Yes, America Could Split Apart

It’s time to discover transcendent moral purpose in pluralism.

I can’t remember the exact moment when I first began to fear for the future of our nation. It certainly wasn’t because of a piece of empirical data. It wasn’t a chart or graph that gave me that vague, sick sense that something wasn’t right. I’m reminded of the opening words of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy: “The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost.”

Perhaps it was the time in my life when Nancy and I moved in a few short years between deep-red and deep-blue America, living in both the rural South and urban Northeast. We didn’t merely experience the deep antipathy for faraway political opponents. We also experienced a mutual incomprehension. There was a lack of experience or understanding that in some ways was more disturbing even than the enmity. 

With a degree of understanding perhaps there can be reconciliation. With no understanding, even the possibility of reconciliation becomes more remote.

On Friday afternoon Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and I have never in my adult life seen such a deep shudder and sense of dread pass through the American political class. We knew a polarized and divided nation was about to endure yet another sharp escalation in the culture war, and this escalation could well lead to a cascading series of events that could strain the constitutional and cultural fabric of this nation.

There’s a sad irony here—because in many ways Ginsburg personified the fellowship and mutual respect of eras past. As a conservative, it was easy to disagree with “notorious RBG.” She was a woman of fierce progressive judicial conviction. But it was hard to disrespect her. Her deep friendship with her near-polar ideological opposite, Justice Antonin Scalia, was the stuff of legend. Her life story was inspirational. 

A nation needs a healthy left and a healthy right, and in their own ways these unlikely friends represented the best their sides had to offer. I hope and pray that their passings don’t signify the symbolic end of a time when deep friendship could flourish across profound disagreement. 

But here we are now, when enmity rules, and all of the short and medium-term incentives are aligned toward greater confrontation. Do Republicans utilize their raw political power to push through a conservative replacement either now or during the lame duck session? If Democrats win Congress and the Senate, do they respond with raw political power of their own, nuke the legislative filibuster, and pack the court? Both courses of action are constitutionally permissible. Neither are culturally and politically prudent. But will the respective bases of the parties tolerate any other result? 

And there’s another, critical question: How much more tension and division can this nation take? 

As regular readers know, this week I release my new book, Divided We Fall. The central contention is quite simple. “At this moment in history, there is not a single important cultural, political, religious, or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart.” And therefore “we cannot assume that a continent-sized, multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy can remain united forever, and it will not remain united if our political class cannot and will not adapt to an increasingly diverse and divided American public.”

Think of the multiple dimensions of our divisions. Yes, all the data indicates that our political enmity is skyrocketing. I don’t want to flood you with charts and graphs, but the headline of a recent Pew Research Center study says it all, “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal.” In fact, millions of Americans are now in the grips of what some researchers call “lethal mass partisanship,” where they justify even actual violence against political opponents.

Moreover, we can’t retreat to shared religious values to ameliorate the effects of a toxic political culture. While America may be growing more secular overall, it is not growing more secular at the same rate and in the same places. America’s secular and religious communities are concentrated in like-minded geographic enclaves that track quite closely with red and blue. 

We decreasingly enjoy even a common popular culture. In 2016, the New York Times published a series of television ratings maps that showed that red and blue Americans watch very different shows that feature very different themes and mores. This distinction applies to sports as well (it never fails to astonish me that I can travel to certain parts of the country, mention the name “Nick Saban”and get nothing but blank stares), and the only truly universal American sport, NFL football is shot-through with its own political controversies.

All of these trends are exacerbated by our geographic clustering. In 2016 more Americans lived in so-called “landslide counties”—where one presidential candidate wins by at least 20 points—than any time in the modern era. In fact, we’re concentrating in single-party states. A total of 36 states have so-called “trifecta” governments. The same party controls the governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature.

Only one state in the entire country—Minnesota—has a divided legislature.

The result is that almost 80 percent of the U.S. population lives under one-party rule, with 40.9 percent of Americans living under Republican governments and 36.7 percent living under Democrats. Is it any wonder that now fewer and fewer Americans live like Justices Scalia and Ginsburg, with close friends on the other side of the political aisle?

