This Pandemic Will Change Us. We Just Don’t Know Quite How Yet.

Looking back at the Black Death can give us a few clues, though.

Dear Reader (including those of you who might get a literal Get Out of Jail Free card from Bill de Blasio),

When World War II was just gearing up, the British were ill-prepared. They couldn’t just wait for factories—at home or in America—to start churning out the arsenal of democracy. They had to get ready with whatever was on hand. To that end, they de-mothballed some light field artillery last used during the Boer War and assembled the five-man crew required to fire it. But when they drilled with the equipment there was something not quite right. According to procedure, three seconds before discharging the weapon, two of the men would stand at attention off to the side and hold position until after the shot was fired. No one knew why they did that. Ultimately, they had to call in an old retired artillery officer. 

He watched the exercise for a while, and then a spark of an old memory struck and he recognized what they were doing: "I have it. They are holding the horses." 

They could tell the choreography didn’t make sense, but (like Chesterton’s fence) they couldn’t quite figure out why it was required.  

This story comes from Robert Nisbet’s wonderful book, Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (which inspired my (underrated) second book, for what that’s worth). In it, Nisbet writes, “Habit and convention are so native to human beings, as to every other organism, because all behavior is purposive and adaptive. It is aimed at the solution of problems which beset the person or organization from the environment or from within.” 

The problem, as Nisbet’s invisible horse story illustrates, is that there’s a lag time—like the afterburn in your retina from a bright flash. 

On Conan O’Brien’s podcast—which is fantastic—Tina Fey recounted how, to this day, the breakneck, last-minute-all-nighter schedule for Saturday Night Live skit-writing makes no sense unless you understand that the protocols were set up in the 1970s, when it was simply assumed that the writers would be using vast quantities of cocaine. The writers don’t do much coke anymore, but the schedule is still set up as if they do. 

This is a scalable phenomenon. It happens in our own lives—habits are hard to break—and it happens to civilizations, and at every level in-between. 

For long periods of time, the facts on the ground line up with the habits and purposes of human organization. The flow of human events moves like a river, constrained by the banks that the river itself cut through rock and soil through the ages. The adaptations we make to deal with these familiar events become so ingrained that we often cease to see them as conventions or traditions. Rather, we see them as natural facts; the way things are. “Women stay home to manage the home and raise children” may, from our vantage point, seem like a cultural or political statement, but it was understood as an observation about the nature of reality for generations in numerous societies. 

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Lord Hugh Cecil … wait a second. That sounds really pretentious. I don’t have at my fingertips a huge stockpile of favorite quotes from Hugh Cecil, a now obscure turn-of-the-century British politician and intellectual (also the 1st Baron of Quickswood, which sounds awesome). So let me rephrase: one of my favorite quotes comes from Hugh Cecil’s book, Conservatism. “Before the Reformation,” he wrote, “it is impossible to distinguish conservatism in politics, not because there was none, but because there was nothing else.”

But here’s the thing, rivers can stay on course for ages and then, in a comparative blink of an eye, change direction thanks to an event—an earthquake, a landslide, an asteroid strike, the up-tunneling of the mole people, whatever. The entire ecosystem must then adapt to the new normal. 

Similarly, sudden events in human affairs can undermine the ecosystem of habits and institutions that seemed to be bedrock reality. The century-old Fourth of July picnic no longer fits reality after the zombie apocalypse begins. And the dude who shows up with his hot dog cart will likely learn that fact, both quickly and too late.  

I bring this up because this stuff is scratching around inside my head like a scarab in a coconut. But also because I keep wondering—and worrying—about what stuff from before the pandemic is going to endure, what stuff created by it will last beyond it, and what the new normal will look like. 

Most of my friends and colleagues are spending their time turning into amateur epidemiologists and economists—when they’re not figuring out how to be homeschoolers, preppers, day drinkers, or all of the above. But I keep thinking about this stuff. In an early draft of my LA Times column this week I wrote that this aspect of things is the most interesting part of the COVID crisis and my editor sent back a note of incredulity. Really? With all of this stuff going on, that’s what you think is most interesting?

I tweaked the language, but the more I think about it, the answer is yes. 

A plague on your comfort zones.

By now my joke that this should be called the Confirm Your Priors Virus has become almost a banal observation. But that won’t last. There are still people who think the pandemic proves they were right all along about tax cuts—or socialized medicine or the Green New Deal—but they’re learning to shut up or change their tune. As the crisis worsens, medically, economically, or both, even once-loyal dogmatic voters will start to lose their patience with politicians who refuse to leave their comfort zones—or try to steer the conversation back to them. At some point, they will look at these politicians like the old artillery officer staring at the men holding the horses that weren’t there. 

