Thursday, April 02, 2020

Time Passes Slowly Under COVID—So the Political World Should Adjust Accordingly

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect daily life in the United States, it has distorted the nation's collective sense of time. Many people have observed in the last few days how long the month of March 2020 seemed to last; the events of its first week, such as Joe Biden's electoral success on Super Tuesday and the withdrawals of Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren, now seem to have occurred in a long-distant era. This makes psychological sense: the world has fundamentally changed, that change is highly unpleasant and anxiety-provoking (if time flies when we're having fun, it crawls when we're miserable), and the measures imposed to control the spread of the virus confine most of the population to a limited set of spaces, activities, and companions.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of this development is its exacerbation of the American political class's existing preoccupation with immediate daily or even hourly developments at the expense of long-term perspective. The disinclination to think beyond the moment at hand has been a signature characteristic of the Trump presidency from its first day of existence, and the serious risks and dangers that accompany this aversion to planning and foresight have become excruciatingly obvious in the current crisis. Repeatedly dismissing the coronavirus as a non-threat or even non-issue in the early weeks of the pandemic may have fleetingly avoided spooking the press, the public, or the markets, but in retrospect it seems like a tragic error in both policy and political terms.

Trump's habit of governing with eyes fixed on the daily rhythms and pet subjects of television news coverage is commonly framed as an indictment of him, though it's equally an indictment of television news coverage. And social media, though it can do a better job of disseminating information than the average cable talking head-fest, operates with an even greater degree of transience. The emergence of the COVID-19 epidemic has only magnified this moment-to-moment mentality.

Rather than directing all of its energies towards developing and implementing an aggressive federal policy response, the White House has succumbed to the temptation to treat the pandemic as a public relations problem that needs a public relations solution (to paraphrase a previous president mischaracterizing his own presidency-defining crisis). Its daily press conferences are organized less to provide useful facts to the public than to allow Trump to engage in personal credit-claiming and subordinates or allies to bestow additional credit on him. Inevitably, these events attract considerable media attention, which just as inevitably provokes frustrated liberals to blast journalists for providing Trump positive publicity and allowing him to spread misinformation—even as Trump himself uses the platform to lob attacks at disfavored reporters. Meanwhile, in a particularly silly testament to the growing political time warp now in effect, a few days spent out of public view turned out to be long enough for a coalition of journalists, Republicans, and Bernie Sanders supporters to treat Joe Biden as if he had virtually forfeited the 2020 election.

The Trump administration, its opponents on the left, and its targets in the media have become locked in a cycle of perpetual mutual obsession that has not proven healthy for anyone concerned. Despite their many conflicts, all of these actors share the view that there's usually nothing more important than today's news. But the coronavirus does not abide by the same rules of time. It may have seemed to arrive quickly, but it is not likely to depart quickly. And so it renders the day-to-day preoccupations of the political world even more peripheral than usual.

In general, the rhetoric of political leaders, the testimony of scientific experts, and the coverage of media sources have done an increasingly effective job of persuading citizens of the potentially catastrophic effects of COVID-19 on both public health and the national economy. But there has been less open acknowledgement of the sheer length of time that it may take for daily life to approach relative normality. Trump, of course, went so far as to suggest last week that public institutions could reopen by Easter, for which he received considerable criticism before retreating from this timeline in recent days.

But even the University of Washington's frequently-cited projections of future infection and mortality frequencies, as foreboding as they may be in forecasting imminent emergency in much of the country, take on a reassuring bell-curved shape with the patient caseload declining rapidly in May, reaching minimal levels by mid-summer. However, these estimates assume the indefinite maintenance of maximal social distancing practices. It's likely that crisis conditions will continue until a vaccine or major treatment breakthrough arrives, and rules governing access to public spaces will need to reflect the ongoing presence of the threat. How can anything close to normal life resume before the virus is eradicated or the effects of infection become manageable?

For those who have found the last two or three weeks to be slowly-paced, the prospect of months or even years of continued restrictions—as casualties mount and the economy deteriorates—may seem hard to contemplate. But that's why the attention of politicians, journalists, and citizens alike should be trained squarely on potential paths to long-term solutions (or, at least, long-term ameliorations) rather than getting caught up in momentary dramas. If Trump indeed cares more about his own re-election chances than anything else, as many detractors charge, it's still true that his path to a second term runs through winning a war on the virus, not the daily news cycle.

Even analysts who are focused on the November election need to remind ourselves that seven months is a very long time in politics (seven months ago, for example, the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump's impeachment had yet to surface), and the next seven months will feel especially long. We all might as well settle in as best as we can, because we're going to be stuck here for a while.