Finally, clustering has another consequence—extremism. This is the natural human result of gathering people of like mind. In 1999, Cass Sunstein articulated one of the most important cultural realities in American life, the “law of group polarization.” Here’s the definition: “In a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.”

In plain English that means when like-minded people gather, they tend to grow more extreme. Here’s Sunstein again:

For example, people who are opposed to the minimum wage are likely, after talking to each other, to be still more opposed; people who tend to support gun control are likely, after discussion, to support gun control with considerable enthusiasm; people who believe that global warming is a serious problem are likely, after discussion, to insist on severe measures to prevent global warming.

Now do you see why incentives are so aligned toward greater conflict? If you’re a partisan, the chances are that you not only have outright enmity for your political opponents, you don’t have many (if any) meaningful real-world relationships with those you oppose, and you may even fear that their control of the levers of government will mean the extinction of your liberty and way of life.

So why stand down? Why give an inch? And as you escalate your commitment to no retreat and no compromise, the other side interprets your actions through its own prism—and you confirm their own worst fears.

My book argues that this cultural kindling is increasingly ready to burst into political flame. Not today, not tomorrow, but all the trends are bad. All the trends are dangerous. History teaches us, from 1776 (for good) and 1861 (for evil), that when geographically-concentrated, like-minded Americans believe their culture is under threat, they can and will determine that the existing union shall not last. 

What is the solution? I know that readers often want clear, step-by-step guides. Enact this, reform that, and heal the breach. I do believe that necessary policy changes can decrease the political temperature. Respect civil liberties (including your opponents’), increase local autonomy, and de-escalate national politics.

But none of these changes are possible without a critical mass of Americans achieving a change of heart. No, I’m not talking about a sudden, unrealistic outbreak of love and regard. “Love one another” is a desperate hope, achievable only through spiritual reformation and renewal. But can we at least discover moral purpose in pluralism?

In fact, there are two profound spiritual visions—both articulated by the prophet Micah—that can guide both the ends and means of our quest for national unity. 

The first is a verse repopularized by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who quoted George Washington quoting the Old Testament. Almost 50 times in his writing, Washington referred to this powerful verse from the book of Micah—“but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”

Most memorably, he wrote those words to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, to signify that one of the world’s most-persecuted religious minorities would have a home in this new land. Those words signify a basic objective of just rule in a pluralistic nation. Each American can find a home. Each American can find a community. And none shall be afraid.

It’s a pledge that’s often been breached, and the fear that it will be breached again motivates much American division. But can we not declare even to our political opponents—“You will have a home”? Can we not pledge to protect that home by—at the very least—respecting their liberties and autonomy?

The second indispensable spiritual principle of pluralism is also found in the same book. It’s a verse I cite often. Micah 6:8 declares, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

These triple, interlocking obligations should guide our interactions in the perilous days to come. The command to “do justice” empowers our sense of righteousness. The command to “love kindness” softens our hearts towards our opponents. And the necessity of “walking humbly” reminds us of our deep limitations in both knowledge and wisdom. 

Critically, advancing pluralism does not mean surrendering your convictions. A truly free pluralistic nation is one that protects the autonomy of different cultural and political communities, but creates porous cultural walls between those communities. I can both fiercely defend the liberty and autonomy of my atheist friends while also seeking to bring them to faith in Jesus Christ. 

There is a vast difference between a friend who disagrees and an enemy who seeks to dominate. One vision sustains democracy. The other could destroy our republic. As millions of Americans confront both the grief of the loss of a hero while also girding for the divisive cultural battle to come, who will remember the friendship between Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg? And may we also remember Abraham Lincoln’s famous admonition—ignored to our nation’s great and enduring sorrow—“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

One more thing …

My book launches on Tuesday, and on Wednesday night my brilliant Advisory Opinions co-host Sarah Isgur will host a Dispatch members-only discussion about the book. 

You can buy the book here. Sadly enough, it feels more timely every day.

If you want to join The Dispatch to be a part of our live conversation, please join today. We’re in the midst of a 30 day free trial for annual memberships. Join now to sample our work.

One last thing …

As darkness creeps over our land I’ve found that I need more songs of light and hope. This song, from Hillsong, has blessed me this week. May it bless you as well:

Photograph by Zach Gibson/AFP/Getty Images.

