Laura Leebrick, a manager at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in southern Oregon, is standing on the end of its landfill watching an avalanche of plastic trash pour out of a semitrailer: containers, bags, packaging, strawberry containers, yogurt cups.
None of this plastic will be turned into new plastic things. All of it is buried.
"To me that felt like it was a betrayal of the public trust," she said. "I had been lying to people ... unwittingly."
Rogue, like most recycling companies, had been sending plastic trash to China, but when China shut its doors two years ago, Leebrick scoured the U.S. for buyers. She could find only someone who wanted white milk jugs. She sends the soda bottles to the state.
But when Leebrick tried to tell people the truth about burying all the other plastic, she says people didn't want to hear it.
"I remember the first meeting where I actually told a city council that it was costing more to recycle than it was to dispose of the same material as garbage," she says, "and it was like heresy had been spoken in the room: You're lying. This is gold. We take the time to clean it, take the labels off, separate it and put it here. It's gold. This is valuable."
But it's not valuable, and it never has been. And what's more, the makers of plastic — the nation's largest oil and gas companies — have known this all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.
This story is part of a joint investigation with the PBS series Frontline that includes the documentary Plastic Wars, which aired March 31 on PBS. Watch it online now.
NPR and PBS Frontlinespent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn't work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.
The industry's awareness that recycling wouldn't keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program's earliest days, we found. "There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis," one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.
Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn't true.
"If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association and one of the industry's most powerful trade groups in Washington, D.C., told NPR.
In response, industry representative Steve Russell, until recently the vice president of plastics for the trade group the American Chemistry Council, said the industry has never intentionally misled the public about recycling and is committed to ensuring all plastic is recycled.
"The proof is the dramatic amount of investment that is happening right now," Russell said. "I do understand the skepticism, because it hasn't happened in the past, but I think the pressure, the public commitments and, most important, the availability of technology is going to give us a different outcome."
Here's the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can't be reused more than once or twice.
On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It's made from oil and gas, and it's almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh.
All of these problems have existed for decades, no matter what new recycling technology or expensive machinery has been developed. In all that time, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled. But the public has known little about these difficulties.
It could be because that's not what they were told.
Starting in the 1990s, the public saw an increasing number of commercials and messaging about recycling plastic.
"The bottle may look empty, yet it's anything but trash," says one ad from 1990 showing a plastic bottle bouncing out of a garbage truck. "It's full of potential. ... We've pioneered the country's largest, most comprehensive plastic recycling program to help plastic fill valuable uses and roles."
These commercials carried a distinct message: Plastic is special, and the consumer should recycle it.
It may have sounded like an environmentalist's message, but the ads were paid for by the plastics industry, made up of companies like Exxon, Chevron, Dow, DuPont and their lobbying and trade organizations in Washington.
Industry companies spent tens of millions of dollars on these ads and ran them for years, promoting the benefits of a product that, for the most part, was buried, was burned or, in some cases, wound up in the ocean.
Documents show industry officials knew this reality about recycling plastic as far back as the 1970s.
Many of the industry's old documents are housed in libraries, such as the one on the grounds of the first DuPont family home in Delaware. Others are with universities, where former industry leaders sent their records.
At Syracuse University, there are boxes of files from a former industry consultant. And inside one of them is a report written in April 1973 by scientists tasked with forecasting possible issues for top industry executives.
Recycling plastic, it told the executives, was unlikely to happen on a broad scale.
"There is no recovery from obsolete products," it says.
It says pointedly: Plastic degrades with each turnover.
"A degradation of resin properties and performance occurs during the initial fabrication, through aging, and in any reclamation process," the report told executives.
Recycling plastic is "costly," it says, and sorting it, the report concludes, is "infeasible."
And there are more documents, echoing decades of this knowledge, including one analysis from a top official at the industry's most powerful trade group. "The costs of separating plastics ... are high," he tells colleagues, before noting that the cost of using oil to make plastic is so low that recycling plastic waste "can't yet be justified economically."
Larry Thomas, the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, worked side by side with top oil and plastics executives.
He's retired now, on the coast of Florida where he likes to bike, and feels conflicted about the time he worked with the plastics industry.
"I did what the industry wanted me to do, that's for sure," he says. "But my personal views didn't always jibe with the views I had to take as part of my job."
Thomas took over back in the late 1980s, and back then, plastic was in a crisis. There was too much plastic trash. The public was getting upset.
Garten Services, a recycling facility in Oregon, where paper and metals still have markets but most plastic is thrown away. All plastic must first go through a recycling facility like this one, but only a fraction of the plastic produced actually winds up getting recycled.
Garten Services, a recycling facility in Oregon, where paper and metals still have markets but most plastic is thrown away. All plastic must first go through a recycling facility like this one, but only a fraction of the plastic produced actually winds up getting recycled.
In one document from 1989, Thomas calls executives at Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Dow, DuPont, Procter & Gamble and others to a private meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington.
"The image of plastics is deteriorating at an alarming rate," he wrote. "We are approaching a point of no return."
He told the executives they needed to act.
The "viability of the industry and the profitability of your company" are at stake.
Thomas remembers now.
"The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire — we got to do what it takes to take the heat off, because we want to continue to make plastic products," he says.
At this time, Thomas had a co-worker named Lew Freeman. He was a vice president of the lobbying group. He remembers many of the meetings like the one in Washington.
"The basic question on the table was, You guys as our trade association in the plastics industry aren't doing enough — we need to do more," Freeman says. "I remember this is one of those exchanges that sticks with me 35 years later or however long it's been ... and it was what we need to do is ... advertise our way out of it. That was the idea thrown out."
So began the plastics industry's $50 million-a-year ad campaign promoting the benefits of plastic.
"Presenting the possibilities of plastic!" one iconic ad blared, showing kids in bike helmets and plastic bags floating in the air.
"This advertising was motivated first and foremost by legislation and other initiatives that were being introduced in state legislatures and sometimes in Congress," Freeman says, "to ban or curb the use of plastics because of its performance in the waste stream."
At the same time, the industry launched a number of feel-good projects, telling the public to recycle plastic. It funded sorting machines, recycling centers, nonprofits, even expensive benches outside grocery stores made out of plastic bags.
Few of these projects actually turned much plastic into new things.
NPR tracked down almost a dozen projects the industry publicized starting in 1989. All of them shuttered or failed by the mid-1990s. Mobil's Massachusetts recycling facility lasted three years, for example. Amoco's project to recycle plastic in New York schools lasted two. Dow and Huntsman's highly publicized plan to recycle plastic in national parks made it to seven out of 419 parks before the companies cut funding.
None of them was able to get past the economics: Making new plastic out of oil is cheaper and easier than making it out of plastic trash.
Both Freeman and Thomas, the head of the lobbying group, say the executives all knew that.
"There was a lot of discussion about how difficult it was to recycle," Thomas remembers. "They knew that the infrastructure wasn't there to really have recycling amount to a whole lot."
Even as the ads played and the projects got underway, Thomas and Freeman say industry officials wanted to get recycling plastic into people's homes and outside on their curbs with blue bins.
The industry created a special group called the Council for Solid Waste Solutions and brought a man from DuPont, Ron Liesemer, over to run it.
Liesemer's job was to at least try to make recycling work — because there was some hope, he said, however unlikely, that maybe if they could get recycling started, somehow the economics of it all would work itself out.
"I had no staff, but I had money," Liesemer says. "Millions of dollars."
Liesemer took those millions out to Minnesota and other places to start local plastic recycling programs.
But then he ran into the same problem all the industry documents found. Recycling plastic wasn't making economic sense: There were too many different kinds of plastic, hundreds of them, and they can't be melted down together. They have to be sorted out.
"Yes, it can be done," Liesemer says, "but who's going to pay for it? Because it goes into too many applications, it goes into too many structures that just would not be practical to recycle."
Liesemer says he started as many programs as he could and hoped for the best.
"They were trying to keep their products on the shelves," Liesemer says. "That's what they were focused on. They weren't thinking what lesson should we learn for the next 20 years. No. Solve today's problem."
And Thomas, who led the trade group, says all of these efforts started to have an effect: The message that plastic could be recycled was sinking in.
