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Keeping it together / March 18, 2020
Now here’s an opening sentence I can get behind: “Even with the world off its axis as the coronavirus continues to spread ....” Yup, that sums up the situation quite nicely. (The story, from USA Today, goes on to talk about NFL free agency, which is about all we have left of the sporting world nowadays.) I don’t even know what to say about these days of existential dread. Well, I guess I can say a lot, but forgive me if said musings don’t always hang together.

Diversions — we all need them, right? This being the Golden Age of Memes, I highly recommend the one with Kermit the Frog dancing to the dulcet sounds of Fleetwood Mac after two days of extreme social distancing and eight bottles of wine. You can probably find it with a quick Google search, although good luck formulating your search query, especially if you’re on your eighth bottle of wine.

I can’t help it, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two other recent entertainments, if you want to call them that. One is a movie and one is a TV show. The movie is “Contagion,” which I dialed up via streaming video a week ago, back when watching a rollicking yarn about a deadly epidemic seemed like a reasonably good choice for a Friday night. Something tells me it won’t be the most popular cinematic relaxation this week. Anyway, it’s a Steven Soderbergh film, the director behind “Out Of Sight” (Jennifer Lopez’s breakthrough flick, and quite terrific) and “Traffic” (which is not so terrific.) “Contagion” tells the story of a deadly outbreak that kills off a significant share of the world’s population, and while I can’t endorse that particular storyline at the moment, I also can’t recommend a lot of other things about the film. Characters pop up and then disappear, which makes you wonder what they were doing in the movie in the first place — for instance, Elliott Gould plays a genius medical researcher, and you wonder if he’ll be the one to save the day, but then he simply goes away and not apparently because he died off at some point. Matt Damon may be a great actor but one character he doesn’t convincingly play is that of grieving husband and father. The saving grace of “Contagion”, from a fan-boy perspective, is the terror it whips up conveying how viruses spread so insidiously, through innocent action and careless touch. Like I said, probably not the best choice to go with popcorn and your beverage of choice.

There’s one other big problem with “Contagion” — everyone on screen is so damn smart and conscientious. (Also good looking.) Even the character without any apparent moral sensibility, a Matt Drudge-like figure played by Jude Law, is razor sharp at cutting through the official obfuscation surrounding the world-consuming event, well-meaning though the obfuscation may be. In our present reality, incisive leadership at the top rungs of society, particularly in the White House, is about as easy to spot as the coronavirus itself. Its danger is lurking about, with the scale of damage yet to be fully revealed.

The TV show I’ve been thinking about lately is a lot more relevant to our times than “Contagion,” despite being about something other than an outbreak of disease. Earlier this year I had the time and opportunity to binge-watch HBO’s acclaimed mini-series from last year, Chernobyl. It’s one of the two best things I’ve seen on TV in a long time (HBO’s adaptation of Watchmen, also from last year, being the other.) Chernobyl strikes such a chord because it brilliantly depicts the incompetence and lies of the Communist Party in the run-up to and aftermath of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster, without letting you forget that a lot of very intelligent and decent people surrendered to the ruinous ideology of the Soviet Union for understandable reasons. It’s hard to watch Chernobyl and fail to understand how something similar could happen here. Not the part about communism, but the part about blindly following rotten leadership.

These past few days and weeks have revealed many good things: the nation’s governors, including our own Ralph Northam, have filled the void in Washington with stand-up leadership: kudos especially to Andrew Cuomo of New York and Mike DeWine of Ohio (a Democrat and Republican, respectively). Millions of average Americans have met these dark days with grace and good sense, even if their often-silent contributions often seem overwhelmed by the incredible amount of stupidity about COVID-19 that seems to dominate everywhere. (Facebook giveth and taketh away; it’s there I first saw the Kermit the Frog meme, and it’s also there I go whenever I feel a twisted need to bleach my brain.) People are often at their best amid calamity and collective hardship, but we’re only in the early stages of this emergency. Hold on tight, don’t lose faith, and don’t believe most of what you see on Facebook.

Like I said, this column was never destined to be a finely woven tapestry revealing hidden layers of meditative thought. It’s a mess like everything else. LET ME TELL YOU HOW I REALLY FEEL. So, in this vein, it’s time to hand off the wheel to someone who knows what they’re doing. One of my favorite op-ed columnists is Paul Waldman of The Washington Post, who wrote a characteristically excellent piece on someone I haven’t even mentioned by name yet in this space. I’m going to excerpt as much of his latest as I can get away with, subject to copyright, so do go read the rest here. It’s all highly recommended.

From “Trump and his supporters are already rewriting recent coronavirus history” (Tuesday, Mar. 17)

The pivot has begun.

At a news conference Tuesday, President Trump took pains to tell the public not only that the coronavirus crisis is serious — “We want to save a lot of lives. If you get too steep on that curve, you’re gonna lose a lotta lives” — but that he never downplayed it in the first place.

“I’ve always known this is a real — this is a pandemic,” Trump said. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

That followed a press conference Monday when for the first time he seemed to acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis (“this is a very bad one”), amid the expected self-congratulation (“we’ve done a fantastic job from just about every standpoint”).

So the message has now gone forth: It’s time for Trump supporters to stop denying that the coronavirus is a big deal and focus on praising Trump’s extraordinary leadership in this time of crisis.

This is a shift that will take a bit of time to diffuse through the right, but it has a few key elements to it.

The first will be to wipe away recent history: Before long, you’ll hear Trump supporters say that Trump never denied how serious a public health challenge the virus posed, despite the fact that until this week he had been doing nothing but denying this.

That position has become untenable, so it’s necessary to forget that anyone ever held it. “We have a problem that a month ago nobody ever thought about,” Trump said on Monday.

This is, of course, completely false; a month ago, China had already locked down Wuhan, the World Health Organization had declared a global health emergency, the virus had spread to Europe and the United States, and Trump himself had taken the only significant action he would for weeks, shutting down travel from China.

We’ve heard this line from Trump on a variety of subjects: Because I didn’t understand something, that means no one did. The point of this revisionist history is to retroactively wipe away Trump’s own negligence, to make his repeated efforts to play down the virus fade into the mist. In the new version of history, we didn’t go through a period where people were begging Trump to take it seriously; instead, we all realized what was happening at exactly the same moment ...

Watching all that, you may ask yourself how anyone believes a thing they say. But this is what their propaganda machine was built for.

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