I don’t think this is necessarily good news. The West’s commitment to liberal democratic capitalism was already fraying (which is why I wrote a book called Suicide of the West (now out in paperback!)). It’s easy to imagine events going in a direction that tears that commitment even more—or severs it entirely. One could also imagine events going in a direction that is altogether inhospitable to those who only know how to talk about intersectionality or identity politics. I don’t think any of these are the most likely outcomes, but like everyone else I have no idea what the future holds. Unlike a lot of people, I’m willing to admit it.  

I’ve been thinking all week about how things that happen in a moment of crisis become the new normal. You know that “crawl” of headlines that glides by at the bottom of cable news networks? That began when the buildings were still smoking after 9/11 and has never left. Poor Milton Friedman helped create paycheck tax-withholding as an emergency measure to scoop up revenue for the war effort. Like a bad case of herpes, Uncle Sam has never gotten rid of it. (No doubt Milty had this in mind when he said “There’s nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.”) The vast sprawling bureaucracy of the imperial presidency was created to help FDR during the Great Depression. Heck, the New Deal itself was supposed to be an emergency effort to combat the Great Depression. How much of that did we dismantle afterward? Before you send me an email, that was a rhetorical question. The answer is: Not that much.

I am absolutely positive that at this moment there are progressives looking at this just-passed relief measure and plotting which parts of it they can hold onto forever, from direct cash payments to government “partnership” with corporations. This is not a condemnation of the legislation. I am all in favor of a policy of using water hoses on house fires; I’m just also in favor of turning off the hoses once the fire is out. 

But because I am sure about this prediction, I also have every confidence that we can argue about all that later. 

Instead let’s talk about the Black Death, another Asian import. 

This pandemic is nothing like the Black Death in terms of its lethality, and the world today is nothing like that of the 14th century. But it’s worth recalling how much that pandemic changed the world—sometimes for the better (at least for the survivors, though not the Jews). For starters, we owe the plague credit for giving us the word “quarantine.” “During the Black Death, the Italians devised a 40-day isolation period for the sick, likely inspired by biblical events that lasted 40 days (the great flood, Lent, etc.),” notes the website Ranker. “The concept of isolating the sick pre-dates the Black Death, but the term ‘quarantine’ originates from that time.”

The plague killed a lot of people—estimates vary between 75 and 200 million in Europe and Asia. That’s something like one- to two-thirds of the global population at the time. The peasants left behind were left with a lot of land, and a lot of demand for their labor. Wages grew enormously and working conditions improved in order to attract labor. One lasting benefit of this new prosperity was that beer became less of a luxury and more of a commodity, giving rise to one of mankind’s greatest inventions: The British pub

When aristocrats later tried to turn back the clock, waves of peasant revolts shook Europe, laying the groundwork for future uprisings. 

The Catholic Church was forever wounded by the plague. First and foremost, the plague undermined the legitimacy of the church because it dealt a grievous blow to faith in God. It had more corporeal consequences as well: So many priests died—often the best ones—that the church was left with worse and more selfish leaders, and it grew more corrupt as a result. Bereft of quality manpower and with weakened credibility, the church retreated literally and figuratively from much of Europe. 

Had this not happened, the Protestant Reformation may never have happened. That might be overstating things, but it’s a safe bet that it wouldn’t have happened the way it did. 

Another—admittedly conjectural—benefit was that America didn’t become a Nordic country. The Vikings in Greenland were wiped out by the plague, making their eventual conquest of North America impossible. Just imagine, in some alternative timeline, a Danish Bernie Sanders could be ranting about how we need socialism like they have in Texas (or whatever name the Vikings would give that part of their dominion). Okay, now I’m just getting silly. 

Regardless, none of this was predictable when town criers were shouting “Bring out your dead!” And the totality of what happens next in our own time—which will surely be less gloomy—can’t be predicted either. But that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare. And I don’t mean in a fill-your-basement-with-toilet-paper-gold-ingots-and-Dinty-Moore-beef stew sense.

I know I plug the idea of the Remnant a lot. But I think people need to be prepared for the arguments to come. As I said, the air was thick with bad arguments—grounded in ingratitude for the Miracle—just a month ago when the economy was roaring. During the Plague, the church had a Remnant of sorts in the monasteries who kept the faith alive and written down, until it was safe to go out among the masses again. Nothing so dramatic is in store this time, but when we all emerge from quarantine, some of us need to make the case for what needs to be preserved, salvaged, or restored from the time before the river changed course.