"I can only say that after a while, the atmosphere seemed to change," he says. "I don't know whether it was because people thought recycling had solved the problem or whether they were so in love with plastic products that they were willing to overlook the environmental concerns that were mounting up."
But as the industry pushed those public strategies to get past the crisis, officials were also quietly launching a broader plan.
In the early 1990s, at a small recycling facility near San Diego, a man named Coy Smith was one of the first to see the industry's new initiative.
Back then, Smith ran a recycling business. His customers were watching the ads and wanted to recycle plastic. So Smith allowed people to put two plastic items in their bins: soda bottles and milk jugs. He lost money on them, he says, but the aluminum, paper and steel from his regular business helped offset the costs.
But then, one day, almost overnight, his customers started putting all kinds of plastic in their bins.
"The symbols start showing up on the containers," he explains.
Smith went out to the piles of plastic and started flipping over the containers. All of them were now stamped with the triangle of arrows — known as the international recycling symbol — with a number in the middle. He knew right away what was happening.
"All of a sudden, the consumer is looking at what's on their soda bottle and they're looking at what's on their yogurt tub, and they say, 'Oh well, they both have a symbol. Oh well, I guess they both go in,' " he says.
Unwanted used plastic sits outside Garten Services, a recycling facility in Oregon.
Unwanted used plastic sits outside Garten Services, a recycling facility in Oregon.
The bins were now full of trash he couldn't sell. He called colleagues at recycling facilities all across the country. They reported having the same problem.
Industry documents from this time show that just a couple of years earlier, starting in 1989, oil and plastics executives began a quiet campaign to lobby almost 40 states to mandate that the symbol appear on all plastic — even if there was no way to economically recycle it. Some environmentalists also supported the symbol, thinking it would help separate plastic.
Smith said what it did was make all plastic look recyclable.
"The consumers were confused," Smith says. "It totally undermined our credibility, undermined what we knew was the truth in our community, not the truth from a lobbying group out of D.C."
But the lobbying group in D.C. knew the truth in Smith's community too. A report given to top officials at the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1993 told them about the problems.
"The code is being misused," it says bluntly. "Companies are using it as a 'green' marketing tool."
The code is creating "unrealistic expectations" about how much plastic can actually be recycled, it told them.
Smith and his colleagues launched a national protest, started a working group and fought the industry for years to get the symbol removed or changed. They lost.
"We don't have manpower to compete with this," Smith says. "We just don't. Even though we were all dedicated, it still was like, can we keep fighting a battle like this on and on and on from this massive industry that clearly has no end in sight of what they're able to do and willing to do to keep their image the image they want."
"It's pure manipulation of the consumer," he says.
In response, industry officials told NPR that the code was only ever meant to help recycling facilities sort plastic and was not intended to create any confusion.
Without question, plastic has been critical to the country's success. It's cheap and durable, and it's a chemical marvel.
It's also hugely profitable. The oil industry makes more than $400 billion a year making plastic, and as demand for oil for cars and trucks declines, the industry is telling shareholders that future profits will increasingly come from plastic.
And if there was a sign of this future, it's a brand-new chemical plant that rises from the flat skyline outside Sweeny, Texas. It's so new that it's still shiny, and inside the facility, the concrete is free from stains.
Chevron Phillips Chemical's new $6 billion plastic manufacturing plant rises from the skyline in Sweeny, Texas. Company officials say they see a bright future for their products as demand for plastic continues to rise.
This plant is Chevron Phillips Chemical's $6 billion investment in new plastic.
"We see a very bright future for our products," says Jim Becker, the vice president of sustainability for Chevron Phillips, inside a pristine new warehouse next to the plant.
"These are products the world needs and continues to need," he says. "We're very optimistic about future growth."
With that growth, though, comes ever more plastic trash. But Becker says Chevron Phillips has a plan: It will recycle 100% of the plastic it makes by 2040.
Becker seems earnest. He tells a story about vacationing with his wife and being devastated by the plastic trash they saw. When asked how Chevron Phillips will recycle 100% of the plastic it makes, he doesn't hesitate.
"Recycling has to get more efficient, more economic," he says. "We've got to do a better job, collecting the waste, sorting it. That's going to be a huge effort."
Fix recycling is the industry's message too, says Steve Russell, the industry's recent spokesman.
"Fixing recycling is an imperative, and we've got to get it right," he says. "I understand there is doubt and cynicism. That's going to exist. But check back in. We're there."
Larry Thomas, Lew Freeman and Ron Liesemer, former industry executives, helped oil companies out of the first plastic crisis by getting people to believe something the industry knew then wasn't true: That most plastic could be and would be recycled.
Russell says this time will be different.
"It didn't get recycled because the system wasn't up to par," he says. "We hadn't invested in the ability to sort it and there hadn't been market signals that companies were willing to buy it, and both of those things exist today."
But plastic today is harder to sort than ever: There are more kinds of plastic, it's cheaper to make plastic out of oil than plastic trash and there is exponentially more of it than 30 years ago.
And during those 30 years, oil and plastic companies made billions of dollars in profit as the public consumed ever more quantities of plastic.
Russell doesn't dispute that.
"And during that time, our members have invested in developing the technologies that have brought us where we are today," he says. "We are going to be able to make all of our new plastic out of existing municipal solid waste in plastic."
Recently, an industry advocacy group funded by the nation's largest oil and plastic companies launched its most expensive effort yet to promote recycling and cleanup of plastic waste. There's even a new ad.
New plastic bottles come off the line at a plastic manufacturing facility in Maryland. Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050.
New plastic bottles come off the line at a plastic manufacturing facility in Maryland. Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050.
"We have the people that can change the world," it says to soaring music as people pick up plastic trash and as bottles get sorted in a recycling center.
Freeman, the former industry official, recently watched the ad.
"Déjà vu all over again," he says as the ad finishes. "This is the same kind of thinking that ran in the '90s. I don't think this kind of advertising is, is helpful at all."
Larry Thomas said the same.
"I don't think anything has changed," Thomas says. "Sounds exactly the same."
These days as Thomas bikes down by the beach, he says he spends a lot of time thinking about the oceans and what will happen to them in 20 or 50 years, long after he is gone.
And as he thinks back to those years he spent in conference rooms with top executives from oil and plastic companies, what occurs to him now is something he says maybe should have been obvious all along.
He says what he saw was an industry that didn't want recycling to work. Because if the job is to sell as much oil as you possibly can, any amount of recycled plastic is competition.
"You know, they were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they wanted to sell virgin material," Thomas says. "Nobody that is producing a virgin product wants something to come along that is going to replace it. Produce more virgin material — that's their business."
And they are. Analysts now expect plastic production to triple by 2050.
This article is a bit long, but in my opinion the tldr is: everyone needs to reduce their purchasing of anything made with, or packaged in, plastic. Plastic is just going into landfills - and the ocean.
What Americans did and defended this summer will be inscribed into history forever. The summer began before the summer officially began. The summer ended before the summer officially ended.
The summer began on May 25, when the police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in Minneapolis, Minnesota, suffocating his pleas for life. Largely peaceful demonstrations followed, and Trump tweeted: “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen.” He added, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The summer ended on August 25, when Kyle Rittenhouse borrowed an AR-15-style assault rifle from a friend and allegedly fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony M. Huber and injured Gaige Grosskreutz. These three people had been demonstrating in Kenosha, Wisconsin, against the police shooting of Jacob Blake two days earlier. Trump suggested that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. “He was trying to get away from them,” Trump said. “And he fell and then they very violently attacked him … He probably would have been killed” if he didn’t defend himself with lethal force.
The violence of Chauvin and Rittenhouse bookended the summer of Trumpism. The three long, hot months from May 25 to August 25 compressed 413 years of American history into a cellphone video in which anyone could easily see the history for what it has always been: the violent “self-defense” of white male supremacy. Colonialism, capitalism, slavery and slave trading, Indian removal, manifest destiny, colonization, the Ku Klux Klan, Chinese exclusion, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, eugenics, massive resistance, “law and order,” Islamophobia, family separation—all were done in the name of defending life or civilization or freedom.
