America is sick. Still sick. The fever spikes, abates, returns. The shortness of breath lingers. America is waiting in virtual bread lines, listening to bad jazz, on hold with the unemployment office. America is strewn with the glass shards of Starbucks windows, busted by protesters, and bullied by unidentifiable agents of the government. America, barefoot and in Brooks Brothers, is defending its marble palazzo with an AR-15 rifle. America is spray-painted with the faces of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, on bollards and plywood and mailboxes. America is trying to keep the kids occupied, and fed, and learning, and sociable without socializing. America is in the middle of a public health wildfire, an economic sinkhole and an earthquake over racial injustice — and the president of the United States is having to reiterate that he took a cognitive exam and correctly answered that, yes, the drawing of the large animal is, in fact, an elephant.
“Trump & his stormtroopers must be stopped,” the speaker of the House tweeted Friday, about the brutal clashes between protesters and police in Portland, Ore. The police have been met by an army of singing mothers in bike helmets, who asked them to knock it off, would ya? Squad cars were defaced with graffiti that said “BLM” and “Salish land,” claiming it for the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. Fires were set. A “well-organized mob” causing “anarchy,” is how White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany referred to the Portland protests Tuesday.
What a year these four months have been. In the spring, medical student Courtney Sanchez felt impending doom, and then slowly the doom arrived. She got herself a volunteer hobby that brought some order and connectivity to her isolated, splintering world. When her two children are napping, she sits at the kitchen table in her 850-square-foot bungalow in Lawrence, Kan., opens her computer and dials strangers on her cellphone, hoping to trace the spread of the novel coronavirus in Wyandotte County.
Sometimes she’s able to gather good data for the health department, and to help recovering citizens navigate their way back to work, and she feels as if we’re in this together.
Sometimes people balk at the intrusion. A few weeks ago a man answered the phone while coughing and struggling to breathe. He told her “don’t worry about me” and hung up.
“That made me so sad,” says Sanchez, 32. “I hope he’s okay.”
Last week the county’s contact tracers were 500 cases behind, she says, with 70 new ones piling up every day. She feels like a citizen trying her best, in a nation that isn’t really doing the same.
“I don’t know if anyone has biffed anything as bad as the federal government biffed their management of this,” she says.
This test of solidarity and public trust couldn’t have come at a worse time. America’s mask has slipped. There is a feeling of failure, of being repeatedly victimized by a virus despite our supposed exceptionalism. National pride in the United States has fallen to a record low, according to Gallup, and only 1 in 5 Americans is satisfied with the direction of the country — a steep drop from four months ago, when satisfaction was at a 15-year high. Forty-nine percent of whites — also a record low — say they are “extremely proud” to be an American; for nonwhite Americans the rate is half that.
Perhaps we ignored our preexisting conditions for too long. In 1979, Jimmy Carter admitted to a national “crisis of confidence,” in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate and energy shortages. But then we shut our eyes and pictured Ronald Reagan’s “shining city,” as wealth oozed upward. We believed Bill Clinton’s pep talk about how our best qualities excused our worst, which included prioritizing mass incarceration. We cloaked George W. Bush’s costly foreign policy in pageant-style patriotism and then believed Barack Obama’s insistence that Americans were not as divided as we seemed. Meanwhile, big banks crashed the economy and got bailed out, white people in rural areas started dying “deaths of despair,” black people kept getting killed by police at disproportiately high rates, and more Americans turned to conspiracy theories to make sense of it all and prescription pills to blunt the pain.
Then a minority of voters elected as president a salesman who built his empire on fraud, spectacle and bankruptcy. Three years and 20,000 “false or misleading claims” later, the reality-show presidency is reaching a dramatic first-season climax marked by mass death, rampant joblessness, tens of millions of people in the streets.
Josh Harrison is trying to ride it all out until November, hoping at least for a political cure. Harrison runs a small pest-control business in North Carolina and voted for Donald Trump in 2016. He regrets it mightily. This year was the breaking point, particularly when Trump suggested that perhaps the virus could be killed by injecting disinfectant into the body. Then, watching the lack of Republican leadership in the wake of Floyd’s death, Harrison started questioning whether he even belonged in the party.
So one night last month, after some red wine and White Claw, he sat on his deck about 2 a.m. and hit record on his phone. Shirtless and smoking a Marlboro Light, Harrison said that for the first time in his life he would be voting for a Democrat. Then he submitted the homemade video to Republican Voters Against Trump, which has been releasing similar testimonials. Harrison’s video has since been viewed over 1.1 million times.
“Trump doesn’t have to build a wall because Mexico is closing its border to us,” he says by phone. “We can’t travel. We’re a laughingstock. The world is either laughing at us or pitying us.”
When Chris Wallace asked Trump about the death count on “Fox News Sunday,” the president blamed China and said “It is what it is.”
“You can no longer pretend that ‘the American century’ isn’t over,” says Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago. She views the years since 1968 as a cycle of recessions and widening inequality, debt and disenfranchisement that is only now becoming apparent to broader America — white America, moneyed America — because the pandemic and social media have made it impossible to ignore. Institutions have been deteriorating and failing us for generations, she says, but we rigged workarounds with our own social networks and mutual-aid groups. We made do. Then the pandemic scattered us, isolated us, exposed us for what we really are.
