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America’s Diseased Politics

The Republicans are confronting the coronavirus with nihilism—and the Democrats are responding with impotence.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Last Wednesday, with a pandemic spiking and the economy plummeting, Senator Charles Schumer finally lost his cool and dispensed with syntactic best practices in the name of urgency. In outlining the Senate Democrats’ response to a steepening crisis, the Senate minority leader demonstrated that some bold action was in the offing by abjuring the words “Here is” at the beginning of three successive serious tweets. “What we’re proposing,” Schumer began, straight-talkishly, before treating himself to a line break and delivering a robust helping of dense Democratic fudge. “If you’re a working parent and suddenly have to worry about finding a safe place for your kids to stay during the day,” Schumer thundered, “we would provide emergency funding to safely ramp up child care services for heavily impacted parts of the country.” It went on like this, climaxing with this rousing promise: “If you’re a small business owner suddenly facing cash flow problems, we would allow you to apply for low-interest loans and other forms of financial assistance that can offer relief quickly.”

Schumer, who famously pegs his policy positions to appeal to a fictitious Long Island family that almost certainly would have voted for Trump, was by no means the only national Democrat to respond to broad upheaval with this kind of meticulously hedged and carefully tranched language: If you fit into social unit x, then you will be eligible in some circumstances to receive benefit y. When the House was debating a bill that would have provided immediate cash payments to Americans harmed by the indefinite shuttering of much of the economy, Speaker Nancy Pelosi pumped the brakes. Her aim was not so much to ensure that the maximum aid would reach the greatest number of people but to guard against the prospect that too much federal support might reach insufficiently vulnerable people with untoward quickness. “The Speaker believes we should look at refundable tax credits, expanded [unemployment insurance] and direct payments,” Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff tweeted, “but MUST be targeted.” When Pelosi introduced her plan on Monday afternoon, the benefits were immediate, but also tiered and conditional—more an interest-free loan than an emergency cash disbursement.

With the usual exceptions—Senator Bernie Sanders in a series of live-streamed online addresses, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on social media, Representatives Maxine Waters and Rashida Tlaib in actual proposed legislation—every Democratic voice raised during a maddeningly unproductive week seemed to caution against trying too hard, while attaching a PowerPoint slide to the cautionary message for good measure. Senator Kamala Harris, whose dud presidential campaign has lately become a slightly more plausible vice presidential one, took the opportunity to reheat her LIFT Act, which would direct preposterously insufficient payments to a narrow subset of Americans who were neither too rich nor, not a little nauseatingly, too poor. (Harris later deleted those tweets.) When the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination finally weighed in on the ongoing negotiations over the scale and targeted reach of a bailout at week’s end, it was to ask that the nation’s reigning plutocrats be mindful in processing the bailouts they were about to receive. “I am calling on every CEO in America to publicly commit now to not buying back their company’s stock over the course of the next year,” Joe Biden’s team tweeted on Friday morning. “As workers face the physical and economic consequences of the coronavirus, our corporate leaders cannot cede responsibility for their employees.” On Sunday afternoon, after a cheerful Weekend at Bernie’s–style emoji cameo on a popular D.J.’s Instagram feed the day before, Biden reappeared on Twitter to ask that Social Security payments be bumped up by $200 a month.

All the while, the Republicans did what Republicans do—sought to direct whopping no-strings-attached funds to powerful interests while effectively removing all nonwealthy people from the equation, pausing at regular intervals to laud the integrity and handsomeness that their forgetful and vinegary president had brought to duffing every single aspect of the governmental response to the virus. The Democrats, in response, did what they generally do. They made clear that they were disappointed in the Republicans; they advocated for something vague and qualified and means-tested that might benefit some people in a clever double-banked fashion; they made sure that it would not arrive too soon, or too generously. It would allow newly precarious workers and small business owners to apply for low-interest loans, where applicable. They maneuvered and then aimed to let the game come to them. “Biden aides and allies … are projecting an aura of calm,” Politico reported, “saying Trump’s false claims and reinvented history about the virus will haunt him on their own as the economy craters.”

It is tempting, and quite possibly correct, to see this cheesy meliorism and pathologically passive electoral jiujitsu as a self-justifying rationalization of sorts from a party that has lost so much, for so long. There’s certainly a rich vein of learned helplessness running through the party’s tendency to make the kludge-y, insufficient, better-than-nothing half-measures that formerly resulted from negotiation with an utterly perverse opposition party its current roster of opening offers. This stupendously bad-faith negotiating partner has grown only more perverse and proudly signals every day that it is not interested in cooperation, and so the Democrats just started negotiating with themselves. But elevating and exalting process over outcomes is also a lot easier to do when the outcome doesn’t really matter that much, and the signal failures of this body of tactical retreats in recent years—think of Obama’s principled dedication, in the Affordable Care Act, to crafting A Deal Everyone Could Live With instead of one that would keep the maximum number of people alive—speak to something worse and more worrying than haplessness. It suggests a decadent and supremely dangerous abstraction and a fundamental misunderstanding of what politics is for.

