By Jason Garshfield
In one of his first speeches upon taking office, President Biden promised a “full-scale wartime effort” against the coronavirus pandemic.
On this, at least, Biden has much in common with his predecessor, who labeled himself a “wartime president,” invoked the Defense Production Act to pressure auto manufacturers into building ventilators, and pushed simplistic, dumbed-down propaganda (“social distancing;” “flatten the curve”) characteristic of wartime.
Democrat or Republican, our presidents certainly love martial rhetoric, particularly when espoused from the comfort of the White House.
Post-Iraq, the American people have little appetite for another foreign entanglement. The virus, therefore, has become a political bonanza: it gives presidents an opportunity for wartime action without war itself.
In February 2020, it seemed as though Donald Trump would go down in history, at best, as a good peacetime president. The virus gave him the chance to be something greater: a crisis-era leader. The idea of being such a Churchillian figure appealed greatly to Trump, and Dr. Fauci and his team undoubtedly made subtle appeals to Trump’s ego in order to elicit his cooperation with their proposals.
Still, there was another war brewing within Trump himself, between his common sense (which correctly told him that America could not shut down forever and the cure should not be worse than the disease) and his desire for greatness (which necessitated the virus being a serious existential threat). He never committed fully to one path or another, which led to a muddled and contradictory public stance, simultaneously calling for the liberation of locked down states and chastising governors for reopening too early.
Biden, so far, seems on course to maintain and double down on the worst of Trump’s melodramatic wartime rhetoric.
In one sense, our politicians’ bellicose metaphors are correct. They just have the wrong war. Trump and Biden may envision World War II; in actuality, the war against the virus more closely resembles Vietnam or Iraq.
Like Vietnam, this war has its share of chickenhawks, leaders who demand sacrifices from their constituents but are unwilling to do the same.
Like Iraq (and Afghanistan), this war has dragged on endlessly with no clear objective or path to victory. When are we supposed to stop social distancing and wearing masks, exactly? Before or after the Taliban is finally defeated?
Like Vietnam, we were lied to about the duration. Just as President Johnson repeatedly promised imminent victory in Vietnam, the Trump administration promised “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” while Dr. Fauci, by his own admission, “slowly but deliberately (moved) the goal posts” for herd immunity in his public statements.
Like Iraq, much of the original narrative that spurred us to action has proven to be untrue. The deeply flawed Imperial College London model which prompted lockdowns in the U.K. and U.S. may one day take its place next to the claim that Saddam had WMDs on a list of grave historical errors. We also know that the 3.4% death rate which the WHO warned about in early March is in fact far lower.
Like Vietnam, this war has exacerbated existing social tensions, fueling everything from Antifa to QAnon. A frightened populace, locked in their houses with the internet for a companion, proves extraordinarily susceptible to radicalization.
Like Iraq, this war is expensive. The Iraq War cost $2 trillion, a number which was matched by the CARES Act in the first month of the pandemic. Unemployment reached Depression-era levels, thousands of businesses have closed permanently, and the economic devastation will likely reverberate for decades.
And finally, this war has cost us our civil liberties.
Every new war brings another such infringement. Measures such as the Espionage Act and the Japanese internment seem appalling today. At the time, they seemed necessary and sensible, and those who yapped irritatingly about due process and civil liberties could be easily dismissed as insufficiently patriotic.
Our society has based its pandemic response off of the authoritarian Chinese model, accepting policies which would have been unthinkable only a year ago. In the words of Neil Ferguson, author of the flawed Imperial model, Western officials didn’t think they could “get away with” a PRC-style response… until they saw the frightened Italians accept it.
As The New York Times reported, the virus has provided a pretense for dictators around the world to seize more power. What can happen elsewhere can happen here – and already has.
Once the government has taken a new power upon itself, it rarely surrenders that power voluntarily. It is now up to President Biden to determine which way America will go. If he chooses a society perpetually militarized against a virus, then it is incumbent on him, and all of us, to consider whom exactly he is fighting.