Various & Sundry

Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. I’m going to be doing a live, cocktails-included video podcast “event” for GLoP, the podcast I do with John Podhoretz and Rob Long. The live feed, on Zoom, will be available to paid members of The Dispatch (as well as Commentary and Ricochet). You’ll also get a private link to the video if you can’t make it then. The audio will be released as a regular podcast next week. If you’re paid up, look for an email tonight with instructions. If you’re not, maybe this will be the inducement you need

Canine update: The doggers are fine, but every day I feel like I am losing my alpha status. Both Zoë and Pippa are constantly making demands of me, mostly to rub their bellies and the like. The daily corona news conferences are, in their minds, Spa Hour. In other news, I finally got clarity on Pippa’s brace—which she definitely needs. There was confusion at the vet. They thought they were waiting to hear from us to see if the steroid shot had the predicted effect—it did. We thought they were going to call us when it was ready. By the time we called to find out what the holdup was, the vet’s office was in corona-lockdown mode (the virus didn’t hit them, but it completely messed up their staffing and procedures). Anyway, it should be coming soon. A lot of people on Twitter see the videos from the park and think her leg has healed. It hasn’t really, it’s just that when Pippa gets excited she becomes oblivious to pain. She pays for it later, which is why I don’t do the big tennis ball fetching routines anymore. The videos you see are the bare minimum of what she would do healthy, but the absolute max I let her do now. I’m torn about even letting her do this much, but if I don’t let her burn through some of her energy she’ll just start zooming around on her own which is worse. Anyway, we’re on top of it. Thanks for the concern. In yet other news, Gracie is finally starting to socialize again (though she’s still not properly mustering for formal treattime yet). I’m not sure it’s all about relations with Zoë anymore either. I think she may be squabbling with Ralph, who is adjusting to the absence of The Fair Jessica in all sorts of unpredictable ways. I live in a Disney cartoon. Last, fresh Fafoon content!

ICYMI

This week’s first Remnant, with Kevin Williamson

Can Congress do nothing right?

“Stimulus” is not the word you’re looking for

The week’s second Remnant, with Shoshana Weissmann

Politicians’ pet projects? Now’s not the time.

And now, the weird stuff

Making musical sense out of that awful “Imagine” video

What’s a sports commentator to do in the middle of a lockdown?

Cats may know things that we don't

The pictures alone are worth the read

Even food writers are starting to use recipe substitutions

Making booze kaleidoscopes, in case your quarantine gets really boring

Photograph of a closed theater in Montana byWilliam Campbell-Corbis via Getty Images.

The Moral Heroism of Our Coronavirus Response

Our actions defy so much of the glib rhetoric about America.

Dear Reader (Including those of you on a daring mission to retrieve the Titanic’s fabled hoard of luxury toilet paper. Congrats on the economics finally making sense!),

Greetings from quadruped quarantine. 

My wife and daughter left this morning for an undisclosed location to shelter with other members of our family for a while. I am alone, to help man The Dispatch, watch over our four-legged family members, protect our property, eat over the sink and perhaps to so wallow in my own crapulence that I eventually replay Martin Sheen’s hotel room scene from Apocalypse Now

Something interesting is happening among my readers and listeners. Some can’t get enough corona-content. Others are already sick of it. I can understand both attitudes. 

It’s understandable that some people worried about their own health or the health of their family are eager for any news they can get. The same goes for people perhaps equally worried about their livelihood, or their business, or their mortgage. 

But I also sympathize with people who have adopted a more passive approach to the whole thing. It is what it is, and watching the news like it’s a pot of water taking too long to boil won’t hasten events. It’s not like you won’t hear about the big developments if you tune out a bit. In fact, like that pot of water, the fastest way, psychologically, to wait out the process is to focus on other things. I think people should behave responsibly and charitably, but beyond that, the best thing an average person can do is spend most of their time on other stuff, like playing Monopoly with your kids or, if you live alone,  finally sculpting that giant mashed-potato replica of Devil’s Tower or counting the F-bombs in Scarface

Spoiler alert: it’s 207 (A buddy and I counted in high school). 

Amazingly, that places Scarface at only 56 out of the top 100.

Adopting this attitude doesn’t mean you, uh, don’t give an F about what’s happening, it just means you’re adapting to what’s happening.

