Nobody in charge

By executive order, the governor of Mississippi overrides decisions made by Mississippi municipalities and orders people back to work. Later he amends this decision, and then amends his amendment. Rhode Island announces its intention to enforce the mandatory quarantine of New York visitors by going door to door and screening for Empire State license plates. Closer to home, a friend of a friend complains that New Yorkers have spread viral pollution on the otherwise pristine beaches of Cape Cod. The beleaguered governor of Michigan demands assistance from the federal government. The President belittles her; denunciations and reinforcement come from the usual quarters, signifying nothing but show.

Friends, we’re falling apart. Less than two weeks after the first municipal shutdowns and enforced isolation, the bonds that hold together the states, regions, and cities are fraying. Maybe they were never really there, and it’s taken a global crisis and an ineffectual federal government to make us realize that the union is, in 2020, anthem performances and guesswork, and that’s about it. The network executives who once happily aired every red-hat rally Trump held, squeezing every rating point they could out of the outrage and controversy that ensued, now weigh whether the daily Presidential press conferences are worth coverage. A little too little, and far too late, if you ask me, but nobody’s asking me, and that’s probably because they know what I’d say.

As has been the case since the beginning of this regime, it’s impossible for outsiders to tell who is in charge of what — and that’s likely because nobody is in charge of anything much. The Vice President is supposed to be handling pandemic response, unless the President contradicts him while he’s standing there red-faced, unless Dr. Fauci is on hand to throw cold water on the rosy projections and self-congratulation, unless Dr. Fauci has been sent to the cornfield for displeasing Anthony Fremont. There’s a suggestion that Jared Kushner is doing something, which will surely come to the same sorry end as it generally does whenever Jared Kushner is given a portfolio. Is it any wonder that people are prescribing themselves fish-tank cleaner and crossing their fingers?

Yesterday, Politico ran a story that referred to the President as an “authoritarian weakman.” That’s cute, and I get it, and I think we’ve all become painfully familiar with the vacillation they’re talking about. But a funny thing I’ve noticed about authoritarians is that when push comes to shove, they’re all weak men. They’re always happy to boss you around and consolidate power on a sunny day, but the moment they have to make a real, consequential decision, they never know what to do. Authoritarianism is an expression of deep insecurity; it’s the jealous, desperate accrual of power for its own sake, and an absence of true leadership and selfless action in the face of real challenges. There are still leaders in America — people who might actually be able to salvage a union that’s falling to pieces before our eyes — but they’ve been marginalized and made unwelcome by people in power who recoil at any sign of moral legitimacy. That citizens cannot, or will not, elevate these people to positions of consequence suggests to me that America no longer means all that much to Americans.