Who Will Win the Coronavirus War?

Wars never leave the world the way they found them. Americans suddenly are at war, not with men or a philosophy, but with a deadly virus from China.

The country has not experienced anything as traumatic as the coronavirus outbreak since 9/11, perhaps even since World War II. Millions of Americans are suddenly worried about losing jobs or loved ones. Some already have. The luckiest live in government-ordered isolation, cut off from friends and family.

Nobody knows how bad this will get. No one knows what the world will look like when it’s over. But the suffering will leave a scar on our national consciousness. Will that suffering produce the kind of unity seen in moments of tribulation from our nation’s past? Consider the catchy World War II tune, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
And we’ll all stay free

Praise the Lord and swing into position
Can’t afford to be a politician
Praise the Lord, we’re all between perdition
And the deep blue sea

As Congress stalled in helping Americans in desperate need of help, you can’t help but think: what happened to that combination of goofy good nature, solidarity, and hope?

Americans came out of World War II prosperous, proud, and confident—the unchallenged masters of the world. But America is not the same country that beat the Nazis. Today our nation is enfeebled, vulnerable, divided, shamefully incapable of protecting its own people from death and destitution.

Somehow, we are talking about whether “Chinese virus” is the appropriate name for a killer virus that came from China. Lawmakers hold up financial relief with tangential matters. The scrambled priorities and bitter conflict, as we face down this profound challenge, betoken a nation deeply divided and fallen far from glory.

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then surely the corona cataclysm will prove no exception for partisans to drop their swords. We know this because it’s happening already. Familiar political warfare is bleeding into the crisis and defining it, transforming it into a civil war over America’s future. In a time when unity is most needed, America is at war with itself over the legacy of the crisis.

So Much for Open Society Pieties

“THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDERS!” President Donald Trump tweeted Monday, in a belated endorsement of his own America First agenda. That America had been left long exposed to the coronavirus, or something like it, was a nod to those on the Right who see the Wuhan virus as a massive “I told you so” moment. To them, the virus is a massive stress test on the global post-war order, a bug that is causing globalism to implode in real-time.

In the heat of emergency, the watery pieties of the “open society” have turned out to be luxurious fantasies. No, borders are not just arbitrary lines. Yes, people do want leaders who put their countries first. No, we should not have shifted all of our manufacturing to a hostile regime that threatens to cut off medical supplies during a pandemic.

For Trump and the nationalists, the coronavirus shows that we’ve been doing things in a way that is fundamentally wrong. Then there are those on the Right who—understandably, in light of the recent history of journalism—are incredulous of the pandemic’s significance, convinced it is mostly the fabrication of a vicious, partisan media. Both of these groups are skeptical of the institutions in their own ways.

Then there are those for whom the world before coronavirus was working just fine. You might call this group, which consists of most journalists, academics, and various liberal partisans, “institutionalists.”

To the institutionalists, the problem is that Trump is not a serious president. He won’t let the scientists do their jobs. Of course, there are populists for whom the problem is that America is no longer a serious country. You can be part of this last group and lament President Trump’s handling of the crisis, but this group differs from the institutionalists in that it is not inclined to pin all of the blame on Trump. To the institutionalists, it’s all the president’s fault.

For institutionalists, the coronavirus exposes a dangerous drift away from trusting in “science” and “the experts,” incidentally the same experts who have been running things for generations. They all believe that an open society is the best and that all cultures are basically equal. Many are still saying these things, insisting that China bears no culpability in the outbreak and that Trump is a “racist” for insisting that they do. To the institutionalists, the pandemic could have been stopped if only Obama were still in office.

But it is they who are, embarrassingly, finding the need to slam their borders shut. A worldview that needs to change overnight to survive can’t be a very serious one.

Institutionalists’ Failure of Imagination

It’s possible Americans are about to learn this for the first time in many years. As millions face down unemployment and some face death, policy leaders are stuck debating what to call the thing that is causing their suffering. Calamity looms, but ideologues sideline immediate financial relief for the sake of “diversity and inclusion.” How did America become so incapable?

The populists have an answer: at some point, America became home to partisans with so faint an attachment to their people that they stopped caring. A ruling class of selfish, sleazy profligates cut off America’s roots and sold its future. And so even now, in this moment of great need, they won’t give up their decadent distractions.

The institutionalist way of looking at things, apart from a lack of imagination, is frivolous. Only a fool or a coward would seek to “fact check” the president of the United States for giving people “false hope” or evenunsubstantiated hope” during a national crisis. The pedantic needling of the press shows self-importance, willful blindness, and a pettiness of the soul that, beyond exhibiting poor taste, is an almost criminal disgrace in this time of great trouble.

Our sense for the momentous has been blunted by the glad overuse of words like “historic” by the institutionalists in journalism to describe trivialities. But this feels different. It’s difficult to discern the significance of something historic when in the middle of it, but if the populists are right, the liberals might be the ones swept away in the tides of war. It may be that Americans after coronavirus will be more skeptical of progressive projects, less individualistic, more desirous of national self-sufficiency, more closed off as a society.

But we don’t know that. All that is clear is that America is falling apart, and when this nightmare is over, it will belong to whoever can best explain what went wrong.

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About Matthew Boose

Matthew Boose is a Mt. Vernon fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a staff writer and weekly columnist at the Conservative Institute. His writing has also appeared in the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter @matt_boose. ‏

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

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