The bell is pealing,
And every feeling
Within me responds
To the dismal knell;
Shadows are trailing,
My heart is bewailing
And tolling within
Like a funeral bell.
—from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Afternoon in February”
February 2020. I doubt it will ever have the historical resonance, the immediacy of recognition, of either August 1914 or September 1939. But it deserves notice. For like them it marked the end of an era—the collapse of an edifice—the funeral bell for an epoch.
The era that ended in February 2020 marked a 30-year stretch of mostly peace and prosperity, not just for the United States, but for the world. Even if one is now struck, looking back, by this period’s markers of decadence and decline, three decades of peace and prosperity shouldn’t be underrated.
Perhaps we didn’t do during this time what we could have done to prepare for the future. But the world could have done a lot worse during the three decades from the fall of the Berlin Wall until the arrival of the coronavirus.
In any case, we now are doing a lot worse. And the inflection point of failure, the month when we didn’t just falter or stumble, but tripped and fell, not to get back up easily again, was February 2020.
After imposing travel restrictions on China at the end of January—a superficial acknowledgment that the threat posed by the coronavirus existed, but full of so many loopholes that actual travel from China to the United States never stopped—President Trump promptly ignored the outbreak for the next month.
Actually, that’s not true. If he had only ignored it, America would have been better off. Instead, Trump minimized the threat, while various parts of the federal government—lacking presidential leadership and discouraged by the chief executive from acting with urgency and alarm—failed to make the preparations that would have abated the impact of the virus when it reached our shores.
February was the lost month to deal with the virus. April, we hope, will be the virus’s cruelest month. But February was the incubation period, the period of presidential misinformation and maladministration that made the disaster of March and April—and everything after—possible.
February also marked the Senate’s vote to acquit President Trump, without having heard witnesses, of the charges of impeachment brought by the House. That vote marked the culmination of the acquiescence—nay, the subservience—of the Republican party to Trump. The party which had aspired to the examples of Lincoln and Reagan willingly made itself a mere personal possession of Donald Trump.
And the conservative movement? Having long since bent the knee to Trump, it fell into full prostration. The movement which under Bill Buckley had been mostly—not entirely, but mostly—a force for liberty and against populist demagoguery, consummated its embrace of demagogic and authoritarian populism.
Finally, the economic boom peaked in February, as the stock market began its historic fall and unemployment its historic climb. This was the month in which a ten-year global expansion came to an end.
It will be years—perhaps decades—before either capital or labor recover. It will be years—perhaps decades—before many Americans, and many, many people around the world, are as well off as they were in February, 2020.
Of course, every crisis is an opportunity, and the end of one era is the beginning of another. There are signs of civic spirit and personal responsibility and capable leadership in this new era that give one hope.
In the wake of Easter and in the middle of Passover, one does not want to deprecate signs of hope.
But signs are not enough and hope is not a strategy.