Far East, far out

You may believe that the White House is in an indefensible position. They don’t agree. Or maybe deep down they do, but they’ll do what they can to hang on to power, even as they’ve proven, decisively, that they don’t know what to do with it when they get it. Deflection has been the name of the game since long before the inauguration, and it continues to be the President’s go-to strategy. The developing plan is to point the finger at China, and attempt to galvanize popular support by blaming an external enemy. Once again, the Trump Administration proves that it never hesitates to close the barn door once the horse is long gone. It’s never wise to underestimate the degree to which Americans want to rally around the chief in a time of crisis, but I’m getting the distinct feeling that people are damned tired of the excuses.

The Slurpee of accusations now pouring forth from the administration’s apologists comes in several sizes. The smallest and most palatable is the charge that the Chinese Communist Party dithered while the coronavirus spread, and refused to tell the world the truth during the critical early days of the breakout. I don’t doubt for a second that this is correct, but it doesn’t begin to absolve the Trump Administration for its own inaction. The medium-sized Fribble of charges involves the suspicion that the virus didn’t come from markets after all, but instead escaped from a biological facility in Wuhan. This is not implausible. If it’s true, it’s important to know. Establishing a point of origin may help us construct a better transmission model. But now that the pathogen is on the loose in America, wagging fingers at lab techs feels like a great waste of energy. There’ll be plenty of blame to go around once we have the time and emotional energy to assess what went wrong, and I reckon that even the world’s biggest Sinophile will assign much of that blame to the CCP and related Chinese institutions.

The large-sized Solo cup of accusations suggests that China deliberately created the coronavirus as a bioweapon, and either directed it at the West or simply let it loose to ravage the planet. Neither science nor logic supports this, but that hasn’t stopped certain people from hinting at it, and hinting hard. From there, it’s just a baby step to the Xtra Large version of events: the complicity of Bill Gates, and the Democratic Party, and the proliferation of Huawei-installed 5G network towers, and for-profit vaccines concealing microchips, and QAnon, and Baphomet, and all the rest of it. For the moment (although this may well change), Administration officials won’t be attaching names of political opponents to the purported Chinese plot to decimate the planet. Instead, the President and his supporters will attempt to elide the reasonable critiques and suspicions with the widescreen sci-fi/horror movie stuff that there’s never any evidence for. To those who demand subtlety, they’ll be subtle about it. Red meat will be thrown to those who respond better to outright xenophobia, and who tend to ride tractor-trailers straight over logical inconsistencies. In all cases, the bottom line will be the same. Don’t look at us — China did this.

The trouble for the administration, though, is that they can’t make any part of their argument without admitting a grievous intelligence failure. Whatever happened in China, it’s clear that the Trump Administration didn’t pick up on it until it was too late. Every time the President or one of his associates attempts to shift the blame to the Chinese government, they underscore their own negligence, and their self-inflicted unreadiness to meet global challenges. Gutting the State Department, marginalizing scientists and other knowledgeable people, appointing cronies to oversight positions at intelligence agencies, and, in general, disengaging from the world outside our borders — these actions have consequences, and we’re learning exactly how dreadful those consequences can be. Three years of systematic weakening of the supports on which American international oversight rests has led, inevitably, to a collapse. The authorship of that collapse is not Chinese. The dots are not difficult to connect. Inadvertently, the White House is helping people connect them. 

Many will refuse to. They’ll continue to absolve the President of the catastrophes that happen on his watch, and the administration will feed that interpretation by advancing the argument that it is beset by unprecedented horrors beyond its control. But I hope that a few critical thinkers will begin to appreciate the uselessness of public officials who begin their public addresses with the dreadful phrase “no one could have foreseen”. The Presidency is, as Michael Lewis has pointed out, a risk management position. It is the entire job of the White House to foresee. If members of an administration cannot or will not do the work of foreseeing threats, they may as well just pack it up and go home. Pandemics, in particular, are events that we expect our leadership to anticipate, and do their best to mitigate. If we’re asking China to do that job for us –if we are outsourcing our intelligence to an ideological and geopolitical adversary — we’re sunk.

I don’t see the ascendancy of Donald Trump as a radical break with past politics. Instead, I look at it as the culmination of sociopolitical trends that have gnawed away at what used to be called civic life. The Trump presidency, in my view, is a symptom of those trends. An insidious one is the growing cult of victimhood. In press conferences, in rallies, and, as far as we know, in the Oval Office, Trump plays the victim: of the press, of his critics, of the experts, of the Deep State, of the FBI, of overzealous prosecutors, of women and minorities, of you and me. Now he is poised to present himself — and, by extention, the country — as a victim of China. He’ll be supported in these efforts by millions, many of whom also see themselves as victims, and who view the President as a proxy for their frustrations. Yet victimhood is not a position from which executive governance is possible. Victimhood cries out for redress — and for the President, there is no redress. It doesn’t matter who has wronged you, or what impediments you face: you have a job to do, and you must put your head down and do it. The moment your hand begins to shake on the tiller, it’s time to retire.

I wrote elsewhere that authoritarianism is always an expression of weakness. The authoritarian is insecure — he acts to restrict the latitude of the people he governs because he doesn’t really believe he’s got their support. He worries about his legitimacy. Xi Jinping is an authoritarian, and much of what he’s done since he’s attained supreme power, from the expulsion of journalists and suppression of dissident voices to mass electro-surveillance and the institution of concentration camps in Xinjiang, reeks of the worst sort of insecurity. This should make us sympathetic to the Chinese people, who are saddled with brutal leadership, and who, like all people everywhere around the world, deserve better than what they’re getting. Unfortunately, I anticipate that the administration’s vilification of China will lead to lousy treatment of ordinary Chinese, and Chinese-Americans, too. We’ve already begun to see this happening. Even during the worst, most jingoistic days in the wake of 9/11, authorities took pains to distinguish between violent Islamic fundamentalists and the millions upon millions of Muslims who were nothing of the sort. Somehow I doubt this administration will be so circumspect. We’re hurting right now, and confused; it’s hard to rage at a particle, so it’s natural to want to attach a human face to the threat. But the very last thing we need is collateral damage.