In the summer of 1940, after the debacle of Dunkirk and while the Battle of Britain was raging and things looked bleak for the British people, a book was published condemning British politicians who had appeased the Nazis and failed to prepare Britain’s defenses. The book was titled, Guilty Men.
Guilty Men was an instant best-seller in Great Britain. Written in four days by leftist British journalists, Guilty Men cataloged the appalling history of governmental indecision, dismissive arrogance, and self-delusion that left the British ill-prepared, naming the perpetrators like so many criminals. The title’s solemn brevity accentuated the excoriation. The book’s aim was to preserve the record of failures in order to deter inept government from ever again threatening the British nation. Guilty Men helped rally the British people through that dark summer and beyond, reassuring them that they had utterly rid themselves of the kind of ineffectual politicians who had brought them to near disaster.
Eighty years later, with the coronavirus raging, Americans find themselves similarly unprepared. Testing kits are scarce, people’s retirement accounts are collapsing, unemployment is rapidly accelerating to frightful levels with few safety nets, deaths abound (in the Western world, now exceeding China’s toll), and financial devastation is certain to befall many.
True to his resolute lack of character, as the coronavirus fell upon us in the first months of 2020, Donald Trump was a cornucopia of brash ineptitude — the gift that keeps on giving. As did the British journalists who called out the appeasers’ foolish acts in trusting Hitler’s “basic decency,” our media are tallying up example after example of Trump’s blasé unpreparedness, Trump’s calculated laziness, Trump’s phony confidence, Trump’s science-mocking ignorance, Trump’s con man essence as the viral crisis mounted. But unlike the British, Americans are zeroing in on a singular rather than plural judgment. Now we see our own “Guilty Man.”
Those who oppose Trump and Trump-ism have agonized, “Why do his supporters fail to see Trump for the fraud — the criminal — that he is? What will it take to rid us of this unbearable scourge?” In the early months of Trump’s presidency, some Trump administration officials worried the bone of the 25th Amendment, but unfortunately Trump’s corruption is maddeningly “sane.” We have “gone nuclear” with a hopeless, energy-sucking impeachment trial. The Manhattan U.S. Attorney is considering charging Trump for his election law-violating “hush money” crimes, but that is only a “once out of office” proposition.
We have hoped that democratic, constitutional methods might help us. They have not. We are, strikingly among the world’s nations, governed by the rule of law. Here, “Banana Republic” is just a clothing store. We must live within the rules we’ve created, until we can change them by constitutional means. We have had no choice but to ride it out. Earlier this year, with the stock market soaring and unemployment at record lows, the ride began to look twice as long.
But now the scourge of Trump is being met by a scourge of nature. A force mightier than Trump’s nastiness has arisen. It is the force of algorithmic contagion. It disrespects every tactic with which humans seek to ease life’s burdens: living in Europe, starring in Hollywood movies, being white. It brings swift death, mostly to our most vulnerable — to our society’s treasure-stores of family cohesion and memories. In the salty phrase from the movie Withnail and I, the virus’s “heart is beating like a fucked clock.” Unless drastic measures are taken, its dominion will be vast and desolate. Because drastic measures must be taken, wide economic destruction must follow.
The English language is among the most felicitous for the task of denunciation. Though it has lost most of its German gutturality, English retains just enough Teutonic sturm und drang to serve the condemnatory purpose. Its French-ness links English to a Roman past and its heights of stern patrician oratory and rhetorical perfection. Heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s beat-buh-beat-buh-beat iambic pentameter rhythm, English is a propulsive language, a language biased toward action. It is language as force.