Trumpism is the latest—or last—chapter in the story of this America. Like its antecedents, Trumpism is the violent defense of white male supremacy. Adherents of Trumpism think they are facing a choice between white male supremacy and “anarchy.” And right now, Trump’s federal agents, Trump-supporting paramilitary domestic terrorists, and Trump-supporting police officers from Kenosha to Austin believe they are fighting against anarchy. Which is to say, they are fighting to maintain white male supremacy. Which is to say, they are defending law and order. Defending their America—where white men can rule and brutalize without consequence.
Trump’s supporters have been defending their America against this summer of anti-racism. From May 25 to August 25, there were at least 7,750 anti-racist demonstrations in 2,400 locations across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. By Independence Day, when as many as 26 million people had participated in the demonstrations, the anti-racist movement had already been recognized as the largest movement of any kind in American history. The American people marched and rallied for Breonna Taylor, for Ahmaud Arbery, for all the Black and brown and Indigenous people disproportionately dying of state violence and COVID-19, for all the people suffering under the weight of racist power and policy. About 93 percent of these demonstrations remained peaceful, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Only 7 percent of the demonstrations turned violent through clashes with counterprotesters or police—too often sparked by officers—or through property damage on “specific blocks,” the report stated.
But these renegade women, men of color, and white men defying the law and order of inequality and injustice look like “anarchists” to Trump. Since June 3, the Trump campaign has run more than 2,000 ads fearmongering against what it calls “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups,” according to Media Matters for America.
All those officers and militiamen protecting the law and order of inequality and injustice are “patriots” to Trump. They are at war. In Trump’s alternative reality, the grand battle is at hand between anarchists who want to destroy America and patriots who want to defend America.
“Our country wasn’t built by cancel culture, speech codes, and soul-crushing conformity,” Trump proclaimed in his address to the Republican National Convention on August 27. “We are not a nation of timid spirits. We are a nation of fierce, proud and independent American patriots … Whenever our way of life was threatened, our heroes answered the call.”
A call to armswent out on the since-deleted Facebook page “Kenosha Guard” for the evening of August 25: “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend [our] City tonight from the evil thugs?”
Kyle Rittenhouse lived 20 miles away from Kenosha in Antioch, Illinois, where he was arrested and charged with murder the next day. During his visit to Kenosha on September 1, Trump did not condemn Rittenhouse. But he did condemn anti-racist demonstrators. “These are not acts of peaceful protest but, really, domestic terror,” he said, substantiating Rittenhouse’s claim of self-defense, that he was defending “law and order.” By September 1, a Christian crowdfunding site had already raised nearly $327,000 for Rittenhouse’s legal defense team.
“This was classic self-defense and we are going to prove it,” Rittenhouse’s attorney, John Pierce, said in a statement. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked his viewers, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Alan Endries, a Milwaukee resident and Trump supporter, said about Rittenhouse: “He’s a hero. He stuck up for the population, for property owners. He didn’t come up here just to shoot people. He came up here to defend himself.” The self-proclaimed militia that took to the streets of Kenosha did act in self-defense: the violent defense of white male supremacy.
White male supremacy has granted the president the power to accost women and “grab ’em by the pussy”; the power to “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing voters; the power to call the first female major-party nominee for president “such a nasty woman” on live television and still win more white women’s votes than she did; the power to say the first Black president was not born in the United States and still have Black men say at his convention that he is “not racist.” White male supremacy has allowed the president to have a foreign power intercede in a presidential election on his behalf, to call neo-Nazis “very fine people,” to urge his supporters to vote twice, to build a monument of lies, to obstruct justice while freeing friends and punishing foes, to describe Americans who died at war as “suckers” and “losers,” and to look away as hundreds of thousands of American COVID-19 victims’ bodies pile up at cemeteries—and not face any consequences.
And Trump does not want his white male supporters facing any consequences either. Like him, they are always innocent. They are always the victims. Even violent strongmen like Vladimir Putin get a pass.
So do heavily armed groups of white male supremacists in the United States. According to a Politicoreport, the first draft of a recent Department of Homeland Security “State of the Homeland Threat Assessment 2020” named “White supremacist extremists” as “the most persistent and lethal [terrorist] threat” to the American people. But Trump refuses to acknowledge, let alone protect Americans from, the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time. Instead he incites carnage, and the victims include people of color demonstrating their humanity, and white people demonstrating against racism, like Heather Heyer.
White male supremacy has long presented itself as acting in defense of innocent white womanhood. The Trump campaign is drawing on its tropes in an effort to capture enough white suburban women voters to win reelection. “You Won’t Be Safe in Joe Biden’s America,” claimed a Trump campaign video released on July 15. The voice-over on the ad ends: “Who will be there to answer the call when your children aren’t safe?” On August 12, Trump tweeted, “The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me. They want safety.”
But Trump’s insistence that he is protecting innocent white women and children from the “anarchists” is veiling the ultimate myth of American innocence: the notion that white men are the real victims. Were the red hats who participated on August 30 in the “pro-Trump procession” through Portland, Oregon, and who shot paintballs and pepper-sprayed anti-racist demonstrators innocents? Was Detective Brett Hankison, dismissed by the Louisville Police Department for “wantonly and blindly” firing 10 rounds into the apartment of Breonna Taylor on March 13, an innocent? Was former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of contempt of court for refusing to comply with court orders to stop detaining migrants not otherwise accused of a crime, and then later pardoned by Trump, an innocent? Is Trump, who repeatedly called the impeachment investigation and trial a “witch hunt,” an innocent? Was former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned in February 2018 after allegations of domestic abuse, an innocent? “He says he’s innocent,” Trump said at the time, “and I think you have to remember that.”
In June, when two police officers in Buffalo, New York, shoved an elderly white male protester to the ground and caused a brain injury, the president leaped to attack the protester. He “could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” Trump tweeted five days later. “I watched, he fell harder than was pushed.” The officers, who maintain their innocence, were later charged with assault. And when Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault at his confirmation hearing but insisted on his innocence, Trump’s sympathies and apologies were not with his accusers. Instead, at Kavanaugh’s swearing-in ceremony, Trump apologized to him “on behalf of our nation … for the terrible pain and suffering you have been forced to endure.” Kavanaugh was just a boy being a boy, like when Americans wrap white mass shooters in innocence by presuming they are mentally disturbed.
The presumption of innocence is largely reserved for wealthy cisgender heterosexual white men like Trump, and it remains until disproven beyond a shadow of a doubt. The presumption of guilt is for all practical purposes attached to femininity, to Blackness, to queerness, to Indigenousness, to poverty. To be a poor queer woman of color is to embody guilt. The closer one is to whiteness and masculinity and wealth, the closer one is to innocence. But for people like me, people like Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland, for all the Latino immigrants facing deportation, for all the victims of homophobic hate crimes, for all the starving people being evicted, for all the missing and murdered Native women, for all the murdered Black trans women, there are always doubts. There are always doubts.
How doesTrump seem to get away with everything with his own supporters? Because he embodies white-supremacist masculinity for them. He is innocent. They are innocent. He is defending their innocence.
Whenever white male supremacy shoots, assaults, violates, devastates, exploits—no matter what, there is the projection of innocence. Gun residue on his hands. Innocent. Blood on his hands. Innocent. Stolen life savings in his hands. Innocent. Living on stolen land. Innocent. And as the world saw at the Republican National Convention, too many white women and people of color have been turned into defenders of white male supremacy, wielding their identities to profess expertise on Trump’s “not racist” and “not sexist” innocence.
This is about Trump, but it is not only about Trump. White male supremacy is a governing force as old as America, as new as Trumpism. And it is wholly threatened by anti-racism, by feminism.
Those who embrace Trumpism demand, like police officers, qualified immunity for their racism and sexism. When they hear “Me too,” when they hear “Impeach him,” when they hear “Black lives matter,” when they hear “No justice, no peace”—they hear the sounds of violent attacks on their supremacy, they envision their property burning, they see their America under attack. In their minds, slavery did not end.
And so, they violently defended white male supremacy all summer long—just as they have all America long.
Out of all the places I could have put an announcement, I will admit that it probably doesn't make the most logistical sense to put it here.
