With HIV, as with Covid, a transformation of the facts did not necessarily mean a transformation of psychology. Human psyches take time to adjust to new realities; fear and trauma have a habit of outlasting our reason; and stigmas, once imposed, can endure. Camus noted how his citizens in The Plague were oddly resistant to the idea that their pestilence was over, even as the numbers of deaths collapsed. Reactions to the good news were “diverse to the point of incoherence.” But for many, “the terrible months they had lived through had taught them prudence,” or imbued them with “a skepticism so thorough that it was now a second nature.” They had become used to their new routines, and the sense of safety they gave. However bizarre it seems, they became attached to their plague experience.
Sullivan is specifically referring to some people’s resistance to going mask-less outdoors despite the latest science condoning it. But his larger point about the stubbornness of human psychology and becoming emotionally attached to the pandemic experience rang very true for me.
Marveling at masks
Not long before lockdown last year, wearing a mask was still liable to be seen as paranoia even as the specter of the pandemic lurched ever closer. Yet now, long after mask mandates went into effect, it’s not wearing a mask that attracts suspicion and consternation—at least in the Chicago area where I live (obviously it’s a different story in other parts of the country).
And that’s one aspect of pandemic life I’ve become not necessarily attached to, but certainly appreciative of. Anytime I go to a store or other indoor public place, I see every person wearing a mask, even young kids, and think, This is pretty cool.
It’s pretty cool that all of us—whether willingly or begrudgingly—are undertaking collective action to benefit the health of our neighbors and nation. Again, whether you see it that way or not is irrelevant; it’s the fact that it’s happening at all and on such a grand, widespread scale that’s a bit of a marvel to me.
It makes me feel a kind of kinship with my fellow countrymen and women, an esprit de corps that makes the frustrations of pandemic life a little more bearable. Or, as Matt Thomas tweeted:
(Notably this tweet was from before we knew COVID transmission was far more likely through air droplets than direct touch, but the sentiment remains valid.)
To be clear, I’d rather not have to wear a mask. Once mask mandates end and the prevailing, science-based wisdom allows for a more normal life, I’ll celebrate with everyone else. But until then, I consider masking up something to embrace as a small but significant action I can take to nudge this plague in the right direction.
(That and getting the vaccine, which I’ve now done.)
“We’re all in this together” started the pandemic as a motivational motto that even yours truly deployed, but over time kinda curdled into a cheap slogan of hackneyed false optimism due to the decided un-togetherness fostered by a very tumultuous 2020. We all haven’t had the same COVID experience.
I’m one of those people for whom there was very little that was negative about it. I didn’t lose my job. I got to and continue to work from home (saving a bunch of money on commute fuel, among other things). I avoided catching COVID, as did my immediate family and friends (knock on wood). And above all I got so much more time with my wife and 2 year old than I would have otherwise, which was a priceless gift.
For those reasons I’ve very much become “attached to the plague experience.” The new routines it generated will be hard to kick. Slowly, as more people get vaccinated and another summer outdoors approaches in relief, maybe a new mindset will take hold. (I for one eagerly await going to a movie theater once I’m past my post-vaccine waiting period.)
It’s been a tradition on this blog since its inception to do a kind of presidential postmortem for the outgoing commander-in-chief (see Bush and Obama), assessing both the political takeaways and my personal life during their administration. (I planned to publish this on Inauguration Day, but as the actual end date of the Trump administration is now up in the air I figured I’d just let it fly now.)
On the personal front, the Trump years coincided with a very consequential period of my life. I had a baby. I bought a house. Like everyone else I saw my life transformed by a pandemic. For those reasons alone this epoch will remain very memorable.
As for the politics and public happenings, well, I have hitherto not been secretive about my thoughts on the soon-to-be-former president. But as this exercise is meant to take a bird’s-eye view of things, here are four lessons from the Trump presidency.
1. Hypocrisyis cheap
Accusing someone of hypocrisy is very satisfying. The problem is it doesn’t achieve the intended goal of shaming someone into changing their beliefs or behavior. Instead it does the opposite, making the accused feel defensive and therefore much more likely to double down on their beliefs regardless of the facts—and probably just deploy whataboutism, one of many cheap logical fallacies for people who lack any affirmative argument for their own stance.
Pointing out that Mitch McConnell was a hypocrite for allowing the nomination and vote for a Supreme Court justice in an election year (an election week!) might be true, but so what? Like he cared? Similarly, pointing out Joe Biden’s history of inappropriate sexual behavior and Kamala Harris’s criticism of this before becoming his Vice President are hypocritical to their anti-Trump message was unlikely to sway most like-minded supporters against voting for them.
