Rod Dreher

COVID19 & The Legitimacy Of The System

A man poses in front of a screen displaying London Exchange’s FTSE-100 as it was down nearly 10 percent in the afternoon after a fall on March 12 (Photo by DANIEL SORABJI/AFP via Getty Images)

Good afternoon. An hour ago, the stock market was down over eight percent today alone, though it has gained back just over half today’s losses. The amount of wealth being burned away by this virus is staggering. Nothing the president said last night calmed the markets, though to be fair, it’s hard to think of any words from any president that would have settled investors down, given how devastating this virus is. Still, it would have helped had Trump been able to project an air of competence and command. The White House having to come out immediately after he delivered this prepared speech, and correct three significant errors, signaled to the markets: the White House is flailing.

Meanwhile, the government has well and truly botched the testing. No wonder Trump didn’t talk about it last night.

Meanwhile, the Chinese propagandists are now resorting to conspiracy theory to blame the US for starting the plague that began in Wuhan, their country, and grew worse as their government botched the initial response. This tweeter is a senior propaganda minister:

Ah, now I see the Dow is back down to a seven percent loss. What a day.

Going back to the wealth issue for a second, I’m wondering what kind of bailouts are being cooked up in DC right now for big industries. I’m not saying that those are necessarily bad things — I would have to know the details of each case — but let us recall how much American politics changed after the federal government bailed out all the banks in 2008. That’s how we got the Tea Party. And that, ultimately, is how we got Donald Trump as president.

This has all the makings of something much worse than 2008, because it’s not only burning up wealth, but killing people, and disrupting daily life around the globe. In 2008, it was a problem of numbers. This is not an abstraction. If you haven’t yet read my short piece on how the Tsarist government’s failure to respond well to the catastrophic 1891-92 famine laid the groundwork for the Bolshevik Revolution, please do. The point there is that the experience of mass suffering, and the inability of the Tsar’s regime to deal with it competently, profoundly shook the faith of the people in the system. It caused a lot of people who had been negative towards Marxism to open themselves to it.

The point for us is not that Bolsheviks are lying in wait to take power. The point is that this COVID19 crisis is hitting hard at a system that has been under strain, and in which levels of trust are not high. If there is widespread economic pain and suffering — on top of the sickness and death — and it is believed that the US Government screwed up its response (which it undoubtedly has till now), then there is bound to be a political backlash. And if that system works to bail out the rich, not the masses — then we are looking at the end of liberalism as we know it. The parties are going to go radical, with socialists and nationalists taking power.

The people are not going to go through another banker bailout. I cannot imagine that. I could be wrong, but I feel pretty confident that what’s at stake here is not just the health of the American people, and the strength of the American economy, but the legitimacy of our system.

We were able to say a couple of months ago that the secretive, controlling nature of the Chinese Communist system aided and abetted the virus’s spread in Wuhan. But it has also become clear that the fact that they live in a police state gave the government the powers it needed to slow, and eventually to stop, the spread of the disease. Well, now we know that the fact that we live in a free and open society did not make the US Government act reasonably back in February, when we knew that coronavirus was going to come here. We forfeited the readiness advantage of living in a free society.

And now that the disease is here, that free society is about to be tested in a way it never has been, at least not in living memory (there is no one alive who remembers the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic). We know that a police state can deal effectively with coronavirus. Can a free state?

If we can’t, what’s coming next?

This is a question not only for the president, and for Congressional leaders to consider, but for each and every one of us. It is clear that we cannot rely on the White House to handle this. The thing is, even if a wise philosopher-king were in the White House, it would still be more important that We the People, a free, self-governing people, take responsibility for acting wisely in the face of this crisis.

Don’t wait for somebody from the government to tell you what to do. If the state or city won’t close the schools, and you can keep your kids at home, do that. Don’t go out in public unless you have to. Practice all forms of social distancing. The government cannot flatten the infection curve by executive order; we the people can do it by social distancing, and self-discipline.

If we are unable to do this now, we may find ourselves in not too many years ruled by a state that has the power to do what Beijing has done — and we may find ourselves welcoming that, as opposed to the alternative. This is not a fantasy.

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