Governments all over the world face the question of how they can motivate their countries to unite against the pandemic. It turns out that appealing to solidarity is more successful than fanning the flames of fear, as the U.S. president is doing.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his inauguration speech in 1933, the U.S. was crippled. The global economic crisis had plunged millions of Americans into bitter hardship and, as in Europe, enemies of democracy attempted to use this to their advantage.
While Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany with a message of hate and violence, the new U.S. president, who went on to become Hitler’s nemesis, proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It was the counter reaction to the totalitarian temptations of his time, an appeal to solidarity, a shining hour for the greatest and first democracy and its power of self-purification.
In comparison, the incompetent and self-absorbed conduct of Donald Trump and his administration during the coronavirus pandemic, having now caused more than 190,000 deaths in the U.S, seems dwarfed by comparison, as if looking into a fun house mirror.
The president himself does not want to subvert the fear in society – it is the sharpest weapon in his reelection campaign. He fans the fear with the obsession of an arsonist. Paradoxically, it could cost him the election that he once tried to do the opposite: play down a threat to the nation. As the legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward reported, Trump apparently confirmed that he downplayed the pandemic in order to cheer on the economy. It didn’t work.
Most importantly, Trump failed to do what Roosevelt succeeded in doing with the job creation programs of the New Deal: confront the nation with the size of the challenge at hand and provide it the courage to nevertheless overcome it.
This failure is all the more pitiable because the United States is a wealthy country which has far better credentials to keep the pandemic in check than do the world’s poorer nations. Governments all over the world, however, face the question of how they can motivate their nations to unite against the pandemic and how they can point the way to solidarity.
In Spain, a hot spot in the crisis, political leaders attempted to create unity with a state ceremony that was more an expression of mourning for the many dead and an expression of the will to get the pandemic under control. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier likewise encouraged that a state ceremony be held for victims of the coronavirus. Indications are that such a gesture on the part of the state could quiet the fears of many people. Even a democracy sometimes requires a symbolic act of solidarity. Such an act would also need to be directed toward the countless helpers, nurses, doctors and many others who keep public life running.
An argument against a state ceremony is that the pandemic is not yet over in Germany; that it would exclude others who have died of otherserious illnesses, that, in the worst case scenario, it could appear to be a self-celebration of Germany’s coronavirus response policies. Democracies do not need the agreement of every individual citizen to make decisions because that is neither possible nor desirable. A vast majority in the country agrees with the strategy for fighting the pandemic, but rejection is also legitimate as long as it remains within the law.
How governments convince majorities in this difficult time is also a question for the current political culture. Perhaps it would be more reasonable in Germany to refrain from a state ceremony and to maintain the somber, unemotional course that is not the worst characteristic of this republic and that has proven to be comparatively efficient. Fortunately, no one here has spoken of a “war” against the virus as in other nations.
It appears certain, in any case, that the pandemic does not validate the assertion by autocrats and populists that they can master a crisis better than recently unstable democracies. The destiny of Brazil, whose president massively hindered the fight against the pandemic until he himself became ill with the virus he once laughingly shrugged off, appears to be the writing on the wall. China, the Orwellian police state that first suppressed news of the pandemic and then used it to sharpen control over its people, stands exposed. Populists in the West – Trump, Boris Johnson, Matteo Salvini – whose promises lost much of their dark magic in the crisis, seem like emperors with no clothes. It looks like Roosevelt proved to be correct when he summoned the value of democratic solidarity.