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What President Donald Trump’s response has revealed is that an actual infection, a virus, poses a problem to the authoritarian.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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The moral logic of coronavirus

Why helping people victimized by forces outside their control is a good idea.

Editor’s note: This essay was first published on March 17.

The coronavirus pandemic is an enormous crisis that has descended before most people have had time to learn the facts, much less process or properly contextualize them. Consequently, there are lots of gut reactions on display, including from the president.

And what gut reactions they are. Because the coronavirus is such a rapid and severe threat, so outside of our ordinary experience, it is triggering extreme versions of our everyday moral instincts. It is instructive to examine these reactions — those of both Trump and the wider public — as they are flushed to the surface, as there are lessons embedded in them that carry forward to the many other threats humans are likely to face in the 21st century.

Here’s a spoiler: Bernie Sanders is right. Or rather, the political philosophy Sanders has spent a lifetime championing is right. Threats like the coronavirus are not as rare as they seem; they are likely to get less rare; and they make the case for a more social democratic form of government, one based on mutual care rather than zero-sum competition. The moral logic of coronavirus, if we’re willing to heed it, leads to more socialism.

To see how we get there, let’s start by looking at conservatives’ response to the crisis.

The authoritarian search for a “Them”

Over the past several decades, a variety of trends — most notably the shrinking and homogenization of the conservative demographic and the rise to domination of conservative media — have pushed the right further and further toward the fringe. As racial and ideological diversity have declined, the most extreme versions of conservatism, authoritarianism, and the authoritarian personality have come to the fore, elevated in both media and politics. (Amanda Taub wrote an amazingly prescient piece on this for Vox in 2016.)

One notable feature of the authoritarian personality is that it is preoccupied with clear lines between Good/Us and Bad/Them, and consequently preoccupied with the purity of the former and infection by the latter. That is why right-wing parties are so focused on borders, on incursions and invasions by foreigners, immigrants, and Others of various kinds. It’s why they valorize the purity of an imagined past. (See the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt for more on the role purity, disgust, and infection play in the conservative moral universe.)

That personality finds its ultimate expression in President Donald Trump. His instincts and reactions serve, as always, as a kind of comically exaggerated caricature of the type.

President Donald Trump holds a press briefing on the coronavirus pandemic at the White House on March 17, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

What Trump’s response has revealed is that an actual infection, a virus, poses a problem to the authoritarian. There is no Them, no Other, at least not a satisfying one, with a face and an alien culture upon which resentment and violence can be focused. The only villain is an impersonal natural force; everyone with a face is a victim, an Us to be tended. In the face of a virus, only the conventionally feminine approach of mutual care is useful.

That leaves the lens through which the authoritarian sees the world (domination and submission) blind, and the tools available to him (scapegoating, exclusion, retribution, violence) impotent. There is no one to punish, no one to make suffer. Without that, the authoritarian is scarcely able to process the threat as a threat at all. A threat without an Other is like a wavelength of light that is invisible to him.

This dynamic has been on display across the conservative response to the coronavirus. The immediate instinct was to ignore or downplay the threat, which Trump kept doing long after its severity was clear to experts (and which some conservative politicians are still doing today). The result is that Republicans are far less likely to understand and appreciate the threat than Democrats.

The second instinct, on display across the conservative landscape (and, sadly, across the world), is to find an Other, someone to blame and demonize. That instinct was visible in the efforts to rename the virus “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus” — something Republicans are still doing. It was visible in the immediate rush to accuse the media of using the virus to hurt Trump. And it is visible in Trump’s ongoing conviction that the whole thing is somehow being used by Democrats to win the election.

Trump, his administration, and his coalition are in politics to help friends and destroy enemies. All they know is zero-sum competition, domination, and submission — and with no one to dominate, no one upon whom they can impose ritual cruelty to appease the bloodlust of their base, they are ... adrift. They simply aren’t confident, or competent, in expressing, organizing, and administering care. Many thousands of lives will likely be lost as a result.

Using coronavirus to build a bigger “Us”

The authoritarian personality that comprises such a high proportion of the conservative base, media, and political leadership is only a small portion of the overall population. The much more common reaction to the virus has been a sense that, because we are all victims of an impersonal natural force, we should pull together and care for one another. That’s why even some Republicans (though, apparently, not enough) seem willing to pass an aid package that contains emergency measures like paid sick leave.

But this more common moral instinct is also worth interrogating a bit.

Studies have found that lack of health care kills 45,000 Americans a year, auto accidents kill 37,000 a year, and drug overdoses kill 70,000 a year. Heart disease kills 647,000 a year, cancer 599,000, and respiratory diseases 160,000.

Why does all this ongoing suffering and death not lead, as the coronavirus has, to bipartisan calls for financial aid, paid sick leave, working-class tax relief, and intensive scientific research?

