The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

Character in the Time of Coronavirus

President Donald Trump speaks during a news briefing on the administration’s response to the coronavirus at the White House, March 15, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Welcome to The Tuesday, brought to you, as always, from a state of pristine social isolation . . .

Long Days
I will get to my regular language thing below, but I begin with a note about the etymology of Lent, which is the ecclesiastical season we currently are in. Lent is a slightly mysterious word, but Lenten (for which Lent is an abbreviation) probably comes from the Old English word lencten, meaning “spring” and probably related to a Germanic word meaning “long,” referring to the lengthening of the days in spring. I once heard Jonah Goldberg describe fatherhood as a time of “long days and short years.” (The poetical formulation is not original to Jonah, but, then, neither was “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”) We are in for some long days, I think. Longer if you are a kid: Locked up, nothing to do, nowhere to go, unable to spend time with friends — assuming that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing. It will be enough to make some young people who are not otherwise academically inclined wish they were back in school.

We adults should try to use the time fruitfully.

One of the maddening things about the U.S. government’s tardy, inadequate, and incompetent response to COVID-19 is that it was the result, in part, of an unnecessarily stupid political calculation. Donald Trump spent 2016 sneering at the idea that the performance of the stock market during the Barack Obama years indicated anything about the quality of the Obama administration’s economic policies; he spent much of his presidency up until a couple of weeks ago boasting about the performance of the stock market during his own administration, arguing that it illustrates the excellence of his administration’s economic policies. He spent the early days of the COVID-19 crisis treating it as though it were principally an economic challenge and spent his time trying to “tweet the markets back to life,” as my National Review colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty put it.

That’s not exactly working out: On Monday, trading was halted one minute after the market opened and the Dow plunged 2,250.

Set aside, for a moment, the more substantive question of how the government’s early nonchalance will shape events in the next few months and consider the pure political malpractice of that. Rather than try to bluster through, the president could have said, “There’s a potentially serious new epidemic under way in China, one that involves a virus we haven’t seen before in humans. We are beginning a full national mobilization in response to it. It may turn out to be nothing, in which case we will have spent a few million dollars on a pretty good dry run of our epidemic-response capabilities. That’s a good investment. There isn’t anything to panic about, but we’d rather err on the side of caution than err on the side of inaction. Now, here’s . . . Mike Pence.”

All right, I might strike that last sentence.

I have been banging away since 2016 on this point: “I preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton” is a perfectly defensible position — but it is not the end of the conversation. It matters whether Trump is capable, competent, and honest. It matters whether he is trustworthy and whether he is understood to be trustworthy. Likewise, if you are on the other side this time around, or if you are a lifelong Democrat, then “I prefer Joe Biden to Donald Trump” is also a perfectly defensible position — but it is not the end of the conversation. It matters whether Biden is capable, competent, and honest. However the argument works out for you, it is important to go into this with eyes that are clear and wide open.

And if you happen to be a journalist or commentator who is holding your fire on one politician or another because you are afraid that you might tilt some voter the wrong way by saying what you actually think — by telling the truth as best you can — then you are in the wrong line of work.

You’re probably overestimating your influence, too. But that is not what this is really about: This is about pledging allegiance.

One of the tragedies of our current mob-populist model of politics is that elevating presidents and presidential candidates to the status of tribal totem makes it virtually impossible to take intelligent countermeasures against them. Republicans have been abject in the face of Trump, of course, but the same dynamic holds sway on the other side of the aisle: Democrats went to the mattresses to defend Bill Clinton from the consequences of actions that would have cost him his job if he had been a junior executive at an office-supply company in Scranton, and not only defended but encouraged and celebrated Barack Obama’s extraconstitutional adventures and the criminal misconduct of his administration in the matter of the IRS targeting the administration’s political rivals. (After lamenting that the PATRIOT Act might enable Dick Cheney to go snooping around your library records, Barack Obama discovered, to his surprise, that he had the power to unilaterally order the assassination of American citizens and then proceeded to do so, which was met, inexplicably, with a bipartisan yawn.) Trump was not wrong about shooting people on Fifth Avenue.

Mitt Romney was (and daily is) savaged for voting to impeach Trump. A few nutjobs with radio programs suggested that he should be prosecuted for treason over that vote. (The boundary between late republic and early empire is a little blurry.) If Mitch McConnell were a bolder man (his caution is usually commendable), and if he wanted to see the president change his ways, he might have orchestrated a narrow acquittal or even a formal censure as a matter of partisan hygiene and institutional self-defense. But, of course, in the contemporary political climate, with its endless loyalty oaths and ceremonies of ritualistic praise for the Big Kahuna, such a thing would have been politically difficult, and Senator McConnell is not a man who normally makes trouble for himself. (He has a great gift, an underappreciated one, for making trouble for others.) If the Senate majority leader cannot act, who can?