If I'd had the opportunity to put it somewhere that makes more sense for announcing things, such as Facebook or Twitter, I promise you I would have done that. However—and please don't become too distracted by this—but the vast majority of my social media accounts were hacked sometime back by an extremely persistent individual or entity whom I have thus far been unsuccessful at defeating, so I do not currently have anywhere else to put this.
As we discussed, there is an announcement. Soon it will be upon us. But first, a warm-up announcement:
I told you this because I thought it might lend some credibility to the actual announcement, which is that I wrote a second book. For real this time. The book is finished. It has 518 pages. There is no going back at this point. There's a super official book page and everything.
As is tradition, a variety of ordering experiences are available.
For example, if you wish to be taken directly to the book page with no extra fanfare, please click the regular button:
If you wish to use a larger button to go directly to the book page, please click the big button:
If you wish to have a more difficult experience, the hard button is for you:
If you do not wish to interact with the book any further, please follow this button to safety:
If you want to feel slightly weirder than you currently do before visiting the book page, please click here:
If you wish for me to apologize for writing the book and/or for the bird collage, that option is also available:
If you just want to click a bunch of buttons, please go here:
Okay. The announcement is complete. We may now proceed to the bonus phase.
Perhaps this event was not promotional enough for you. Perhaps you wish to be subjected to a truly unnecessary level of marketing both related and unrelated to my book. Perhaps you simply wish to experience the future in whatever form it takes. If this is the case, I have great news for you:
I recently learned how to use Instagram, and over the next several days, I intend to explore the limits of its potential, possibly even discovering new ways of using it. I will be relentless, and you will regret becoming involved, but you do have the opportunity to become involved if you wish. It's also completely possible that I decide against this and just post extreme close-ups of my belly button. Or something else could happen. One can never know these things.
Thank you for your time and patience. I hope you can find it in your hearts to still respect me after this.
Image above: A masked worker cleans a New York City subway entrance.
How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.
In the first half of 2020, SARS‑CoV‑2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID‑19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million. But few countries have been as severely hit as the United States, which has just 4 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of its confirmed COVID‑19 cases and deaths. These numbers are estimates. The actual toll, though undoubtedly higher, is unknown, because the richest country in the world still lacks sufficient testing to accurately count its sick citizens.
Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages—immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise—it floundered. While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia, and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer. “The U.S. fundamentally failed in ways that were worse than I ever could have imagined,” Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told me.
Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID‑19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood. The same social-media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.
The U.S. has little excuse for its inattention. In recent decades, epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 flu, Zika, and monkeypox showed the havoc that new and reemergent pathogens could wreak. Health experts, business leaders, and even middle schoolers ran simulated exercises to game out the spread of new diseases. In 2018, I wrote an article for The Atlantic arguing that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, and sounded warnings about the fragility of the nation’s health-care system and the slow process of creating a vaccine. But the COVID‑19 debacle has also touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.
SARS‑CoV‑2 is something of an anti-Goldilocks virus: just bad enough in every way. Its symptoms can be severe enough to kill millions but are often mild enough to allow infections to move undetected through a population. It spreads quickly enough to overload hospitals, but slowly enough that statistics don’t spike until too late. These traits made the virus harder to control, but they also softened the pandemic’s punch. SARS‑CoV‑2 is neither as lethal as some other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, nor as contagious as measles. Deadlier pathogens almost certainly exist. Wild animals harbor an estimated 40,000 unknown viruses, a quarter of which could potentially jump into humans. How will the U.S. fare when “we can’t even deal with a starter pandemic?,” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and an Atlantic contributing writer, asked me.
Despite its epochal effects, COVID‑19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come. The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festering wound and reopened scar.
A pandemic can be prevented in two ways: Stop an infection from ever arising, or stop an infection from becoming thousands more. The first way is likely impossible. There are simply too many viruses and too many animals that harbor them. Bats alone could host thousands of unknown coronaviruses; in some Chinese caves, one out of every 20 bats is infected. Many people live near these caves, shelter in them, or collect guano from them for fertilizer. Thousands of bats also fly over these people’s villages and roost in their homes, creating opportunities for the bats’ viral stowaways to spill over into human hosts. Based on antibody testing in rural parts of China, Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that studies emerging diseases, estimates that such viruses infect a substantial number of people every year. “Most infected people don’t know about it, and most of the viruses aren’t transmissible,” Daszak says. But it takes just one transmissible virus to start a pandemic.
Sometime in late 2019, the wrong virus left a bat and ended up, perhaps via an intermediate host, in a human—and another, and another. Eventually it found its way to the Huanan seafood market, and jumped into dozens of new hosts in an explosive super-spreading event. The COVID‑19 pandemic had begun.
“There is no way to get spillover of everything to zero,” Colin Carlson, an ecologist at Georgetown University, told me. Many conservationists jump on epidemics as opportunities to ban the wildlife trade or the eating of “bush meat,” an exoticized term for “game,” but few diseases have emerged through either route. Carlson said the biggest factors behind spillovers are land-use change and climate change, both of which are hard to control. Our species has relentlessly expanded into previously wild spaces. Through intensive agriculture, habitat destruction, and rising temperatures, we have uprooted the planet’s animals, forcing them into new and narrower ranges that are on our own doorsteps. Humanity has squeezed the world’s wildlife in a crushing grip—and viruses have come bursting out.
Curtailing those viruses after they spill over is more feasible, but requires knowledge, transparency, and decisiveness that were lacking in 2020. Much about coronaviruses is still unknown. There are no surveillance networks for detecting them as there are for influenza. There are no approved treatments or vaccines. Coronaviruses were formerly a niche family, of mainly veterinary importance. Four decades ago, just 60 or so scientists attended the first international meeting on coronaviruses. Their ranks swelled after SARS swept the world in 2003, but quickly dwindled as a spike in funding vanished. The same thing happened after MERS emerged in 2012. This year, the world’s coronavirus experts—and there still aren’t many—had to postpone their triennial conference in the Netherlands because SARS‑CoV‑2 made flying too risky.
In the age of cheap air travel, an outbreak that begins on one continent can easily reach the others. SARS already demonstrated that in 2003, and more than twice as many people now travel by plane every year. To avert a pandemic, affected nations must alert their neighbors quickly. In 2003, China covered up the early spread of SARS, allowing the new disease to gain a foothold, and in 2020, history repeated itself. The Chinese government downplayed the possibility that SARS‑CoV‑2 was spreading among humans, and only confirmed as much on January 20, after millions had traveled around the country for the lunar new year. Doctors who tried to raise the alarm were censured and threatened. One, Li Wenliang, later died of COVID‑19. The World Health Organization initially parroted China’s line and did not declare a public-health emergency of international concern until January 30. By then, an estimated 10,000 people in 20 countries had been infected, and the virus was spreading fast.
The United States has correctly castigated China for its duplicity and the WHO for its laxity—but the U.S. has also failed the international community. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has withdrawn from several international partnerships and antagonized its allies. It has a seat on the WHO’s executive board, but left that position empty for more than two years, only filling it this May, when the pandemic was in full swing. Since 2017, Trump has pulled more than 30 staffers out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s office in China, who could have warned about the spreading coronavirus. Last July, he defunded an American epidemiologist embedded within China’s CDC. America First was America oblivious.
Even after warnings reached the U.S., they fell on the wrong ears. Since before his election, Trump has cavalierly dismissed expertise and evidence. He filled his administration with inexperienced newcomers, while depicting career civil servants as part of a “deep state.” In 2018, he dismantled an office that had been assembled specifically to prepare for nascent pandemics. American intelligence agencies warned about the coronavirus threat in January, but Trump habitually disregards intelligence briefings. The secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, offered similar counsel, and was twice ignored.
Being prepared means being ready to spring into action, “so that when something like this happens, you’re moving quickly,” Ronald Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, told me. “By early February, we should have triggered a series of actions, precisely zero of which were taken.” Trump could have spent those crucial early weeks mass-producing tests to detect the virus, asking companies to manufacture protective equipment and ventilators, and otherwise steeling the nation for the worst. Instead, he focused on the border. On January 31, Trump announced that the U.S. would bar entry to foreigners who had recently been in China, and urged Americans to avoid going there.
