The Dangers That Won’t Go Away

Vaccines are wonderful. They stimulate the production of antibodies and provide immunity against diseases. Their production, not to mention their distribution, is complex. Yet science tells us that in spite of the wonder of vaccines, their power is limited. That means acknowledging that the disease will never go away. We can only hope to limit its effects.

Last November, this nation had an opportunity to self-inoculate. As in 2021, what many hoped to get rid of won’t go away. Donald Trump won’t leave the stage and Trumpism now appears to be eternal.

We’re living through a perfect storm in which Trump and COVID are metaphors of one another. They were meant for one another, including their serious flirtation. The yin-and-yang they embody includes Trump’s escalation and mismanagement of the pandemic, and COVID bringing him down, both politically and briefly, physically. It provided him a moment of martyrdom. Both Trump and COVID inhabit a very similar space in our culture and in our psyches. It may be a reach to say that they needed one another, but it’s clear that they will be co-headliners when the history of 2020 is written.

This co-dependency is further revealed by another trait endemic to this era — the politicization of nearly everything. We need look no further than the wearing of virus-repelling masks. In the earliest stages of the pandemic, Trump and his followers polarized the response to the coronavirus, with their defiance of public health directives becoming a badge of “courage,” a proud symbol of right-wing identity. Even when the virus spread from blue to red states, attitudes and responses broke along party lines. That persists.

Why? Sometimes in the face of contrary evidence and peril, people often remain loyal to their tribe. The pull is so strong that it is common to vote against self-interest in order to maintain tribal allegiance. When issues are politicized, people often feel compelled to take a side. The side chosen will be governed by tribe loyalty. That loyalty, sometimes blind, is the glue that binds tribes. So is the desire to dehumanize outsiders, a trait that not only comes easily to many, but is a source of great satisfaction. “Nothing brings a group together like a common enemy,” writes Ezra Klein. Like some tribes, Trump’s is governed and bound by bundles of misinformation.

The blend of tribalism and misinformation is a recipe for mismanagement. Leaders have no accountability when allegiance is unquestioned by enough believers. Thus, when crises surface, they can easily be made worse by the uninformed and misinformed. And the Big Lie is right around the corner.

In February this year, part of that tribe gathered at the CPAC convention where, like a Phoenix rising from the smoldering ashes, Trump re-appeared, first in the form of a Golden Idol (an appetizer for the tribe), then the Donald himself. Red meat was offered to the tribe, and predictably, it was devoured. Warmup acts included Texas Senator Ted Cruz, fresh from his Cancun getaway — getting away with rejecting responsibility, that is.

Ted’s excellent adventure to Mexico was motivated by his state’s mismanagement of its power grid. That led this “public servant” to ignore the pubic and to serve himself. That is an often-reprised act, and can include not merely fleeing a crisis, but also creating wealth — for self and influential tribe-mates. Last year Trump referred to oil, gas and coal as “our kind of energy.” We can figure out what “their” kind of energy must be. And thus, the politicization of energy escalated.

Moshe Halbertal of Hebrew University says that “making everything politics totally distorts the ability to read reality.” Apparently, GOP office holders like Texas governor Greg Abbott are especially susceptible. After lifting COVID restrictions and mask mandates, his state is now a model of how to run things. Not well. But into the ground.

The misinformation dilemma is significant. As a First Amendment scholar (who also studies tribalism), I support speech freedom in most situations, even for clowns. The premise is that fools will ultimately expose themselves for what they are. They will be marginalized and shunned. Let them speak; their own words will be their downfall. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, the First Amendment protects even the thought (and speech) that we hate.

However, when misinformation isn’t marginalized, but instead is embraced by millions — and sometimes used to incite them to commit violence — what happens? What happens when the checks and balances established by the Founders don’t work because a tribe (or as described by James Madison, a faction) lacks the backbone to execute them? Well, Trump happens. And January 6 happens. The democracy wobbles. Twitter’s decision to suspend Trump’s account was the right (and constitutional) one, but it’s like taking an aspirin to ward off the effects of COVID. Pass the vaccine. Multiple doses, please.

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