Fewer and fewer people are these days. The average college freshman this year was born a decade after it collapsed, and there are people running multinational corporations and coaching professional sports teams who didn’t draw breath until after Boris Yeltsin became President of a non-Communist Russia. It was a major event. The Cold War was supposedly over and Americans assumed we’d won it, even if we no longer think either of those things is true anymore.
But I grew up with the Cold War in full swing, with grainy grey photographs of grainy grey old men in heavy coats and fedoras standing grimly on platforms in Red Square, watching military hardware parade by. It was kind of the background noise of politics when I was a kid and even as far along as my college days in the mid-1980s. I don’t know if they even had color in the Soviet Union. They must have – they kept talking about “Red” this and “Red” that, after all – but you couldn’t tell it from the news programs.
One of the biggest differences between Them and Us at the time was the relative freedom of information. Oh, the US had its classified things and not all of them had anything to do with national security, but as a culture we definitely err on the side of oversharing when it comes to, say, health information. Honestly, I could have lived a full and happy life without ever knowing some of the things that I learned about presidential bodily functions during my lifetime. But hey. We’re Americans. We’ll tell you all sorts of things, even while you’re trying to eat. We’re good that way.
The Soviets, on the other hand, said nothing at all about anything. There was a whole category of persons in American intelligence called “Kremlin Watchers” whose only task was to analyze tiny little variations in protocols for clues as to what was going on with them. Reading the tea leaves, essentially. It’s not like there was any actual information being offered. Even as Leonid Brezhnev was being lowered into the ground in the early 1980s there were columns in Pravda insisting he had a cold and would be back in on the platform with his heavy coat and fedora in time for the next parade. They were still saying that about Brezhnev when his successor Yuri Andropov was being buried, as if Brezhnev would magically spring back to life once Andropov was finished using the state fedora.
Today we woke up to the news story that
On the one hand, you don’t wish that sort of thing on anyone, even an asshole like him. The last thing this country needs is to turn that corrupt racist authoritarian into a martyr.
On the other hand, well, couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. He has refused to take this seriously. He actively destroyed any chance the United States had of responding to this pandemic in any responsible way. He has politicized the CDC and undermined the states in their attempts to deal with this as adults, and he has consistently refused to wear masks or take any action to prevent its spread, and now his supporters are set in their opposition to doing anything sensible for their own health or the health of anyone else. He prioritized his re-election campaign over American lives. There are over 200,000 Americans dead from this disease – 20% of the world’s fatalities, which is impressive for a nation with 4% of the world’s population and the world’s most expensive health care system – and a significant percentage of those dead Americans would still be alive if someone, anyone, else had been president. His catastrophic failure as a leader will be his legacy.
So it’s a quandary.
The key thing, is, however, that nobody really knows how seriously to take these reports of his illness.
He’s such a compulsive liar that if he told you the sun was shining you’d be well advised to pack your umbrella. Half the internet spent the day arguing over whether to believe his diagnosis or not.
He’s also such a narcissistic, power-mad Fascist that the other half of the internet spent the day arguing over how he planned to weaponize this situation to maintain his grip on power regardless of elections.
But nobody knows.
We’re reduced to making guesses based on clues. He’s not in the hospital. Now he is in the hospital. He’s got a mild case. He’s asymptomatic. He’s got a moderate case. He walked into the hospital under his own power. He hasn’t tweeted in 20 hours.
We’re all “White House Watchers” now, reduced to reading the tea leaves. All he needs is a heavy coat and a fedora and he’ll have the whole totalitarian dictator thing pretty much down.
This isn’t the way the United States is supposed to operate. Right now I should be turning off the television to get away from the avalanche of minutia about his physical condition – something I honestly don’t want to know much about beyond top-level information – but no. Not under this regime.
The US has become a grey grainy place under Trump.