On the Use and Abuse of Critical Race Theory in American Christianity

It can help identify the reality and effects of oppression but it can veer into a version of religious fundamentalism.

Three months ago I published a Sunday newsletter in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing called “American Racism: We’ve Got So Very Far to Go.” As best I can tell, it went more viral than anything else I’ve ever written, and it spawned a flood of follow-up questions. Among the most common? “David, as a Christian, what do you think of critical race theory and intersectionality?” 

My answer is complicated, but the bottom line is relatively clear—it’s more useful and interesting than many of its critics contend, but it ultimately fails as both a totalizing theory of American life and as a philosophy truly compatible with the Christian gospel.

I was first exposed to critical race theory (CRT) almost 30 years ago, during my first year at Harvard Law School. During my entire 1-L year, only one of my professors wasn’t a so-called “crit,” an advocate for CRT. In fact, more than half of all my law school classes were taught from a critical legal theory perspective, and I’ve encountered (and debated) crit-informed legal arguments virtually my entire career. 

What is critical race theory? As with any complex theory, it’s not terribly easy to define, and there are many branching streams. Rather than summarize it from my conservative perspective, let me quote one definition from advocates at the UCLA School of Public Affairs:

CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal “truth” by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege.  CRT also recognizes that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides.

“Intersectionality” is a key concept that emerged from critical race theory, and it is roughly defined as the idea that oppression operates in complicated, interlocking ways. So the experience of, say, a white trans woman is different in important ways from the experience of a black lesbian. A white trans woman will experience the privilege of her skin but also oppression due to her gender identity. A black lesbian may experience the privilege of “cis” gender identity but also oppression due to race and sexuality. 

A critical legal theorist will often deconstruct any given story or narrative to look for hidden ways that power, privilege, and assumptions about language color our decisions and our discourse. I’ll get to the problems of this framing later, but let me first show how it can help illuminate important truths. 

I used to advise a number of Christian schools, and several years ago the county offered one of those schools a county sheriff to serve as a school resource officer, free of charge. The purpose was to deter/respond to potential school shootings, and a number of board members were initially enthusiastic about the idea. What’s not to love about free security? 

But the headmaster spoke up and quickly changed their minds. The chances of a school shooting were vanishingly low, he said, but the presence of law enforcement in the halls would be reasonably certain to criminalize school discipline. When a police officer is present a fight often isn’t just a fight—dealt with jointly by parents and the principal as a matter of school discipline. Instead, it might be deemed an assault. A student found with weed isn’t just a kid who might need parental and spiritual intervention, he might be judged a drug offender. 

The headmaster argued that the school needed to retain maximum liberty to raise and discipline its kids. And he prevailed. The board rejected the county’s offer and devised its own school security plan. 

What the heck does any of that have to do with critical race theory? After all, race never came up during the discussion, and none of the participants had a known racist bone in their bodies. Race couldn’t have been relevant, right? But viewed through the CRT lens, the entire incident was absolutely laden with power and privilege, and that exercise of power and privilege reinforced existing racial disparities.

How? Let’s contrast the disproportionately white private school with the disproportionately black public school that was located a mere five miles away. First, look at the difference in power—the private school parents had the wealth to create and maintain a separate institution that was governed separately from the local board of education. Unlike public school parents, they had the absolute autonomy to say yes or no to a law enforcement presence in their halls. 

This power thus created an important privilege. Their students had the privilege of committing low-level crimes without fear of criminal enforcement. They could grow and learn from their mistakes without being fed into the maw of the criminal justice system. 

Power and privilege thus distorted our language and understanding. How could one even begin to understand, for example, the true difference in crime rate between the public and private school? If a fight is an assault in one place and just a “scrap” in another, how do we know which school is more dangerous? If a marijuana purchase is a drug deal in one place and a “mistake” in another, how do we know which environment is more perilous for vulnerable youth? 

When you overlay these considerations with local histories, including residential segregation, a history of redlining, “white flight,” and other factors that might concentrate black families in worse schools, then you start to have a eureka moment. “Ahh, so that’s what we mean when we say that racism has ‘systemic’ legacies and creates systemic problems.”