In defense of The Dispatch and yours truly, we have no choice but to err on the side of over-covering this story. Even if this pandemic isn’t as terrible as some in the past, it’s still the Ron Burgundy of stories—kind of a big deal. But, we won’t take our eye off all the other balls out there. 

Un-QUALY-fied pro-life America. 

I am not where the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal is on the pandemic, but I’m more sympathetic than some of my friends and colleagues. The economic toll all of all of this really can’t be exaggerated (though some will try!) or dismissed (though others will try!), and that will have profound consequences too. 

A friend of mine said to me he’d rather have a 5 percent greater risk that his mom might die than a 25 percent risk that his kids may have to suffer through a Great Depression. I don’t see it that way, but I don’t think that’s an insane position, either. There are tradeoffs in all government decisions, because there are tradeoffs in all decisions. It’s not immoral to consider the scope of the sacrifices being asked of people.

But whatever the right course of action is—and I basically support what the government is doing, if not in how it helped get us here—it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate how this course of action defies so much of the glib rhetoric about America one hears bandied about. 

While there’s some contrary data, for the most part we know that this virus is predominantly a threat to very old people and a few younger people with secondary ailments. If America was the land of unfettered capitalism where ruthless efficiency and productivity were the only things that mattered, this is not what we would be doing. 

If we were some Capitalist Sparta, we’d be putting old people on figurative ice floes to fend for themselves or pushing them off cliffs, like Paul Ryan in that heinous ad. People older than 80 are not, as a rule, vital cogs in the capitalist machine. If one were to apply the butcher knife of Peter Singer’s ethical pragmatism, we might even be setting up death panels. 

But forget Singer—I know I try to. It’s interesting how the progressive health care reformers aren’t talking about QALYs. This is technocrat-ese for Quality-Adjusted Life Years. A technique used to justify life-saving interventions based upon how many good or “productive” years you have left. Here a good explanation of the approach and here’s another from the Wall Street Journal. This idea, if not this precise technique, was discussed a lot during the fight over Obamacare. In countries with single-payer systems, it’s just a fancy way of talking about rationing health care, based on the perceived need of the rationers, not the patients. And you can be sure that if we had Medicare for All, this would be precisely how we’d handle health care. Many progressive health care economists routinely talk about the benefits of a QALY approach—when there isn’t a pandemic. 

Well, here’s some back-of-the-envelope math. Say the U.S. economy is $20 trillion. Let’s also estimate that we’re looking at a 5 percent hit, which equals $1 trillion. Now suppose that we save 1 million lives, instead of the, say, 2 million we might lose if we did nothing or less than what we’re doing now. That would be $1 million per life saved. If the hit to the economy is greater than 5 percent, the cost per life saved—overwhelmingly the lives of old and sick people—the higher the cost would be. 

Now, I don’t think we should let this kind of thinking be our guide, and apparently neither do all the progressive health care wonks, because none of them have dared to say anything like this. And neither have all the supposed fetishists of the free market. Even the Wall Street Journal is merely saying that the current approach is not sustainable indefinitely—and they may be right. 

And, yeah, I understand there are other reasons to respond the way we have. An overwhelmed medical system is bad for everyone. But if we just ordered all the old folks into quarantine, fewer Americans would be inconvenienced and we’d see less economic damage. We’re not doing that. 

The simple fact is that this country is doing something morally heroic. I hate metaphorical war rhetoric, but we’re taking the “millions for defense, not one penny for tribute” approach to this. 

It may not work. It may not last. It may not make the most sense economically. But we’re doing it anyway. And that is something that should be appreciated not just for the “We’re all in it together” platitudes but as a rebuttal to the slanderous way many Americans describe this country. 

Movements shmovements.

There’s another interesting takeaway from all of this. Readers may be aware that I am increasingly convinced that American nationalism and, to a lesser extent, socialism are paper tigers. These supposedly resurgent movements increasingly strike me as intellectual dress-up games. In the great war for nationalism and socialism there are  a lot of generals but not that many soldiers. 

It’s sort of like Star Trek. In the show(s) the captain and the top officers go on all the dangerous away missions while the vast crew stays behind to be props and walk through the hallways like the cast of West Wing. I’ve long joked that if Gene Roddenberry wrote the story of World War II, FDR and Ike would parachute behind enemy lines to take out Hitler and Himmler all by themselves. 