Travel bans make intuitive sense, because travel obviously enables the spread of a virus. But in practice, travel bans are woefully inefficient at restricting either travel or viruses. They prompt people to seek indirect routes via third-party countries, or to deliberately hide their symptoms. They are often porous: Trump’s included numerous exceptions, and allowed tens of thousands of people to enter from China. Ironically, they create travel: When Trump later announced a ban on flights from continental Europe, a surge of travelers packed America’s airports in a rush to beat the incoming restrictions. Travel bans may sometimes work for remote island nations, but in general they can only delay the spread of an epidemic—not stop it. And they can create a harmful false confidence, so countries “rely on bans to the exclusion of the things they actually need to do—testing, tracing, building up the health system,” says Thomas Bollyky, a global-health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That sounds an awful lot like what happened in the U.S.”
This was predictable. A president who is fixated on an ineffectual border wall, and has portrayed asylum seekers as vectors of disease, was always going to reach for travel bans as a first resort. And Americans who bought into his rhetoric of xenophobia and isolationism were going to be especially susceptible to thinking that simple entry controls were a panacea.
And so the U.S. wasted its best chance of restraining COVID‑19. Although the disease first arrived in the U.S. in mid-January, genetic evidence shows that the specific viruses that triggered the first big outbreaks, in Washington State, didn’t land until mid-February. The country could have used that time to prepare. Instead, Trump, who had spent his entire presidency learning that he could say whatever he wanted without consequence, assured Americans that “the coronavirus is very much under control,” and “like a miracle, it will disappear.” With impunity, Trump lied. With impunity, the virus spread.
On February 26, Trump asserted that cases were “going to be down to close to zero.” Over the next two months, at least 1 million Americans were infected.
As the coronavirus established itself in the U.S., it found a nation through which it could spread easily, without being detected. For years, Pardis Sabeti, a virologist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, has been trying to create a surveillance network that would allow hospitals in every major U.S. city to quickly track new viruses through genetic sequencing. Had that network existed, once Chinese scientists published SARS‑CoV‑2’s genome on January 11, every American hospital would have been able to develop its own diagnostic test in preparation for the virus’s arrival. “I spent a lot of time trying to convince many funders to fund it,” Sabeti told me. “I never got anywhere.”
The CDC developed and distributed its own diagnostic tests in late January. These proved useless because of a faulty chemical component. Tests were in such short supply, and the criteria for getting them were so laughably stringent, that by the end of February, tens of thousands of Americans had likely been infected but only hundreds had been tested. The official data were so clearly wrong that The Atlantic developed its own volunteer-led initiative—the COVID Tracking Project—to count cases.
Diagnostic tests are easy to make, so the U.S. failing to create one seemed inconceivable. Worse, it had no Plan B. Private labs were strangled by FDA bureaucracy. Meanwhile, Sabeti’s lab developed a diagnostic test in mid-January and sent it to colleagues in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. “We had working diagnostics in those countries well before we did in any U.S. states,” she told me.
It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly the testing debacle incapacitated the U.S. People with debilitating symptoms couldn’t find out what was wrong with them. Health officials couldn’t cut off chains of transmission by identifying people who were sick and asking them to isolate themselves.
Water running along a pavement will readily seep into every crack; so, too, did the unchecked coronavirus seep into every fault line in the modern world. Consider our buildings. In response to the global energy crisis of the 1970s, architects made structures more energy-efficient by sealing them off from outdoor air, reducing ventilation rates. Pollutants and pathogens built up indoors, “ushering in the era of ‘sick buildings,’ ” says Joseph Allen, who studies environmental health at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Energy efficiency is a pillar of modern climate policy, but there are ways to achieve it without sacrificing well-being. “We lost our way over the years and stopped designing buildings for people,” Allen says.
The indoor spaces in which Americans spend 87 percent of their time became staging grounds for super-spreading events. One study showed that the odds of catching the virus from an infected person are roughly 19 times higher indoors than in open air. Shielded from the elements and among crowds clustered in prolonged proximity, the coronavirus ran rampant in the conference rooms of a Boston hotel, the cabins of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, and a church hall in Washington State where a choir practiced for just a few hours.
Other densely packed facilities were also besieged. America’s nursing homes and long-term-care facilities house less than 1 percent of its people, but as of mid-June, they accounted for 40 percent of its coronavirus deaths. More than 50,000 residents and staff have died. At least 250,000 more have been infected. These grim figures are a reflection not just of the greater harms that COVID‑19 inflicts upon elderly physiology, but also of the care the elderly receive. Before the pandemic, three in four nursing homes were understaffed, and four in five had recently been cited for failures in infection control. The Trump administration’s policies have exacerbated the problem by reducing the influx of immigrants, who make up a quarter of long-term caregivers.
Even though a Seattle nursing home was one of the first COVID‑19 hot spots in the U.S., similar facilities weren’t provided with tests and protective equipment. Rather than girding these facilities against the pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services paused nursing-home inspections in March, passing the buck to the states. Some nursing homes avoided the virus because their owners immediately stopped visitations, or paid caregivers to live on-site. But in others, staff stopped working, scared about infecting their charges or becoming infected themselves. In some cases, residents had to be evacuated because no one showed up to care for them.
America’s neglect of nursing homes and prisons, its sick buildings, and its botched deployment of tests are all indicative of its problematic attitude toward health: “Get hospitals ready and wait for sick people to show,” as Sheila Davis, the CEO of the nonprofit Partners in Health, puts it. “Especially in the beginning, we catered our entire [COVID‑19] response to the 20 percent of people who required hospitalization, rather than preventing transmission in the community.” The latter is the job of the public-health system, which prevents sickness in populations instead of merely treating it in individuals. That system pairs uneasily with a national temperament that views health as a matter of personal responsibility rather than a collective good.
At the end of the 20th century, public-health improvements meant that Americans were living an average of 30 years longer than they were at the start of it. Maternal mortality had fallen by 99 percent; infant mortality by 90 percent. Fortified foods all but eliminated rickets and goiters. Vaccines eradicated smallpox and polio, and brought measles, diphtheria, and rubella to heel. These measures, coupled with antibiotics and better sanitation, curbed infectious diseases to such a degree that some scientists predicted they would soon pass into history. But instead, these achievements brought complacency. “As public health did its job, it became a target” of budget cuts, says Lori Freeman, the CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
Ripping unimpeded through American communities, the coronavirus created thousands of sickly hosts that it then rode into America’s hospitals. It should have found facilities armed with state-of-the-art medical technologies, detailed pandemic plans, and ample supplies of protective equipment and life-saving medicines. Instead, it found a brittle system in danger of collapse.
Compared with the average wealthy nation, America spends nearly twice as much of its national wealth on health care, about a quarter of which is wasted on inefficient care, unnecessary treatments, and administrative chicanery. The U.S. gets little bang for its exorbitant buck. It has the lowest life-expectancy rate of comparable countries, the highest rates of chronic disease, and the fewest doctors per person. This profit-driven system has scant incentive to invest in spare beds, stockpiled supplies, peacetime drills, and layered contingency plans—the essence of pandemic preparedness. America’s hospitals have been pruned and stretched by market forces to run close to full capacity, with little ability to adapt in a crisis.
When hospitals do create pandemic plans, they tend to fight the last war. After 2014, several centers created specialized treatment units designed for Ebola—a highly lethal but not very contagious disease. These units were all but useless against a highly transmissible airborne virus like SARS‑CoV‑2. Nor were hospitals ready for an outbreak to drag on for months. Emergency plans assumed that staff could endure a few days of exhausting conditions, that supplies would hold, and that hard-hit centers could be supported by unaffected neighbors. “We’re designed for discrete disasters” like mass shootings, traffic pileups, and hurricanes, says Esther Choo, an emergency physician at Oregon Health and Science University. The COVID‑19 pandemic is not a discrete disaster. It is a 50-state catastrophe that will likely continue at least until a vaccine is ready.
Wherever the coronavirus arrived, hospitals reeled. Several states asked medical students to graduate early, reenlisted retired doctors, and deployed dermatologists to emergency departments. Doctors and nurses endured grueling shifts, their faces chapped and bloody when they finally doffed their protective equipment. Soon, that equipment—masks, respirators, gowns, gloves—started running out.
