Friday, May 1, 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on in the United States for nearly three and a half months. The first case in the U.S. was documented on January 20, 2020. In the short fifteen week period since then, America has counted over a million  cases and nearly 60,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Although we are only in the early phase of what is certain to be a long plague lasting at least another year, it is not too soon to start thinking about the place of this pandemic in history, particularly in American history.

Historians have two jobs. One is to collect the empirical information of the past and present it in a reasonable narrative, that is, to give the "facts" in logical order. The other is to give meaning to the narrative, that is, to interpret the facts. The two must go together. It is the second that prompts lively discussion and disagreement among historians. For instance, on the causes of the Civil War, there are numerous credible competing theories historians have put forth.

In the pre and post-Second World War period, one of the most popular and influential historians was Arnold Toynbee who published a sweeping ten-volume work, A Study of History, from 1935 to 1961. Overall, he addressed the question of why civilizations rise and fall. After all, every civilization has fallen. Obviously, none lasted forever. Even the great ones, as ancient Rome, which lasted a thousand years, fail in time. The problem is, why do some civilizations thrive and why do some die? Toynbee's answer was in how a civilization, or a culture, responds to a challenge to it. Those who find creative and successful ways rise and excel. Those who fail to meet the challenge decline and die. This is called the Challenge and Response theory of history. Although much of Toynbee's work has been questioned by historians since his time, there is still a lot to be said about the general idea that civilizations rise and fall on how they respond to challenges confronting them.

I would argue that America faced four great challenges before this year and responded strongly to each of them leading to the nation's spectacular place in the world as the richest and most powerful nation-state in history. The first challenge was the rising power of the mother country over the colonies. The response was the creation of a nation-state when a large part of the propertied classes resolved on independence. This took 13 years to accomplish (1776-1789). The second was a challenge to define the nation-state, that is, whether it was one nation or two. This took 4 years to resolve (1861-1865). The third was the Great Depression of 1929-1941. The challenge here was to preserve capitalism and the response was by creative government intervention. The fourth was the Second World War. This was an external threat to the power of the nation-state. Virtually the entire nation arose to respond decisively in about three and a half years. This made the U.S. the world's great superpower challenged only by the Soviet Union which imploded forty-five years later leaving no rival. Borrowing from Toynbee, I would argue that modern America is the result of highly successful responses to serious challenges.

Following this theory, the United States now faces a new challenge and the outcome will depend on how the nation responds to it. To be sure, COVID-19 is not the first pandemic, or epidemic, America has faced. The worst of the lot was the great influenza pandemic of 1918 when some 600,000 Americans died. Even this disaster did not disrupt the country as COVID-19 has done. In the first place, COVID-19 is not influenza. It is a highly contagious virus that is primarily respiratory, typically producing a sort of pneumonia. However, it is also known to attack other organs in some people, particularly the brain and the kidneys. It is also deadly. It is ten times deadlier than ordinary flu. It is two and a half times deadlier than the flu strain of 1918. The impact of COVID-19 is much stronger than any previous epidemic/pandemic in the United States. Thus, it is presenting a new challenge to America. How the nation responds to this unique threat will define the future of the country.

In less than four months, COVID-19 has disrupted the country as nothing has done since the Second World War. Some one million Americans have fallen ill and 60,000 have died in this short period. The governments, from federal to local, are more or less fighting the aggressive virus with the only tool they have now, a passive/aggressive stand of social distancing. The economy is veering toward severe disruption if not collapse. Thousands of businesses face bankruptcy. Some 26m people are out of work, a record since the Great Depression. Food banks are struggling to feed hungry people. Commerce is in chaos. The food supply is under strain. Congress is frantically trying to stave off catastrophe by injecting trillions of dollars in bailouts plunging the nation ever more into debt. Even this appears to be inadequate to prevent economic and social disaster. 

So, back to the theory of Challenge and Response. The question is, how well is America doing in responding to the new challenge at hand? Judging from the raw numbers at hand, we would have to say not well. The U.S. has 4% of the world's population. It now has a third of all the world's cases of COVID-19 and at least a quarter of all the world's deaths. It has far more cases and deaths than any country. This alone should give us cause for alarm about the response to the challenge. As for testing, the richest country in the world is below at least three dozen countries in tests per thousands of population. Although the U.S. has administered the largest number of tests, it lags behind many other countries in tests as a percentage of the population. Some countries, as South Korea and Germany, have done much better at testing, and have seen relatively low death rates. In the U.S., there is no national policy on testing. Thus, the bare numbers do not give us much hope that America is responding well to the challenge at hand.