As a Christian, this kind of CRT-infused analysis helps me not only understand the reason for persistent disparities, it should also build empathy and motivate action. What can we do to ameliorate the effects of this disparate power and privilege? 

So does this mean that critical race theory is entirely good, useful, and worthy of Christian embrace? Not so fast. Go back to the definition above—as practiced, it quite often creates a virtual irrebuttable starting presumption that “existing power structures” can be accurately analyzed primarily (or sometimes exclusively) through the prism of race. 

The end result, ironically enough, is both reductive and complex. Quite simply, race (or gender or gender identity) are not always material factors in any given historical development or cultural phenomenon, and the desire to attempt to racialize any given power structure can lead to radically-strained analyses. CRT is biased in favor of viewing much of life through a racial lens, and that lens does not always see reality clearly.

Moreover, the explicit rejection of liberalism in some (but not all) quarters of critical race theory, combined with the premium placed on experiential authority—for example, who is a white man to question a black trans woman about the validity of her experience?—results in the kind of subjective authoritarianism we see in the academy and “woke” corporate America.

What do I mean by “subjective authoritarianism”? The perfect example is the college speech code. As originally conceived, the speech code was a vehicle for attempting to redress power imbalances on campus by essentially permitting historically marginalized groups the authority to set the limits of campus debate. 

Speech codes therefore explicitly rejected any form of objective test for harassing speech. Instead, they instituted subjective rules that prohibited “offensive” expression, with the offense determined by the listener. Since most of these codes prohibited offensive speech on the basis of race, sexual orientation, or gender, the goal was rather obvious—to replace the allegedly white privileged regime of free speech with a speech culture that flipped the power balance upside down. This time, black and brown people would set the terms of the debate.

Unfortunately, however, the new power brokers often ended up marginalizing and suppressing dissent even from members of their own historically oppressed groups. While intersectionality does state a common-sense truth—that different groups experience oppression differently—it often obscures another, equally valid truth, that different individuals within those groups can still be remarkably diverse. 

Which person can truly stand in for, say, the “gay black experience” and define the bounds of speech not just for everyone outside that group, but also for everyone inside that group as well? The practical result was often rule-by-activist, with campus radicals purporting to define the black or brown perspective for everyone else on campus. 

A speech regime that replaces neutral rules with punitive personal perceptions cannot be anything but authoritarian. But from a Christian perspective, extreme versions of critical race theory suffer from an even worse defect—they wrongly place race at the center of human identity. 

Galatians 3:27-28 declares that “those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus.” At one stroke, Paul sweeps away race, class, and sex as controlling identities. It’s not that you’re a “Greek Christian.” It’s that you’re all Christian. 

Indeed, this is the logical consequence of the death/rebirth pattern of Christian conversion. Our old self is “crucified.” The new self is fundamentally, eternally defined by Jesus Christ. Our identity rests in him and him alone. 

To state this fundamental spiritual truth is not to deny that a broken, sinful world (including an often broken, sinful church) persists in wrongly elevating race, gender, or class and often making those identities primary and central to their perceptions of others. But the role of the church is to oppose that false construct. All human beings are defined most principally by the shared reality that they are made in the image of God. All Christians are defined by Christ. 

In that construct, critical race theory can be an analytical tool (one of many) that can help us understand persistent inequality and injustice in the United States. To the extent, however, that it presents itself as a totalizing ideology—one that explains American history in full and prescribes an illiberal antidote to American injustice—it falters and ultimately fails. Moreover, as a totalizing ideology, it contradicts core scriptural truths.

This is difficult ground to stake out in polarized times. On the one end, many conservatives reject any respect for any aspect of critical race theory. There’s a virtually irrebuttable presumption that no real truth can come from the far-left. On the left end of the spectrum, critiques of critical race theory are often characterized and perceived as fundamentally racist. CRT is the way to view the world. As I outlined in a previous newsletter, critical race theory and its associated anti-racist ideologies can veer into a version of religious fundamentalism, one that is singularly intolerant of dissent. 

