Americans Are Getting in Their Own Way

Soon, more Americans may get infected with the new coronavirus in two days than in all Germany since the beginning of the pandemic. But among some in Trump’s party, even a face mask is considered unpatriotic.

Since January, approximately 200,000 coronavirus infections have been registered in Germany. The curve has notably flattened; aside from a few hotspots, relief is raging across the country here, not the virus. In the United States, in contrast, the lead epidemiologist Anthony Fauci fears that they will soon record 100,000 new infections daily—in two days reaching as many as over five months in Germany, even though America’s population is only four times the size of Germany’s.

And Fauci may have still been underestimating this in his cautious warning, because on Tuesday, 48,000 new infections had already been recorded. Some hospitals are already at maximum capacity. Radical interventions would be necessary to prevent exponential growth from Florida to California, from the Midwest to Texas and Arizona.

But that is not expected to happen, because once again, the Americans are getting in their own way with their irreconcilability. The most effective measures in combating the virus—masks, social distancing rules, abstention from parties—have mutated into tools in a culture war. In some places, masks are recognized as a badge of “political correctness”; in the left-wing “mainstream,” drinking in a bar is viewed as proof of patriotic inflexibility.

In Texas, the most populous counties around cities like Houston, San Antonio and Austin are almost begging the governor to be able to impose local lockdowns—all the metropolitan regions are governed by Democrats, but the state is in Republicans’ hands. In South Dakota, in contrast, the Republican governor is looking forward to spending Friday evening before Independence Day accompanying the professed mask-grouch Donald Trump to fireworks at Mount Rushmore, and she announced, “We won’t be social distancing.” Because after all, Americans celebrate their freedom on the Fourth of July—and that also includes the option of staying home if one is afraid of the virus. In this way, the incautious are heralded as patriots and the cautious declared to be bad Americans.

Trump Prefers To Open New Fronts

That Trump is not much good as a role model or crisis manager in the pandemic has been obvious for months. He has not had any new ideas about the situation for months. He limits himself to ascribing the high infection rates to widely expanded testing capacities alone and to assigning all blame to China. He held his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 10 days ago even though the city’s curve of infections was rising sharply; at least eight members of Trump’s campaign later tested positive for the coronavirus. Otherwise, Trump relies on his ability to fan other fires or open new fronts to change the subject.

As ignorant, brazen and laughable as many of the president’s statements about the coronavirus crisis are, one must refrain from assigning him principal responsibility for the calamity. The comparison with Germany weakens just when considering the country’s size: The 330 million-odd Americans are spread across an area 28 times the size of Germany. For many people in regions that are now being hit especially hard, the virus was for a long time an abstract threat that was spreading in major cities like New York that felt at least as far away as they were geographically. Many citizens thus had a correspondingly difficult time accepting the restrictions imposed in their states in April and May, which caused an existential crisis for many Americans. And it was that much easier for certain agitators to dismiss the restrictions as the conspiracy of an elite “on the coasts” that was completely removed from reality.

In any case, most of the responsibility for protective measures and loosening of restrictions lies with the governors. Democrats struggled with them as well, and many Republicans acted rationally. Trump may be making it even harder for Republican leaders like Texan Greg Abbott or government officials like Fauci by equating caution with a sign of political opposition. But he actually has little control.

The Pandemic Is Profiting

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander recently called out Trump’s narcissism when he reminded him of his numerous “followers” and said that many of them would probably follow the president’s example if he wore a mask more often. But one also should not overestimate this effect. Do Americans really need Trump to understand the point of masks? Americans’ trust in their government has hit an historic low. But the great collapse happened long before Trump’s presidency; even a quarter-century ago, when Bill Clinton was in office, most Americans viewed their government with great suspicion.

Nor did Trump invent the tribal thinking that has consumed so many Americans. After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Americans pulled themselves together again, linked arms in the face of an unprecedented threat and stood behind the government. That has become unthinkable just two decades later. The polarization that many politicians have wantonly incited has swept away America’s pioneering spirit and pragmatism, even its patriotism. The pandemic is reaping the profits.

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