Eggheads and activists on the left and right have been telling us for years that the masses, particularly the youth, crave some grand new transcendent cause that allows them to leap out of the pits of despair, alienation, and anomie that late capitalism has exiled them to. On the left, they’ve tried again and again to make climate change into the moral equivalent of war to mobilize the masses to their preferred policies. On the right, more and more people are using the culture war the same way. 

Well, President Trump is right that this is as close to a war as you can get. And yet, we see videos of young people refusing to forgo the opportunity to pound Jäger shots at a Fort Lauderdale Chili’s or get Chinese character tattoos on their lower backs (that probably say “I have syphilis” or “Kung Pao Chicken—extra spicy.”). 

In fairness, there’s little evidence that young people as a group are especially likely to be slackers in the Great Patriotic War against COVID-19. The truth is people of all ages have responded in different ways to the threat. 

I think the folks who are blowing it off are wrong. But what does their attitude say about efforts like socialism and nationalism that don’t have anything like this kind of threat to galvanize them? A pandemic literally gives government officials the constitutional and legal authority to order people to radically disrupt their lives—and people are still defying it. I think Evangeline Lilly is insanely hot, but that’s not important right now. I also think she’s making an ass of herself. But how many more Evangeline Lillys will there be in America where the government bosses people around based on some abstraction like nationalism or socialism?

Sure, you can say that the socialists and nationalists don’t want to boss people around. But if that’s the case, what is the point? If it’s just a slogan to throw around, you’re making my point. If it’s something real, it necessarily involves imposing one vision on the whole country.  At least the post-liberal Catholic integralists (there’s a banner for the masses!) are honest about wanting to impose their definition of the Highest Good on everyone. One of their generals is actually furious that the Catholic Church is canceling masses out of a desire to save lives. One has to wonder how mad he’ll be if the wrong “one-size-fits-all” ideologue gets in power. 

The people who want some new, post-liberal reorienting of society need to offer an answer for what they will do when the cats refuse to be herded. 

Still, I am very worried about the damage being done to capitalism during this crisis—even if I think it is necessary. Progressive economic planners used the statism of Wilson’s “war socialism” to massively transform the American order once they had a chance. “We planned in war!” they cried during the 1920s until they seized the reins and planned in peace. I am positive I’ll spend the rest of my life arguing with people who will offer some version of “We planned during the pandemic!” You can be sure that once we’re through with all of this, both the AOC and Rusty Reno types will use the steps being taken now as proof that the government can simply will into existence whatever economic system they want. And it will fall to members of the (classically) liberal remnant to point out that income inequality isn’t like a pandemic—and neither is Drag Queen Story Hour. 

Various & Sundry

Dispatch update: As I said above, we’re all working through this pandemic full speed ahead. But that doesn’t mean it’s business as usual. Social distancing is not a friend of shoe-leather reporting. But we’re adjusting. We’re even going to be rolling out some new wares in the weeks ahead. (We’ve also gotten some good write-ups in the professional press.) 

Also, we’re not going to hector you as much about becoming a paid member of The Dispatch because we understand that peoples’ budgets are being squeezed (though if you can afford it, we’d love to have you). But if you like our stuff, we’d be grateful if you forwarded it around to folks you think might appreciate it too. Word of mouth is the best kind of marketing, and we appreciate anything our members can do to help. Consider it a birthday present for yours truly. 

Homefront and canine update: Also as I mentioned above, the bipedal ladies are gone. It’s a bit sad, but for a bunch of reasons it made sense. They made me an early birthday cake last night, which is good because I’m suffering from a bout of diverticulitis and soft foods are my friend. Anyway, the doggers were very, very angry about all the luggage moving around this morning. Many a Dingo “arroooo” filled the air. But once they realized I was staying behind they calmed down a bit. Many of you have asked why Pippa doesn’t have her brace yet. The short answer is the vet dropped the ball, and we dropped the ball following up with them. She should have it next week. In sad news, one of Zoë and Pippa’s best friends is very sick and we’re all very appreciative of the kindness shown by folks on Twitter. Anyway, with me flying solo, and with so many people looking for a good canine (or feline) distraction, you can be sure there will be many videos of the beasts on Twitter in the days ahead, including some greatest hits. Stay safe and healthy everybody. 

ICYMI

Biden shouldn’t let Sanders push him around

The first Remnant of the week, with fan-favorite Chris Stirewalt

Biting political commentary from … the Top Chef guy?

The second Remnant of the week, with cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand

China’s weaponizing something, and it isn’t COVID

And now, the weird stuff

Modern problems require modern solutions

Musician forced to cancel tour, makes new music from home instead

Memes, for science

I won’t let them take this away from me, too

Photograph of the Castro Theater in San Francisco by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images.

