively to the Covid crisis calls for pragmatism in three domains – between the public and private domains, between centralized and decentralized government, and between individual and the collective interest. On all three, ideological pre-occupations have tied the US federal government in knots.
Over the past two months, Donald Trump indeed has given us a master class in catastrophic leadership. But the ideological blinders which have crippled the US response have little to do with him. Trump’s most important surrogates in this crisis have been his son-in-law Jared Kushner and vice president Mike Pence. Pence, as a Republican ‘Tea Party’ congressperson and then governor of Indiana earned a well-deserved reputation as an ideological hard-liner. Kushner is a classic example of New York “master of the universe” hubris – the golden boy of two billionaire families, certain of his own brilliance, of the marvelousness of the private sector and of the mediocrity of those, less magnificent, who chose to devote their lives to working in the public sphere.
As a result of Pence and Kushner’s (and their fellow-travellers’) ideological preoccupations, the US government has been hamstrung at precisely the moment when decisive national leadership has been called for. Ideological blinders make it impossible to separate function from form . If an obvious solution doesn’t fit the ideological filter, it cannot be considered. Indeed, if the problem doesn’t lend itself to an ideologically acceptable response, then the problem itself must be deemed not to exist. (OK; this is not the time to go on about climate change…….)
An effective response to the coronavirus crisis requires decisive national-level leadership on testing, on the provision of urgently-needed protective and medical equipment, and on a comprehensive set of stay-at-home policies. In each of these, ideological blinkers have crippled the federal response.
On testing for coronavirus infection: we still don’t fully know why the Centre for Disease Control was so hamstrung in the early months. (I, for one, expect that in time we will discover that the trail of dysfunction in scaling-up testing leads directly to efforts from the upper reaches of the administration to suppress bad news.) But we do know that when the federal government began to act on testing (via Jared Kushner’s task force!) its first announcement was that Google and Walmart would take the lead – in drive-thru testing which never got off the ground. We also know that a comprehensive testing regime is the crucial condition for re-opening the economy – but that, as of the time of writing this piece, there are only grab-bags of state and local initiatives, with no comprehensive federal actions, strategies or guidelines.
On the provision of medical and protective equipment – another muddle, this time because of deference to the private sector. The results include: lagging domestic production (in part as a result of delays in invoking the Defense Production Act), state and local authorities finding themselves competing on the open market for resources (with poorer localities left out in the cold), and the absence of any national mechanism for directing resources to areas of the most urgent national need.
On the need for comprehensive stay-at-home policies – where there is an unavoidable tension between individual liberty and the collective interest. A person can be infected with COVID19 but asymptomatic for days, inadvertently becoming a super-spreader fueling an out-of-control wildfire. For this reason, the vast majority has embraced the necessity of stay-at-home. But in some parts of the USA the reluctance of a number of hold-out Republican governors to accept the need for stay-at-home orders has kept the wildfire burning out of control, undercutting the efforts of everyone else. One can leave it to Republican Senator Rand Paul (son and heir of Libertarian Party founder Ron Paul) to find the ideological reductio-ad-absurdem with his equation of a stay-at-home order to “quarantining someone for being Christian on Easter Sunday”.
There’s a classic wartime notion that “there are no atheists in foxholes”. The secularized, pandemic equivalent might be “there are no ideological purists in the midst of crisis”. But in this COVID19 crisis moment it turns out that there are.
Over the past four decades, the Republican Party has moved progressively from a party of government to one driven by ideological purity. (There are, of course, powerful interests behind this shift – but that’s another subject for another time.) The result has been accelerating polarization – and a political discourse, leadership, and caricatured vision of the public sector which has left the USA singularly unprepared to respond, at the federal level, to a public health emergency.
With the number of COVID19 deaths in the USA surpassing Italy’s and continuing to accelerate, now especially in those so-called “conservative” parts of the country (though it isn’t only conservatives who embrace a commitment to ideological purity above all) – we’re “reaping the whirlwind” of the embrace by the Republican Party of ideological purity, and its abandonment of American pragmatism. Perhaps, come November, American pragmatism will reassert itself – and voters finally will put a stop to this travesty, this debased politics which, before our eyes, is turning the American dream into an American nightmare.