American hospitals operate on a just-in-time economy. They acquire the goods they need in the moment through labyrinthine supply chains that wrap around the world in tangled lines, from countries with cheap labor to richer nations like the U.S. The lines are invisible until they snap. About half of the world’s face masks, for example, are made in China, some of them in Hubei province. When that region became the pandemic epicenter, the mask supply shriveled just as global demand spiked. The Trump administration turned to a larder of medical supplies called the Strategic National Stockpile, only to find that the 100 million respirators and masks that had been dispersed during the 2009 flu pandemic were never replaced. Just 13 million respirators were left.
In April, four in five frontline nurses said they didn’t have enough protective equipment. Some solicited donations from the public, or navigated a morass of back-alley deals and internet scams. Others fashioned their own surgical masks from bandannas and gowns from garbage bags. The supply of nasopharyngeal swabs that are used in every diagnostic test also ran low, because one of the largest manufacturers is based in Lombardy, Italy—initially the COVID‑19 capital of Europe. About 40 percent of critical-care drugs, including antibiotics and painkillers, became scarce because they depend on manufacturing lines that begin in China and India. Once a vaccine is ready, there might not be enough vials to put it in, because of the long-running global shortage of medical-grade glass—literally, a bottle-neck bottleneck.
While the president prevaricated, Americans acted. Businesses sent their employees home. People practiced social distancing, even before Trump finally declared a national emergency on March 13, and before governors and mayors subsequently issued formal stay-at-home orders, or closed schools, shops, and restaurants. A study showed that the U.S. could have averted 36,000 COVID‑19 deaths if leaders had enacted social-distancing measures just a week earlier. But better late than never: By collectively reducing the spread of the virus, America flattened the curve. Ventilators didn’t run out, as they had in parts of Italy. Hospitals had time to add extra beds.
Social distancing worked. But the indiscriminate lockdown was necessary only because America’s leaders wasted months of prep time. Deploying this blunt policy instrument came at enormous cost. Unemployment rose to 14.7 percent, the highest level since record-keeping began, in 1948. More than 26 million people lost their jobs, a catastrophe in a country that—uniquely and absurdly—ties health care to employment. Some COVID‑19 survivors have been hit with seven-figure medical bills. In the middle of the greatest health and economic crises in generations, millions of Americans have found themselves disconnected from medical care and impoverished. They join the millions who have always lived that way.
The coronavirus found, exploited, and widened every inequity that the U.S. had to offer. Elderly people, already pushed to the fringes of society, were treated as acceptable losses. Women were more likely to lose jobs than men, and also shouldered extra burdens of child care and domestic work, while facing rising rates of domestic violence. In half of the states, people with dementia and intellectual disabilities faced policies that threatened to deny them access to lifesaving ventilators. Thousands of people endured months of COVID‑19 symptoms that resembled those of chronic postviral illnesses, only to be told that their devastating symptoms were in their head. Latinos were three times as likely to be infected as white people. Asian Americans faced racist abuse. Far from being a “great equalizer,” the pandemic fell unevenly upon the U.S., taking advantage of injustices that had been brewing throughout the nation’s history.
A number of former slave states also have among the lowest investments in public health, the lowest quality of medical care, the highest proportions of Black citizens, and the greatest racial divides in health outcomes. As the COVID‑19 pandemic wore on, they were among the quickest to lift social-distancing restrictions and reexpose their citizens to the coronavirus. The harms of these moves were unduly foisted upon the poor and the Black.
As of early July, one in every 1,450 Black Americans had died from COVID‑19—a rate more than twice that of white Americans. That figure is both tragic and wholly expected given the mountain of medical disadvantages that Black people face. Compared with white people, they die three years younger. Three times as many Black mothers die during pregnancy. Black people have higher rates of chronic illnesses that predispose them to fatal cases of COVID‑19. When they go to hospitals, they’re less likely to be treated. The care they do receive tends to be poorer. Aware of these biases, Black people are hesitant to seek aid for COVID‑19 symptoms and then show up at hospitals in sicker states. “One of my patients said, ‘I don’t want to go to the hospital, because they’re not going to treat me well,’ ” says Uché Blackstock, an emergency physician and the founder of Advancing Health Equity, a nonprofit that fights bias and racism in health care. “Another whispered to me, ‘I’m so relieved you’re Black. I just want to make sure I’m listened to.’ ”
Black people were both more worried about the pandemic and more likely to be infected by it. The dismantling of America’s social safety net left Black people with less income and higher unemployment. They make up a disproportionate share of the low-paid “essential workers” who were expected to staff grocery stores and warehouses, clean buildings, and deliver mail while the pandemic raged around them. Earning hourly wages without paid sick leave, they couldn’t afford to miss shifts even when symptomatic. They faced risky commutes on crowded public transportation while more privileged people teleworked from the safety of isolation. “There’s nothing about Blackness that makes you more prone to COVID,” says Nicolette Louissaint, the executive director of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit that works to strengthen medical supply chains. Instead, existing inequities stack the odds in favor of the virus.
Native Americans were similarly vulnerable. A third of the people in the Navajo Nation can’t easily wash their hands, because they’ve been embroiled in long-running negotiations over the rights to the water on their own lands. Those with water must contend with runoff from uranium mines. Most live in cramped multigenerational homes, far from the few hospitals that service a 17-million-acre reservation. As of mid-May, the Navajo Nation had higher rates of COVID‑19 infections than any U.S. state.
Americans often misperceive historical inequities as personal failures. Stephen Huffman, a Republican state senator and doctor in Ohio, suggested that Black Americans might be more prone to COVID‑19 because they don’t wash their hands enough, a remark for which he later apologized. Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, also a physician, noted that Black people have higher rates of chronic disease, as if this were an answer in itself, and not a pattern that demanded further explanation.
Clear distribution of accurate information is among the most important defenses against an epidemic’s spread. And yet the largely unregulated, social-media-based communications infrastructure of the 21st century almost ensures that misinformation will proliferate fast. “In every outbreak throughout the existence of social media, from Zika to Ebola, conspiratorial communities immediately spread their content about how it’s all caused by some government or pharmaceutical company or Bill Gates,” says Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory, who studies the flow of online information. When COVID‑19 arrived, “there was no doubt in my mind that it was coming.”
Sure enough, existing conspiracy theories—George Soros! 5G! Bioweapons!—were repurposed for the pandemic. An infodemic of falsehoods spread alongside the actual virus. Rumors coursed through online platforms that are designed to keep users engaged, even if that means feeding them content that is polarizing or untrue. In a national crisis, when people need to act in concert, this is calamitous. “The social internet as a system is broken,” DiResta told me, and its faults are readily abused.
Beginning on April 16, DiResta’s team noticed growing online chatter about Judy Mikovits, a discredited researcher turned anti-vaccination champion. Posts and videos cast Mikovits as a whistleblower who claimed that the new coronavirus was made in a lab and described Anthony Fauci of the White House’s coronavirus task force as her nemesis. Ironically, this conspiracy theory was nested inside a larger conspiracy—part of an orchestrated PR campaign by an anti-vaxxer and QAnon fan with the explicit goal to “take down Anthony Fauci.” It culminated in a slickly produced video called Plandemic, which was released on May 4. More than 8 million people watched it in a week.
Doctors and journalists tried to debunk Plandemic’s many misleading claims, but these efforts spread less successfully than the video itself. Like pandemics, infodemics quickly become uncontrollable unless caught early. But while health organizations recognize the need to surveil for emerging diseases, they are woefully unprepared to do the same for emerging conspiracies. In 2016, when DiResta spoke with a CDC team about the threat of misinformation, “their response was: ‘ That’s interesting, but that’s just stuff that happens on the internet.’ ”
Rather than countering misinformation during the pandemic’s early stages, trusted sources often made things worse. Many health experts and government officials downplayed the threat of the virus in January and February, assuring the public that it posed a low risk to the U.S. and drawing comparisons to the ostensibly greater threat of the flu. The WHO, the CDC, and the U.S. surgeon general urged people not to wear masks, hoping to preserve the limited stocks for health-care workers. These messages were offered without nuance or acknowledgement of uncertainty, so when they were reversed—the virus is worse than the flu; wear masks—the changes seemed like befuddling flip-flops.