Christians who seek to stake out this difficult ground are not alone. On June 1, 2019, the Southern Baptist Church—the nation’s largest Protestant denomination—adopted a resolution on critical race theory and intersectionality. It’s an excellent document. I’d urge you to read the whole thing, but I’ll highlight three key principles.

First, truthful insights can come from secular sources:

WHEREAS, General revelation accounts for truthful insights found in human ideas that do not explicitly emerge from Scripture and reflects what some may term “common grace”; and

WHEREAS, Critical race theory and intersectionality alone are insufficient to diagnose and redress the root causes of the social ills that they identify, which result from sin, yet these analytical tools can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences…

But still, our identity is derived from and through God, not from and through our race:

WHEREAS, Humanity is primarily identified in Scripture as image bearers of God, even as biblical authors address various audiences according to characteristics such as male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free; and

WHEREAS, The New Covenant further unites image bearers by creating a new humanity that will one day inhabit the new creation, and that the people of this new humanity, though descended from every nation, tribe, tongue, and people, are all one through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And finally, that means critical race theory can be useful, but our ultimate hope is in Christ alone:

RESOLVED, That critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture—not as transcendent ideological frameworks; and be it further

RESOLVED, That the gospel of Jesus Christ alone grants the power to change people and society because “he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”

By God’s grace, critical race theory has on occasion helped me to identify the reality and effects of oppression and motivated me to follow the dictates of Micah 6:8 and “seek justice.” But we cannot lose sight of the fact that it’s ultimately Christ who ushers in the new creation—by elevating us beyond a broken world’s framing of black and white and into the kingdom reality that there is but one identity that truly matters, child of the living God. 

One more thing…

It’s almost that time! My book releases into the world on September 22. If you read me, you know that I’m deeply worried that hatred and rage could ultimately fracture our nation. My book describes why I’m concerned, how we could split, and how we can heal. I wrote about it in Time this week:

Commentators have called our dysfunctional politics a form of “cold civil war,” and the assumption is that one side or the other will win, dominate the opposition and rule a united country.

That’s certainly a possibility, but it’s not a certainty. When immense geographic regions share a common culture, believe their most fundamental values are under attack and lose confidence that the Democratic process will protect their interests, unity is not always the result. Just ask the colonists who sought to secure liberty in 1776. Just ask the Confederates who sought to secure slavery in the 1860s.

Over the past decade, I’ve heard committed partisans say out loud that they would be “happy” to be rid of states like California. I’ve heard (and read) men fantasizing and theorizing about a second Civil War. Right-wing insurrectionist groups have even formed for the purpose of fomenting civil strife. Look at the smoke drifting from U.S. cities from coast to coast. Watch far-right and far-left protesters square off in street battles. There is a crackling tension in the air.

My proposition is simple: In an atmosphere of increasing negative polarization and geographic separation, we can no longer take our nation for granted. We must intentionally care for the state of our union.

Please pre-order a copy (or 10!) We’ll have a special members-only live book discussion just after release, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. (If you’re not yet a member, you can take advantage of our free 30-day free trial, here.) At the heart of the book are two scenarios for division. Did you find them chilling? Or far-fetched? Let’s discuss! 

One last thing…

Y’all know I love We the Kingdom. This is one of their new songs, and, well, I just think it’s awesome. I like their theme of liberation. Enjoy:

Photograph by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

This Is What We Mean When We Say ‘Character Is Destiny’

At a key moment, with hundreds of thousands of lives at stake, the president lied.

There are many, many strange things about the Republican political reaction to the Donald Trump presidency, but one of the strangest is the refrain I’ve heard time and time again—“Pay no attention to what Trump says. Pay attention to what he does.” In essence, the argument is that the Trump administration consistently saves Trump from himself by enacting policies that are far superior to Trump’s pronouncements.

Why do I say this is strange—especially since some of Trump’s policies are, in fact, better than his pronouncements? (This is not just true of Trump, by the way.) Well, because it’s been received conventional wisdom since the foundation of this republic that the president’s words matter. They matter a great deal. 

Remember the endless arguments over whether Barack Obama should include the word “Islamic” when describing our jihadist foes? Remember how we’ve marked the great moments of prior presidencies by whether they “rose to the occasion” with words the American people needed to hear in times of fear and distress? Communication is a central part of the president’s job description. 

