If you read one short article about the state of contemporary America it should be George Packer’s “We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken” in The Atlantic. The essay captures our attention in its very first paragraphs.
When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years …
The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare. From the president came willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies. From his mouthpieces, conspiracy theories and miracle cures. A few senators and corporate executives acted quickly—not to prevent the coming disaster, but to profit from it. When a government doctor tried to warn the public of the danger, the White House took the mic and politicized the message.
We live in a country without a national plan, writes Packer, where families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter. Test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were in short supply, and when governors were forced to plead for them, price gouging and corporate profiteering resulted. Poor countries and the UN sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power. Naturally, Trump saw the crisis entirely in personal and political terms, abandoning the nation to prolonged disaster.
Packer compares the current crisis to two others to hit America in the 21st century. When the USA was struck on September 11, 2001 “people in the rural heartland did not see New York as an alien stew of immigrants and liberals that deserved its fate, but as a great American city that had taken a hit for the whole country.” But subsequently, partisan politics and the Iraq War created bitterness toward the political class that is still with us.
The financial crisis in 2008 made things even worse. Bankers kept their fortunes and soon were back to business as usual, while many in the middle and lower classes never recovered. Inequality continued to grow and the working class was left further behind. As a result, both parties lost credibility and the harbinger of the new populism was “Sarah Palin, the absurdly unready vice-presidential candidate who scorned expertise and reveled in celebrity. She was Donald Trump’s John the Baptist.”
Trump campaigned as an opponent of the Republican establishment, but soon the conservative political class and Trump realized that they “shared a basic goal: to strip-mine public assets for the benefit of private interests.” None of them cared if the Trump regime couldn’t govern or if it destroyed national civic life—as long as they all got richer together.
The federal government Trump inherited had been defunded by years of right-wing ideological assault. Trump continued the assault by
… destroying the professional civil service. He drove out some of the most talented and experienced career officials, left essential positions unfilled, and installed loyalists as commissars over the cowed survivors, with one purpose: to serve his own interests. His major legislative accomplishment, one of the largest tax cuts in history, sent hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations and the rich. The beneficiaries flocked to patronize his resorts and line his reelection pockets. If lying was his means for using power, corruption was his end.
This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future.
The virus might have united Americans but it didn’t. Instead, it exposed the inequality we’ve tolerated for so long. Almost no one could get tests yet the wealthy and connected were somehow able to get tested, despite many showing no symptoms. And who turns out to be essential workers? Not wall street executives, financiers, or corporate executives but
Mostly people in low-paying jobs that require their physical presence and put their health directly at risk: warehouse workers, shelf-stockers, Instacart shoppers, delivery drivers, municipal employees, hospital staffers, home health aides, long-haul truckers. Doctors and nurses are the pandemic’s combat heroes, but the supermarket cashier with her bottle of sanitizer and the UPS driver with his latex gloves are the supply and logistics troops who keep the frontline forces intact. In a smartphone economy that hides whole classes of human beings, we’re learning where our food and goods come from, who keeps us alive.
Who then are the non-essential workers?
One example is Kelly Loeffler, the Republican junior senator from Georgia, whose sole qualification for the empty seat that she was given in January is her immense wealth. Less than three weeks into the job, after a dire private briefing about the virus, she got even richer from the selling-off of stocks … Loeffler’s impulses in public service are those of a dangerous parasite. A body politic that would place someone like this in high office is well advanced in decay.
Another example is Jared Kushner.
… Kushner has been fraudulently promoted as both a meritocrat and a populist. He was born into a moneyed real-estate family … a princeling of the second Gilded Age. Despite Jared’s mediocre academic record, he was admitted to Harvard after his father, Charles, pledged a $2.5 million donation to the university. Father helped son with $10 million in loans for a start in the family business, then Jared continued his elite education at the law and business schools of NYU, where his father had contributed $3 million. Jared repaid his father’s support with fierce loyalty when Charles was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2005 …
… Kushner failed as a skyscraper owner and a newspaper publisher, but … when his father-in-law became president, Kushner quickly gained power in an administration that raised amateurism, nepotism, and corruption to governing principles … since he became an influential adviser to Trump on the coronavirus pandemic, the result has been mass death.
To watch this pale, slim-suited dilettante breeze into the middle of a deadly crisis, dispensing business-school jargon to cloud the massive failure of his father-in-law’s administration, is to see the collapse of a whole approach to governing. It turns out that scientific experts and other civil servants are not traitorous members of a “deep state”—they’re essential workers, and marginalizing them in favor of ideologues and sycophants is a threat to the nation’s health … It turns out that everything has a cost, and years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, inflict a heavy cost that the public has to pay in lives. All the programs defunded, stockpiles depleted, and plans scrapped meant that we had become a second-rate nation …
According to Packer, the ultimate lesson we must learn from all this is “that stupidity and injustice are lethal …”
GEORGE PACKER is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.