On Saturday, conservative writer and professional provocateur David Hookstead bemoaned the COVID-19 outbreak in a tweet that went viral for how perfectly it captured a particular kind of American mentality: “Today should have been a day of college basketball games and a few cold beers. Instead, coronavirus stole it. Imagine explaining to a D-Day veteran that sports were canceled because of a virus. Imagine canceling the moon landing over a virus. What a sad state of affairs.”
Americans are far from the only citizens of the world to struggle with the spread of the coronavirus. Italians—who also had trouble socially isolating until more drastic moves by the government—are now making videos regretting the cavalier way they initially dismissed expert advice. Some Spanish citizens are still gathering out in public in defiance of the lockdown (in some cases getting arrested). This is all to say that the United States is not alone: Plenty of people refuse to take the virus seriously.
But we do it our way. Our situation is different not just because the Trump administration squandered the six weeks it had to prepare while other countries were modeling more and less effective approaches to their respective epidemics, and not just because Donald Trump has taught his followers that nothing scientists or the press says is true, but because some Americans believe that defying expert recommendations isn’t just their God-given right—it’s courageous and funny and even patriotic. Part of this is the kind of twisted masculinity that requires men to joke about and downplay their own physiological vulnerability, as if disease were feminine, inferior, or weak (and battle wounds a sign of strength). The public patient zero of the NBA’s outbreak, Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert, touched every microphone at a press conference to signal his courage and bravado, shortly before testing positive—he wasn’t afraid of a teeny tiny little virus, get it? Nervous laughter spread through the press room. Now he’s publicly apologized and donated half a million dollars to an employee relief fund.
Then there were the public gatherings this past weekend. The governor of Oklahoma tweeted proudly about his visit to a crowded restaurant with his family while experts were recommending that people isolate as much as possible. Gov. Kevin Stitt would delete that tweet, but his spokesperson said, “The governor will continue to take his family out to dinner and to the grocery store without living in fear and encourages Oklahomans to do the same.” How did taking steps to protect the elderly and vulnerable get equated to living in fear? So twisted are our narratives about American might that getting drunk in a giant crowd to observe St. Patrick’s Day—on a weekend morning—is currently being presented as proof of American exceptionalism and resolve. “Downtown Nashville is undefeated” was the caption a woman chose for footage she posted of a scrum of people dancing over the weekend. The implication was obvious: There is a war being waged on America, and staying home is an ignoble retreat.
A nation founded on revolt and manifest destiny might have some of this martial distortion deep in its character. But more recently, the “war on terror” has done a lot more to atrophy and warp the American political imagination. Virtually every kind of adversity is reflexively approached now through bizarrely inappropriate war metaphors. This mismatch between what war actually is and the “wars” we see everywhere is a strange artifact of 9/11, which introduced the concept of a mostly invisible terror to the average American, a threat that was suddenly uncircumscribed by any clear definition of nation-states or conventional combat or boundaries of any kind. Because of this inchoate and largely fear-based threat, Americans were told to reject the psychological intimidation on which terrorism depends. To refuse to “live in fear.”
The fantasy remains that Americans rose to this challenge. That we haven’t had another domestic attack of that scale is perceived as proof not just of the prowess of our unseen forces fighting abroad but also of our resilience at home. The terrorists wanted to terrorize us, and by living our lives, proud and uncowed, we didn’t let the terrorists win! “The American people have got to go about their business,” George W. Bush told Americans in 2001. “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop. That’s their intention.” So Americans shopped. Shopping—and by extension all public socializing and consumption, including drinking with your buddies in bars for St. Patrick’s Day—became coded as a proud form of American resistance. This phenomenon is distinct from ethical consumption practices or even the “Buy American” campaigns that encouraged people to purchase based on something other than pure preference. It isn’t principled or selective; it promiscuously imbues anything you decide you want to own or eat or drink with patriotic and even bellicose purpose.
Of course this created a dramatic disconnect between our imagined effectiveness and the reality of our lives. Many Americans learned to see individual indulgence as a noble fulfillment of patriotic duty, all while conducting the longest armed conflict in our history and succumbing to the kind of us-versus-them Islamophobia the terrorists wanted—more, I suspect, than they wanted Americans to avoid malls. We submitted to needless security theater, sacrificed our privacy to the Patriot Act, and spent uncountable sums on an unwinnable war. We are all more surveilled, more vulnerable, more precarious, and less free. But we can sure shop and eat at restaurants and tell ourselves it’s for the good of the country. We have been led to believe that consumerism is the only political power we, the people, really have. American troops may still be abroad, but this is how we at home win the “battles” that have become notional and emptied of any ideal but rationalized selfishness. There’s no risk. There’s no sacrifice. The lesson the war on terror taught was that doing and buying exactly what we want is sticking a boot in the enemy’s ass.
