It is impossible not to wonder, when you read about or watch a documentary on certain periods of history, whether the people of the time knew what was coming.
Given how clear warnings signs look with hindsight, did people living in the last days of Rome know the end was approaching, even if not its exact timing? Or did it feel current events were just similar tumults to the sorts they’d got through time and again before?
That wondering feels all the more pressing when you look at the way the president of the United States – a role which until very recently was regularly and unironically referred to as the leader of the free world – is handling the largest global catastrophe in his lifetime.
It becomes impossible not to wonder whether we are experiencing a tumult which we can come through, or whether this is one of those periods when things fall apart – first slowly, and then all at once.
Coronavirus itself would bring challenges enough. For years, epidemiologists have worried about and tried to plan for a deadly new flu pandemic – only to be faced with a coronavirus instead, and one which in many ways has behaved well beyond their worst-case scenarios.
It is far deadlier than any standard flus. It requires far longer in intensive care for those severely affected. We still don’t know the full extent of the damage it does to the body. And, just as much of the damage to our bodies from a virus comes from the necessary immune response it provokes, so it is with our societies: locking down our economies while cases are peaking is a necessary step to prevent tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths – but it’s a step that comes at the price of millions of jobs and billions of dollars.
Such extraordinary challenges demand extraordinary leadership, particularly in the world’s leading nations. Yet we have learned from the first term of Donald Trump’s presidency not to expect too much.
Trump is not, as some have claimed, a cynical genius playing 4D chess with the media, his apparent outbursts part of a Machiavellian game. He is not what he promised to be to his supporters, a blowhard billionaire out to do his best for ‘real’ America.
He is a much simpler creature than any of those caricatures.
He is a thin-skinned narcissist out for himself, buoyed up by a Republican party happy to support anyone with a pulse if it helps them secure huge tax cuts for the rich.
Since arriving in the White House in 2017, the best prospect for Trump’s ego and his re-election – definitely his top priorities – has been to ride out the dual wave of the economic prosperity he inherited (and which had not yet fallen apart under his mismanagement) and the culture war he had so rapidly escalated from the bully pulpit.
The historical stats were certainly in his favour. Even unpopular presidents tend to win a second term, if they run for it.
As we came into election year proper, the tactic was on course to work: most early models and punditry suggested Trump would win a second term in November.
And then came coronavirus, and with its arrival Trump’s fragile strategy began to crumble.
The president’s initial response to the crisis has been as chaotic and incompetent as we have come to expect.
He first tried ignoring coronavirus, then blaming China for it, then announcing token measures and praising himself for them, before moving onto making the pandemic about himself, and then promoting totally unevidenced and potentially harmful miracle cures.
The problem with a pandemic is that none of Trump’s usual tempter-tantrum tactics have much effect. Viruses aren’t much impressed by bluster and can’t be dissuaded by press conferences. And no amount of showboating will stop people noticing if their loved ones are getting sick and dying.
Once coronavirus moved in on what Trump really cared about – himself and his re-election prospects – by damaging the US economy, he got bored and urgently wanted to move on. His plan to do that? To see if ignoring it will make it go away.
In place of a reasoned, practical strategy to help his country cope with this deadly virus, the president has instead resolved to wage a culture war with it, involving all the usual suspects, the media, China, the Dems.
Having raged about the precise source of the virus, his coverage in the press and criticism from his political opponents, he is now playing a reckless game over plans to reopen America, either tacitly or overtly egging on supporters who want this to happen far faster than the scientific experts advise.
The governor of Georgia may have got a slap on the wrist from Trump for reopening too early (while it was still polling badly even with Trump voters), but elsewhere America is reopening – or facing huge protests to reopen – even as cases rise.
The movement starts stupid and gets scary quickly. Emergency workers find themselves unable to get to emergencies as streets are clogged with protestors demanding governors reopen crowded workplaces.
People pack out beaches and town squares with no facial coverings. And armed militias rush statehouses – and are allowed to do so, taking selfies on public property with their automated weapons.
As the centre falls apart, states are left to fend for themselves for supplies, for
help on how to manage their economy, and to manage their millions of new unemployed – who have nothing like the federal government support they need to survive.
Republican governments are generally looking at how the political winds are blowing and are following the president’s lead: looking for ways to reopen, and fuelling the culture war.
Their Democratic counterparts meanwhile are teaming up – united states, so to speak – trying to find a way to weather the storm. The very structure of the US is crumbling.
Needless to say, this will kill people. It will lead to tens if not hundreds of thousands of entirely preventable coronavirus deaths, and it will lead to terrible consequences for millions of others as it jerks the economy open and shut on the whims of a billionaire, rather than based on expert consensus.
It will kill people more directly still: just this week a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Michigan was shot dead for attempting to enforce a state- mandated rule requiring customers to wear face coverings. He is unlikely to be the last such death.
Trump will not care about any of this if his new, desperation strategy works. His tactic, it seems, is to recognise that if you’re losing a game – and as the US economy collapsed, his polling numbers versus Democratic nominee Joe Biden went from tricky into death-spiral category – you have nothing to lose by flipping the table.
Trump’s hope is that he can bring his base back onside by trying to turn coronavirus into an issue like any other, something to divide the “libs” and the “Washington elite” from “real America” – and that if that happens, the Republican establishment, its PACs – political action committees – and friendly TV channels will do enough to mobilise paralysed voters in the middle in his direction.
It is desperate, it is deadly, and it is divisive, but it might work for Trump.
It comes at the cost of the USA’s response to coronavirus, and that will exert a toll on the rest of the world.
Good international coordination can avert disaster. Getting it wrong can
escalate a disaster into a cataclysm – as was seen in the Great Depression in the early 1930s.
Most of this damage is done even if Trump loses – and goes gracefully – in the autumn. Even without him, multilateralism isn’t coming back any time soon. China will still need careful management, and a damaged relationship will need rebuilding. America will be fractured, quite possibly for generations. And no-one who has died thanks to presidential neglect will ever come back. And all of that is in the very best case scenario we face. It could easily be much worse, if his gamble succeeds.
Coronavirus has escalated Trump’s breaking down of everything that holds America together, metastasising it into something even more toxic and even more deadly.
Could it survive another four years of this? Can the world pull back from this blip? Or will people in a few hundred years’ time read about the 2020s and wonder what it felt to live in that period, just before the fall?