Even though the president partially reversed course yesterday by declaring a national emergency, the damage may be done. Republicans are, overall, older and more at risk from the disease, but they are also the least likely to take the virus seriously. A March 5 poll found that Republicans were almost twice as likely as Democrats to say they weren’t worried about the coronavirus. More than half of them agreed that the coronavirus was just “a scare tool to get Trump.” Weeks of denying and downplaying the virus could prove lethal, not only for the country at large, but specifically for Trump’s core voters.
As the White House has failed to meet the gravity of the moment, a national phalanx of business owners, sports commissioners, college presidents, governors, and mayors has effectively shut down American life to arrest the flow of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. In doing so, they have reduced the president to a bystander in the care of his own country.
American sports have been canceled. Major League Baseball has suspended spring training. The National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, and Major League Soccer have all suspended or postponed play. The NCAA has canceled the March Madness tournament.
Jemele Hill: The game cannot go on
The entertainment world is retrenching as well. Media companies are canceling their major annual advertising events, known as the “upfronts.” Live Nation, the concert promoter, has suspended all tours. Broadway shows have been put on hold until early April.
While the president has promised to continue holding rallies, businesses and state and local governments have encouraged Americans to engage in social distancing to mitigate contagion. Across white-collar industries—including tech, media, and finance—employers are advising people to work from home. Saint Patrick’s Day parades have been shut down. Universities are moving online. Governors and mayors are closing schools and announcing new limitations on the size of public gatherings.
Finally, large nonprofit organizations are stepping up to fill the void left by the administration’s testing failure. Amazon and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have offered to provide testing kits to people in Seattle with coronavirus symptoms. Yesterday, the Jack Ma Foundation, a charitable organization established by the founder of the Chinese retail company Alibaba, announced a donation of 500,000 testing kits to the United States. Acute state failure has reduced the richest nation in world history to a charitable cause.
America has not yet failed, but its government has—and, along with it, a certain vision of conservative governance. For decades, the Republican Party has committed itself to destroying state capacity, disparaging science, punishing expertise, and masquerading as populist while enriching narrow interests. It has all led to this: an undetected pandemic spreading, likely exponentially, as the president and his representatives mock the disease and oversee a state apparatus too incompetent to test for it. The resilience of some American institutions many miles from Pennsylvania Avenue may temporarily blunt this federal ineptitude, but it cannot for long overcome it. At some point, the competence gap between Washington and America has to close. At some point, a state that survives needs a government bent on something more than its own self-destruction.