It was an exercise in both raw, Machiavellian power, and what a Greek tragedy writer would surely call extreme hubris. On Saturday, Sept. 28, President Donald Trump and more than 150 of his political posse and allies gathered in the Rose Garden to announce and celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the culmination of a right-wing project to remake the federal judiciary deep into the 21st century.
Never mind that the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the court’s leading light for gender equality and fairness, whose dying wish had been for Trump not to name her successor in the waning days of his term — hadn’t even yet been buried next to her husband at Arlington National Cemetery. The animating force of 44-plus months of the Trump presidency has been that the old-fashioned norms of common decency no longer apply. Neither, it seemed, do chunks of the U.S. Constitution. Or the rules of science. Or common sense.
And so they celebrated on this fall afternoon. They mingled, they conversed with great animation, and they even hugged — with virtually none of the higher-ups wearing masks or observing any rules of social distancing, the simple practices that the U.S. government’s own health experts say are most basic ways to prevent further spread of a coronavirus that has sickened roughly 7.5 million Americans and killed at least 209,000.
As I write this, just eight days later, the nation and its leadership are in a state of alarm and utter disarray. The president is hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center with a case of COVID-19 that — according to White House reporters, citing their sources — grew so severe so quickly that he was administered oxygen at the White House and repeatedly asked friends if he was going to die like his New York developer friend Stanley Chera.
The list of A-list political names who’ve contracted the coronavirus — first lady Melania Trump, ex-adviser Kellyanne Conway, ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, and others, many of whom attended the Barrett announcement — continues to grow. The Senate — with at least three GOP members sick and in isolation — is on hold until Oct. 19, and it’s unclear when and how it will take up the controversial high court pick, let alone how all of this will affect a presidential election less than a month away.
It’s tempting to chalk all of this up to instant karma — some kind of cosmic revenge for racing to defy the dying wish of Ginsburg, whose passing just before sundown on Rosh Hashanah was seen by many of her fellow Jews as a spiritual sign of her powerful righteousness. The flip side of that argument is that superstition and misplaced faith is what got us into this mess.
No, the great irony of 2020 — a year of killer plagues and hellacious storms and wildfires, of gross injustice and civic unrest so intense that many commentators have described with biblical allusions — is that America has been laid low again and again not by karma or divine retribution but by the unforgiving realities of scientific truth.
The massive fires that have devoured millions of acres and claimed dozens of lives in California and Oregon, or the stronger hurricanes that pummeled the Gulf Coast, weren’t a sign from the heavens but a sign from our polluted atmosphere that America and the world’s other industrialized nations continue to pump way too much carbon into the skies. The sad reality of both the coronavirus outbreaks at the White House and on Capitol Hill, and America’s broader failure to bring COVID-19 under control, is that doctors understand how the virus spreads and how to control it. And yet we have a government that leads not by truth, but by denial, not by science, but by superstition, that sees common sense and empathic measures like masks as a sign not of strength, but of weakness, thus allowing a microscopic virus to bring America to its knees.
Let’s be clear about one thing: I am hoping for a full and speedy recovery for President Trump, and his wife, and his political associates, not to mention his staff, who’ve been infected with COVID-19. Every American should wish that, and it’s been dismaying, albeit not surprising, to see so many express different sentiments. We are a nation that needs to regain our shredded humanity — the decency, fairness, and justice that’s been denied to so many people in so many ways, from our cruel Southern border to our abused “essential workers” — and so the road back to empathy has to include even those whose ideas and practices we’ve bitterly opposed.
And in the case of Donald Trump, the leader of the government and his movement, America still desperately needs a reckoning for the last four years, a reckoning that would be denied should anything to happen to him before now and Nov. 3, or Jan. 20. That reckoning needs to come at the ballot box, in the justice system, at the tax auditor, and for our broader aura of morality. I want the president to participate fully in that process.
This highly fraught weekend — with the president in the hospital, and the future of, well, everything looking less and less certain — could be remembered as a turning point for our country. One could imagine a humbled, chastened president and his White House, not to mention a nation deeply divided by his demagogic rule and by the anger and distrust that created it, embracing a new era in which the undeniability of science and expertise is recognized and empathy — which can be as simple as a mask to protect yourself and others — is rediscovered.
Those changes are necessary for the United States to survive, but roughly three days after Trump’s shocking diagnosis, an American turn toward truth feels like turning around an aircraft carrier. The rot still starts at the top; despite Trump’s occasional brief head fakes toward humbleness (“Thank you to all. LOVE!!!” he — or someone — tweeted Friday night), both he and his team seem incapable so far of leveling with the public about everything from the president’s temperature to what he knew about his COVID diagnosis and when he knew it. Trump’s efforts on Saturday night to prove that he’s working hard at Walter Reed — including a bizarre photo signing a blank sheet of paper with a Sharpie — looked like outtakes from The Death of Stalin.
And the American people? We are permanently scarred by the years of lying and deceit so that right now no one believes anything anymore. The millions of Trump diehards who believe the president was somehow sickened by his liberal enemies is exceeded only by the number of Trump resisters who believe that their archnemesis is somehow faking the whole thing as part of some ploy to steal the election. This, too, defies the available evidence and logic, but more than 20,000 lies from the White House podium can have that effect on people.
Yet change is possible. Now through Nov. 3, Americans have a chance to show support for a candidate who was ridiculed and mocked by Trump and his supporters for his unyielding faith in science and the experts — for wearing a mask at every public event, and for holding small, socially distanced forums while his opponent staged massive, flag-waving rallies, who has kept himself and those around him safe from disease. A large and unchallengeable vote for Joe Biden would be a giant step — but only the first one.
America won’t be rebuilt in a day. A President Biden will listen to the experts on the pandemic, on climate, on a healthier and more equitable America — but his efforts may not get far unless the public buys back into reality. And that will require long-term transformation — to totally reinvent our education starting with pre-K and running through universities, community colleges, and real job training, so that everyone feels included, and then building upon that to restore a better sense of community, that we’re all in this together. It will take some outside-the-box thinking — I’ve pitched a gap year of mandatory civilian service — to get there.
Much like the time following the JFK assassination or 9/11, the fitful days that we’re experiencing right now, with a sick president and an all-or-nothing election weeks away, will never be forgotten by those of us living through it. But the true meaning of this moment — where America can turn toward empathy and away from conspiracy, or spiral into deeper madness — is sitting there like a Sharpie and a blank piece of paper. That history is waiting to be written … not by Donald Trump, but by us.