Omar El Akkad is the author of American War. He lives in Portland, Ore.
On the final day of our old lives, my wife and I take our daughter to the mall. We buy her a new pair of sandals. We watch the stuffing machines twirl in the Build-A-Bear Workshop; there is something hypnotic about the clouds of cotton churning. Our daughter asks to ride the miniature carousel near the food court; we feed a dollar into the machine. She giggles every time her little train car circles past the bench where we sit; she makes choo-choo sounds. It’s early March, the Pacific Northwest finally shaking off the coat of drizzle and grey it wears all winter. It’s a nice day, a normal day.
We don’t know it yet, but this is the last time. Like millions of people we will retreat from the world, victims of arbitrary misfortune – the rotten luck of being caught in this moment of plague and economic meltdown. The rotten luck of having not foreseen this calamity, of not having prepared. The rotten luck of living through this crisis in the one place that has most thoroughly failed to withstand it: The United States of America.
In this year of plague and depression, the most powerful nation in human history has become a sad amalgam of laughingstock, cautionary tale and pariah. Roughly 170,000 Americans are dead, in large part due to a near-total abdication of federal leadership, a decades-long evisceration of the social safety net, and a health care and economic system built on a bedrock of racial and class discrimination. More Americans have lost their jobs this year than at any time for which reliable data exist, and in a country where health care is overwhelmingly tied to employment, the layoffs will likely trigger a cascade of foreclosures, evictions and public health aftershocks for years to come. And all of this at the hands of a virus from which almost every other wealthy country on Earth is now in some stage of recovery.
Even by the standards of an administration that has spent the better part of four years alternating between ineptitude and cruelty, it is a truly spectacular failure – a failure so fundamental it will live on as a schism between generations: those who knew life before the pandemic, those who didn’t.
It is impossible to live in the U.S. in this moment and not feel that something of this country is ending. The postwar world in which the U.S. rose to dominance – the world whose defining image of apocalypse, the mushroom cloud, was both instantaneous and subject to individual agency, a finger on the button, an order given and followed – has given way to something else entirely. A new generation’s conception of our undoing is not nearly so brief, not nearly so well-bounded. The existential nightmare now is a slowly building thing, an ever-worsening barrage of climate disasters and unknown diseases and species extinction – crises that cannot be bombed, bought or strong-armed.
One way or another, the U.S. will outlive this pandemic, even if so many of its citizens have not and will not. But the utter hobbling of a superpower, for months on end, at the hands of a disease that almost every other nation managed to subdue through basic leadership and some semblance of societal cohesion is itself the lasting legacy of the coronavirus. It is, in a sense, a blueprint for what this country can expect whenever the next epidemic or natural disaster or recession strikes – whenever the vectors of political and corporate life here, forever oriented away from the communal good and toward the individual good, run into a catastrophe that requires the exact opposite orientation.
This is a diary of the last American year.
On television, the President of the United States is hawking miracle cures – something about blasting the body with light and disinfectant. Later in the day, a parade of public health experts will be forced to appear on the news networks to plead with people not to drink bleach.
Farcical as the whole thing is, it is also a fitting distillation of the Trump era – a spectacle of callousness and cartoonish incompetence that dominates a single news cycle before the next spectacle obliterates it from memory. Ever since November, 2016, this kind of selective amnesia has functioned for many Americans as a kind of psychological self-defence, a means to avoid contending with the overwhelming cumulative damage this man and his administration have done.
Between the beginning and end of April, the number of Americans killed by the coronavirus jumps almost tenfold, from about 7,000 to about 66,000. But it is already becoming clear that these numbers are probably undercounts, both because testing capacity is completely inadequate and because the federal government has made almost no effort to co-ordinate a national response, leaving each state, county and city to cobble together whatever policies and procedures it can. Stories begin to surface of local officials rushing to pay for bulk shipments of protective equipment, briefcases full of cash in hand, before someone from another jurisdiction beats them to it.
Overnight, the surface layer of society seems to crack. In March, the U.S. economy loses 701,000 jobs, the biggest drop since the 2009 recession. In April, it loses 20.5 million – by far the largest drop since the government began collecting job-loss numbers in 1939. Much of the damage is in the service sector, the myriad restaurants, bars and hotels shuttered during this piecemeal lockdown. Then there are the Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts, denizens of the side-hustle economy for whom there are no institutional protections, no pensions or unions or health care plans. With stunning efficiency, a three-part hierarchy forms – minimum-wage workers are forced to stay on the job, because they have no other choice; the middle-class work from home or office according to the policy whims of their employers; and the rich pay to recreate COVID-19-proof versions of their normal lives. The death toll, in turn, begins to skew, and it quickly becomes clear that the virus is killing Black and brown people at a disproportionate rate. In the Navajo nation, where roughly 30 per cent of homes lack running water, there are eventually more COVID-19 deaths per capita than in any U.S state. Overlaid upon the country’s systemic inequities, the pandemic exposes a system not broken, but functioning exactly as originally designed.
