As I watched the first Trump-Biden debate, a vision popped into my head. I imagined that the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party had also gathered to watch the debate — but its members decided to make it more entertaining by playing a drinking game. Every time Donald Trump said something ridiculous or embarrassing for America, each Politburo member had to down a shot of whiskey. Within a half-hour, all 25 members were stone-cold drunk.
How could they not have been? They were watching something they had never seen before — the out-of-control antics of an incoherent American president, a man clearly desperate to stay in office because losing could mean his prosecution, humiliation and liquidation all at the same time.
And who can blame the Chinese for gloating? A pandemic that began in Wuhan, and, for now, has been contained in China, is still rampaging through America’s economy and citizenry — even though we saw the whole thing coming.
Alas, we aren’t who we think we are.
COVID-19 was supposed to be China’s Chernobyl. It’s ended up looking more like the West’s Waterloo. That is the argument that John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge make in their new book, “The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West, and How to Fix It.”
According to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker, America has suffered 65.74 COVID deaths per 100,000 people, or about 216,000 total. China has lost 0.34 per 100,000, or about 4,750 people. Maybe China’s fibbing. OK — so quadruple its numbers — China still has been vastly better at protecting its people than the United States.
Indeed, early this month, days after Trump’s White House became a superspreader site and millions of Americans were afraid to send their kids to school, China, with close to zero local transmissions, saw millions of its citizens flocking to bus stations, train stations and airports to travel all across their country for a national holiday. On Oct. 1, Bloomberg reported, “The Chinese yuan is drawing attention as a haven from volatility after its best quarter in 12 years.” China’s September imports and exports both surged.
That used to be us!
“We argue that the high point for Western government, at least comparatively, was the 1960s when America was racing to put a man on the moon and millions of Chinese were dying of starvation,” Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, told me. Also, “that was the last time when three-quarters of Americans trusted their government.”
But, added Wooldridge, The Economist’s political editor, today we’re heading toward “the full reversal of the history that began 500 years ago when China was equally far ahead — a quarter of the world’s economy and by far the most sophisticated government. We forget these things. China does not. This could be a crucial year in terms of Asia regaining the lead it had 500 years ago — unless the West wakes up.”
For America to bounce back would require, for starters, a national plan to deal with COVID-19. China had one: It deployed all the tools of its authoritarian surveillance system — tools designed to track and trace political dissidents to control the population — to track and trace those infected with the coronavirus and control its spread. Some of China’s facial recognition technology is so good, you don’t even have to take off your face mask. Your eyes and upper nose will do.
America cannot employ such a strategy. We don’t have an authoritarian government (yet), and I sure don’t want one. But we failed to produce a democratic consensus to do the same job.
That’s what is so depressing. America has confronted authoritarian states in our recent history — Japan and Germany in World War II and North Korea and Russia during the Cold War. Authoritarian regimes always have an advantage at the start of wars: They can just order their societies to do things from the top down. But in the long run, America always triumphed because, while we’re usually unprepared for war and start slowly, we always climb the learning curve fast and come together for the long haul — from the bottom up.
Until now. This time we never pulled together to rise to the COVID challenge.
On March 28, Trump declared, “Our country is at war with an invisible enemy.” He vowed to summon “the full power of the American nation” to defeat it. But it never happened. Outside of the first responders and health workers, acts of public solidarity and wartime willingness to sacrifice have been minimal or evanescent.
Why? It’s not because democracies are incapable of governing in a pandemic — South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and New Zealand have done much better than us.
In part, it’s because we have a uniquely individualistic culture, a highly fragmented local-state-federal power-sharing system, a frail public health system, a divided body politic, a Republican Party whose business model has long been to cripple Washington, and so many people getting their news from social networks that amplify conspiracy theories and destroy truth and trust.
But what is most different is that we now have a president whose political strategy for reelection is to divide us, to destroy trust — and to destroy truth — and to declare any news hostile to his goals as “fake.” And without truth and trust in a pandemic, you’re lost.
In our last great pandemic, in 1918, lots of Americans did not mind wearing masks — look at the pictures — because their leaders asked them to do so and led by example. But this time, the president never trusted Americans with the truth and led by dismissing the virus and mocking mask-wearing. So, many Americans never trusted him back.
As a result, we could never rationally discuss the sorts of trade-offs that a democracy like ours, with a culture likes ours, needed to make.
Public health expert Dr. David Katz argued in a New York Times op-ed and in an interview with me back in March that we needed a national plan that balanced saving the most lives and the most livelihoods at the same time. If we just focused on saving every life, we would create millions of deaths of despair from lost jobs, savings and businesses. If we just focused on saving every job, we would cruelly condemn to death fellow Americans who deserved no such fate.
Katz argued for a strategy of “total harm minimization” that would have protected the elderly and most vulnerable, while gradually feeding back into the workforce the young and healthy most likely to experience the coronavirus either asymptomatically or mildly — and let them keep the economy humming and build up some natural herd immunity as we awaited a vaccine.
Unfortunately, we could never have a sane, sober discussion about such a strategy. From the right, Katz said, we got “contemptuous disdain” for doing even the simplest things, like wearing a mask and social distancing. The left was much more responsible, he added, but not immune from treating any discussion of economic trade-offs in a pandemic as immoral and “treating any policy allowing for any death as an act of sociopathy.”
In sum, what ails us today is something that cannot be cured by a COVID-19 vaccine. We have lost the trust in each other and in our institutions and a basic sense of what is true — all necessary to navigate a health crisis together. We had them in previous wars, but not today’s.
I believe that Joe Biden was nominated by Democrats, and has a real chance to win, because enough Americans intuit that we’re sick with disunity and that Biden might be able to begin to reverse it. Biden’s victory will not be sufficient to make America healthy again — politically and physically — but it is necessary.
In the meantime, Russia and China, please do not invade us right now. We aren’t who we used to be.
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.