Ten or 20 years from now, by the time the current crisis has hardened into a cautionary tale about the dangers of governmental incompetence, I imagine we’ll look back on President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden news conference of Friday, March 13, as the moment that finally shattered the world’s faith in America. What broke me, at least, was the spectacular smallness on display — how, in the span of about an hour that afternoon, the illusion of American can-do greatness shriveled like a frightened turtle right before our eyes.
Trump had been disastrously late to lead the fight against the coronavirus, but the United States is often a laggard in times of global turmoil. Now, facing a moment of maximum peril for his country and for the wider world, Trump might have embraced an opportunity for some good old-fashioned American shock and awe. Given his vast powers over land and sea and space, a near-limitless treasury and the untapped reserves of American ingenuity, the only question was which mountain the president would aim to move first.
Would he commit the federal government to building hospitals to treat the masses sickened by the virus, the way China did? Would he command a warlike mobilization to rush into production the supplies and equipment needed to weather the crisis — not just tests for the virus but also protective gear and hospital ventilators? Would he promise a frightened nation that it had nothing to fear, because, as ever, its mighty government would rush in to protect its weary people?
LOL. Nothing of the sort. After weeks of dithering, Trump all but excused the federal government of much responsibility. Instead, he turned to the only the real power left in the land: America’s brands.
“I want to thank Google,” said the American president. “Google is helping to develop a website. It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.”
Let us not dwell on the clown show that followed this news: Reporters soon discovered that Trump had oversold the site; instead of the nationwide coordinating service the president had described, Verily, a life sciences subsidiary of Google’s parent company, was building only a small pilot effort to direct people in the San Francisco Bay Area to coronavirus resources. When the media clarified these details, the president doubled down and called reporters liars, and Google gutlessly played along with the charade.
But as I said, never mind all this; it’s just frosting on the chaos cake. For now, it’s worth focusing on the initial embarrassment — on the sorry fact that in order to provide its citizens tests for a pandemic disease, the wealthiest and most powerful nation had to desperately finagle the services of volunteer coders at Google.
And this was hardly the end of America’s reliance on brands in the face of crisis. “Mr. President, I want to join you in thanking Walmart and CVS and Target and Walgreen,” said Vice President Mike Pence, as if he were an Instagram influencer trying too hard to bank some new sponcon. What an enormous comedown for a nation whose government once aimed to lead the world in competence and expertise.
During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt assembled a mighty federal apparatus to rebuild a broken economy. Lyndon Johnson used federal power to bring civil rights to the South. Ours was the sort of government that promised unprecedented achievement, and delivered.
But now all that is over; facing the catastrophe of pandemic, our national government stands naked in its mediocrity and impotence. In a call with governors this week, the president made it plain: “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves,” he said.
This is a national shame, but not a surprise. The incompetence we see now is by design. Over the last 40 years, America has been deliberately stripped of governmental expertise. This is what happens when you starve the beast. This is what happens when you shrink government down to the size that you can drown it in a bathtub. The plain ineptitude we see now is the end result of a decades-long effort to systematically plunder the federal government of professionalism and expertise and rigor and ability.
Much of this project, of course, originated on the political right. It was Ronald Reagan who quipped that the most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” A parade of Republican-led Congresses sought to shrink federal budgets and stymie federal power.
Then, as Michael Lewis documented in “The Fifth Risk,” Trump came to power and began to take a sledgehammer to the government’s core functions. His administration gutted some services deliberately — among them the National Security Council’s pandemic-response team — while leaving other agencies, like the State Department, to shrivel out of neglect.
But it would be wrong to pin the government’s incompetence only on partisan ideology. Bill Clinton, celebrating cuts to the safety net, promised that the era of big government was over. Barack Obama pushed for and got an enormous government stimulus passed, but he, too, often seemed uncomfortable with federal power. When it came to creating a universal health care plan, Obama relied on private insurers to get it done; when he wanted to solve the financial crisis, he looked to titans on Wall Street for the solution.
The diminution of governmental expertise in favor of corporate power, then, may have less to with ideology than with diminished expectations on the part of all of us. Just about every day, now, we’re presented with new evidence of our government’s inability to address the nation’s worst problems; we can’t solve mass shootings, we can’t do anything about climate change, we can’t win wars, we can’t fight monopolies, and now we can’t fight pandemics. The incompetence feeds on itself — the less the government seems to be able to do, the less citizens expect it to do, a downward spiral of ineptitude.
Meanwhile, corporations rush in to fill the competence void. Today, it’s the technology industry, not the federal government, that is building tomorrow’s national infrastructure (see Tesla, SpaceX, Amazon or Blue Origin). Rather than letting regulators make weighty decisions about political speech or health care or election spending, we’ve turned over governance to the private sector — Facebook, not the Federal Election Commission, decides who gets to run political ads, while health care monopolies decide how much you’ll pay for insulin.
The coronavirus crisis should be our wake-up call. The brands can’t help us. The brands won’t help us. The most comforting words I can think of now, amid so much uncertainty, chaos and confusion, are these: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.