CJ Werleman explains why a national philosophy of selfishness and a President who willingly spreads disinformation is such as a threat to America as it tackles the COVID-19 outbreak.
As shoppers all over the world have traded punches in supermarkets while contesting the last roll of toilet paper, the spread of the Coronarvirus has revealed an almost unique level of selfishness that lays at the heart of America’s DNA – and it is having dire consequences for the country.
Selfishness – or self-seeking – is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which grants every American the unalienable right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The pursuit of self-gain in the 18th Century meshed perfectly with the mythology of the American frontier in the early 18th and 19th Centuries – the notion that lands and people can be conquered and controlled with little more than a horse, shotgun and a courageous sense of adventure.
It is a mythology that forms the bedrock of the country’s cultural identity and values, and it is one that’s produced unmitigated disasters during the past century.
At the height of the Roaring ’20s, when the wealth of the country was funneled upwards into the bank accounts of fewer and fewer Americans, US President Herbert Hoover – whose economic policies are blamed for sparking the Great Depression – prioritised the philosophy of “rugged individualism”, the belief that individual Americans can thrive only with minimal Government assistance.
“We were challenged with a peacetime choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of… paternalism and state socialism,” said Hoover in a 1928 campaign speech.
A year later, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President and it was his big government interventionist policies – the New Deal – that would usher in the longest period of economic growth in the country’s history which, in turn, created the largest and most prosperous middle-class the world has ever known, while helping to defeat Nazism and Imperial Japan along the way.
Certainly, this is a reading of white American history, given that black people were confined to the fringes as an economic and politically segregated racial minority, but the point remains that the country’s proclaimed “Greatest Generation” achieved its greatest accomplishments under leadership that put collective responsibility and accountability before “rugged individualism”.
This “we’re all in this together” attitude would vanish suddenly with the arrival of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, however, who framed government as the “problem” not the “solution” – bringing an end to America’s highly successful half-century long experiment with democratic socialism and restoring a form of survival-of-the-fittest social and economic Darwinism that is more typical of the country’s roots.
The Liberal Plot Conspiracy
For any visitor from the UK, Europe or Australia, the US is instantly recognisable as a country that is the living antithesis of egalitarianism, where friendship circles fall almost exclusively within economic class lines due to the geographical distance unprecedented income and wealth inequality has put between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.
Ultimately, the US is a “me” country, not a “we country” and – despite all the flag-waving and obnoxious jingoism – Americans are more devoted to their right to own more AR-15s than they are to policies that promise more equal economic, social and environmental outcomes.
This makes battling a health crisis even more problematic when the solution requires a collective will. This truth took shape in the George W. Bush administration’s callous and botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Donald Trump is also revealing this ugly truth – as an individual who has taken our understanding of what it means to be selfish and self-aggrandizing to levels beyond our current understanding of those respective words. In downplaying the spread and affects of the Coronavirus because of a misguided belief that doing so will benefit him politically, Trump has unleashed a wave of unprecedented selfishness across the country in a time of real crisis.
Americans are accustomed to taking their cues from their President in times of national emergencies. The President not only sets the moral tone of the nation, but Americans also depend on them to provide timely and accurate information so that they can make better decisions for themselves, families and communities. Trump has shown himself to be totally incapable of speaking honestly and accurately about the spread and threat of COVID-19. In fact, he has now told more than 30 lies, falsehoods and half-truths since news of the country’s first outbreak broke, according to multiple fact-checking platforms.
Trump’s deliberate disinformation is accelerating the spread of a virus that is now killing anywhere from 4-7% of those it infects, making it 10 times deadlier than the flu. But, Americans dependent on the President for information are unlikely to be aware of this, with Trump recently tweeting: “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 and the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of Coronavirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
A recent survey found that only 35% of Republicans – compared with 68% of registered Democrats– are concerned about COVID-19, even as Italy experienced 268 Coronavirus-related deaths in a single 24-hour period.
Despite warnings from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), large swathes of the American public – particularly younger adults who view the virus as no more threatening to their health than the common cold and those who watch Fox News – are resisting calls to practice social distancing and self-isolating measures, falsely believing that it is all part of a liberal or “socialist” plot to impinge on their individual liberties and remove Trump from office. Worse, many are even taking to social media to brag about how they are not practicing social distancing as a way to “own the libs”.
“Social distancing is based on the principle of altruism,” Jason Farley, a nurse practitioner for the Division of Infectious Diseases AIDS Service at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told Mashable. “Treating everyone around you like it’s your 80-year-old grandmother is the circumstance we need to think about.”
Altruism, however, is not only the opposite of selfishness – but also runs counter to America’s genetic make-up.