In 1936, as he stood alone against British vacillation and appeasement, Winston Churchill wielded this distinct linguistic weapon in a way that will forever live in human memory. A hapless British cabinet member had complained to the House of Commons that the problem of rearmament in the face of the growing Nazi menace was difficultly “fluid.” Steeped in the British history of attacks by the Romans, the Danes, the Normans, the Spanish — and understanding that his fellow Britons were bathed in cultural uneasiness about what might next appear at their shores (a cultural history that includes an English king forever damned as “Ethelred the Unready”) — Churchill stood up in the Commons, and said:
The First Lord of the Admiralty in his speech the other night […] said, “We are always reviewing the position.” Everything, he assured us, is fluid. I am sure that that is true. Anyone can see what the position is. The Government simply cannot make up their minds, or they cannot get the Prime Minister to make up his mind. So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.
So we go on preparing more months and years — precious, perhaps vital, to the greatness of Britain — for the locusts to eat.
To everyone else, the word “fluid” was simply a metaphor for “complicated.” Governmental problems are complex, after all. But in Churchill’s alert mind, the word had troubling connotations that were pregnant with opportunity. He saw that, in a dire emergency, “fluidity” was effete, vapid, and most concerning of all, yielding — gravely undermining the government’s goal of conveying firm determination to prepare. Churchill attacked the government’s weakness by employing parallel structure, rhyming sounds, brevity of expression, an echo of the King James Bible, and a drumbeat cadence, combining these rhetorical metals like a skilled blacksmith to fashion a blade that drove in to strike bone. In capable hands in times that try souls, English is a terrible, swift sword.
Our Declaration of Independence is one long, personal rant. It is a litany of abuses. It excoriates one person — King George the Third — focusing its accusations relentlessly on the royal “He.” As in:
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
. . .
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
. . .
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
. . .
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
And so on. One can condemn the Declaration’s bigotry (it also vents racist spleen against native peoples only defending themselves), yet concede its effectiveness as a political screed. Ho Chi Minh — no slouch in the battle against racism — modeled Vietnam’s independence declaration on our own. Our influential Declaration is a personal attack, stabbing and stabbing again like the Roman senators who surrounded Julius Caesar. It is a “naming names” indictment like Guilty Men and Churchill’s epochal “locusts” speech, but a singular one — appropriately so, as the hallmark of Americanism is individualism.
We speak the English tongue, and therefore inherit its cultural history. A history and culture wary of invasive threats and insistent on effective preparedness against them. Leaders must be circumspect in what they do and thoughtful in what they say. They must foresee problems, plan, prepare. That’s what we pay them for. Most importantly, their perceptions must be congruent with reality — the very foundation of competence. Trump’s, are not. He therefore endangers us all.
And so, the time has come to once again employ our language to all its martial potential to speak truth to corrupt and incompetent power, take him down, and grind his virulent –ism into the dust of history.
As the full scope of our lamentable future unfolds daily, our own cultural history demands that we enumerate Trump’s crimes of inaction and ignorance in full-throated, weaponized English.
A new litany seems most effective for the job — it worked for the Declaration of Independence. The British like Shakespearean oratory. We prefer business-like lists; it’s The American Way.
He learned from his January 2020 intelligence briefings that a global pandemic was likely, yet told Americans that month there were “no worries” about a pandemic.
[Trump 01–22–2020, CNBC, host Joe Kernen, interview at World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland. Kernen: “Have you been briefed by the CDC?” Trump: “I have.” Kernen: “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” Trump: “No. Not at all. . . And, we’re, we have it totally under control. . . .It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”]
He knew, from further classified briefings in early February 2020, that the coronavirus trend was growing more dangerous, yet assured Americans then that “we’re in very good shape” and everything was “going to be fine.”
[Trump 02–10–2020: “I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine. Trump 02–14–2020: “We have a very small number of people in the country, right now, with it. It’s like around 12. Many of them are getting better. Some are fully recovered already. So we’re in very good shape.”]
He anointed himself a medical expert, predicting in mid-February 2020 that the coronavirus would vanish by April 2020.
[Trump 02–19–2020: “I think it’s going to work out fine. I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that and that type of a virus. So let’s see what happens, but I think it’s going to work out fine.”]
He urged Americans to increase their stock market investments, as the coronavirus swarmed upon the U.S. in February 2020.