In all of the four earlier cases of challenges to America, there was a centralized authority that led the successful response. Without strong, decisive, and unified leadership neither the American Revolution, nor the Civil War, nor the Great Depression, nor the Second World War would have turned out as they did. Moreover, in every case, there was a personalization of that national leadership: Washington, Lincoln, FDR, FDR. These three are now universally regarded as the greatest American leaders. Thus, large elements of the country united behind a visible, unitary leader to answer resoundingly the challenges before them.

A great deal of our inability to unite in this new crisis comes from history. In 1990, the only rival of America, the old Soviet Union, disappeared from the scene. For the past thirty years, the United States has been unchallenged as the world's only superpower. This has been a mixed blessing. A common enemy served a useful purpose of forcing the country to unite to face the external threat. This papered over the internal divisions in the country. The Cold War, which ran from 1945 to 1990, produced its share of waste and failure, but also prompted America to excel in some common endeavors such the space program. As the Cold War ended and the external threat disappeared, there was no bond to keep the centrifugal force from slinging the various elements of the nation apart. From 1990 to the present, the U.S. has seen a great deal of bitter partisan warfare as Americans seem ever more retreating into interest tribes pitted against each other. The Democrats and Republicans have traded the White House and Congress back and forth by narrow margins ruling by razor thin majorities. A national consensus on anything seems difficult or impossible these days.

It was this state of internal hostility that brought to power Donald Trump, a popular culture star who had never held elective office. A master performer, he was brilliant at empowering grievance politics uniting elements that felt threatened by modern American culture, as the angry white working class man, southerners, and evangelicals. He skillfully combined this voting block with the traditional base of the Republican Party, big business. This combination, while not a majority of the nation, was enough to give him victory in the Electoral College. He went on to employ stick and carrot to transform the Republican Party into his personal party. As president, he personalized the office to suit himself and strengthened his ties with his "base" by aggressive public relations. His problem was that he could not reach beyond this, could not expand his base. If anything, this intensified the tribal politics that had been growing since 1990.

As President Trump created his own personal form of governing and increased ties with his base, he failed to bond with the majority of Americans. Through his presidency, a majority of people consistently disapproved of his job as president. In a sense, Trump remained a minority president. 

When the coronavirus reached America, last January, Trump treated it as it had every other problem, as a public relations issue. He tried to control the message. At first, he denied its existence. For over a month he did very little about the coming pandemic of which he was warned. Then, when he did begin to act, he tried to minimize the threat, saying it would go away soon and was nothing of concern. Finally, about six weeks in when the obvious could no longer be dismissed, Trump began to fumble toward national reactions but waffled back and forth. No single, consistent, coherent policy has emerged from the national government. In fact, he took to two-hour daily "briefings" that were little more than campaign rallies where the revered experts, Drs. Fauci and Birx, were trotted out as set decorations. Apparently, his aides pulled the plug on these performances last week after his disastrous remarks about lights and disinfectants in the body. 

The lack of strong national leadership makes this challenge unlike any of the first four that had faced the country. In fact, Congress and the governors and other local officials have been virtually on their own to try to deal with the crisis as they could. Some of the local authorities, Democrat and Republican, have done commendable jobs in spite of the vacuum at the top. This has left the country with a patch-work quilt of openings and closings that makes no sense. The question is whether this local leadership will substitute for national leadership in finding a successful response to the challenge at hand. If so, it would be the first time in American history in which this occurred.

It is still early in this pandemic. We still have a long way to go before we can make sweeping conclusions, but the preliminary view is not good. The virus is ravaging America as no other country in the world and the national government seems incapable of leading a coherent response, let alone a successful one, to the challenge. This is not to say that the American people are not responding well. I think they are, and the good work that is being done is coming from them and their local authorities. I believe in America enough to remain confident that we as a people can meet the challenge of this dark hour. It is just that it will be much more difficult without the great national leadership that we had been so fortunate to have in our first four great challenges. I still think we will find a way. We have to do so. If we do not, then following Toynbee's theory of history, we will fail to respond to the challenge and will head to decline and fall.