That’s a really weird lesson, not least because of the way it recasts activities Americans tend to regard as feminine and frivolous, like shopping, as a kind of masculine badassery. That’s the type of tension that leads to overcompensation; no wonder some Americans are all the more determined to prove their mettle in contexts where it makes no sense. Real courage and real patriotism call for an entirely different approach.
This habit of confusing dining out with waging war has left us navigating actual challenges like the coronavirus through the haze of an emotional and logical paradox: Americans may subconsciously intuit that going out to spend money is a pretty degrading redefinition of patriotic courage, but because we haven’t been given permission to valorize any kind of self-sacrificing or collectivist action, there’s nowhere for that energy to go. So yes, a hum of doubt and uncertainty underpins these coronavirus declarations of American bravery. While he was self-isolating after being exposed to the infamous CPAC coronavirus carrier, Rep. Paul Gosar tweeted something pretty telling: “I’d rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus. In a way it doesn’t matter. But it kinda does.” The subtext here should be familiar by now: It’s humiliating—emasculating, even—to be brought low by a bundle of protein and RNA.
You can’t “beat” a virus. Our addiction to war metaphors can’t get us there. But American exceptionalism—like its machismo—requires that we believe, even against the testimony of experts and the evidence of our own eyes, that the “greatness” of America is eternal and invulnerable, as is the constitution of the prime American hero (Trump is the healthiest president we’ve ever had!). There’s nothing more American than insisting things are great when you know they’re not. Jimmy Carter dared go before the public and identify a “malaise” that the nation needed to confront—not just an economic ailment—in order to heal. It was a bold and unsuccessful request. His successor ran for reelection by leveraging a resurgent economy to bolster his claim that it was morning in America. Like all commercials, Reagan’s was based on denial, on a United States filled with quiet suburban lawns and free of poverty or AIDS. It’s what Trump is doing too: Up until Monday, when he finally admitted the possibility of a recession, he kept maintaining that he was great, the virus was like the flu or would disappear, and there was nothing for the markets to worry about. Plenty of Americans followed his lead, not because he was convincing them to go against a natural American reaction, but because he was stoking it.
We’re all taking the measure of our society right now as various corners of it wobble. We’re learning that our much-ballyhooed economic prosperity rests on an economy so fragile that a shocking percentage of the workforce lives paycheck to paycheck. We’re discovering how well trained we are not just to buy stuff but to buy into an idea of the United States that doesn’t always comport with the facts. Too many are convinced that the chief contribution citizens can make to American greatness is to act as if nothing is wrong. That it’s how you fight a war with an invisible enemy: You show it America won’t be cowed!
Governments hoped people would responsibly self-police, but that hope has failed. So governors and companies and local officials are stepping in—reluctantly, and possibly too late. This will be the real test of how deeply ingrained this American reflex is, and whether we can be helped out of it when enough lives are on the line. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has ordered bars and restaurants and recreation centers and gyms to close, saying “we hope that Ohioans will follow this advice. Just as with every other law or rule, you can’t enforce it every time.” That he’ll have trouble with compliance isn’t really in question; his Twitter mentions are already filled with people calling him an autocrat. Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all Illinois bars and restaurants to close. Gov. Gavin Newsom in California somewhat timidly did not order but merely recommended that bars and wineries close and that restaurants reduce to 50 percent occupancy, and the Bay Area on Monday moved to a stringent shelter-in-place policy. After weeks insisting that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu and that the economy was fine, Trump himself has finally recommended that people not gather in groups larger than 10 people, and admitted that a recession is likely in the offing.
These officials are hoping that Americans can see beyond their frontiersman fetish—where Saturday night outings have become the hedonic equivalent of defending the homestead—and commit to the actual greater good. Real sacrifices will be required in the coming weeks. Serious sacrifices—not just having to forgo a good time. Many Americans are prepared to make them and to act not for themselves but for others, at considerable cost and inconvenience to themselves. It won’t be easy. It will require that entire communities work together in fellowship by staying physically apart. We can hope that the defiant remainders will rise to the occasion, however belatedly.
But if that doesn’t work, then the American holdouts need to take a minute to ponder who the enemy is they’re “resisting.” The virus isn’t sentient. It isn’t watching the bar-going hordes and thinking, Wow, I really misjudged these brave Americans; I’m not sure I’m up to this. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this is a war. (The Navy’s COVID-19 guidelines are illustrated by a submarine firing a torpedo at a giant coronavirus.) What the virus wants, to the extent that you can even project desire onto it, is to invade your body and then use it to invade your friends’ bodies too. You want to show the virus who’s boss? Want to do your part for the war effort and starve the invader into submission? Deny it the use of your body. Stay home.