Coronavirus: Common Cold or Bioweapon?

Well, neither. But Trump’s henchmen are trying to call it both at once.

Dear Reader (Especially the ever-vindicated Orb-touchers)

As a Fox News contributor, I can report from experience that harshly criticizing folks at the network is frowned upon. I am unaware of any policy about criticizing regular guests. But I suppose I’m about to find out. 

So I ask my friends at Fox: Please stop putting Jerry Falwell Jr. on TV. I spent most of my professional life defending the Christian right against what I believed—and largely still believe—to be unfair attacks (and I think David French’s work of sifting the wheat from chaff on such matters is one of The Dispatch’s most important contributions to the national conversation). 

But Falwell makes it so much more difficult. He’s a national embarrassment for both “Christians” and the “right”—never mind the Christian right. 

This morning he was on Fox and Friends to explain that classes will remain open at Liberty University to own the libs. He didn’t cover all of his greatest hits.  He didn’t say a Christian can’t condemn the maltreatment of children unless they started a business or "made payroll.” He didn’t compare Trump to King David or praise his man-of-the-people status that he attained by serving him Wendy’s cheeseburgers. And he didn’t repeat his claim that Trump is the Churchill of our times. His cabana boy didn’t come up at all. 

But he did run through some of the current chart toppers, and I’m not even counting his “majority of Virginians … by landmass” remarks. 

Falwell insisted that the news coverage of COVID-19 is overblown and strongly suggested that this was another way to get Trump since impeachment and “Article 25” (he meant the 25th Amendment, the one that allows for the president to be benched if he demonstrates an “Inability to discharge the Powers” of the office) didn’t work. He didn’t peddle the claim it’s just the common cold, but he did suggest it’s no worse than the flu and the hype is politically motivated to get Trump. But then, he segued to the idea, proffered by a “restaurant owner” he knows that COVID-19 could be a bioweapon engineered by the North Koreans. This is similar to the theorizing from Rush Limbaugh that the virus might simultaneously be the common cold and a “Chicom laboratory experiment.”

In short, if you are a fan of vintage Saturday Night Live skits, you might recognize this as the “Shimmer” of diseases: Both a nothing-burger bug the media is shamefully exploiting to “get Trump” and a sinister modern-day manifestation of the Yellow Peril’s effort to infect our precious bodily fluids. 

Of course, I suppose it could be both a floor wax and a dessert topping, but you have to wonder why the Chinese or the North Koreans (tomayto, tomahto, apparently) would be trying to weaponize the common cold in the first place. Or why they would create a disease that mostly kills the very old. Not to be glib, but a Logan’s Run virus is not the ideal weapon to unleash on your enemies. And if it was the North Koreans, why did they “attack” China first to get us? 

You can tell someone is flailing when they invoke two theories simultaneously that are—absent some heroic hypothesizing—entirely contradictory. 

Listening to clowns like Falwell, I’m reminded of computer hacking programs that just run through thousands of passwords until they stumble on the right one. Falwell just runs his mouth like a broken waste pipe at a cattle yard in the vain hope that some flotsam of bullsh*t catches on. 

But I’m here to tell you: Going around theorizing that this is a deadly bio weapon and/or the common cold is not what political pros call “consistent messaging.” 

But it is what medical professionals call incredibly irresponsible and dangerous. 

Bending the narrative.

In my first column this week, I wrote that the problem for Trump is that he is uniquely ill-suited for dealing with a crisis like this. He has certain political and media superpowers that have served him well in the past. Most of the challenges he’s faced over the last three years have been surprisingly amenable to his natural skill set of bluster, bullying, and B.S. More amenable than I would have predicted. 

But this is different. Despite the fact his uncle was a physicist, he doesn’t understand scientific issues well. As he demonstrated Wednesday night, he doesn’t have any natural instinct for how to reassure the country. As a result, I wrote, he is desperate to “squeeze a global outbreak into the same narrative structure that has sustained” him.

Trump’s henchmen.

To carry the superpower metaphor beyond where mature editors would let me go, a corollary to Trump’s powers is that he has many minions, like Falwell, eager to amplify his abilities: Attack those bringing to bear inconvenient facts, attack facts themselves as fake, focus on hypocrisy—real or alleged—as if it is a rebuttal to substantive charges, invoke Trump’s infallibility or unknowably brilliant strategic sense, conjure conspiracies that justify missteps, and deny or ignore missteps while focusing on those of others. 

