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America’s Ideological Infection

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Ambassador Christopher Hill

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This op-ed was originally published on Project Syndicate 

The United States is not only in the grips of a COVID-19 crisis that threatens to derail the economy and potentially take millions of lives. It is also suffering from a president who is deeply suspicious of expertise and of governance generally.

NEW YORK – Americans may have a well-known love affair with their cars, but it was the South Koreans who first introduced drive-through testing for COVID-19 – a simple measure that drastically minimizes the risk of infection. Americans also have a well-known preference for straight talk, bluntness, and clarity of thought. And yet, it is the South Koreans who have met the coronavirus pandemic head on.

To be sure, South Korea is one of the world’s most advanced countries (though many Koreans would modestly dismiss such accolades). But so, too, is the United States. Why, then, has the US lagged so far behind in its response to the pandemic?

The short answer is that the US has a president who is fundamentally unfit for the job, both intellectually and temperamentally. The majority of Americans already reached this conclusion years ago. If current trends in public opinion continue, Donald Trump is set to lose the election this November, to be replaced by his polar opposite: the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

If that happens, many Americans will celebrate their country’s return to dignity and decency. As Biden so often puts it, “character is on the ballot.” But Trump’s departure would not necessarily cure America’s political malaise. The country is plagued by a pervasive ideological tribalism, and Trump himself is merely a prominent carrier of this disease. As any casual observer of US politics knows, the country is deeply divided by “negative partisanship,” with both parties motivated more by their opposition to the other than by advocacy for their own ideas.

But one of these camps, Trump’s Republican Party, has combined this adversarial approach with a deep suspicion of expertise and of governance generally. And while such anti-establishment attitudes predate Trump, he has eagerly stoked them further for his own political gain. His disturbing appearance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and his press conferences on March 13 and March 14 all demonstrated that the weight of his concern has been on the stock market rather than on people’s health.

As for the administration’s actual response to the crisis, Trump has primarily pushed the theme of “public-private partnership,” relying on US companies to pledge voluntary support. Yet, apart from an offer by Walmart’s CEO to make available his stores’ half-empty parking lots for drive-through testing, the private sector’s commitments have fallen far short of what is needed.

As always with Trump, these corporate pledges were turned into political theater. At a White House press conference, Trump introduced each executive by offering a promotional blurb about their company, and each executive dutifully approached the microphone to offer vague promises of support. This particular episode had all the hallmarks of a campaign fundraising event. But it also clearly had been choreographed to remind Americans that the backbone of the economy is business, not government-employed public-health officials.

Trump wants the country – and the rest of the world – to trust his ability to marshal the private sector. Yet even though supplies of basic hospital equipment are already running out, he has refused to order US companies to produce them, as he is authorized to do under the 1950 Defense Production Act.

As if it wasn’t obvious previously during his administration, Trump is in over his head. He plans for only one thing: assigning blame. For example, he continues to refer to the contagion as the “Chinese virus,” even though “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” have already become the universal parlance around the world. For weeks, while much of the world got to work fighting the pandemic, Trump saw it as an opportunity to reinforce his anti-immigration policies, even claiming – absurdly – that his infamous wall on the Mexican border would keep the virus out.

One of America’s longest-running ideological disputes concerns how to ensure universal health care. Those who fear the specter of “socialism” regularly attack, denigrate, and have ultimately thwarted the Obama administration’s attempt to mandate health insurance for all.

Similarly, Trump and congressional Republicans routinely attack public education on ideological grounds. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and others in the administration have taken to calling public schools “government schools,” and want to expand the scope of so-called charter schools. While these efforts are justified in the name of “school choice,” the ultimate motivation is ideological: namely, to weaken and ultimately abolish the 250-year-old institution of free – and ultimately universal and mandatory – public education.

But this is not to suggest that Trump’s ideological commitments lead to consistency. On the contrary, the ideological right resisted Democrats’ efforts to pursue massive fiscal stimulus during the Great Recession. Now, Trump and his embattled administration are returning to the same playbook to devise a stimulus program for the current crisis.

Character is indeed on the ballot. But so is the prospect of restoring more practical, non-ideological approaches to solving problems. In November, Americans will have a chance to embrace governance that is guided by values and knowledge. Both are among the first things shunted aside when ideology takes center stage. In addition to confronting the coronavirus, America must address this pre-existing condition.