Do you remember when it seemed, for a few terrible days, like we were about to go to war with Iran? It was all the way back in January, just after the New Year, when everyone was still feeling optimistic about 2020. I’ve been thinking about that week while watching Americans head back out to bars and salons and restaurants and gathering in homes and acting like the pandemic is thankfully over despite indisputable evidence that infection rates are spiking in much of the country. At the time, the possibility of war loomed large. It was all I or many Americans could think about. Today, it’s not just difficult to remember that it happened this year; it’s also hard to remember the anguish I know I felt then. We’ve had so many new crises to contend with since—impeachment, the pandemic, the president’s decision to turn the pandemic into a culture war, mass unemployment, protests over police brutality, the egregious police and military responses to these protests, so many “Saturday Night Massacres” we can’t even keep track—that the war we almost had with Iran barely registers.
Neither does the pandemic, at this point. Many people seem to be heading out in an almost zombielike determination to take up some version of the good and normal life. Arizonans flocked to bars and concerts (and Trump rallies). So did Texans. Californians are going to bars and restaurants without masks. A dance floor in Charlotte, North Carolina, was packed. “Half of the people are like, ‘You know what? I’m tired of this I wanna go out’ and other people are like, ‘but the second wave, though,’ ” one Floridian said while explaining why he was out at an Orlando bar when it reopened. (Florida just suspended drinking alcohol at bars because the number of infections is spiraling out of control.) “I’ve been staying home for so long, doing my backyard, and just cleaning and cleaning and I’m tired of cleaning,” one tourist in Las Vegas said. “I miss coming out. I’m stuck in the house all the time,” said another.
While the impulse to party is understandable—people exhausted by the extenuating circumstances shelter-in-place orders imposed are reverting to what they think of as “normalcy”—it’s also incredibly weird. The pandemic isn’t over, but a lot of people seem to be trying to brute-force a reality that isn’t amenable to brute-force solutions. (Fox News has a news segment called “Post-Pandemic Liberty” as the U.S. continues to set new records for the highest number of daily new cases.) This is rugged individualism applied to a problem that is by definition collective, which may be partly why the U.S. has the worst “curve” in the world. (No one can even decide whether this is a “second wave” or a new uptick in the first wave.) It’s also why our debates over how to handle the virus strike observers outside the United States as bafflingly stupid. Take masks: If there were a drug that could reduce your chances of getting COVID, there would be a rush on it. That’s basically what masks are, only in reverse: They’re a cheap, readily available, homespun way to significantly cut down your risk of transmitting the disease. Of course they’re controversial; they might benefit someone else more than they benefit you!
Is this all just a matter of national temperament? Are Americans more open to risk than other nationalities? Is this a Wild West–type thing? Some studies suggest just the opposite: that Americans are pretty risk-averse compared with other societies, particularly more collectivist ones where the fallout of a bad decision could be spread across a system better equipped to absorb it. Here, responsibility is laser-targeted on the individual, who stands to be ruined by medical bills (for example) if a risk goes wrong. So what gives? Why are so many Americans—the recreational shoppers and diners, not the essential workers—risking their economic and physical health for fun?
One factor is likely Trump’s nonresponsiveness. People realize that the reasons they were sheltering in place—to flatten the curve and give the government time to come up with a plan, provide workers with all the PPE they need, develop robust contact tracing programs—just don’t obtain. Trump has no interest in any such measures. The enormous sacrifice people were making seemed worthless. Another possibility is that the virus just isn’t “scary” enough, especially in areas that were previously spared and are only now likely to start seeing spikes. The fatality rate for COVID-19 has gone down. This may be because younger people are getting sick but not dying—which might not be as comforting as it sounds given the unknown long-term effects of the virus. We might be getting better at treating it, but it’s also possible that we’re just too early in the second wave to see deaths that might be coming.
Another possibility for why we’re not taking this as seriously as we should be is that we’ve had a lot of practice metabolizing and normalizing death. Maybe the psychic musculature all Americans must cultivate to live despite witnessing mass shooting after mass shooting in a country that refuses to change in response has hypertrophied to the point that 120,000 dead doesn’t “feel” particularly different, or urgent. We’ve had a lot of practice convincing ourselves that this is just the way life is in America; it includes a lot of violence and death. The cost of that “freedom” is passed on, and if we can stomach passing it on to school children, surely we can stomach passing it on to the rest of America.
Militating against this theory that we just get used to awful conditions is the current moment of nationwide outrage at police brutality, which most Americans had (for decades!) simply accepted, despite plenty of video evidence of police murdering unarmed Black men. The video of George Floyd tipped the scales for many reasons, but one that might explain Americans partying in a pandemic has to do with timescale. Jelani Cobb suggested that the video of Floyd’s death sparked a response because, unlike footage of shootings—which happen in microseconds, are too quick for the human eye to really follow, and can therefore be all too easily rationalized by white people as adrenaline-fueled mistakes—it depicted a punishingly long period of time in which Floyd’s killer kept making the same decision, over and over, and “there’s no way you can get around the fact that it took an extraordinary level of commitment to extinguish his life.” Maybe the virus is on the far other end of this spectrum—too slow and too invisible as people die alone and off screen, in hospital wards ordinary people don’t see, without funerals or other public acts of mourning to drive the loss home.