But even as the daily caseload remains stubbornly high, by early April a growing number of Republican politicians and CEOs are calling for the economy to reopen. There is stiff resistance to this proposal, from both medical experts and many economists, the latter pointing out that if there’s another surge in cases, the economy will tank regardless. The bleakest estimates predict that, under the worst-case scenario, by the end of the summer there could be as many as 100,000 dead. Asked about these risks in an interview, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas says, “There are more important things than living.”
ESPN airs a years-old tennis match, a dodgeball game and some sort of cornhole tournament. Virtually every ad seems to contain the phrase, “In these difficult times.” The playgrounds are closed, every major gathering cancelled or made virtual. A numbing sameness sets in; we no longer pass through the days, the days pass through us.
Still, there is a glimmer of hope. For most of May, the number of daily cases flattens. Countless Americans have put their lives on hold, risked their mental, emotional and financial well-being, and now there are finally signs that the sacrifice has been worth it. Ironically, this is, in hindsight, perhaps the moment when any chance of containing the virus through societal action became untenable – the case numbers stopped climbing, millions of Americans believed it was all coming to an end, and a massive portion of collective willpower began to melt away. Later, after the country reopened too soon and case numbers surged again, the idea of a second lockdown was simply too much for many to bear.
Over the course of this month, the President again claims the virus will disappear on its own without a vaccine; he claims the United States is the world leader in testing. The most powerful man in the world lies habitually and without consequence – it has simply become the way things are.
Meanwhile, a host of conspiracy theories and fringe internet blocs start to hijack a growing portion of the national conversation around the pandemic, taking advantage of the lack of clear government messaging and a number of contradictory statements about masks and transmission made by scientists still struggling to fully understand the new disease. Online, I watch myriad videos describing how the coronavirus is a hoax intended to distract from secret pedophile sects and Satan-worshipping “deep state” elites, and it would all be funny if it were only a handful of internet trolls that trafficked in this kind of thing. But it’s not. By the end of the summer, a supporter of QAnon – the amorphous group responsible for many of these conspiracy theories – will become the presumptive House nominee in a heavily Republican district of Georgia, all but certain to head to Congress in November. As with the Tea Party and the Birther movement and Donald Trump’s own political ascendancy, what might have been completely unpalatable to mainstream American conservatism a few years ago has found a way into the tent.
Initially buried amid the many scandals and incremental COVID-19 updates, there comes news of a different kind. Toward the end of the month, police officers in Minneapolis kill a Black man named George Floyd. One kills him slowly, choking the life out of him in broad daylight. And for a while, much of this country does not care. When a major cable news network finally runs a story about the killing, the anchor begins by apologizing for not having covered it sooner.
And then there is a reckoning.
At night I drive around downtown Portland and take in what the city has become – the streets silver under police floodlights, storefronts boarded up with plywood, and on one stretch of plywood a vast mural of names and images of dead Black men and women, many of whose killers still walk free.
To watch overwhelmingly peaceful protesters in virtually every major city in the country be met with batons, rubber bullets and tear gas – a weapon banned in wartime – is to watch in total clarity the collision of American myth and American reality. Two entirely different rule sets seem to dictate this country’s institutional tolerance for violence – one universe in which politicians line up to condemn demonstrators for not being sufficiently respectful of the nation’s Apple stores, and another where a sitting Senator is afforded space in the country’s newspaper of record to argue for unleashing the military on American civilians.
More than any protest in recent American history, including the wave of public rage that followed Mr. Trump’s election, the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 feels like a breaking point. Daily on the news we watch footage of a country at war with itself, albeit an asymmetric one. In Buffalo, police officers shove a 75-year-old man to the ground, leaving him lying in a pool of blood, and when the cops responsible are charged for the assault, a group of their fellow officers show up outside the courthouse to applaud them. In San Jose, Calif., officers shoot rubber bullets at their own implicit bias trainer, who ends up in emergency surgery. In Washington, officers launch tear gas to disperse protesters so the President can pose for a photo op in front of a nearby church, holding a borrowed Bible.
Within weeks, the impact of the movement is visible in almost every corner of American public life. Perhaps most tellingly, hundreds of corporations – from General Mills to the Cartoon Network – take something resembling a stand in support of the anti-racism movement. Many of these corporate statements are plainly empty (if only there was something the NFL could have done earlier to support peaceful protest), but the fact that the core of American capitalism has decided to say anything at all is itself an indicator that many of these companies have decided the public relations fallout of not supporting this movement is worse than continuing to say and do nothing.
In reality, many of the demonstrators’ demands are largely unchanged from what activists in this country have been advocating for the better part of a century. And while dismantling systemic racism isn’t easy or straightforward, getting rid of statues and renaming military bases dedicated to men who fought for the cause of slavery is. Even the demand that has elicited the most controversy – defunding the police – is itself predicated on questions that, in any rational society, shouldn’t be particularly controversial – would at least some portion of the billions of dollars spent on policing not be better spent on housing and health care and resources repeatedly shown to make communities safer? Should a city such as Los Angeles really be dedicating more than half of all its discretionary spending to law enforcement? If a community’s civil toolbox is full of nothing but hammers, how can it not see all its problems as nails?
