What is wrong with us? After thousands of years of practice, human societies have not yet evolved to be able to govern ourselves in anything approaching a rational manner. We produce great scientists and engineers, economists and mathematicians, an army of technocrats ready and willing to craft and implement policy programs to achieve agreed-upon goals. But we cannot agree on the goals. Nor can we agree on how we should decide what the goals are. Nor are we able to agree on the facts that might allow us to decide on what the goals are. Nor are we able to agree on who to trust to tell us those facts. The only thing that we are able to do really well is to revel in our hatred of Our Enemies. That, and laugh. Here in the most powerful nation in the history of the world, you have to be able to laugh.
It is only the fact that we are just over a week away from Election Day that prevents pundits today from intoning with solemn pride, “Donald Trump truly became president tonight.” Viewers of the final presidential debate Thursday night may have been marginally encouraged by the fact that Trump seemed to hew a bit more closely to the prescribed debate rules rather than just screaming the entire time, in the same way that parents are encouraged at any sign of success in potty training. The president does not know much, but he does know how to set and then momentarily exceed very low expectations. We are experiencing, I believe, a sort of mass national hypnosis, the product of years of prolonged exposure, that makes us measure Trump against himself rather than against objective reality. It has robbed us of the ability to appreciate the ludicrousness of the situation we have gotten ourselves into.
There is a pandemic. The pandemic is caused by a virus. The virus infects people and reproduces itself under conditions which are known to us. We can do simple things to ensure that those conditions are minimized. Or, we can not do them, and the virus will continue to spread. Friday morning, seven months into the pandemic, the United States reported the highest daily number ever of new coronavirus cases.
The virus does not care about clever arguments or propaganda. There is no persuading it of anything. It will spread, or, if we prevent it from doing so, it will not. It, unlike us, is rational. We must understand that the “debate” over the pandemic is only a debate with ourselves. The virus itself is getting the heartiest laugh of all as The Greatest Country In The World holds a big pageant to decide if we want to continue to employ our leader who has gotten hundreds of thousands of people killed by being constitutionally incapable of saying “people should wear masks” even after all of the nation’s experts told him to do so.
“Fun debate you are all having! Be sure to put a lot of thought into this knotty question of whether or not to needlessly allow another two hundred thousand people to die!” the virus chuckles to itself.
It is tempting to ask of Donald Trump: What the fuck is wrong with this guy? But that is the wrong question. The answer we actually need is: What the fuck is wrong with us? We, a nation of hundreds of millions of people with unparalleled wealth and resources and technology and military might, with a Constitution that we never stop congratulating ourselves on, selected this shrieking, clucking goofball to be our president, and allowed him to reign uninterrupted for four years of chaos, and now are considering doing that again, assuming we do not die of the virus in the next week, which is certainly a possibility.
Donald Trump may be the waddling human embodiment of the seven deadly sins, but it is us, all of us, who are truly fucked up. We got ourselves into this position. Even now, after everything, we are too concerned with preserving the decorum that surrounds the broken system of elections that awarded victory to this man who lost the popular vote to stand up, start ripping out our hair, and yell “GET THIS CRAZY GUY OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE BEFORE HE KILLS US ALL!”
Instead, we have televised debates. And then we try to vote, to the extent that the Republican Party fails to stop us from doing so. And then, depending on the outcome of a blizzard of specious legal challenges supervised by crooks, we may get to a slightly better place. You can’t be sure of that, though. The only thing that you can be sure of is that we will get what we deserve.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.