The media added to the confusion. Drawn to novelty, journalists gave oxygen to fringe anti-lockdown protests while most Americans quietly stayed home. They wrote up every incremental scientific claim, even those that hadn’t been verified or peer-reviewed.
There were many such claims to choose from. By tying career advancement to the publishing of papers, academia already creates incentives for scientists to do attention-grabbing but irreproducible work. The pandemic strengthened those incentives by prompting a rush of panicked research and promising ambitious scientists global attention.
In March, a small and severely flawed French study suggested that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine could treat COVID‑19. Published in a minor journal, it likely would have been ignored a decade ago. But in 2020, it wended its way to Donald Trump via a chain of credulity that included Fox News, Elon Musk, and Dr. Oz. Trump spent months touting the drug as a miracle cure despite mounting evidence to the contrary, causing shortages for people who actually needed it to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. The hydroxychloroquine story was muddied even further by two studies published in top medical journals—The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine—that claimed the drug was not effective and was potentially harmful. The papers relied on suspect data from a small analytics company called Surgisphere. Both were retracted in June.
Science famously self-corrects. But during the pandemic, the same urgent pace that has produced valuable knowledge at record speed has also sent sloppy claims around the world before anyone could even raise a skeptical eyebrow. The ensuing confusion, and the many genuine unknowns about the virus, has created a vortex of fear and uncertainty, which grifters have sought to exploit. Snake-oil merchants have peddled ineffectual silver bullets (including actual silver). Armchair experts with scant or absent qualifications have found regular slots on the nightly news. And at the center of that confusion is Donald Trump.
During a pandemic, leaders must rally the public, tell the truth, and speak clearly and consistently. Instead, Trump repeatedly contradicted public-health experts, his scientific advisers, and himself. He said that “nobody ever thought a thing like [the pandemic] could happen” and also that he “felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Both statements cannot be true at the same time, and in fact neither is true.
No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control; that a racist who gave birth to birtherism would do little to stop a virus that was disproportionately killing Black people; that a xenophobe who presided over the creation of new immigrant-detention centers would order meatpacking plants with a substantial immigrant workforce to remain open; that a cruel man devoid of empathy would fail to calm fearful citizens; that a narcissist who cannot stand to be upstaged would refuse to tap the deep well of experts at his disposal; that a scion of nepotism would hand control of a shadow coronavirus task force to his unqualified son-in-law; that an armchair polymath would claim to have a “natural ability” at medicine and display it by wondering out loud about the curative potential of injecting disinfectant; that an egotist incapable of admitting failure would try to distract from his greatest one by blaming China, defunding the WHO, and promoting miracle drugs; or that a president who has been shielded by his party from any shred of accountability would say, when asked about the lack of testing, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”
Trump is a comorbidity of the COVID‑19 pandemic. He isn’t solely responsible for America’s fiasco, but he is central to it. A pandemic demands the coordinated efforts of dozens of agencies. “In the best circumstances, it’s hard to make the bureaucracy move quickly,” Ron Klain said. “It moves if the president stands on a table and says, ‘Move quickly.’ But it really doesn’t move if he’s sitting at his desk saying it’s not a big deal.”
Again, everyday Americans did more than the White House. By voluntarily agreeing to months of social distancing, they bought the country time, at substantial cost to their financial and mental well-being. Their sacrifice came with an implicit social contract—that the government would use the valuable time to mobilize an extraordinary, energetic effort to suppress the virus, as did the likes of Germany and Singapore. But the government did not, to the bafflement of health experts. “There are instances in history where humanity has really moved mountains to defeat infectious diseases,” says Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It’s appalling that we in the U.S. have not summoned that energy around COVID‑19.”
Instead, the U.S. sleepwalked into the worst possible scenario: People suffered all the debilitating effects of a lockdown with few of the benefits. Most states felt compelled to reopen without accruing enough tests or contact tracers. In April and May, the nation was stuck on a terrible plateau, averaging 20,000 to 30,000 new cases every day. In June, the plateau again became an upward slope, soaring to record-breaking heights.
Trump never rallied the country. Despite declaring himself a “wartime president,” he merely presided over a culture war, turning public health into yet another politicized cage match. Abetted by supporters in the conservative media, he framed measures that protect against the virus, from masks to social distancing, as liberal and anti-American. Armed anti-lockdown protesters demonstrated at government buildings while Trump egged them on, urging them to “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia. Several public-health officials left their jobs over harassment and threats.
It is no coincidence that other powerful nations that elected populist leaders—Brazil, Russia, India, and the United Kingdom—also fumbled their response to COVID‑19. “When you have people elected based on undermining trust in the government, what happens when trust is what you need the most?” says Sarah Dalglish of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies the political determinants of health.
“Trump is president,” she says. “How could it go well?”
The countries that fared better against COVID‑19 didn’t follow a universal playbook. Many used masks widely; New Zealand didn’t. Many tested extensively; Japan didn’t. Many had science-minded leaders who acted early; Hong Kong didn’t—instead, a grassroots movement compensated for a lax government. Many were small islands; not large and continental Germany. Each nation succeeded because it did enough things right.
Meanwhile, the United States underperformed across the board, and its errors compounded. The dearth of tests allowed unconfirmed cases to create still more cases, which flooded the hospitals, which ran out of masks, which are necessary to limit the virus’s spread. Twitter amplified Trump’s misleading messages, which raised fear and anxiety among people, which led them to spend more time scouring for information on Twitter. Even seasoned health experts underestimated these compounded risks. Yes, having Trump at the helm during a pandemic was worrying, but it was tempting to think that national wealth and technological superiority would save America. “We are a rich country, and we think we can stop any infectious disease because of that,” says Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “But dollar bills alone are no match against a virus.”
Public-health experts talk wearily about the panic-neglect cycle, in which outbreaks trigger waves of attention and funding that quickly dissipate once the diseases recede. This time around, the U.S. is already flirting with neglect, before the panic phase is over. The virus was never beaten in the spring, but many people, including Trump, pretended that it was. Every state reopened to varying degrees, and many subsequently saw record numbers of cases. After Arizona’s cases started climbing sharply at the end of May, Cara Christ, the director of the state’s health-services department, said, “We are not going to be able to stop the spread. And so we can’t stop living as well.” The virus may beg to differ.
At times, Americans have seemed to collectively surrender to COVID‑19. The White House’s coronavirus task force wound down. Trump resumed holding rallies, and called for less testing, so that official numbers would be rosier. The country behaved like a horror-movie character who believes the danger is over, even though the monster is still at large. The long wait for a vaccine will likely culminate in a predictable way: Many Americans will refuse to get it, and among those who want it, the most vulnerable will be last in line.
Still, there is some reason for hope. Many of the people I interviewed tentatively suggested that the upheaval wrought by COVID‑19 might be so large as to permanently change the nation’s disposition. Experience, after all, sharpens the mind. East Asian states that had lived through the SARS and MERS epidemics reacted quickly when threatened by SARS‑CoV‑2, spurred by a cultural memory of what a fast-moving coronavirus can do. But the U.S. had barely been touched by the major epidemics of past decades (with the exception of the H1N1 flu). In 2019, more Americans were concerned about terrorists and cyberattacks than about outbreaks of exotic diseases. Perhaps they will emerge from this pandemic with immunity both cellular and cultural.
There are also a few signs that Americans are learning important lessons. A June survey showed that 60 to 75 percent of Americans were still practicing social distancing. A partisan gap exists, but it has narrowed. “In public-opinion polling in the U.S., high-60s agreement on anything is an amazing accomplishment,” says Beth Redbird, a sociologist at Northwestern University, who led the survey. Polls in May also showed that most Democrats and Republicans supported mask wearing, and felt it should be mandatory in at least some indoor spaces. It is almost unheard-of for a public-health measure to go from zero to majority acceptance in less than half a year. But pandemics are rare situations when “people are desperate for guidelines and rules,” says Zoë McLaren, a health-policy professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. The closest analogy is pregnancy, she says, which is “a time when women’s lives are changing, and they can absorb a ton of information. A pandemic is similar: People are actually paying attention, and learning.”