But there’s an additional coping mechanism at work here too, I think—one that many have developed under Trump and that we’d do well to better understand. Take that miserable week during our almost-war with Iran, the misery of which I only vaguely remember. We have all adapted, in ways large and small, to a choleric and arbitrary president who pelts Americans citizens with a flood of emergencies. There’s no way to talk about “political suffering” without sounding like a wank, but there’s no question that the scope and scale of the worry he’s occasioned many people in this country takes a toll. That toll is not well understood. It might include a maladaptive dulling of our ability to recognize a true crisis, even as we are stuck in one that this same president has no interest in resolving.
Here, for example, is how that first week of 2020 went for me: I was on vacation and it felt—and this was big!—like the White House had been quiet enough that I could provisionally switch off the anxious monitoring in which so many Americans are now perpetually engaged. I remember the sweet, immersive three days I spent thinking about Other Things (my grandmother’s peculiar marriage! Deciphering old maps!) because of how shamefully decadent it felt in retrospect when, just a day into the New Year, a U.S. airstrike killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top security and intelligence commander. I recall feeling a couple of things: The first was anguish and disbelief that a war seemed to be in the offing. The second was a purely selfish bitterness that the brief window in which I could stop monitoring events in this country—and think instead about whatever I wanted to—had closed. My attention had been hijacked again.
The reason I’m telling you this whole story is because I’d forgotten most of it. Not the facts but the feelings. I don’t think I would have remembered any of the above if I hadn’t happened to write down what it felt like at the time. But the fact is, I was an anxious mess when it seemed we were on the brink of a world war. I felt horrified by the writing I’d been doing, which seemed frivolous compared with the tragedy about to unfold. It’s strange to me that I have since somehow memory-holed all that anxiety, but perhaps it is not so strange. We didn’t go to war with Iran, and because we didn’t go to war with Iran, the tension and grief I felt during that awful week seemed in hindsight like a mistake or an overreaction. It was embarrassing, and it kind of dissolved away. I adaptively forgot it.
Memory-holing those feelings has become a way of life for many Americans as they’ve coped with the potential and real crises that have flared up during Trump’s presidency. I suspect there are consequences to whatever psychological process scabs over the psychic damage this causes. Especially because the crises never end; they just continue until we can’t keep caring about them. That Trump keeps firing inspectors general is a catastrophe, but nobody does anything to stop it, so at a certain point you swallow the embarrassing fact of your impotence and learn to live with it. Catastrophe is both an emergency and also the normal, everyday condition in which we live.
I suspect this process leaves some scars. I also suspect it does strange things to memory, and to our capacity to react to fresh onslaughts.
People love to talk about where they were when the cataclysms of history happened—where were you when you heard Kennedy died is a popular prompt. So are the Twin Towers. But those memories get burnished by virtue of the exceptional importance the event is subsequently adjudged to have. The war with Iran did not happen, but I’m not sure that nullifies the agonizing I did in anticipation of it. Nor did I feel that agony conclusively lift. We have not gone to war YET. We didn’t end up in a war with Iran, but our administration’s “strategy” was incomprehensible, comprising “conflicting statements, crossed signals and mixed messages.” That’s how Trump governs; how he feels at any given moment will decide the course of the nation. This administration exacts hypervigilance from American citizens and it never quite lets them feel relief. The agony many Americans felt when Trump started separating families was lessened but not “fixed” by the partial and unwilling cessation of the practice. Many still haven’t been reunited! And as Dara Lind and others have reported, abusive practices of all kinds continue to happen, just not on as big and obvious a scale. The concentration camps are built. The abuse of children and asylum-seekers continues.
I think the mechanisms behind this scabbing over of old concerns might explain some of the behavior we’re seeing in this pandemic. We learn from the misery of these experiences, even if we memory-hole the misery afterward and feel vaguely embarrassed by it. What we might have learned under Trump is that our alarm is frequently, well, useless. It helps nothing. The best thing we can do, if we want to go on rather than wallow, is bury it deep and forget we felt it—if only so that we can better worry about whatever emergency we’re in now.
Constant alarm is unsustainable, and we’ve gotten used to crises rapid-cycling so that we drop and forget one kind of alarm in order to pick up another. I talked earlier about timescales. In the past six months, we have cycled through more emergencies than I can name, none of which we were able to hang our anxiety on for very long before rushing in a panic to the next. At four months, the pandemic has outlasted these habits. The muscles we use to panic with are ready to move on. The problem is, the virus isn’t.