In a grocery store parking lot near our home, a small group of demonstrators set up a table and a banner. They sit around in the afternoon asking for signatures. They’re trying to recall Oregon’s Governor, Kate Brown, for infringing on their rights. They don’t want to wear masks.
For most of July, the United States sees more than 60,000 new COVID-19 cases every day – a number roughly three times larger than the daily caseload during much of March and April, when the situation was deemed dire enough to warrant widespread lockdowns. But it appears increasingly impossible to institute similar measures now. Mask-wearing has become politicized, just as school shootings became politicized, just as climate change became politicized, just as any instance of communal survival at the expense of personal profit inevitably becomes politicized. When the Democratic mayor of Atlanta tries to institute a mask mandate, the Republican Governor of Georgia sues to stop her. After Republican congressman Louie Gohmert tests positive for COVID-19, he publicly muses that perhaps he might have gotten it from wearing a mask.
It is a strange and disorienting thing to watch this pettiness, not only as the virus kills hundreds of Americans every day, but also as the rest of the world starts to return to something resembling normalcy. In China, the movie theatres are running again; New Zealand goes months between active cases. Europe begins to reopen its borders, though not to travellers from the U.S., which now has a quarter of the world’s cases.
The early panic of spring that gave way to the grief and pleading of summer now gives way to a different kind of anger. It is impossible to watch the rest of the world move on and not imagine an alternate timeline in which the White House supported rather than denigrated its public health agencies, instituted a federal mask mandate, paid workers to stay home and built a program of aggressive testing and tracing. How much human and economic carnage could have been avoided?
In the middle of the month, the Department of Homeland Security dispatches officers to Oregon, supposedly to protect federal property from demonstrators. The imagery from the streets of downtown Portland – of faux-militaristic government troops violently suppressing protesters, of civilians snatched off the street and thrown into unmarked vans – hits a nerve among many Americans, undoubtedly in part because of how active a violation it is. It looks like something dictators do.
But in reality, most of the lasting carnage of this year exists in a kind of negative space – all the victims who died alone and afraid, who never received public mourning; all the weddings and birthday parties and graduation ceremonies cancelled; all the vast and hidden toll of domestic abuse and mental-health crises exacerbated by this half-year and counting of purgatory. There will likely never be a full accounting of all that was lost this year, all that was wasted, only the crushing knowledge that it never had to be this way.
There is some uncertainty as to whether the President of the United States is engaging in an active campaign to rig the coming election. There is some uncertainty as to whether the President wants to serve a third term. There is some uncertainty as to whether the President will leave office if he loses.
A new month brings a new scandal and this time it involves the post office. As the White House ramps up its baseless claim that mail-in voting is rife with fraud, the Postmaster-General – a logistics executive and Trump appointee named Louis DeJoy – begins implementing a sweeping set of cost-cutting measures at the agency. The slashing of overtime and shuttering of mail-sorting machines is seen by many of the President’s critics as a clear attempt to disenfranchise voters ahead of an election that polls show he likely won’t win. The move spurs a wave of outrage. Mr. DeJoy is summoned to appear before the House and Senate; more than a dozen states sue.
Again, part of the outrage is inextricably linked to the sense that this feels so overtly like authoritarianism – an administration crony, at the behest of the Leader, issuing orders to limit the citizenry’s ability to participate in free and fair elections. But it also casts Mr. Trump as a singular destabilizing force in American public life, and like the theory of Russian election meddling, offers the comforting promise that the man is an anomaly, a terrible mistake to be corrected in November and never spoken of again.
But the Trump presidency is neither an anomaly nor an endpoint of some temporary misguided turn. It is impossible to frame the current administration outside a lineage that includes the racist Tea Party and Birther movements, the illegal wars of the Bush era, the rise of Fox News and the general hyper-partisan slide of the American right wing that dates back at least to the Reagan administration. Nor is it possible to ignore the future of this movement, the politicians to whom Mr. Trump’s generation are poised to pass the baton – people such as Stephen Miller, the architect of immigrant child-separation policies; or Senator Tom Cotton, a man who advocated for unleashing the U.S. military on protesters and called slavery a necessary evil. Of all the damage the Trump era has wrought, perhaps the longest-lasting will be the final and probably irreversible transformation of the Republican Party into a place where men such as these represent not some fringe, but the ideological base.
As of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 170,000 Americans. Likely hundreds of thousands more will die in the coming months as the President pushes for schools to reopen and considers miracle cures suggested to him by a personal friend who makes pillows for a living. Maybe a vaccine will make all of this go away, return everyone to the old normal where Black and brown people might still die at the hands of police and workers might still die on the factory floor, but not of COVID-19; the normal in which the three richest Americans control more wealth than the poorest 160 million. But what of the next calamity? What of the next pandemic, the next drought, the next problem that profit motive alone can’t solve?
One way or another, there’s a different America waiting on the other side of this year – either a country that puts communal survival ahead of individual self-interest, or one that slowly slinks away from relevance as it stumbles from disaster to disaster, its insulated few oblivious to the suffering of the rest.
There is still time to choose.
In 2017, Omar El Akkad travelled across the United States and saw how the election of Donald Trump has turned the country against itself. This is what he found.
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