Perhaps this comes off as pessimistic, but it’s just a realistic understanding of human nature. Politics is people. Accusations of hypocrisy, however tempting, are just not effective for persuading your ideological opponents to help you achieve a political objective.
2. Presidents should tweet more (but better)
Hot take: it’s a good thing Trump used Twitter so actively.
To be clear, I’m not talking about his actual tweets, which were occasionally anodyne but most often downright deranged and completely unbecoming a head of state—so much so they got him rightfully banned from Twitter.
Rather it was the act of tweeting itself that represented a sea change in how to adapt the presidency’s traditional “bully pulpit” to our globalized, tech-infused zeitgeist. Trump wasn’t the first president to use Twitter, but he was the first to weaponize it.
We didn’t have to wait to hear the president’s thoughts filtered through press secretaries and sanitized speeches; we often got it straight from the source, immediately and with vigor. This is a trend outside of politics as well, with celebrities and athletes using the direct nature of social media to cut out meddling middlemen and control their own message as far as they’re able.
The downsides to this change are obvious. It’s not good for anyone—let alone the president—to be Too Online and so easily distracted by, as Spiro Agnew would put it, the “nattering nanobs of negativity” on social media. And when the president uses said bully pulpit to spew insane conspiracy theories, spearhead crusades against opponents (and just as often allies), sling obvious lies, and foment insurrection against his own government (!), it’s easy to see why it’s not worth any of the potential upside.
But with a more salutary person and message behind it, this strategy can benefit more than just a politician’s addled ego. It can show the country and the world that the president is paying attention to what’s happening and intends to use their influence to affect change—hopefully for the better.
Certainly this won’t happen in the Biden administration, as his campaign’s key (and clearly successful) strategy was to remain on the defensive and avoid social media squabbles. But odds are the next president who isn’t a senior citizen will take their tweeting to the next level.
3. Federalism is good
This isn’t something I learned under Trump, but I did appreciate it anew. Federalism is generally defined as the balance of power divided between the federal government and the states. Critics will point to how “states’ rights” has historically been used as a coded justification for perpetuating unjust laws (e.g. slavery, segregation). This is indeed unfortunate for many reasons. But the concept of states’ rights is, on the whole, good, and the proof of this is the 2020 election.
Though I’m sympathetic to arguments against the Electoral College, I think every patriotic American should be grateful our elections are administered and certified by counties and states rather than a centralized national authority. Can you imagine the executive branch being in charge of elections? Especially this executive branch?
When you extend that reasoning to other issues, you can see why it’s valuable for states to act as built-in safeguards against very real autocratic threats against our very fragile democratic system. The reason Trump tried so ardently and pathetically to cudgel Georgia’s Secretary of State into committing voter fraud (to cite one of many documented examples of his malfeasance) is because as president he legally can’t do anything else.
Cheers to federalism!
4. The presidency is broken, but it stillmatters
I wrote early in this term about the position’s inherent brokenness. A lot of what was controversial about Trump’s actions as president happened not only because of his decisions but because the existing infrastructure around him—or rather lack thereof—allowed it. “Norms”, after all, are only useful as guardrails against wrongdoing until someone abnormal or shameless comes along and completely ignores them.
And even then, since Congress only applies its accountability powers selectively and on partisan terms, anti-corruption laws that do exist are rendered moot if those in charge of enforcing them lose their nerve. As such, Americans are very often at the mercy of executive action.
(As fake Abraham Lincoln says in Lincoln: “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power!”)
Thus the presidency becomes what its occupant makes of it—for good and ill. There were many examples of this during the last four years, but the response to Covid-19 was the perfect synecdoche for all of them. This was an instance where lack of executive action proved severely costly in lives and livelihoods.
Covid-19 really was the perfect opportunity for Donald Trump to shine. He’s very anti-China, very germaphobic, and very enthusiastic about closing borders and keeping out foreigners. Even unpopular leaders in other countries saw their approval ratings rise due to their strong responses to combating the coronavirus, and yet Trump’s cratered and most likely cost him reelection.
It’s important to point out that the economic and medical devastation related to Covid-19 in the United States is not solely Trump’s fault. We know lots of factors contribute, as even other countries that were much more responsive have struggled to contain it. But his indifference, even contempt, toward basic preventative public health measures and the idea of helping anyone who didn’t profess sufficient fealty to him indicated severe myopia at best and destructive nihilism at worst.
This abdication of leadership has contributed to (as of today) over 375,000 American deaths and a record-high 81 million votes against him in 2020. Combine that with all the ways Trump chose to actively wield his executive power for ill—or for his own financial gain—and he becomes the perfect archetype for the kind of person who should never be in any position of power, let alone the presidency.