[Trump 02–24–2020, Twitter: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. … Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”]
He proudly beamed in February 2020 that the viral threat was already dissipating in America.
[Trump 02–25–2020: “You may ask about the coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country. We have very few people with it, and the people that have it are … getting better. They’re all getting better. … As far as what we’re doing with the new virus, I think that we’re doing a great job.”]
He predicted in late February 2020 that the number of infected Americans would be “close to zero” within days, dangerously delaying social distancing, accelerated production of medical supplies, and protection from financial disaster.
[Trump 02–26–2020: “Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low. . . . When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. That’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”]
He misled the gullible millions who hang on his every word that Americans, uniquely, would miraculously be spared.
[Trump 02–28–2020: “I think it’s really going well. … We’re prepared for the worst, but we think we’re going to be very fortunate. It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”]
He misguidedly added the mounting worries about his handling of the coronavirus threat to his long, pandering list of “hoaxes,” putting his sycophantic supporters at particular risk of dismissing the threat, thereby increasing the risk to all Americans.
[Trump 02–28–2020: “This is their new hoax.”]
He doubled down on his scientific ignorance, characterizing the COVID-19 virus, for which there is no vaccine or cure, as far less dangerous than the common flu, as the coronavirus gripped America in its talons in March 2020.
[Trump 03–04–2020: “Some people will have this at a very light level and won’t even go to a doctor or hospital, and they’ll get better. There are many people like that.” Trump 03–04–2020, Twitter: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”]
He bragged about his skill in protecting Americans just as the virus’s economic devastation commenced in America in mid-March 2020 with the first government orders to employ social distancing.
[Trump 03–10–2020, Twitter: “And it hit the world. And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” Trump 03–11–2020: “I think we’re going to get through it very well.”]
He crowed, as European illnesses and deaths accelerated throughout March 2020 following the inexorable pattern in China, that his control over the coronavirus was uniquely “tremendous.”
[Trump 03–11–2020: “This is a very contagious virus. It’s incredible. But it’s something that we have tremendous control over.”]
He admitted, five days later, that the coronavirus was out of control.
[Trump 03–16–2020: “If you’re talking about the virus, no, that’s not under control for any place in the world.”]
He boasted of his uniquely prescient foresight about the dangers of the coronavirus as the virus and its economic destruction encircled us in mid-March 2020.
[Trump 03–17–2020: “I’ve always known this is a, this is a real, this is a pandemic. . . . I’ve felt that it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic. . . . All you had to do was look at other countries, . . . I’ve always viewed it as serious.”]
The President must be ready and able face any foreseeable test. Most critically, the president — any political leader — must be able to notice and accurately read important patterns and trends. Most do, ably. When Trump’s test came, he was unprepared, incapable, and he choked. Trump is now — and will remain — hardcore unelectable. How do we know? By looking at our history.
The closest analogy to our current situation is the presidency of Herbert Hoover. Hoover, a widely admired humanitarian and public official, won a landslide election victory in 1928, and — like Trump — enjoyed the tailwind of an extraordinarily strong economy in the beginning of his term. Hoover was then confronted with the stock market crash of October 1929. For many months, the public supported Hoover’s conservative but vigorous efforts to stimulate the economy by empowering private enterprise rather than by providing direct federal aid. Hoover’s undoing developed gradually, in rough parallel with the steadily mounting loss of jobs. In a misguided attempt to “rally the nation” with sunny optimism, even as the jobless rate continued to rise to unprecedented heights and banks failed, Hoover repeatedly uttered what became his signature bromide: that “prosperity is just around the corner.” It wasn’t. By 1931 hundreds of shantytowns had sprung up, called “Hoovervilles” to mock him. Belatedly, Hoover took strong interventionist measures as unemployment neared 23 percent. They failed to turn the tide. Hoover rode out the 1932 presidential election to defeat while crowds of unemployed workers spat on him.
Imperfect as this analogy is, it shares with the current situation a calamity about which the president was unnervingly out of touch. The similarity isn’t that Hoover presided over a severe economic downturn as will Trump. The similarity is that a wide disconnect developed between the president’s perception of reality, and reality. Both Hoover and Trump failed at the essential competency of pattern recognition.