The best defense of the objectively disgusting way so many voices on the right have responded to this pandemic is that they were victims of their own momentum. If you’ve had great success treating every problem like a nail, you can understand why you’d keep hammering. It’s conceivable that some people were just on a glide-path of their own inertia. 

This is not a particularly noble or admirable defense, but it is a human one. Man’s capacity to suspend disbelief in defense of a proven, serviceable, and remunerative narrative is well documented. 

But we’ve already passed the point of woeful irresponsibility and entered a realm that’s simply otherworldly. Even if the mainstream media behaved exactly the way Jerry Falwell & Co. wanted (which is impossible because they need the media to be the bogeyman), it wouldn’t change the fact that most of Europe is shutting down to deal with the virus. MSNBC didn’t scare China into building all those pop-up hospitals. The New York Times could spend all day attacking Joe Biden and praising Donald Trump, and the facts on the ground would remain the same. 

(Parenthetical Update: I caught Trump's Rose Garden press conference after this went to the editors. It was much better than his Oval Office address. I thought he misstated some things and had some petty and ridiculous answers during the Q&A. But if he had done something like this, in both tone and substance, Wednesday night he would have saved the country a lot of turmoil and himself a lot of problems. And if these options were wise and well-advised on Friday, why were they nowhere to be seen on Wednesday? Because, contrary to his constant claims of early action and smooth running processes, he’s still playing catch-up. That he needed to see a 10 percent overnight drop in the market to announce things that should have been announced days, weeks, or months ago, is not quite the stirring defense many are already spinning it as. )

When the grinder greets the baloney.

Postmodernists like to talk about the “Social construction of reality.” And sometimes they have more of a point than conservatives—including myself—have wanted to concede. Many of our ideas and conflicts are arguments about how we should perceive the world. That’s the underlying dynamic of much of the culture war—it’s an argument about how to describe reality. 

Part of Trump’s superpower is his ability to frame how we see reality. This ability makes him very dangerous to fellow Republicans who need the approval of his fans to win primaries. It makes his good favor very desirable to radio and TV hosts who need his fans for ratings. And so they join in the game of constructing a reality that becomes, in a way, self-fulfilling. 

As a result, smart people can actually be convinced that the same man who gave the worst nationally televised address since the invention of the television is a victim of bad staffing while simultaneously believing he is a brilliant manager and an even more brilliant communicator (“Stupid stock market! Be more reassured!). When things go well, it’s a direct result of his managerial and policy genius. When they go poorly, it’s because of the Deep State, the media, the globalists, and the rest of the Legion of Doom unfairly undermining him. Tails, Trump wins. Shut up, NeverTrumper.

But here’s the problem: The coronavirus doesn’t give a crap about any of this. The math is the math, the science is the science. And however terrible the New York Times or MSNBC may or may not have been on the issue of the Mueller probe, it doesn’t change the infection rate if we do nothing. Just ask the families of all those dead Italians. 

Sometimes the social construction of reality runs head-on into generic reality. I’m reminded how my wife once reviewed a book called The Frailty Myth in which the author argued that female “frailty” was a social construct. If women were raised to value physical strength and athleticism the way men are, they could bench press as much or run as fast as any man. The only problem with this theory was that it wasn’t true, and no matter how passionately you claimed otherwise you couldn’t bend actual reality to some contrived social reality.

The social reality Trump & Co. constructed isn’t powerful enough to paper over the underlying facts this time. 

And just to put a fine point on it: The Trump we see now is the same Trump we’ve seen all along. I’m not above saying “I told you so” because if I don’t no one else will and I’ve had to endure a lot of crap for saying it all this time. “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle,” as Orwell said. And I’ve struggled a lot. 

The sad thing, for me, is that I thought being vindicated would be more fun. 

Biden vs. Trump.

In my Mittwoch Korrespondenz I warned how we should all get ready for an outbreak of Codger Hypocrisy Disease (COHID-20). The fight will not be about whose nominee is more corrupt or mentally unfit for office. That would be an utterly defensible argument. Rather, one side will claim that the other side’s candidate is entirely unfit for office while their own candidate is entirely fit. It’s going to spectacularly stupid. Reasonable observers, it seems to me, cannot deny Trump’s manifest defects nor can they deny Biden’s. They can minimize, rationalize or contextualize them. But if you can’t concede that both of them are deeply flawed, it seems to me you have partisan blinders on. Though I suppose if you deny that either of them are flawed, you’ve got a problem I am at a loss to come up with a description of. 