And that brings me to the revelations this week that Donald Trump knew the coronavirus was far more deadly than the flu and yet deliberately played down the threat. I’m not going to rehash all the quotes, but the summary is in the tweet below, and the relevant recorded segments of Bob Woodward’s interviews with Trump are at the link:

And if you remotely doubt (even now) that Trump did what he said and did play down the virus, the receipts are everywhere:

John Dickerson @jdickerson
Here are 32 times the president said Covid-19 would go away.…

Mark Knoller @markknoller

"The President never downplayed the virus," says McEnany. The President expressed calm." She says the President embodied the American spirit about the threat, believing in the need to be serious but also optimistic.

The point of this piece is not to say that “lying is bad.” Of course it’s bad. The point instead is to note that these lies mattered. Back on March 10, one day after Trump compared COVID-19 to the flu, I wrote a newsletter that argued coronavirus requires a “high-trust response” in a “low-trust time”:

To minimize the risk of facing the kind of crisis that has killed thousands, crippled Chinese cities, damaged the Chinese economy, and is afflicting Italy, Americans will have to take the coronavirus seriously, and they’ll have to engage in at least some degree (even if small) of personal sacrifice. 

That requires trust—including trust in your neighbors, in members of the media who transmit information about the virus, and in public health officials. That trust will require a change in behavior even if no one you know is sick, even if you feel healthy, and even if the virus isn’t yet in your community. 

By March 10, a total of 30 Americans had died from coronavirus. Today, almost exactly six months from the day I wrote those words, the death toll is now more than 195,000 Americans. That’s likely an underestimate

We will debate for years why the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, a nation chock-full of many of the best doctors and hospitals in the world, experienced such a disproportionately staggering death toll. But here’s one reason: A man who millions of people trust and who sets the tone for communications from massive right-wing news outlets and for massive right-wing celebrities told a series of lies. Those lies were transmitted and believed. People acted on those lies.

If you know anything about the right-wing media-entertainment complex, you know that many of its leading lights don’t just reject mainstream media or progressive critique. They thrive on it. They relish it. If these folks have a unifying ethos surrounding leftist attacks, it’s the silly sentence, “If you’re taking flak, it means you’re over the target.”

No, it can also mean you’re wrong—sometimes seriously wrong.

In fact, the celebrities of right-wing media are often so powerful within their own institutions that arguably the only person who can influence or check their public speech is the one man their audience loves more than them, President Trump. Yet make no mistake, as the president downplayed the virus for weeks, many of his champions carried that rhetorical torch with glee. A New York Times analysis found a host of communications that now, after almost 200,000 deaths, seem simply stunning:

A review of hundreds of hours of programming and social media traffic from Jan. 1 through mid-March — when the White House started urging people to stay home and limit their exposure to others — shows that doubt, cynicism and misinformation about the virus took root among many of Mr. Trump’s boosters in the right-wing media as the number of confirmed cases in the United States grew.

Some details:

On Feb. 27, Mr. Hannity opened his show in a rage. “The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours. And it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he said, adding, “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think.” His program would be one of many platforms with large audiences of conservatives — 5.6 million people watched Mr. Hannity interview the president on Fox last week — to misleadingly highlight statistics on deaths from the seasonal flu as a comparison.

On Feb. 28, Mr. Limbaugh read from an article from The Western Journal, a website that was blacklisted by Apple News last year for promoting articles Apple determined were “overwhelmingly rejected by the scientific community.” The coronavirus, Mr. Limbaugh said, “appears far less deadly” than the flu, but the government and the media “keep promoting panic.”


Faced with the inescapable fact that the virus was killing people, many conservatives started sounding fatalistic. Yes it’s deadly, they acknowledged, but so are a lot of other things. “How many people have died this year in the United States from snake bites?” the conservative radio host Dennis Prager asked in an online “fireside chat” posted March 12 to his website, PragerU, where it has been viewed more than 600,000 times.

I’ll be honest with y’all. I really try to resist anger. There’s just too much anger in American politics. In fact, a key theme of my book is that anger and enmity represent their own independent threat to the American republic. But the president’s deception makes me angry. 

