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 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 shrivelled like a frightened turtle right before our eyes.
President 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 mobilisation 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 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.”