Since the day after Donald J. Trump as elected in 2016, I’ve been fretting about the effect of his obvious unfitness and incompetence for the “world order” as we have known it. I’ve made clear that I don’t believe there’s any reason why the U.S. should be the perpetual guarantor of security for half the world, nor is it forever obligated to provide some kind of Pax Americana. That was a consequence of America’s unique position after World War II, having had the good fortune to escape the destruction of our homeland, which left us in the position of the last country standing. To our credit (and for our own profit) we did handle the aftermath of that war more competently than the world handled the aftermath of World War I.
But it has been clear to me from the moment Donald Trump came down that elevator that if he won, the world order as we knew it, which was already unstable, was going to be turned upside down with no coherent plan to replace it. His one simple understanding of the world was that he, and the United States, have been treated unfairly. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. America and Donald Trump had it all.
Throughout the Cold War and the red-baiting and the military adventurism and the overweening self-regard that we assumed was our right as the Leader of the Free World, we managed to do a lot of things wrong and the price for that has been high. This is true even though, as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote in this searing account of America’s precipitous decline as revealed by the coronavirus, the American people hardly noticed:
We have an ingrained national tendency to behave as if the rest of the world simply doesn’t exist — or, on a slightly more sophisticated level, as if it were just a colorful backdrop for our vastly more important national dramas.
O’Hehir rightly observes that empires inevitably collapse, but America’s almost childlike inability to admit it even is an empire, even as it crumbles, may be unique in human history.
Still, for all its myopic arrogance, the one thing America clearly did right — and was justifiably proud of — was to create a technologically advanced society that was the envy of the world. For all our faults, Americans knew how to do things. We could get the job done.
Now the country that sent men to the moon and brought them home again, all the way back in the 1960s, is a fumbling mess, unable to manage the simple logistics of getting supplies from one place to another or coordinating a national set of guidelines in a public health crisis. The vaunted CDC, long thought of as the greatest scientific disease research facility in the world, fumbled in making a test that had already been produced in other countries.
Donald Trump is a completely incompetent leader — we know this. Literally any other president would have done a better job. He couldn’t accept that the crisis was real and that his “plan” to spend the year holding fun rallies and smearing his Democratic rival was going to be interrupted by his duties as president. So he lived in denial until the situation was completely out of hand. Other leaders would have listened to experts and pulled together a team that knew how to organize a national response. And no other president would be so witless as to waste precious time and resources with magical thinking about quick miracle cures.
But it’s not just him, is it? The U.S. government seems to have lost its capacity to act, and the private sector is so invested in short-term profit-making that it’s lost its innovative edge. The result is that the United States of America, formerly the world’s leader in science and technology, now only leads the world in gruesome statistics and body counts.
It’s still unclear exactly why the CDC felt it had to make its own test when another test, created by a German lab, was already available. According to those in the know, Americans just don’t use tests from other countries, ostensibly because our “standards” are so high. Apparently, they aren’t. In this case, the test we created was faulty, causing weeks of delay, and there was some kind of contamination in the lab. How can this be?
The government’s inefficiency and ineptitude in producing, locating and distributing needed medical supplies, combined with Trumpian corrupt patronage toward his favored states, is staggering. Stories of FEMA commandeering shipments of gear that were already paid for by states, and governors having to bid against each other for supplies because the federal government refused to use its power to take control in a global emergency, are simply astonishing. The country that planned the D-Day invasion is incapable of coordinating the delivery of medical supplies to New York City?
Apparently so. And the world is watching. The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg wrote:
“If you look at why America rose so much after 1945, it was because America attracted the best scientists in the world,” Klaus Scharioth, Germany’s ambassador to America from 2006 to 2011, told me. “America attracted expertise. You had the feeling that all governments, be they Republicans or Democrats, they cherished expertise.” Like many Americanophiles abroad, Scharioth has watched our country’s devolution with great sadness: “I would not have imagined that in my lifetime I would see that.”
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a rising Republican leader, evidently wants to ensure that American never attracts any expertise again:
If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America. They don’t need to learn quantum computing. It is a scandal to me that we have trained so many of the Chinese Communist Party’s brightest minds.
The rest of the world is moving on without us. This week 20 global leaders held a conference call pledging to “accelerate cooperation on a coronavirus vaccine and to share research, treatment and medicines across the globe.” No one from the United States was among them.
Why bother? No U.S. pledge of any kind is worth the paper it’s printed on and in any case, the U.S. is clearly unwilling to work cooperatively with the rest of the world anymore, even in a global catastrophe.
I think this says it all:
This pandemic is the first real global threat of the 21st century. It won’t be the last. These are the kinds of great, unprecedented challenges we are going to face going forward. Not only is the U.S. not leading the response, it’s barely participating in it.
The election of Donald Trump was about more than just this presidency. It signaled that America was no longer capable of competently governing itself, much less leading the world. Our devastatingly disorganized, scattershot response to the COVID-19 crisis has revealed that this problem goes much deeper than our politics. We couldn’t have lost our ability to do anything right at a worse time.