A few weeks ago, I spent some time with some Republicans of the sort upon whom Christianity “sits as a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.” They made the usual noises — “We don’t approve of the tweets, and the dishonesty, and the boorishness,” though they were awfully circumspect on the question of how such disapproval might be registered, and were, of course, a good deal less circumspect on the question of Mitt Romney, whose eternal damnation they gleefully anticipated. The ordinary, traditional questions of democratic politics — How do I get this politician to do what I want? — were of no interest to them at all, their only concern being fealty to the idol and casting out the infidels.

As I have argued for some time now, the self-proclaimed realists, pragmatists, men of the world — the sort of people who are always going on about how “government should be run like a business” — are as wrong as they can be about Trump and the character issue. It is not some lofty, rarefied concern for philosophy seminars. It has practical, urgent, day-to-day consequences that we ignore at our now literal peril.

Apropos of Nothing
Bernie Sanders may have a soft spot in his heart for the Castro regime and its purportedly wonderful literacy programs. (Imagine: “Say what you will about Adolf Hitler, he was really progressive on infrastructure.”) You know who is not ready to forgive and forget when it comes to Cuban socialism? Cubans, and Cuban Americans. There is an ice-cream shop around the corner from my home, operated by Cuban Americans. One of the flavors is a combination of chocolate and hot red pepper, which they call “Burn in Hell, Fidel.”

Home and Away
My latest in the New York Post on the Trump slump: “The question for Donald Trump is not whether he can beat Joe Biden. It is whether he can beat Joe Biden, an epidemic, a recession, and a few swing voters who just may have had enough of Captain Chaos. Team Trump should be worried.”

My National Review archive can be found here.

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Words about Words: Epidemick to Pandemick
Epi this, epi that. The word epidemic comes to use via French (épidémique) via Latin (epidemia) from the Greek epidēmios (ἐπιδήμιος), which means, roughly, “prevalent,” but the literal meaning is “upon the people” (epi dēmos). We English speakers have a habit of trying to intensify already intense words, which is why instead of good ol’ center we use epicenter (which does not mean “center”) and, as of the 17th century, pandemic, meaning something that pertains to all the people. The underlying meanings of the words are similar, and pandemic has come to be used to mean a very bad or especially widespread epidemic.

As Merriam-Webster puts it:

An epidemic is defined as “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time.” A pandemic is a type of epidemic (one with greater range and coverage), an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. While a pandemic may be characterized as a type of epidemic, you would not say that an epidemic is a type of pandemic.

As Merriam-Webster further notes, both of the words were used as adjectives long before they became nouns, e.g.:

These Praedicates certainly are not convertible with the fore-mentioned Diseases, and therefore ought not so rashly to be pronounced the Scorvey; which moreover is Endemick, the others Epidemick and Pandemick.

— Gideon Harvey, The disease of London, 1675

Rampant Prescriptivism
Elon Musk is a native of South Africa, where English rather than Afrikaans is the favored language of education. (The University of Pretoria, which Musk attended, recently ditched Afrikaans for English as its official language; Afrikaans, derived from Dutch, was used to exclude many black South Africans from educational institutions; ironically, the only Afrikaans word most people know is apartheid.) But the Afro-Anglo-Canadian-American entrepreneur should know better than to claim that his Tesla automobiles are “over 500 percent less likely to catch fire” than are conventional internal-combustion automobiles. To begin with, he means more than rather than over, but even when written correctly, that formulation is maddeningly vague: 501 percent is more than 500 percent; so is 1 million percent.

(If you are a true-believing right-wing prescriptivist, you might consider writing percent as two words, per cent; and if you’re a super-reactionary prescriptivist, you’ll put a period after that cent, because it is an abbreviation of centum. People will be confused and make fun of you, but you’ll know, in your heart, you are right.)

But the real problem with that phrasing is logic. If a Tesla automobile were a mere 100 percent less likely to catch fire than a conventional automobile, then there would be a 0.00 percent chance it catches fire, the possibility of doing so having been reduced by 100 percent, i.e., to zero. What Musk really means, I think, is that the likelihood of a Tesla catching fire is 1/500 that of a regular car, or 99.8 percent less likely.

Rule of thumb: If you are writing “x percent less,” then x shouldn’t normally be more than 100.

Please send your language questions or remarks to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com.

In Closing
Lent is a time of prayer and fasting. There is a great fashion to mock “thoughts and prayers” in the face of some catastrophe or another. But prayer and penance are always and everywhere appropriate, for individuals and for nations. I hope that we might treat the quiet days (I pray they are quiet) ahead of us as a kind of extended sabbath, to think and to pray, to be silent, to repent and to forgive. On that, a final language point: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” is best understood as a conditional statement.

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