I personally believe that Trump is abnormal outside our average parameters, while Biden is abnormal within them—but I am open to contrary arguments. I’m also open to the argument that differences between the parties are more important than the differences between the men. But that’s a conversation for another day. 

Instead, I’d like to hear from you folks in the comments on the question: By what objective measure do you think one is better or worse than the other in terms of their mental and characterological shortcomings? Please try to keep it civil. 

Various & Sundry

Hey folks, we're still looking for an executive editor. If you're interested or have a good nomination, here are the specs.

I’ll be on ABC’s This Week this Sunday.

We had two fun episodes of The Remnant—both make for great listening while self-quarantining. The first episode was with my friend David Bahnsen. We covered everything from the market reaction to COVID-19 to the future of the conservative movement. On the second episode I talked to Ross Douthat about his new book, civilizational decay, and his newfound germophobia. 

We also released a new episode of The Dispatch Podcast which, according to feedback, was the best episode so far

Daughter update: Lovely Lucy—daughter of the Fair Jessica—has been living in Spain for most of the last year, spending her junior year of high school in Zaragoza, Spain. They’ve closed down the school, her program, and—thanks in part to Trump’s misstatements Wednesday night—we were told she had 48 hours to get home. As I write this, she’s en route over the Atlantic and I am simultaneously giddy to see her, relieved she’s getting out while the getting is good, and disappointed she’s ending the school year prematurely (she’ll have to finish coursework online). 

Canine update: So, things have been on edge at Chez Goldberg. The Fair Jessica went out to visit Lucy in Spain last week and then had to leave from there to her brother’s funeral. I couldn’t go for a work commitment that ended up getting canceled because of COVID-19, which is very frustrating. As often happens when the mater familias is absent, the animals were on edge. They all—with the exception of Ralph—demandmore and more of my attention and they get jealous of each other. The real problem is the longstanding cold war between Gracie and Zoë. The dingo doesn’t like to see me favoring the feline. And, I must say in the spirit of non-partisanship, Gracie is very good at trolling Zoë. She uses her dark arts to jump on surfaces Zoë cannot police and she quite deliberately walks toward Zoë’s food bowl and prized possessions in an effort to get a rise out of her. 

But Tuesday night tensions escalated, in part because I was absent myself until fairly late, which meant everyone was hungry not just for attention but for actual food. Gracie taunted Zoë at ground level inadvisably—it had something to do with Zoë going for Gracie’s treats—and Zoë growled and snapped at her. I have zero tolerance for that. Zoë is too big and too strong to allow even a hint of physical violence between them even if, as Zoë insists, Gracie started it. Also, as I learned from the early days after Pippa’s arrival, the only thing that Zoë truly respects is force. It was only after I grabbed Zoë and slammed her to the ground and held her there menacingly that she finally understood that Pippa was a member of the pack. So I did the same thing with Zoë this time. In fact, I yelled at her so loudly—I was very angry—that I nearly lost my voice (as you can tell on all of this week’s podcasts). Pippa was so frightened by the family drama she ran off to her kennel and hid there like I was a drunk dad taking off his belt. I didn’t hurt Zoë, but I made myself clear. She got the message, she sulked for the rest of the night, and slept by herself elsewhere. I found Gracie, and inspected her very closely. She was fine. Oh and Pippa’s waggle-gears are fully functional too. 

Things are mostlyback to normal now, except for the fact Gracie is still very angry with Zoë. If ZoZo gets close, Gracie hisses at her. She keeps her distance otherwise. I’ve had to move her treat dispenser thing to a table for the time being and there’s a general sense of disorder at treat time. I’m hoping the return of the Fair Jessica and (soon) Lovely Lucy will improve things even further. And we can get back to regular order.

And once again, being vindicated is less satisfying than I thought it would be. 

ICYMI

The week’s first Remnant, with return guest David Bahnsen

One word for Trump’s coronavirus response: Braggadocio

(Hump Day Epistle) What’s more worrisome, COVID or Boomer politicians?

The week’s second Remnant, with converted doomsday-prepper Ross Douthat

What’s in a name?

And now, the weird stuff

Key-shifting happy songs to sound vaguely terrifying

The comedic power of sound effects

Using bad means for good ends: Dog edition

One of the rarest, most expensive bourbons in the world has a ridiculous name

Tech nerds have clearly gone insane from too much "social distancing"

Epidemiologist says you'd need blood alcohol of ... 60 percent to kill COVID internally

Photograph of Donald Trump by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images.

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