This magazine has made clear that we see President Trump as unfit for office. Yet we take no solace in the current state of play. The President’s early minimizing of the danger and his disappointing address to the nation earlier this week—replete with jabs at allies, half-baked initiatives, and reference to that “foreign virus”—underscore the self-absorption and shortsightedness he has stamped on this administration.
Still, at times like these, it’s worth recalling the letter left in the Oval Office by George Herbert Walker Bush for the new President Bill Clinton in 1992. Bush’s handwritten note to Clinton included the lines: “Dear Bill . . . you will be our President when you read this note. . . . Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
Today, we should all be rooting hard for President Trump. We need him to succeed. The prospect of failure is jarring—that millions of Americans could become infected, that some hundreds of thousands could die. And this is a global pandemic; we need other countries to succeed as well. Reports of mass graves being dug in Iran, heart-wrenching accounts from front-line doctors in Italy—all of these stories focus the mind.
The role of expertise is fundamental. Many of us at TAI have been following Scott Gottlieb on Twitter. He’s the medical doctor and Trump appointee, now back at the American Enterprise Institute, who served for two years as head of the Food and Drug Administration. Gottlieb was informing us early on about the importance of social distancing, of how the costs of the Coronavirus will almost certainly be high. He also reassured us that with calm and resolve and good decisions we can get through this—and save lives.
In that context, we have been asking ourselves, “What can TAI, as a magazine of ideas, do to help?” None of us are experts in epidemiology or public health, and chasing the headlines has never been our comparative advantage. We have come up with three answers.
We can offer perspective. As our own Adam Garfinkle wrote earlier this week, to step back in order to get perspective from history is an acquired skill—and one that requires constant upkeep. And it’s not just historical perspective. TAI has always been on the lookout for the bigger picture; a global pandemic doesn’t change this. The coronavirus story is massive, and it could well transform many things from here on out—geopolitics and the global economy are just two that come to mind. But even a moment so grave and uncertain as this shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the problems that existed before and may be with us long after. Our task, therefore, is to contextualize the new problems in terms of the old ones, and vice versa, in order to help us properly understand the challenges ahead.
We can also offer an oasis. Between Twitter rumors, private chat groups, 24-7 cable news, and an increasingly partisan and polarized press, we are witnessing a complex crisis being weaponized by factions in real time. This is exhausting, dehumanizing, and indeed dangerous. As the former French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud noted (on Twitter!), “Art is the only way out . . . when everything else—decency, compassion, common sense, dignity—is missing.” What we seek to provide with our culture writing is not so much diversion as nourishment.
Finally, we hope to provide a compass. TAI tries not to merely admire problems but to offer constructive solutions as well. Trying to rebuild and re-center our politics in decent, traditionally liberal principles remains our core mission. The problems revealed by the crisis point us to where work remains to be done. We will keep our eyes focused on this aspect of our mission.
More broadly, as individuals, we have to realize that there are moments that we all need to play our parts, as leaders and as citizens of all political persuasions and from all walks of life. While everyone should heed advice from the CDC, take all necessary precautions, and broadly engage in social distancing, we must not lose sight that we are all part of a broader social fabric. In Washington DC, for example, SOME (So Others Might Eat), the group that helps feed the homeless in the nation’s capital—a group that has a surplus of volunteers at Thanksgiving and Christmas—now has a shortage of helpers to make sandwiches and serve soup. Perhaps an elderly neighbor could use help with groceries in the weeks ahead. Opportunities to serve abound.
Two decades ago, 9/11 was a moment that put our nation to the test. Today, it’s the coronavirus. We all have to step up.
— The TAI Team