I like to keep a couple of books within easy reach of my desk to remind myself what sort of creature I am dealing with. As I often write about academics and academic administrators, one of these is Ralph Buchsbaum’s Animals Without Backbones: An Introduction to the Invertebrates, whose title perfectly captures the mushy, moist, moral manner of those matchless, modern martinets.
Since I also often write about what Lionel Trilling called the ‘bloody crossroads’, where politics and culture meet, the other book within easy reach is Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
The chief instigator of madness these days is Donald Trump. He is like that old-fashioned confection called Fizzies. Drop him, or his works, anywhere into the ambient fluid of the body politic and, bang! Instant gaseous effervescence.
Trump is elected president, the excited Chihuahuas of the press go mad, confidently predicting the apocalypse. Trump delivers his first inaugural address, thousands of furious females congregate on the Washington Mall. Accoutered in ‘pussyhats’ — representing female genitalia — they march and skirl and weep, denouncing the president’s crudity.
The president fires James Comey, the treacherous viper who ran the FBI. What should have been a routine transaction sparks a frenzied two-year witch hunt overseen by a geriatric fantasist.
And so on. The president of the United States has a telephone call with the president of Ukraine about, inter alia, Ukraine’s role in mucking about in the 2016 presidential election. Pow! Max Boot wets his pants while Adam Schiff turns into a jack-in-the-box. Wind him up and out pops his head shouting ‘Impeach him! Impeach him. Impeach him!’ Meanwhile, Jerry Nadler waddles about the floor of the House trying to correct his lisp.
The madness occasioned by Donald Trump is not confined to himself. Go back and watch, if you can bear it, the truly disgusting effort to destroy Brett Kavanaugh.
Michael Avenatti — Michael Avenatti! — shows up with a long train of lonely losers willing to perjure themselves for a moment in the spotlight. (And speaking of perjury, has anyone, anyone been charged who did so during that circus? There they were, willing to destroy a man by lying about him under oath, with what consequence?)
The most recent access to the madness of crowds was sparked by the coronavirus — China’s latest gift to the world. The hysteria over this flu-like ailment has been building for weeks. It finally took hold of the US markets on Monday, precipitating a panicked sell-off and creating a slew of bargains for people in the market to buy.
No one knows exactly how far or how fast the coronavirus will spread. Nor does anyone yet know what its toll will be. China did not help matters by its initial secrecy and posture of denial. But those Chicken-Little-like hobbits shouting ‘the sky is falling, the sky is falling’ should pause to catch their breath. There is a lot we do not know about this virus and a vaccine is likely a good year way. But those predicting — at times, their eagerness makes it seem they are hoping for — something as deadly (and newsworthy: ratings, my dear, ratings!) as the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 (when some 50 million were killed) are likely to be disappointed.
No sooner had news of the virus emerged than the left tried to weaponize it against Donald Trump. But his response to this apparent medical emergency has been magnificent. At first, the media condemned him for taking swift action to stop flights from places, like China, where the infection was rife and growing. ‘Can you believe it? Trump restricted flights from China. What a racist!’
Then, as more and more cases were reported and the markets turned sour, they berated him for not doing enough. ‘Why did you only ask Congress for $2.5 billion? Chuck Schumer said you should have $8.5 billion!’
Anyone wanting to see what patient leadership in action looks like should watch the president’s press conference Wednesday on coronavirus. He did what a leader should do. He reassured people. He presented the facts, so far as we know them. He outlined the many actions his administration was taking to mitigate danger and the various contingency plans should the disease worsen or spread more than we currently expect.
The president called on medical experts to explain various aspects of the situation. He was calm but serious, cautious but optimistic. The danger to the US at present, he pointed out several times, is very low. Currently, he said, there are 15 confirmed cases here. Fifteen. Most patients are recovering; one is in a serious condition. He also highlighted that every year, the flu claims anywhere from 25,000 to 60-odd thousand lives.
I said that Trump exhibited ‘patient leadership.’ The element of patience was paramount. Not for the first time, I was reminded that the White House press corps resembles a flock of bad-tempered schoolchildren, lazy and slightly dim, but from fancy families so firm in their sense of entitlement and outrage.
All the adults in the room were on or next to the podium. The press gaggle, desperate to find something to blame the president for, kept repeating the same questions, fighting to frame ‘gotcha’ remarks, and appearing exactly like they are: snotty, ill-prepared hacks whose goal is not to report and inform, but play smarmy partisan games. The president, just back from a trip to India, looked tired but commanding. The press looked small, sweaty, petulant.
The public saw a president who, in his concern for the welfare of the American people, communicated sober competence and steady confidence. They also saw a press swept away by extraordinary delusions and partisan madness. I think it was the great Balliol don, Benjamin Jowett, who once observed that ‘Precautions are always blamed. When they are successful, they are said to have been unnecessary.’
In the grand scheme of things, it was a small event, another press conference about yet another crisis. But considered as a public performance, as an exhibition of leadership, it counts as one of Donald Trump’s greatest triumphs to date.