“All these years after the Civil War, are we still just a union of states — or have we become a nation of people?”
That’s the question Shermer will ask the students in her U.S. history survey course. She’s watched governors battle the president and states squabble over stocks of personal protective equipment. Meanwhile the movement of Black Lives Matter has behaved like a nation of people, demanding something more, something holistic, something that was promised centuries ago.
The coronavirus is “fueled upon the systemic injustices in our country,” says Cedric Dark, an emergency-room physician and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The contagion doesn’t just spread because of proximity or air droplets; it feeds on disparity in housing, insurance, transportation, wages, child care, food security. Our current failure is built on previous failures.
Dark grades the U.S. response to our crises with a C-minus. “I think some states are going to pass and some states are going to fail,” he says. “So Georgia, Arizona, Florida and Texas are going to fail this test, until they listen.”
In Texas, the volume of covid-19 cases is 10 times higher than it was in the spring, Dark says. Hospitalizations are seven times higher; deaths are five times higher. Last week, a man came into Dark’s hospital worried about his low blood sugar. He had no covid-19 symptoms, but a check of his vitals revealed a blood-oxygen level of 89 percent: perilously low. An X-ray showed a white, fluffy buildup all over his lungs.
“It’s everywhere,” Dark says. “And everyone keeps claiming we’re alarmist, but when we in the ER are panicking now, and telling you what we’re going through, listen. Because we don’t normally panic.”
The next test that we’ll pass or fail, according to Dark, is whether we send our children back to school. As a kind of trial run, Hannah Lebovits sent her two children to a day camp in Plano, Tex., the last week of June. The camp did everything right, she thought, but within two weeks the news arrived via email: one symptomatic child and multiple counselors had tested positive for covid-19.
“I knew it,” says Lebovits, 27, an incoming assistant professor of public administration at the University of Texas at Arlington. “I just knew it. I knew in my heart that this is what was going to happen.”
Lebovits studies social sustainability, and how government creates or degrades it. Through the lens of her work, she sees this year’s crises as a total failure of government and institutions.
“We’re being gaslit by this country that everything will be fine if we just get back to work,” Lebovits says. “We’re focused on economic stability, business revitalization, what the economy is going to look like after covid — not what we’re going to look like after covid. My kids are going to need a s— ton of therapy. I’m going to need therapy. It’s just overwhelming. I see this as impacting countless Americans for so long. I want to say a single decade, but it’s going to be longer than that.” The irrefutable evidence of mismanagement — the 140,000 deaths, the police violence across the country — has made many people realize that “we don’t need to be nice to our institutions anymore.”
In his 1998 book “The American Century,” Harold Evans wrote about the nation’s “inner light of freedom.” Since then, he says, the pursuit of freedom has become reckless. Democracy has become transactional. An isolated America has plunged into a “permanent fog of war” on its own turf.
“We are reeling from the tsunami of lies and the images of outrage,” Evans, 92, writes in an email from his home in the Hamptons. “What has been inspiring to see is that Americans have cut through the mist to fight for justice and equality.”
Is America failing, or is it just changing?
“I learned America was a failure when I was 18 and they tried to talk to me about the electoral college,” says D.C. resident Allison Lane, 34. “I’ve always felt this country wasn’t made for me.”
Lane woke up Saturday at her home in Columbia Heights and saw on Twitter that Rep. John Lewis had died. Here was a man, she thought, who had every reason to give up on institutions, on this country, and yet he fought and fought and fought. It made her think of her own journey this year. In March, she lost her job at a new restaurant downtown. She kept it together until May, when George Floyd was killed, and then fell apart. Floyd looked like her uncle. It was all too much. She was depressed by her deferred career, grieving Floyd’s death, paralyzed by the pandemic. Then June 1 she pulled herself outside and walked with friends to the White House. Police corralled the crowds uptown, until Lane found herself pepper-sprayed and seeking shelter from officers, with dozens of other wheezing activists, in a stranger’s home on Swann Street NW, in a pandemic.
“And my entire life changed,” says Lane, who in the aftermath launched a nonprofit called Bartenders Against Racism. “I’ve operated in anger over this past month, but it wasn’t that same old anger, where old Allison Lane would be like ‘F— all this.’ It was: ‘Let me organize my community.’ And I think I’m so emotional with John Lewis because that’s what he did with his entire life.”
So she is remaking a small part of this country, the country that wasn’t made for her, into her own. Bartenders Against Racism is amplifying black voices and providing supplies and sustenance to protesters. On Saturday night, Lane and others lit 300 tea candles spread over Black Lives Matter Plaza, the stretch of 16th Street NW leading to the White House, in a vigil for John Lewis. It was like lighting a path to freedom, she thought, to a better America.
A union of states, or a nation of people?
American collapse, or American transformation?
Lane talks of her new life of activism as an experiment. She might as well be talking about the country.
“I tell the team: I’m failing literally every day,” she says. “Every day I don’t know what I’m doing. That doesn’t mean I’m not smart or won’t figure it out.”
Dan Zak is a reporter for The Washington Post. He writes a wide range of news stories, narratives and profiles from local, national and foreign assignments, from the Academy Awards to Fallujah, Iraq. He joined The Post in 2005.