The book of this title by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson is especially relevant during this time of virus pandemic. The authors emphasize how quickly many Americans forget all the good things our national government has done, and still does.
Even a short list should prompt appreciation: admitting new territories as co-equal states (going from 13 to 50; might District of Columbia and Puerto Rico be next?); many constitutional amendments, extending civil and human rights; the Homestead Act of 1862; Social Security; Medicare; decisive roles in World Wars I and II – just giving a few examples.
However, not only are Americans forgetful about the positives of the national government, they are often hostile. It is not surprising that Hacker and Pierson gave this subtitle to their book: “How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper.”
Now, with the global virus crisis, how can we evaluate the leadership of our national government? In her dystopian sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments” emphasizes that our nation and the world are shaped by the men who are in charge.
The exclusive gender reference reflects Atwood’s discussion of Gilead, a fictional autocratic regime, that overturned the United States, and whose “Commanders” are exclusively male. They control society in every way.
Even before the current president described himself as a “wartime leader,” Atwood pointed to the U.S. after the election of 2016 as one of the nations that were veering toward autocracy and totalitarianism.
Long Islander Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Leadership” alternatively examines the qualities that foster effective national democratic guidance.
As the late Mayor Ed Koch used to famously ask at citizens’ gatherings: “How are we doing?”
Should the President, with Hannity and his other close allies at FOX, be criticized (condemned?) for calling the virus epidemic a “hoax by Democrats?”
Mr. Trump says he does not “take responsibility at all” for the pace of response. But, he eventually said he had become a wartime commander.
Should he be accountable for the loss of lives and crises throughout the nation because of his early misinformation, rigid denials, and his limited actions? (He said the virus “would go to zero in a few days,” and the national government “is not a shipping clerk”).
Does Mr. Trump reflect the destructive “Commanders” of Atwood’s “The Testaments” instead of the responsive, empathetic, data-based leaders presented by Goodwin?
A few days ago, former Republican and Pulitzer journalist Bret Stephens wrote that his refugee mother sees Donald Trump “as embodying everything that’s gone wrong in the United States” – the “triumph of coarseness; the nonstop dishonesty; the disingenuous indifference to basic concepts of right and wrong.”
Stephens’ mother could be offering reinforcing views of Atwood’s depictions of the “Commanders.”
The few women in “The Testaments” who mount a protest aver: “Everyone at the top of Gilead has lied to us. Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories.” (p. 307)
Atwood elaborates: “Bearing false witness was not the exception, it was common. Beneath its outer show of virtue and piety, Gilead was rotting.”
This week the U.S. became the country with the most confirmed cases of coronavirus, surpassing China with more than 82,000 (Washington Post, 3/27/20)
George Conway, the conservative spouse of the President’s counselor Kellyanne Conway has consistently commented on Trump’s misinformation and failed leadership (including Trump’s claim that virus cases would be down to zero by April). Conway wrote: “He’s incapable of taking responsibility for his role in this crisis – and thus incapable of leading us out of it.”
Like the rebel women in Atwood’s “The Testaments,” Conway and fellow Conservatives argue that “Commander” Trump must be ousted.
Conway warns: Don’t be misled by Trump’s sudden shifts – they don’t “dissolve Trump’s compulsion to lie,” or “diminish his incompetence, ignorance or propensity for administrative chaos.” (Washington Post, 3/18/20)
The book “American Amnesia” highlights the many ways our national government has rescued us from the excesses of “Federalism” (the 18th century emphasis on state sovereignty).
Yet, Trump seems unconnected to those many democratizing examples from our history, as he repeatedly tells governors to do the acting alone for their individual states.
But, if we are to follow Commander Trump’s view of a national emergency and a “wartime presidency,” we cannot afford to forget (lapse into amnesia) that we are stronger and more effective when we are able to pull together as a nation, and as a united people.
In her book, “No Ordinary Time,” Goodwin shows how the Roosevelts provided such leadership during World War II, and how they built on national unity for expansions of human rights and prosperity.
In contrast, The Guardian (3/28/20) published “The Missing Six Weeks: How Trump Failed the Biggest Test of His Life.”
The analysis contrasts how much more effective South Korea has been in virus testing and flattening the infection curve. South Korea has conducted five times as many tests per capita as the U.S. (On March 28, there were only 91 new cases in a nation of more than fifty million).
Ron Klain, who led the national fight against ebola in 2014, said “What’s happened in Washington has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.”
Could Mr. Trump have done a better job of consulting and coordinating with state governors? (That will be a major judgment of history).