“A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound,” wrote Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, in his 1862 classic Fathers and Sons.
But for some pictures, Turgenev might be undershooting the mark. Select snapshots are worthy of hours of reflection; others deserve volumes written about them. One recent photo sums up not just America’s politics in 2020, but its culture over the past decade.
On March 4, a photographer caught Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz wearing a gas mask on the floor of the House of Representatives. In the photo, Gaetz is sitting alone, wearing the mask while scrolling through his phone.
Gaetz later tweeted a photo of himself wearing the gas mask while consulting with a staff member.
At the time, only 130 cases of COVID-19 had been identified in the United States, with 11 Americans having died from the virus.
Despite the warnings of the devastation the coronavirus could cause, Gaetz thought it was hilarious to mock people who were trying to sound the alarm about the virus by wearing a full-face gas mask. After all, this was back before Donald Trump was a wartime president, when he was still downplaying the threat from COVID-19, dismissing the concerns of experts, and insisting that it would all go away on its own. As Gaetz’s constituents panicked over the arrival of the deadly virus, their elected representative decided to carry Trump’s water by ridiculing the people who were trying to warn the public of the looming danger.
But, as we would soon find out, if idiocy were currency, Jeff Bezos would be Gaetz’s butler.
Within days, Gaetz’s first constituent died of the disease. Around the same time, Gaetz announced that he had been in contact with an attendee at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference and would be self-quarantining for 14 days.
Gaetz said his gas mask stunt was sincere. That’s difficult to believe. Had he been sincere he would have worn a surgical mask and gloves, not a contraption designed for chemical warfare. And his outlandish behavior over the years suggests that there’s no reason to grant him the benefit of the doubt. After all, this is the same guy who invited a holocaust-denying white supremacist alt-right troll to the State of the Union speech. The same guy who attempted to blackmail a witness before Congress in order to try to protect Trump.
And Gaetz is the guy who orchestrated a stunt during a presidential impeachment trial that compromised national security. Remember last October when Gaetz and his fellow Republicans staged a “sit-in” at a secure hearing facility demanding Republicans be allowed to take part in the hearing even when nearly 1-in-4 House Republicans were actually members of the Intelligence, Oversight or Foreign Affairs committees—all of which were allowed to take part in the impeachment inquiries?
But Gaetz isn’t the whole story here. In virus-speak, he is merely a symptom of how we got to a place in American politics where trolling has overtaken expertise and self-promotion has eclipsed competence.
People of the future who look back to the photo will see a political era when acting as a loathsome, self-aggrandizing grifter was the quickest way to earn credibility within one’s party. An era when no problems were addressed until they had spiralled out of control and seriousness and expertise were viewed with suspicion and contempt.
You can think of this era as America’s Golden Age of Anti-Knowledge. And soon it will have cost upwards of 100,000 Americans their lives.
To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in the virus. But the virus is interested in you.
Whatever happens next—with the pandemic, with Trumpism, with America—we will always have that photo to remind us of exactly what this time in our lives was like: A time when toadies like Matt Gaetz tried to ignore mass death with sarcasm. A time where we picked the leader of the free world not because we believed he could manage the ship of state in crisis, but because he seemed very forceful when he fired Meat Loaf that one time on his reality show.
News moves quickly these days, with each day’s ridiculous headlines supplanted by tomorrow’s even more absurd ones.
But Gaetz’s gas mask photo should stay with us for a very long time, an artifact reminding America how one man gleefully lowered himself to match the moment.