Many have spoken of the Coronavirus pandemic as a war, even the President. I agree with that sentiment. As much as it galls me to agree with the President about anything, I’m man enough to admit when he’s right. Still, I think that many, especially the President, don’t really take to heart what being at war actually means.
The Case For War:
Our current crisis certainly looks like a war: Thousands of people are dying all over the world, millions are casualties, there is a front line of brave medical warriors fighting to protect the rest of us, there is a defined, if invisible, enemy, and we are innovating like mad to try to gain the advantage over that lurking, merciless enemy. People are terrified and sheltering in place across the globe. This is not just any war: this is total war.
This war has no single front, new fronts open anytime, on the virus’s timetable. Our enemy can strike invisibly at even those at the highest levels of government and kill without mercy in terrible, isolating, and painful ways. The enemy even cunningly divides us by age, class, and race; killing at differential rates, driving wedges into already existing fissures in our societies (more on this in my next essay). The virus is attacking innocent peoples all over the world, respecting no boundary, and no frontiers. This is, in the purest sense, a World War, that is both global and intensely personal.
This war is humanity – literally, every single human being – against the virus.
The virus won’t stop until we fully contain and control it, or it runs out of enemies (meaning that it has infected so many that we all acquire a measure of safety through herd immunity, which will cost humanity anywhere from a million to over 100 million lives, or more. We really don’t know.).
In a very real sense, this is humanity’s first truly global war. WWI and WWII were merely regional conflicts between imperialistic nation-states and their proxies. Not everyone had an interest in the conflict, even if many were deeply affected by the result and millions perished. This is the first time all of humanity is under the same threat, and on the same side, against a common enemy.
It is both an awesome and terrifying challenge and an incredible opportunity to unite humanity in a common cause like never before.
The Lost Opportunity to Lead:
But there’s something deeply wrong. Instead of driving us together in common purpose, this war is dividing us and deepening the fractures and irritating the wounds in our body politic.
The problem is, of course, our leadership. Yes, of course, “America First” Donald Trump is a big problem, but he alone is not the whole problem. The entire GOP seems determined to minimize, distract, misinform, and divide us, rather than unite us in this fight.
And that is just here in the United States.
There is an incredible opportunity cost to the nationalist and isolationist response of Trump and the GOP to this crisis. The world is begging for leadership in this war, yet we are not stepping forward to provide it. We are the richest, most powerful, most scientifically literate, most technologically capable society on earth, which can and should lead humanity in this hour of crisis.
The world will not forget our failure to meet this dire global crisis in partnership with the world, and will soon look for leadership elsewhere. We are ceeding the power and authority to reshape those mechanisms of global order needed to better handle global crises, such as the inevitable next pandemic, climate change, species loss, ocean management, and all such endeavors that cannot be addressed by lone nation-states. Who will pick up that mantle we have left unclaimed? China? The EU? They may try, but they will fail for reasons ideological, structural, and financial – and that failure will spell untold tragedy and suffering for humanity. Don’t expect that we’ll be easily forgiven for our failures, even if we wisely dump Trump in the coming election.
We are willfully throwing away the most vital crisis opportunity for world leadership to address humanity’s collective problems. Why? Because we chose as our leader – impulsively, stupidly, and in a wildly antiquated and anti-majoritarian manner – perhaps the most unfit person we possibly could have.
It seemed a measured risk at the time: the economy was fine, we were in some minor, but manageable, military conflicts that have dragged on for decades, we were tired of the status quo and ready for something new and untried – a complete neophyte to governmental service with a genuine-seeming way of expressing his simple ideas that appealed to our desire for intellectually simple solutions to our complex problems.
But then the greatest health, economic, and social crisis of at least the past 80 years dropped on us out of a minor regional wet-market in China.
What’s done is done, of course. Trump has simply passed on even trying to provide any national leadership in this crisis, let alone international cooperation or leadership.
Trump’s functional abdication of the leadership function of the Presidency leaves us little choice. Like any robust system, we must route around the problem. Our Governors, Mayors, and legislators (both federal and state) will need to step into the void in ways they never have before to provide the national and international leadership that Trump isn’t uninterested in, and is even hostile toward.
Our presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee, Joe Biden, and his soon-to-be-named running-mate will have their capacity for leadership through moral and intellectual force alone tested in ways a candidate never has before. I pray they are up to the task.
The personal initiative, leadership, and charisma of all our current and future leaders will be stress-tested in this fight: some will triumph brilliantly, some will fail and fade. It will become clear in the coming months who has the skill and the will to lead us into the future.
We must and will build direct democratic and civil connections with other countries, governments, and international cities that share our values and goals. It is an enormous and unprecedented challenge of grassroots organizing and initiative that we have no choice but to meet head-on, by whoever is willing and available to do the job.
We are already seeing the evolution of regional cooperation among American state governments stepping into the utter void of leadership that is Trump. We need that spirit to reach beyond our borders and connect us to the wider world to provide global leadership for WW3.
We face WW3 with a General who has abandoned his post, without a plan, and without clear lines of authority. That is all bad and tragic, but perhaps survivable if we are creative and assertive.