It was one of the Rorschach test moments that speak volumes about the nature of American culture in 2020. And the picture it painted of our society isn’t pretty.
During a White House briefing on the coronavirus crisis, several private-sector CEOs who are helping out in the emergency were allowed to speak. But when Mike Lindell, known to television for his infomercials for his MyPillow company, got up to speak, the knives came out for what should have been a feel-good moment. Lindell, whose firm has converted 75 percent of its facilities to production of desperately needed surgical masks, veered off script and spoke of his admiration for President Donald Trump and his belief that Americans should use their time in quarantine studying the Bible. The Twittersphere responded with a tidal wave of mockery of his pillows and his faith, and then a counterattack from those lauding Lindell and Trump.
The kerfuffle was inconsequential except for what it told us about how people are dealing with the crisis. Many Americans are stepping up to help others and sacrificing their economic interests to stay home and do their part to help stop the spread of the virus. But a lot of people are not treating this unique public emergency as a good excuse to take a break from divisive public discourse.
Indeed, while it seems as if everything about our world has changed, the one thing that has stayed the same is that Americans remain addicted to the hyperpartisan political warfare that has continued at the same pace and with the same intensity as before the virus arrived. Indeed, with more people stuck at home with little to do but to watch the grim news on TV or to vent on social media, the result is not a collective sobering up as we move away from snark and recriminations to face the challenge together. Rather, the political temperature of the country has remained perilously high.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for this.
Even as his administration is mobilizing the nation’s resources to deal with this challenge, Trump continues to preen about his achievements, deny having made any mistakes and to take umbrage at those attacking him. He should be ignoring his critics, but it must also be pointed out that hostile mainstream media outlets have often irresponsibly covered the pandemic as if it were just the latest Trump scandal de jour, like the alleged Russian collusion or Ukraine stories. And as was the case with those issues, the pro-Trump media simply takes the other side. Few minds are changed since most people have already stopped listening to opposing views a long time ago.
Despite some good moves, like banning travel from China, which Trump’s opponents bashed as racist at the time, the administration was slow to realize the extent of the potential peril and to stop looking at it solely as something that the president’s critics were hoping to use as a weapon against him. But he was not alone in that respect. At the time that the virus was spreading earlier in the year, both Trump and the Democrats were solely focused on the effort to impeach him. And the same journalist who raised the issue this week about the president having “blood on his hands”—NBC’s Chuck Todd—moderated a Democratic presidential primary debate in Las Vegas on Feb. 19 and didn’t ask a single question about coronavirus.
There will be plenty of time for a commission to assess the government’s performance once the pandemic ends. However, any such effort should not be limited to Trump’s record. We will also need to judge the performance of the international community with special focus on the criminal neglect and disinformation on the part of China—the country where the pandemic began, and the World Health Organization, which was complicit in their misbehavior.
Far too much of the national conversation about this modern day plague has been a rerun of everything that went before with events being interpreted solely through the prism of whether it lends weight to the anti-Trump or pro-Trump causes. That is not the proper response to a catastrophe.
Neither is the impulse to scapegoat specific groups, as well as familiar political opponents.
The pile on that targeted Lindell was an extension of arguments made in The New York Times and elsewhere that sought to blame problems in reacting to the virus on evangelical Christians. That sort of reasoning tells us little about how to stop the pandemic, but a great deal about the hostility to faith on the part of some in the media.
Others seeking scapegoats are directing their attention at ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York and Israel for their resistance to necessary social-distancing measures. There are certainly grounds for criticizing some in that community for their irresponsible conduct; however, they are not alone in this respect. Plenty of other groups made similar mistakes, including students packing the beaches in Florida long after the rest of the nation shut down. There was also an appalling mass gathering in Jenin in the West Bank as the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah Party organized a welcome for a released terrorist that took place just as Israelis were being told to stay in their homes.
This is neither the time for politics nor prejudice. It ought to be a moment when all people of goodwill are reminded that what unites them—in this case, a common struggle for survival—is greater than our divisions over politics and faith. The virus isn’t the fault of Chinese-Americans or ultra-Orthodox Jews any more than it can be pinned on evangelicals, Trump or the president’s opponents. And instead of sneering at those who turn to their faith for guidance and inspiration in this crisis, we should all be turning inward, rather than lashing out at the usual targets illustrating that the toxic virus of hate is a problem for which no vaccine will ever be invented.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.