Even people without prior editorial experience who read Schumer’s attempts at plain talk might find themselves looking for a red pen when confronted with the infuriating superfluity of language: I have been drawing a thick stripe through “allow you to apply for” in my head for days now. But that flabby and inert expression is not just a stylistic problem. It’s an intellectual and ideological one—an inability not just to speak but also to think and act in forceful ways. It seems that, as Jeff Spross wrote in The Week, “insisting on the bureaucratic overhang, extra red tape, and mutual social resentments of means testing has become a mark of technocratic liberal first principles.” Reimagining governance as a series of clever nudges, subtle incentives, and inspirational dada is a great way to lose elections, it turns out. But it’s also a strikingly ineffective way to govern even in the best of times and most stable of circumstances, which astute readers will recall that these are absolutely fucking not.

Because of that, there is more at stake than an election outcome, although that task very clearly preoccupies the party above any other. It’s a matter of figuring out whether there’s anything the party actually wants to fight for—actual outcomes and actual values—and how much its leaders are willing to fight for them. As the Roosevelt Institute economist Mike Konczal wrote in justifying his proposed stimulus—a $580 billion plan that would send $2,000 to each adult and $1,000 to each child in every American household, in concert with other financial assistance on various debt—“the risks of doing too little right now far outweigh those of doing too much.” This is also true outside the framework of a stimulus package.

Trump’s already erratic and idiotic mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic veered overnight on Sunday, in some all-caps tweets inspired by some Fox News programming, toward the openly Malthusian. Trump appears, for the moment, not just willing but eager to follow the recommendations of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and advisers like Stephen Moore and Larry Kudlow, all of whom are pushing the idea that, after two more weeks of scattershot pandemic management, everyone is going to have to get back to work reviving the bottom lines and stock prices of various flagging economic sectors, notwithstanding some mass death around the margins. On Monday’s unhinged press event, Trump came out with this bit of terrifying counsel, thinking that it might reassure the flailing markets: “America will soon be open for business. Very soon.” His advisers were already goading him into the fulsome embrace of mass death in the name of a return to economic normalcy: “The president is right,” Kudlow said on Fox News earlier that same day. “The cure can’t be worse than the disease. And we’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.”

It has always been clear that Trump’s singular and obliterating narcissism opened some uniquely dark avenues of possibility. But it is one thing to know that Trump would do anything to avoid responsibility and maintain power and quite another to confront the outer boundaries of that possibility. A pandemic that threatens to unmake what is left of American civil society and cause massive suffering and death is real to him mostly as a series of numbers that he wants to see move in various directions; the disease is the thing that has soured his television-watching experience, and if it weren’t on TV, it’s safe to say that he would neither know nor care about it. When his administration could have begun preparing for the pandemic, Trump mostly didn’t know about it; it was a thing that was happening in China, on television. When it arrived in earnest and began killing Americans, Trump told weird lies and reeled off yards of oafish spin and generally wrote various whopping rhetorical checks against a badly overdrawn account. The problem was on TV by then, but he believed that he could manage it, also on television, with bluff and bluster. He still does.

It’s not just that Trump has failed to muster an effective governmental defense against a pandemic that is already putting overwhelming pressure on every spot where society is weak, although he has, of course, failed at that. Trump fundamentally resents having to do any of the work or shoulder any of the responsibility of being president, which he clearly believed was a job more akin to being the grand marshal of a parade; now that a real existential crisis has descended on the parade grounds, he’s not even really trying to do any of that. What he has done instead, and will continue to do, is bring his few blunt tools—unflagging shamelessness and aggression, a knack for pushing on bruises and shoving others into traffic, and a wild and blank antipathy for other people—to bear against a literal virus, and hope that it results in compelling enough television to keep him in power.

Metaphors fail daily: Trump really would sooner risk the lives of a million strangers than do his job, and his party is quite willing to go along with it. In the absence of an opposition party willing and able to point any of that out or call it what it is, the nation is more or less left to take him at his word. Where and when the media takes up the challenge of doing the basic civic work that Democrats can’t or won’t, it lets Trump spin a once-in-a-generation crisis as Another Media Thing. And that renders the whole episode as just another argument to have on television.

It is true that Trump needs something to push against, but that’s not a very convincing argument against opposing him at a moment like this. Trump has pivoted emptily in an attempt to make the pandemic something he can fight—malicious gossip, then a media conspiracy, then a crudely racialized threat, and finally a pseudo-war. Trump will endeavor to use it to his advantage because that is the only thing he ever does; he will categorize the Democrats as pro-virus and pro-recession because it’s the only thing he knows how to do. Nothing the party does or does not do will change that.

But the response to a president and a party that is openly saying that hundreds of thousands of deaths is a reasonable price to pay for Getting the Economy Going simply cannot be joining with stakeholders from all sides and trying to find a way to get that number a little lower. Nor is it the Pelosi-approved method of waiting for voters to punish the offending parties at the ballot box after months of unimaginable and preventable suffering.

At this moment, erring on the side of saying or doing too little instead of too much would be not just infuriating in the typical Democratic ways but devastating and damning in essential ones: The crystalized threat presented by this crisis and this moment requires a clear and commensurate response in both words and deeds. Strategically lying low or working the angles—such as gaming the outcomes within the denser stretches of mundane appropriations bills—doesn’t work terribly well in comparatively normal circumstances. But the Democrats’ usual tactics are terrifyingly insufficient when they’re deployed in response to business interests and reactionary politicians opting into a holocaust in the best interests of a market. It is ghoulish in the most contemporary of ways that this sort of thing is even up for debate, but it’s most important to see the effort to counter it as what it is: not a political campaign but an existential one, and so not the sort of thing that you get to do twice.