The two biggest stories of 2020 in South Dakota and across our nation were the pandemics of coronavirus and Trumpism. Both pandemics threaten the survival of our economy and our democracy; both pandemics have been set back by courageous and rational action; yet both pandemics linger, their virulent pathogens continuing to infect millions and demanding our continued vigilant labor for the common good.
These twin pandemics are really one pandemic, two pathogens in symbiotic relationship, one metastasizing quite logically from the other, each exposing a grave and widespread failure of intellect, empathy, and community spirit among the American people. The same misguided impulses that led us to ignore the plain evidence of Donald Trump’s ignorance, selfishness, destructiveness, and unfitness for office has led America to more deaths from coronavirus than any other nation and led South Dakota to the worst coronavirus infection and death rates in nursing homes in the country.
346,000 Americans and 1,488 South Dakotans did not have to die from coronavirus in 2020. Globally, 1 out of 4,200 human beings died of coronavirus in 2020. Yet at the same time, coronavirus managed to kill one out of 945 Americans and one out of 595 South Dakotans. Your chance of dying of coronavirus was 4.4 times greater in America and 7.1 times greater in South Dakota.
Such is the “greatness” that our Trumpism made. Far too many Americans and farther too many South Dakotans chose selfish impulses over concern for others in response to both Donald Trump (and Kristi Noem) and in response to coronavirus.
Donald Trump won office four years ago not with a majority vote of Americans swayed by his superior intellect, compassion, management skills, and policymaking ability. Trump won office four years ago by duping just enough people with just enough Electoral College votes into thinking politics is just a reality-TV call-in vote and that the effectiveness governance of the most powerful nation on the planet is less important than making liberals cry and enjoying daily affirmations of one’s own weaknesses and dark impulses from an angry clown behind the White House podium. Trumpists didn’t want honesty or good government; they wanted someone to scratch their ids, to make them feel like its o.k. to be ignorant, to ramble aimlessly, to harbor bigoted and sexist impulses.
That embrace of bullying incompetence led to the federal government’s abject failure to effectively respond to the coronavirus pandemic. 47% of Americans and 62% of South Dakotans did not care and voted for four more years of the American carnage brought on by Trump’s failure to transition from celebrity noisemaker to committed public servant. They voted for Trump because Trump makes them feel good. To keep that good feeling Trumpists will reject plain fact and overturn democracy itself.
The same selfish urges that let Trumpism run rampant in our politics also let coronavirus run rampant through our nation and our state. Many Americans and South Dakotans didn’t wear masks because masks are inconvenient and masks are for sissies. They didn’t stay home from bars and restaurants and parties because they want to have fun. They didn’t avoid travel because they hold their personal ambitions and recreation to be more important than protecting others from catching a deadly disease. They ignored and denigrated scientists in favor of cranks who made outlandish, false, and dangerous claims. Faced with unpleasant and irrefutable facts, they resorted to a nihilist relativism, modeled by Donald Trump and Kristi Noem, in which the “truth” is whatever they want it to be, whatever they say over and over in at their photo ops and campaign rallies, whatever they need to hear to preserve their worldviews and their streams of campaign finance.
This relativism, cloaked in pious, patriotic posturing, has plagued our politics for longer than either Donald Trump or Kristi Noem has been in politics. But amidst coronavirus, this relativism demonstrated its full nihilist power. Coronavirus doesn’t care what fictions Trump and Noem create for their political gain. Coronavirus, like any infectious disease, thrives amidst reckless behavior. Ignore the facts, ignore science, ignore the needs of others for your own selfish wants, and Nom nom nom! says coronavirus, as four to seven times more of your neighbors die of a virulent yet controllable disease than if you had read all the science and acted accordingly.
The coronavirus pandemic is the crowning achievement of Trumpism. Because many of us think and act like Trump, a thousand South Dakotans and hundreds of thousands of Americans died in 2020 who would not have died otherwise.
Beating coronavirus and beating Trumpism go hand in hand. We must reject relativism, quackery, and conspiracy theories and accept facts, evidence, and science, even when the facts, evidence, and science lead to conclusions we don’t like. We must think beyond slogans and put our piety and patriotism into real practice by sacrificing some selfish wants for public needs. We must apply real intellect to our political discussions and elect genuine public servants, not empty suits and hairdos who play to the cameras and campaign donors.
Such are the lessons we must learn from the twin pandemics of 2020.