I’ve spoken to too many people in my neighborhood, church, and community who absorbed the president’s words, heard their favorite figures in the conservative media, and believed them—even to the point where when the president pivoted and began to acknowledge the full dimensions of the crisis, many of those folks believed that the president’s pivot was artificial, a product of Dr. Fauci’s nefarious influence and not a product of undeniable and deadly facts. 

To condemn the president’s deception is not to defend the deceptions, mistakes, and bad faith of other actors in this national drama. Bill de Blasio, for example, deserves an entire wing in the coronavirus hall of shame. Conflicting early masking guidance and the obvious politicization of public health in response to Black Lives Matter protests also helped damage public trust and confidence. In any crisis so pervasive, there is often blame to go around.

And yes, I’ve seen folks in the conservative media—including friends of mine—argue that if the president had been sounding the alarm accurately and consistently that he would have faced immediate pushback from the Democrats and the media. I agree that the reality of negative polarization means that there are too many people who oppose anything Trump says simply because Trump said it. But that does not relieve the president of the obligation to tell the truth. 

I’ve also seen Trump’s defenders—including Trump himself—latch onto his claim that he was trying to stop a “panic” as a defense. Here was Trump yesterday:

First, I must confess that it’s a little bit unusual to see Trump shun alarmism. He consistently hypes threats. He has argued that Joe Biden election could destroy this nation. Just yesterday he tweeted this entirely calm and temperate claim:

But putting aside the president’s typical alarmism, isn’t there a happy medium between denial and panic? It’s called the truth. Prepare the American people with calm conviction. Communicate to them that you understand the truth, we’re in this together, and we can endure, persevere, and—ultimately—triumph. 

American history is replete with examples of presidents preparing Americans for long and painful struggles, and in many ways that kind of preparation was perhaps even more indispensable at the onset of this pandemic than it is when preparing Americans for most military conflicts. After all, “flattening the curve” and limiting the spread of the virus required public acceptance of the threat and massive voluntary compliance with public health guidelines and mandates. There are not enough police in the country to enforce mask mandates (nor would we want police to be so pervasive). 

We had to do this together. We had to believe this was real. At a key moment, with hundreds of thousands of lives at stake, the president lied. He made many Americans disbelieve. When critics of the president declared, beginning even in 2015, that “character is destiny,” this is what we meant. When the time would come to tell the hard truths, the president was likely to fail—and fail he did. 

One more thing…

One of the interesting coronavirus questions is the impact of individual choice versus government policy as a driver of human behavior. When America shut down, was the shutdown driven more by individual choice or government policy? Or, did the government policy merely ratify a civic shutdown that was already in process? There’s a fascinating new paper from Austan Goolsbee and Chad Syverson arguing that the lockdowns may have been far less decisive than we think:

The collapse of economic activity in 2020 from COVID-19 has been immense. An important question is how much of that resulted from government restrictions on activity versus people voluntarily choosing to stay home to avoid infection. This paper examines the drivers of the collapse using cellular phone records data on customer visits to more than 2.25 million individual businesses across 110 different industries. Comparing consumer behavior within the same commuting zones but across boundaries with different policy regimes suggests that legal shutdown orders account for only a modest share of the decline of economic activity (and that having county-level policy data is significantly more accurate than state-level data). While overall consumer traffic fell by 60 percentage points, legal restrictions explain only 7 of that. Individual choices were far more important and seem tied to fears of infection. Traffic started dropping before the legal orders were in place; was highly tied to the number of COVID deaths in the county; and showed a clear shift by consumers away from larger/busier stores toward smaller/less busy ones in the same industry. States repealing their shutdown orders saw identically modest recoveries--symmetric going down and coming back. The shutdown orders did, however, significantly reallocate consumer activity away from “nonessential” to “essential” businesses and from restaurants and bars toward groceries and other food sellers.

Read the whole thing.

One last thing…

On Wednesday I shared the Dune trailer. While it was magnificent, I realized that some small slice of my readers (perhaps two percent?) don’t fully understand what the trailer meant. They don’t truly understand the glories that await. So, for you, here’s a Dune trailer explainer. Great stuff. 

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