This was the same failure savaged by Churchill and condemned in Guilty Men. Because of self-doubt resulting from the decline of their once-mighty empire, the British are most sensitive to weakness in their leaders. Because of their long cultural experience with lightly regulated free enterprise, Americans are most wary of slick salesmanship (though many fall for it, con artistry having developed here to a refined art). Whether a failure of pattern recognition results in indecision, or unjustified boosterism, when exposed in a leader this failure leaves people feeling vulnerable and undermines their willingness to trust. That his breezy reassurances ended in a few weeks will not save Trump. Americans are intolerant of unmasked incompetents, and the mark of guilt is indelibly upon him.
Trump’s life-lesson is that if he wills something to be so, it will be so. For a healthy personality — say, an Olympic athlete who diligently hones her natural abilities, steadily raising her performance bar to greater heights — this way of thinking is a recipe for success. For an unhealthy personality like Trump’s or, say, Goliath’s, this way of thinking begets braggadocio and inattention to detail that leaves the egotist brittle and exposed to risk. A president whose personality style inflexibly preferences reward over risk exposes us all to danger. Trump will lose, not because people will die and the economy will tank, but because he boasted repeatedly that it wouldn’t happen, leaving everyone feeling suddenly vulnerable, and millions suddenly unprotected. Trump’s swagger got him elected; it will be his downfall.
Although Trump’s “bailout for all” will staunch the financial hemorrhaging, our social media-driven politics will re-hash Trump’s boastful early 2020 interviews, press conferences, and tweets again and again, salting and re-salting the wound. Trump’s initial dismissal of the coronavirus threat is a stone fact. Trump can’t call his own words “fake news.” The spittle of disdain that has rained down on Trump since he announced his candidacy won’t deter Trump or his acolytes, but it will increase. And the coming deep economic damage cannot be repaired in time. In November, the service workers who will bear the brunt of the economic harm will descend on voting booths in droves to spit on Trump with a careful pull of the lever.
We were unserious over the last several years as the stock market and housing wealth soared, so it was not surprising that a reality TV star was elected president. Things just got damn serious. In tough times Americans demand a serious president. Although we rally behind a “wartime president” in the short run, we’re an impatient and selfish lot — the honeymoon with “General Trump” (the “separate beds” one that it will be) will peter out as it becomes obvious that the hard recovery will drag on past November. But even if, implausibly, “we’re in the money!” come summer 2020, Trump has shown himself to be too risky to risk again.
While we can delude ourselves that Trump will develop a sudden case of political “bone spurs” and resign, he will surely persist in his disconnect from reality and stride with beclouded confidence into the 2020 election’s buzz saw, believing his tweets and toadies to the end.
Trump’s day of reckoning is nigh. Soon to be an ex-president, Trump is likely to stand trial in Manhattan in 2021 or 2022, before a jury of his peers: maybe a bodega owner; an Uber driver; a retired police officer; a new mother: regular Joes like you and me. Regular Joes who went through the nightmare that is coming. The kind of everyday people who just put Harvey Weinstein away.
As he begins to dimly grasp his fate, we now see fear in Trump’s demeanor that his bluster cannot hide. It’s the playground bully’s fear when you stand up to him. The words remain boastful and scoffing, but the uneasy body language gives it away. The other children sense it, too — and know. We are predatory creatures. When we sense loss of morale in those who harm us, we move in collectively to finish the job. This is the trope of Guilty Men. This is what we will do in November, to our Guilty Man.
It took mass death and financial ruin to rid us of the pestilence that is Trump. Although the deaths and the economic destruction in the virus’s wake are world problems, Trump is an American problem. We will rid ourselves of this disease, while we fight the coronavirus. And then, as with Guilty Men, remember our deliverance from Trump’s incompetence in our language of an island people forever fighting to exist. It has come to this. It must never come to this again.