The Distortion of a Virus and the End of American Exceptionalism
First Draft
The Distortion of a Virus and the End of American Exceptionalism
Is Trump responsible for COVID panic—or is the media also to blame?
Published on: Sep 10, 2020
Editor’s Note: “First Drafts” are attempts to work through tensions in our own thinking in real time, with you, the crowd, as our interlocutors. Please feel free to challenge us in the comments. If you like this post, consider becoming a member to support our work.

Something about the U.S. response to COVID has been troubling me more and more, and I’ve struggled to translate that discomfort into a coherent critique. I’m not talking about Donald Trump or the latest revelations from Bob Woodward's interviews. Most will agree that he has woefully mismanaged the pandemic. A president can be incompetent. That is no crime. But the least we can expect from a leader is a willingness to reassure citizens that he or she grasps the gravity of a crisis. There’s not a lot we can do about that until November.

What I’m more concerned about here is how media outlets have covered COVID, because it shows how facts can be accurate while also distorting our sense of what is real. Mainstream outlets have done excellent work, but they have also nurtured an all-enveloping narrative that deserves more than mere criticism. This narrative told us, and still tells us, that the U.S. government’s handling of the virus has been uniquely terrible, that Trump himself is responsible for the high numbers of deaths, and that Americans, unlike others, are incapable of the collective action needed to fight COVID. All of these assertions are misleading, at best. Perhaps more importantly, they are wrong.

At the height of the pandemic in April, U.S. deaths per million were significantly lower than those in Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Sweden, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. But that didn’t seem to figure much into the coverage, in part because news articles tended to report the total number of infections and deaths, often without offering the context that absolute numbers in a more populous country would, of course, be much higher, sometimes staggeringly so.

Americans were also hurt by the nationalization of news in a country that was starting to look like 50 individual units. At least when it came to COVID policies, we weren’t a unified country, with states and even cities and towns adopting drastically different approaches. The U.S. per capita death rate was interesting and relevant analytically, but it was misleading if you wanted to know how bad COVID was in your own state. During the virus’ second wave in the summer—concentrated in states like Florida, Arizona, and Texas—you could be forgiven for succumbing to panic.

The numbers were, indeed, bad—nationally and particularly in the South and Midwest. But if you were in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, or Connecticut and trying to decide how to live your life and what precautions to take, these alarming numbers, while entirely accurate, would have been misleading. They would have told you to panic, when, in fact, cases and fatalities in your own state or district were likely significantly lower than their April peak. In my conversations with friends and acquaintances since March, and I’m just as guilty of this, we usually knew much more about the national numbers—or even, say, the New York or Texas figures—than the number of new cases in our own city, Washington, D.C. That data wasn’t readily available unless you searched it out by checking a COVID-specific site. It was akin to a German in Bavaria reading about rising cases in France and then changing his mind about going to the neighborhood restaurant around the block.

It was easy to engage in “hygiene theater,” cleaning everything we would get our hands on, despite little evidence that surface contact was a primary means of transmission. Everyone knows friends who still insist on using tiny hand sanitizer bottles like weapons, and those who insist on leaving their Amazon boxes to linger in empty hallways. What was the alternative? COVID alarmism wasn’t so much about the virus as it was about providing a sense of security where none could be found. No matter how many precautions you took, living a life where COVID was real meant contending with risk and facing it every day when you walked right out of the door. There was no way to be certain, and understandably this lack of certainty provoked fears and insecurities that, in many of us, would have otherwise remained dormant. And, as usual, performative and demonstrative acts—if not necessarily for others then for ourselves—were one way of dealing with it, although perhaps not the best way.

Americans, almost exclusively on the left, were disgusted not just with Trump but with America, as a country and perhaps even as an idea. This was our time of failure, and it was embarrassing. There were endless tweets and articles about how U.S. passports, seemingly overnight, had become worthless. It was almost as if we took pleasure in being shunned. We recoiled (understandably) at our own silly and sometimes dangerous anti-mask protests in those early months when the coronavirus still seemed novel. We looked to Europe with longing, wishing we could attain the same sense of national purpose that they seemed to have. But this, too, was a convenient fiction. There have been large anti-mask protests across the continent, including even in that model of competent COVID management—Germany, where an estimated 18,000 gathered in Berlin to oppose coronavirus-related restrictions. When it comes to mask wearing, the United States, as Ross Douthat points out in an excellent piece, isn’t particularly bad; it’s just average, and our masking rates far exceed that of Australia, Denmark, Sweden, and even the United Kingdom, where only a minority of residents wear masks.

But if the goal was to demonstrate just how terrible Donald Trump was—and how he quite literally had blood on his hands, then these were inconvenient facts. We had sinned, perhaps by electing Trump in the first place. We deserved it. We were the inverse of the shining city on a hill. As of today, after months of Trumpian mismanagement and callousness, America’s deaths per capita are still (somehow) slightly below that of the U.K., Italy, and Spain. So, yes, we’re not exceptionally good, but we’re not exceptionally bad either. We, as Americans, are that rarest of things. We are merely normal.