On the eve of a pandemic, through some grotesque hiccup in the laws of evolutionary fitness, a species that occupied North America got itself into a position where experts were no longer heeded. Two months late to wake up, the curve skyrocketing, people dying, and we’re still stumbling out of bed trying to get our trousers pulled up.
In 2016 the experts, the grown-ups, lost the trust of the voters of America—or at least enough of them in a few key places. No one captured the attention and claimed the soul of America except for Trump.
And now we’ve arrived on the brink of an existential crisis with leadership that is utterly incapable of leading. How did we get here? Aside from the Fox-Koch media-industrial complex, and the corporate influence, and the hostile foreign interests, and the politicians and lobbyists.
I mean us. The voters. How did we allow this?
Most Trump voters didn’t vote for Trump because they were ignorant. They knew who he was. The essence of Trump is that he’s not an expert on anything but Trump. In spite of his name plastered across golf courses and wine bottles and buildings the world over no one talks about his stellar chip shot, Donald the sommelier, or DJT: deft hotelier.
He’s him. He is all he talks about. That’s what he is and nothing else.
Even knowing that, his supporters were willing to elevate him to the highest position on the planet. Not because he seemed presidential or intellectual or even capable. But because he wasn’t.
Like most choices born of rage, this one was foolish and toxic and self-defeating. And many of his voters—deep down—knew that too, even at the time. But they were pissed off enough that it felt worth it to put a self-defined un-expert in the Oval Office.
Trump was the willing vessel of a movement growing deep in the bowels of right-wing media, social networks, and think tanks that sees all federal power as an abomination, especially the permanent bureaucratic class—in other words, every single expert at every single federal agency. Mike Pompeo’s gutting of the State Department falls under this umbrella, as does Bill Barr’s quasi-theocratic case against classical liberalism. The premeditated denuding of dedicated career professionals is a direct assault on the idea of a federal government. The right wing’s genius was managing to Trojan Horse all this in under the cover of Americans’ growing rage at “experts.”
Okay. So that’s what was coming from the right. The left hastened this assault by doing everything wrong. In the leadup to the election, the loudest people in the most elite institutions—universities and media platforms, sports and entertainment, arts and academia—increasingly overstepped their bounds. It seemed like every member of the “liberal elite,” whether a scientist or journalist or point guard, had decided that everything—everything—was political.
It was impossible in 2016 (as it is impossible now) to do anything—even seemingly anodyne things like recommending a movie or buying sneakers—without signaling one’s political opinions. On the left, political belief had replaced organized religion. Just as in pre-modern Europe, one could not avoid being a Catholic or Protestant (or being forced into the Jewish Ghetto), in modern America one cannot molt one’s political skin.
Of course if you’re an actress, professor, or fashion designer, you’re entitled to a political voice as much as any schoolteacher, stay-at-home mom, or electrician. Your opinion might cause offense—opinions often do—but the backlash rage came from the arrogance with which these opinions were conveyed.
And that rage was compounded by the fact that the further someone strays from their area of expertise, the more supercilious their tone usually gets.
I understand the liberal know-it-all mindset. I’m a coastal Ivy-Oxbridge-Hollywood novelist who writes op-eds and (God help us all) co-hosts the occasional podcast. If I were any more on-brand, I’d be a Tesla.
I try to dispense with my filter every day—as a writer, as a political consultant, as a human—in order to understand other perspectives. I do this not because I’m charitable or unpretentious, but because I’ve learned through brutal experience that my blind spots are substantial enough that if someone near me isn’t looking where I’m not, I will run off a cliff or into a wall or lose myself in cerebral stupidity.
At times it seems that elites like me have been taught everything but humility. And the cruel irony is that humility is the trait most needed to convince people who don’t agree with you. When a person knows 100x more than you about one thing, but acts like he knows 100x more than you about everything? It gets hard to listen. Joaquin on why you shouldn’t eat meat. Dorsey on why you should silent-meditate in Myanmar. Gwyneth on how you should parent (and style your pubic hair). All these off-label lessons flying at you can feel like punches.
Especially when you know in your gut that the elites have failed you already, that they’d been paving over your interests with sanctimoniousness, getting richer and richer while the working core of America was being hollowed out.
It’s difficult not to conclude that most liberal elites don’t believe they’re merely better at the skills they’ve acquired, but that deep down, they think they’re just better.
By definition, elites already have the biggest megaphones to talk about what they do. Is it too much to ask that when they roam beyond their expertise, they do so with humility? If every time I turned on a TV or attended a basketball game or went on Twitter, I had to endure a different smug plumber telling me how to raise my children, what words I can use, or who I’m allowed to associate with, I might very well start to dislike plumbers as a whole—even, eventually, when it came to plumbing.
And if plumbers and those in plumber-adjacent professions continued to broadcast extracurricular windbaggery at every turn, I might become so inured to what plumbers had to say that even if the pipes were threatening to burst beneath my feet I might not want to hear another word from them.
With coronavirus, the pipes have burst. That’s where we are right now, sitting in the filth of our failure, partly because one side chose self-destructiveness to spite everyone and the other side was more interested in signaling moral superiority than in embodying the actual morals they spoke about.
Now nature has intervened in all her force and fury to tell us to snap out of it. Coronavirus is not subject to spin. It can’t be blamed on the lamestream media or latent racism or the patriarchy. It doesn’t care if you’re Team NASCAR or Team Buzzfeed. It’s not concerned with how intersectional you are or if you’re white and male, or how you voted or even if you voted at all.
We’re home alone, apart, scared. We’re friends and colleagues and sons and mothers and grandfathers. We are all potential victims.
The fever has broken. We know the stakes. And we are reaping what we have sown.
You may like Trump. He may speak for you. He may be a branding genius and a world-class troll who sticks his thumb in the eye of a lot of folks who deserve it.
But he is incompetent at president-ing.
Coronavirus has made that crystal clear. I believe many of his supporters knew this already. They didn’t elect him to be an expert president. They elected him to blow everything up. And now he has.
The good news? Now his supporters can stop pretending. They’ve accomplished their mission. We can all agree that the emperor who was elected because he has no clothes . . . has no clothes.
It’s up to us now. Not the media. Not the establishment (whatever is meant by that).
To listen to experts when they discuss matters we need them to discuss.
To embody not just the virtues we promulgate when we’re yelling at one another, but actual virtues—honesty, goodness, care for others, respect, and—a thousand times over—humility.
Our moment of reckoning is here.
It will kill our eldest. Our infirm. Our most vulnerable.
The only question that remains is: Are we ready to wake up?