First, there’s salience. We pay the most attention to threats experienced on the temporal and spatial scales of our everyday lives, the ones that make us feel the most. Lots of deaths close to home and over a short period of time are more salient than deaths spread out further, both temporally and geographically.

Second, there’s responsibility. A virus is clearly an external threat, something that happens to someone through no fault of their own. But there is a common sentiment, sometimes explicitly articulated and sometimes implicit, that diseases, accidents, lost jobs, and addictions are the result of choices, something people brought upon themselves, for which they are at least partially responsible.

I don’t think either of these is a particularly good reason to limit our instinct for mutual care.

Members of the National Guard sort groceries at a community center in New Rochelle, New York, on March 12, 2020.
John Taggart/The Washington Post/Getty Images

As for salience, the mechanisms that govern it were developed over centuries of evolution in highly different circumstances. They are not particularly good indicators in the modern world, where the most substantial threats are structural and incremental.

As for responsibility, as I wrote in a piece on luck, much more of what happens in our lives — the identities and behaviors we adopt, the risks we face — is determined by forces outside of our control than we, especially the “we” that includes the privileged and well-off (the lucky), like to admit.

A single mother who works a low-wage job at a diner and is laid off because she has to spend time at home with a child who has the flu is not appreciably more responsible for the emergency that struck her life than she would be when stranded at home by a virus. A teen born and raised around opiates who finds himself with an addiction by the age of 18 did not choose where he was born or how he was raised any more than he might choose to be struck by a virus.

All across America, millions of people live in precarity, one step ahead of financial ruin, with lives that can be upended overnight by a health or employment twist entirely outside of their control. Metaphorically speaking, this country is full of viruses — poverty, poor health care, inequality, systemic discrimination, loneliness, and isolation — that infect innocent victims every day by the thousands. Those victims deserve care as well, and not churlish, moralistic, “means-tested” care. Just care, enough to get by and to live a life of dignity.

We’ve seen, with the coronavirus, that our more clannish, authoritarian, aggressive instincts will only get us deeper into trouble, and that our instincts of mutual care are the only way we’re going to minimize the suffering. Both of those lessons ought to be extended to the many other threats facing Americans.

What would that look like in practice? Well, let’s ask Bernie Sanders.

Social democracy is the institutionalization of the compassion awakened by the virus

As my colleagues Matt Yglesias and Zack Beauchamp have written, the difference between Biden’s response to the coronavirus and Sanders’s was that Biden has treated it like a management problem, while Sanders made the explicit connection to social democracy.

To be clear, Biden’s speech on the virus was infinitely better than anything Trump has said. A competent response to the virus, guided by experts and the best scientific understanding, is important no matter the larger ideological disposition of the administration.

And Biden may have the best of it politically. As Elizabeth Warren understood, the US is experiencing a crisis of trust, and simple, good governance is the first step in restoring that trust. Calm and competence may be what voters want more than anything else right now — and they may only want it more after several additional months of chaos and suffering.

But on the merits, on the larger question, Sanders is right. A one-off response to the virus is insufficient. “God willing, this crisis is going to end,” he said at the March debate. “And we’re going to have to develop an economy in which half of our people are not living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to put food on the table.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders discuss their political approaches as they relate to the coronavirus during the Democratic presidential primary debate on March 15, 2020.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The globalized 21st century promises to be tumultuous, full of systemic, incremental risks exacerbated by climate change, including not only sea level rise, migration, and resource conflicts but also more pandemics. The economic and technological transitions necessary to avoid the worst of climate change will themselves cause regional dislocations. (Thus the Green New Deal.)

Big, disruptive forces are swirling all around the US now and for the foreseeable future, and they are going to manifest in more crises and disruptions, more ordinary Americans tossed about by forces beyond their control.

All we have, sailing through these choppy and uncharted waters, is each other. We can never get through it by dividing and attacking one another; we’re in it together. That is the whole point of social democracy: universal health care, universal public benefits, decent wages and housing, publicly funded elections, citizen participation in corporate boards and politics. A social democracy builds a robust public sector because shit happens, and when it does, people need help.

That is an old idea — for Democrats, it traces back to at least FDR — but it becomes more relevant with every passing year. The coronavirus is a brutal reminder of our fragility and interdependence, of how necessary trust and cooperation are to our survival. It is a reminder that, in the face of 21st-century threats, the blustering bullies of the world locked in zero-sum struggles for dominance are worse than useless. They spin every disaster into a greater disaster.

Finally, it is a reminder that surviving and prospering in the century ahead means building the social trust and robust public institutions necessary to protect everyone from the viruses to come. The coronavirus is already spinning into a tragedy; it will be a bigger tragedy if we learn nothing from it.


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