Andy Borowitz is a humourist who writes short satirical “fake news” stories for The New Yorker. When scrolling the magazine’s website, you often come across headlines for his pieces – “Trump blames plummeting poll numbers on people paying attention when he talks” or “Trump advises states facing bankruptcy to borrow millions from their Dads” – and momentarily your brain processes these as real news stories.
And then it sinks in that it’s just another one of Borowitz’s humourous send-ups. But that second of believing the headline is real is a symptom of watching the United States descend into a surreal state of madness, where reality and fiction (and satire) have blended into a crazy mélange that defies any precedent. Sometimes it feels like we’re living through one of those 1970s dystopian sci-fi movies.
Indeed, here’s a real headline in the Washington Post from the other day (and not from Andy Borowitz) - “Republican-led states signal they could strip workers’ unemployment benefits if they don’t return to work.” Or what about the story of a security guard shot and killed at a Flint, Michigan discount store because he asked a shopper to wear a state-mandated face mask.
I mean, that’s madness.
If it’s not President Donald Trump’s incoherent press conferences, where recently he seemed to suggest injecting disinfectant might cure you of COVID-19, or his repeated claims the pandemic is under control while the body count mounts alarmingly, then it’s the far-right yahoos, some of them armed with assault rifles, storming the state capitols of Colorado, Arizona and Michigan demanding that social distancing ordinances be cancelled. Yahoos who have screamed at the brave nurses and doctors in their hospital garb who are counter-protesting (which is akin to kicking your rescuer in the privates after they’ve just rushed into a burning building and pulled you to safety).
Margaret Atwood once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing here) that being Canadian and sharing a border with America often feels like you’re pressing your face up against a window and watching a raucous party you’ve not been invited to (but wish you had) and feeling a mixture of superiority and envy.
Today, I don’t think a lot of Canadians are feeling envious of Americans or wish they live south of the border. The closest in Canada we’ve come to such lunacy is Premier Jason Kenney flailing away (in Trumpian fashion) at phantom enemies as Alberta slides towards bankruptcy, having gone all-in on a stranded asset no one wants.
In the U.S., though, the madness has been pushed to the surface by COVID-19, which has found a nation ill-prepared to cope with the virus, despite being a global superpower.
Now we're confronted with images similar to ones conjured by Stephen King in his novel The Stand – stories from New York of unclaimed bodies being buried in mass graves, or of up to 60 rotting corpses being discovered in two unrefrigerated U-Haul trucks outside a Brooklyn funeral home. Neighbours discovered the bodies because they could “smell death.”
Meanwhile, unlike previous crises (9/11 and the 2008-09 credit crisis come to mind), the political class has descended into partisan bickering. The Republicans, naturally, are to blame, having done everything possible to exacerbate the pandemic by initially claiming it was a hoax, refusing to give states supplies and money they need, and demanding people return to work as soon as possible.
Trump realizes the only play he has to win re-election in November is a strong economy. It’s clear he’ll risk voters lives and force them to return to their jobs before the pandemic is under control in the hopes the economy recovers in time for election day.
But this lunacy was very predictable. America has been rotting from the inside for a very long time. Don’t take my word for it. The journalist and author George Packer noted in a piece entitled “We Are Living in a Failed State” in The Atlantic recently: “when the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years.”
And esteemed Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs recently told The New Yorker: “Basically, American politics has become deeply corrupt over decades, and it became so corrupt that normal governance already collapsed many years ago. Nobody here has viewed government as actually very functional for a long time, and not because it couldn’t be. It has been increasingly designed to fail. Specifically, it’s been designed to respond to powerful lobbies that want deregulation or tax cuts or some special privileges rather than to function in a normal way… We’ve had widening inequalities and massive suffering.”
Due to this dysfunction, America is now ground zero for the pandemic. Of the world’s 3.6 million known cases of COVID-19 (with 251,000 deaths), more than 1.2 million are in the U.S., with 70,000 fatalities. And this is only the first wave of the virus.
Madness is caused by many things. But I would argue capitalism encourages mental illness. And no other country has bound itself more tightly to a brutal, heartless form of capitalism than America. So much so that, against all reason, it still doesn’t have a socialized health care system, which means 87 million Americans have no or inadquate medical coverage. And many of those Americans being thrown out of work because of COVID-19 are also losing their health insurance.
America has the world’s worst social safety net for an advanced Western country – hence California alone has 151,000 homeless (which COVID-19 will likely devastate).
Capitalism breeds madness because it generates relentless stress. The stress from competition to make money, the insecurity of never knowing whether your job, company or entire industry will collapse or be moved offshore.
In my profession, over the past 15 years, I’ve watched the Canadian media industry go from being big and profitable to threadbare and decimated, with an estimated 12,000 positions wiped out over the past decade. Blue-collar workers have it much worse: both Canada and the U.S. de-industrialized, with well-paying union jobs gone: only nine per cent of the American workers are now in manufacturing. As a result, almost 80 per cent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
Stress from not making enough money is enormous. In the U.S., almost 40 per cent of Americans don’t have enough to cover an unexpected $400 expense. By mid-March, 33.6 million didn’t have paid sick leave. The typical American worker now earns around (US) $44,500 a year – not much more than what they made in the 1970s, if adjusted for inflation. In 2018, 38.1 million Americans lived in poverty, while the wealthiest one percent control (US) $35 trillion.
Moreover, capitalism rewards sociopathic behaviour: Keely Muscatell, a neuroscientist at UCLA, found that wealthy people’s brains showed far less activity than the brains of poor people when they were shown photos of cancer-stricken children. And Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner ran several studies looking at whether social class (as measured by wealth, occupational prestige, and education) influences how much we care about the feelings of others. Their research overwhelmingly shows the more money people had, the more of a selfish monster they are.
On top of that, the American entertainment industrial complex churns out TV shows, movies and “news” programs that ignores the reality of average workers lives, while beating the drum for endless consumption and status wrapped up in unobtainable wealth – sidestepping the fact class mobility in the U.S. has reached a standstill.
Overall, long before COVID-19 arrived, Americans were living in growing despair. In 2018, more than 67,000 Americans died from drug overdoses – of which two thirds were caused by opioids. The opioid crisis has been an epidemic of the white working class – the very people corporations long abandoned – who voted for Trump, hoping he could miraculously save them from their plight.
That too turned out to be another Big Lie. But Trump’s message of draining the swamp in Washington was not. The U.S. political system and both Republican and Democratic parties have been bought by corporations, billionaires and bankers. Former U.S. President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton received vast sums from Wall Street during their runs for the White House, while the Republican Party is a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch and Koch Industries.
All of this cash has, by design, ensured that Congress can’t govern any longer. This was seen in Trump’s impeachment hearing where, despite overwhelming evidence he’d conspired with a foreign power to meddle in this year’s election, the Senate refused to throw him out. Forget meaningful legislation on anything important.
Hence, when COVID-19 arrived, the government was no longer functioning to properly confront the pandemic.
Imagine living in that kind of society? You would be driven mad too.