Redbird’s survey suggests that Americans indeed sought out new sources of information—and that consumers of news from conservative outlets, in particular, expanded their media diet. People of all political bents became more dissatisfied with the Trump administration. As the economy nose-dived, the health-care system ailed, and the government fumbled, belief in American exceptionalism declined. “Times of big social disruption call into question things we thought were normal and standard,” Redbird told me. “If our institutions fail us here, in what ways are they failing elsewhere?” And whom are they failing the most?
Americans were in the mood for systemic change. Then, on May 25, George Floyd, who had survived COVID‑19’s assault on his airway, asphyxiated under the crushing pressure of a police officer’s knee. The excruciating video of his killing circulated through communities that were still reeling from the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and disproportionate casualties from COVID‑19. America’s simmering outrage came to a boil and spilled into its streets.
Defiant and largely cloaked in masks, protesters turned out in more than 2,000 cities and towns. Support for Black Lives Matter soared: For the first time since its founding in 2013, the movement had majority approval across racial groups. These protests were not about the pandemic, but individual protesters had been primed by months of shocking governmental missteps. Even people who might once have ignored evidence of police brutality recognized yet another broken institution. They could no longer look away.
It is hard to stare directly at the biggest problems of our age. Pandemics, climate change, the sixth extinction of wildlife, food and water shortages—their scope is planetary, and their stakes are overwhelming. We have no choice, though, but to grapple with them. It is now abundantly clear what happens when global disasters collide with historical negligence.
COVID‑19 is an assault on America’s body, and a referendum on the ideas that animate its culture. Recovery is possible, but it demands radical introspection. America would be wise to help reverse the ruination of the natural world, a process that continues to shunt animal diseases into human bodies. It should strive to prevent sickness instead of profiting from it. It should build a health-care system that prizes resilience over brittle efficiency, and an information system that favors light over heat. It should rebuild its international alliances, its social safety net, and its trust in empiricism. It should address the health inequities that flow from its history. Not least, it should elect leaders with sound judgment, high character, and respect for science, logic, and reason.
The pandemic has been both tragedy and teacher. Its very etymology offers a clue about what is at stake in the greatest challenges of the future, and what is needed to address them. Pandemic.Pan and demos. All people.
This article appears in the September 2020 print edition with the headline “Anatomy of an American Failure.”
Each board receives the same sound input via a 3.5mm audio jack, and separately processes it to break out the left and right channels, as well as upper and lower frequency ranges using fast Fourier transforms, or FFTs.
36 different bands are shown on four LoL Shields, with each 9×14 Charliexplexed LED matrix attached to an Uno, for a total of up to 504 individual points of light. Everything is put together on an acrylic plate, and powered by a portable USB battery.
TUENHIDIY is quick to note that it’s a “crazy project,” but as seen in the video below, it looks like a lot of fun!
Growth and progress could be this nation's reward for facing the challenge of our times with courage and a demand for equal justice. The American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s were moments when the United States could have been torn from its very foundation, but a creative response to this turmoil helped move the nation forward.
At its best, non-violent protest is a strategically engineered crisis designed to wake up a sleeping nation, to educate and sensitize those who become awakened, and to ignite a sense of righteous indignation in people of goodwill to press for transformation. That's what the protests galvanized by the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and others are trying to accomplish.
In the speech, King describes what he calls the "other America," one of two starkly different American experiences that exist side-by-side. One people "experience the opportunity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all its dimensions," and the other a "daily ugliness" that spoils the purest hopes of the young and old, leaving only "the fatigue of despair." The Brown and Garner cases themselves are not the only focus of the protestors' grievances, but they represent a glimpse of a different America most Americans have found it inconvenient to confront.
One group of people in this country can expect the institutions of government to bend in their favor, no matter that they are supposedly regulated by impartial law. In the other, children, fathers, mothers, uncles, grandfathers, whole families, and many generations are swept up like rubbish by the hard, unforgiving hand of the law.
They are offered no lenience, even for petty offenses, in a system that seems hell-bent on warehousing them by the millions of people, while others escape the consequences of pervasive malfeasance scot-free. Some people rationalize that it was unfortunate, but not altogether disturbing, that Michael Brown was put to death without due process because, after all, he allegedly took some cigarillos from a corner store. But who went to jail for the mortgage fraud that robbed his community and other black communities around the country of 50 percent of their wealth?
Should people accused of stealing be held accountable? Definitely. But the justice system entangles the most vulnerable so effectively that even the innocent often find it easier to just plead guilty. Meanwhile the capable, and sometimes the stealthiest and most damaging, are slapped on the wrist and given a pass.
If Americans are to be honest with themselves, they must admit we may never know what actually happened to Michael Brown because of the unusual way the grand-jury process was conducted by a local prosecutor whose independence was in doubt. They must admit that publishing a selective collection of details online corrupts the integrity of grand-jury deliberations and proceedings meant to be held in confidence. It subverts a judicial process designed to air the arguments of both sides—the victim and the perpetrator—exposing them both to challenge and cross-examination.
Denying any victim of homicide the right to a public trial is a painful outcome, but to distort the process and use it to achieve that goal compounds the tragedy of homicide with robbery. It's no wonder then that even videotaped evidence showing Eric Garner pleading to breathe 11 times would lead to no indictment. It proves the protestors' point—in some courts even the worst offenders can go free as long as they wear a badge.
Don't get me wrong—I work with police everyday. Whenever I see them, I let them know I appreciate their service. The job is difficult, and there are many responsible officers, but does that mean they should avoid scrutiny when they take a human life, especially under questionable circumstances? Isn't that the law they are supposed to defend?
Thousands of people—young and old, black, white, and brown—are speaking to the nation. They are "dying in" to shake it out of denial. They are saying that American society is blind to hundreds, even thousands of murders perpetrated in its name by agents of governments. They are saying that blood is on the hands of the nation and its people. (Black-on-black crime, or white-on-white crime for that matter, is an important but different discussion, and it does not justify what is done by agents with the presumed consent of society.)
Today's protestors demand that Americans confront several questions as a national community:
Is it all right with them that police kill hundreds of unarmed teens and young men every year without having to account for their actions? Do they mind that a retired veteran who accidentally pressed his medical-alert button is now dead at the hands of police? Or that a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun in a park near his home, a 22-year-old man talking on a cell phone in a Walmart, a 17-year-old walking home from the corner store, an unarmed 23-year-old man attending his own bachelor party shot 50 times, or a 7-year-old girl at home asleep in her bed were all killed by their representatives? One recent study reports that one black man is killed by police or vigilantes in our country every 28 hours, almost one a day.
Doesn't that bother you?
Ever since black men first came to these shores we have been targets of wanton aggression. We have been maimed, drugged, lynched, burned, jailed, enslaved, chained, disfigured, dismembered, drowned, shot, and killed. As a black man, I have to ask why. What is it that drives this carnage? Is it fear? Fear of what? Why is this nation still so willing to suspend the compassion it gives freely to others when the victims are men who are black or brown?
Soon the nation will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day unarmed, nonviolent protestors were brutalized by deputized citizens and Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As a leader of that march, I wonder, if the same attack took place in Ferguson today, would Americans be shocked enough to do anything about it? What has happened to the soul of America that makes citizens more interested in justifying these murders than stopping them?
Dr. King declared in his 1967 speech, "Racism is evil because its ultimate logic leads to genocide .... It is an affirmation," he said, "that the very being of a people is inferior," and therefore unworthy of the same regard as other human life. Do Americans accept the deaths of hundreds and thousands of young men and boys simply because they are black? Ignorance of their day-to-day lives is no excuse for what is done in society’s name.
In the presence of injustice, no one has the right to be silent. Members of government and the business, faith, and even law-enforcement communities must stand up and say enough is enough. Let the young lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, John Crawford, and Trayvon Martin serve a higher purpose to shine the light of truth on our democracy and challenge us to meet the demand for equal justice in America.
There is a growing discontent in this country. And if the fires of frustration and discontent continue to grow without redress, I fear for the future of this country. There will not be peace in America. I do not condone violence under any circumstance. It does not lead to lasting change. I do not condone either public rioting or state-sponsored terrorism. "True peace," King would tell us, "is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."