Grand Old Covfefe
The Trump presidency was bad, but it wasn’t all bad. I largely agree with everything David Frum wrote about the good that came out of this administration. To ignore that is to deny reality, which is something I’ll leave to the “Trump won the election” mob.
Over and over again I have, sadly, been validated. Words from “Your Obedient Servant” from Hamilton come to mind (directed, notably, at another American insurrectionist):
I stand by what I said Every bit of it You stand only for yourself It’s what you do I can’t apologize because it’s true
Trump will soon be gone from his presidential perch. But even then he will remain the summum bonum of the GOP, what was once a functional conservative party but is now, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “a paranoid, delusional personality cult.”
I greatly respect the conservatives and Republicans who have dissented from this delusion, who have seen Trump for what he is and proclaimed such at great cost. These people retain the conscience of the once Grand Old Party, but unfortunately not the control.
Me and Little Man gathering snowballs, here at the end of all things 2020:
A lot of bad things happened in the world this year, but in my own little world there was mostly just good. Chiefly because I’m blessed to have a COVID-proof job that has let me work from home since mid-March.
This has also meant doing lockdown and social distancing with a toddler, which was simultaneously easy (he doesn’t know what COVID-19 is nor what he’s missing because of it) and challenging (*random shrieking and tantrums*).
Still, life continued to happen in spite of everything, as it is wont to do. Here’s what that looked like for me:
Made several home improvements, including adding can lights, getting a new front door, remodeling our house’s original 1956 kitchen (shout-out to soft-close cabinets and drawers!), and opening up a wall between the kitchen and living room
Jay Rosen, writing back in May about the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19, remains accurate:
To wing it without a plan is merely the best this government can do, given who heads the table. The manufacture of confusion is just the ruins of Trump’s personality meeting the powers of the presidency. There is no genius there, only a damaged human being playing havoc with our lives.
Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.
Since transitioning to a new position at work last year, I’m no longer on the reference desk. (Also the library is currently closed due to COVID-19, so there’s that.) But I didn’t want to let my list of ideas for this series languish, so here are a few short vignettes from desk shifts past.
1. A woman told me of sending a picture of a painting she made to a friend, to which the friend replied “It’s not my taste.” “I think she’s a bitch,” the woman said. She goes on about how she thinks the friend is jealous, and that she’s not sure what she’s getting out of this friendship. She’s more disappointed than anything. The friend is very rich but her other friends were nice about the painting.
2. An older woman who’s a regular patron from eastern Europe told me about her son, who’s a physicist: “…but you wouldn’t believe how much asshole he is.” After I helped her with her question, she said, “Thank you. What a country.”
3. The dad who wanted to check out Scythe so he could keep up with what his teen daughter was reading.
4. The dad taking note of titles on the New Books shelf for when his kids are older and he can read for pleasure again: “I don’t want to miss any good ones.”
5. A regular asked for recommendations for movies about psychopaths. I rattled off a few that came to mind, which she was grateful for but also replied, “You’re eerie…”
6. The nerdy 10-year-old kid who was so excited to find books on the subjects he loved: baseball and Star Wars.
7. The teen girl talking to her dad on the way out of the library: “I texted Kelly to ask if she wanted me to pick her up a book from the library and she said ‘You’re funny; I’m watching Netflix.'”
The Okee Dokee Brothers (probably my favorite band right now) are releasing their new two-disc album Songs for Singin’ two months early “so families can listen to some positive tunes while they stay home.”
The first single is “Hope Machine”, a jaunty tune that was written before COVID-19 but still pointedly speaks to the current moment:
Loved these lines:
Talk quiet and listen loud Teach humble and learn proud Scuffle with the struggle And wrestle with the pain
There’s lots more sophisticated and pithy life advice that’s both timely and timeless tucked into a song supposedly written just for kids. But that’s the Okee Dokee Brothers for you.
We really try to keep our smartphones away from Mr. 13 Months. He’s elated when he does get his hands on one—usually just for photos or FaceTime—but then turns into Ring Withdrawal Bilbo when we take it away from him. And when he seizes the reins during FaceTime, he generates footage shakier than a Bourne movie, with occasional unflattering but funny shots of his chubby face from below.
Yesterday, though, while on the move with phone in hand, he accidentally opened the camera and managed to take a series of photos documenting his short trip from the hallway to the guest room:
Look at that natural progression from dark to light and from blurry to focused. Perhaps it’s meant to reinterpret common household fixtures in the abstract with askew angles as a comment on our uncertain post-COVID-19 world?
When reached for comment, he said, “*incomprehensible toddler babble*”