It’s time to wash our hands of Donald Trump. The coronavirus pandemic is quickly becoming Trump’s Hurricane Katrina, because the federal government bungled the early stages of the disaster so badly. The CDC initially sent out faulty test kits, limited tests to overseas travelers, and blocked other labs from testing. All that practical incompetence can and should be held against Trump.
But ideologically, the coronavirus is also a shot in the arm for Trump’s far-right, xenophobic worldview. He will exploit the pandemic to the hilt, and Biden may also use it as an argument against making deep reforms.
At The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, we’re now wrapping up our winter-quarter class “Catastrophe: Community Resilience in the Face of Disaster,” which I taught with Suree Towfighnia. It has unfortunately been a wildly appropriate class to be teaching near the pandemic’s North American epicenter.
We’ve learned from previous disasters that fear makes citizens more obedient to authority. Fear reinforces the superstate as our protector, and justifies oppressive or unequal responses (for example, service workers do not have the option to telecommute). “Elite panic” generates repressive measures that start to bring out the police, vigilantes, and military, ironically in the name of preventing public panic.
Trump and his European clones are using the so-called “foreign virus” as a xenophobic rationalization for “stronger borders” against immigrants, even though right now Syrians and Hondurans medically have much more to fear from contact with European and U.S. citizens than the other way around. Stephen Miller’s evil fingerprints were all over Trump’s vile address to the nation on Wednesday evening. It’s not a “foreign virus”—it’s a human virus.
The very idea of “social distancing” tears at our values of community. Whereas an earthquake or hurricane may bring strangers together in a common cause (as Rebecca Solnit documents in A Paradise Built in Hell), a pandemic reinforces neoliberal individualist isolation and prioritizes our own nuclear family over our potentially “zombie” neighbors.
The American mentality of “contagion” has been historically fraught with racial, cultural, and political exclusion, rooted in “Red Scares” and “Yellow Perils.” Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, was used as a center to interrogate and quarantine Asian immigrants, not as a place of welcome like Ellis Island usually was for European immigrants. Anti-Chinese pogroms here on the West Coast were often justified with claims of banishing leprosy and other diseases.
These irrational fears run deep in the western psyche, and when fear predominates over love and care, conservatism rules. It especially rules when it harnesses the concept of a (white) defensive community that ostracizes “foreign hordes,” and when the only posed alternative is a neoliberalism that splits us into isolated, powerless individuals. That’s another reason why another neoliberal candidate like Biden is vulnerable to a fascist sympathizer like Trump, because he doesn’t counter with an alternative, more egalitarian vision of community.
The conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on Wednesday morning even speculated that the pandemic has helped Biden in the primaries against the “outsider” Sanders. Democratic voters sought an “insider” authority figure as “a flight to safety, the surrender of grand plans and big ambitions in favor of a desire to just survive” against both Trump and the virus. That’s even though Bernie’s plans for universal health care and sick pay leave would vastly help us right now.
For the past quarter, our students have been studying ways to build community in times of emergency. The only communities we can effectively build in the coming weeks are probably online. The millions of people who have been in quarantine in China have been sharing their thoughts, fears, hopes, and even homestyle recipes in online forums. Young people have the ability to do amazing work with video blogs and chat rooms.
Community groups can start holding video conference calls, discussions, and mass webinar teach-ins. They can also provide services such as food and sanitizer deliveries and moral support to quarantined people. Facebook is no substitute for face-to-face networking, and I don’t think distance learning is half as educational as classroom teaching. But joining together online is a way to express love and caring for those who need to overcome fear and isolation.
One of our students from Japan, Koki Hiraguchi, presented his research project this week, on the ninth anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. He contrasted two Japanese schools that reacted differently in the critical 50 minutes between the quake and tsunami. In the “Miracle of Kamaishi,” the students took the lead in seeking higher ground, so all but a few “survived based on their own judgement, saving not only their own lives but also those of the adults around them.” They had drilled for disaster, did not believe the tsunami hazard maps, and “were taught to make decisions for themselves.”
In the “Tragedy of Okawa,” teachers did not adequately prepare, believed the hazard maps, and ordered their students to evacuate to an area that was not high enough, so nearly all of them perished. This contrast reiterates some profound lessons we’ve learned from other disasters, from 9/11 to Katrina and María. Obedience to authority (and its existing procedures) can be fatal. Thinking flexibly for ourselves and creating community can improve our chances for survival and resilience.
Community resilience that emerges in response to the coronavirus crisis may become models to overcome the innate crisis of social isolation under capitalism. In this way, we would not only survive, but start thinking for ourselves, to pose real alternatives to the ideology that underpins this Trumpdemic.
Zoltán Grossman teaches Geography and Native Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.