I have been thinking about this for a few months, but now I find I have only a few hours left to write it. This is a note to future historians, who might be reading this years, decades, even centuries from now. Future historians might look back at the Trump administration, and especially 2020, the year that saw the Covid-19 pandemic, and wonder the context in which all of this happened. My basic mention to future historians: yes, we did know better, and almost everything that happened was an unforced error, when people en masse decided to ignore what was, at the time common sense and common knowledge.
Let me back up a little: when we discuss history, we often try to understand the context of attitudes, knowledges and experiences that might lead people to act a certain way. There are two extreme ways to treat past actions, and it is easy to construct and destroy a strawman. In the first, people can only be judged by the prevailing morality and information of the time. At the other extreme, everyone's behavior can only be seen rightfully through the light of whatever is deemed ethical and moral at the Omega Point of history, whenever that is. I don't believe in either of those viewpoints, just in the reasonable idea that we have to look a little about the context of which people acted to judge them, factually and morally. Did most 19th century abolitionists have views about racial groups that would make them racist today? Probably. Did they also take gigantic risks to move society forward and free people? Yes. All of this is obvious: people in the past were different.
So the question is: was the Trump administration a result of widespread ignorance, of a populace to deprived of basic knowledge, or under so much stress and fear that they were just caught up in the flow of history? And the answer is just as simple: no. Donald Trump was, by the standards of the time, by the standards of our time, obviously an immoral, dysfunctional and unwise person. When he was elected president, he had already been a joke for thirty years. Since the late 1980s, his persona had been a hyperbolic caricature of an egotistical, greedy and untrustyworthy man. The things he did in office were also, by the standards of the time, obviously unethical. The most open and obvious of these was dismissing the director of the FBI, James Comey, which happened less than four months into the start of his presidency. By the standards of the US political culture, that was a third rail, and was a sign of using the instruments of government to better his personal fortunes, something that was obviously wrong. The only ambiguity through all of this was whether he was openly malicious and criminal, or just too stupid to know what he was doing. For anyone reading this from the future: yes, what he did was wrong, and everyone involved knew it was wrong. There was nothing situational about it. It was a clear, unprecedented, and unforced break from the basic ethical standards of the time.
And this brings us to 2020, and Covid-19. Depending on how far in the future you are reading this, this pandemic might have been grouped in with any number of other pandemics of less-medically enlightened times. Maybe it will be a footnote to the Black Death. Maybe it and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic will be seen as the same thing. Were we lacking basic medical knowledge? Was this no difference from leeching or believing in malevolent vapors? And the answer is, I don't know what miracle technology you have at the time you are reading this, but in general, no. The last time we had a viral plague, at the end of World War I, we didn't even know how DNA worked. We didn't have antibiotics, we didn't know what a genome was, and we certainly didn't have computers that could model the spread of viruses. But in 2020? We are driving robots around on Mars. And acceptance of medical technology is a widespread part of life. People are used to getting medicines for every possible ailment, spending billions a year on a single drug. And even without this lionization of heavy-duty high tech medicine, the basic way that Covid-19 spread was not mysterious, it was something we learned in kindergarten. And yet the plague went out of control, Trump suggested injecting a mixture of lysol and ultraviolet, and people forgot everything they knew and kept doing it. We knew better. Maybe not for the first month or two, but in general, everyone knew how to limit the spread of Covid-19, but chose not to do so for psychological reasons. Not even economic reasons: just the need to be dumb to prove a point about personal autonomy or something.
Anyway, long story short, future people, the stupidity of 2020, and everything that came after it (which you know about, but I don't), was not the result of people trying their best but not knowing the facts. Everything that happened was done by people who knew better, who chose to reject the most obvious common sense approaches about politics, society, and science, for no particular reason.