We got the government we asked for

The "most terrifying" phrase from a president (not the one you think)

A note before we begin a rather (predictably) depressing but, I hope, clear-eyed edition of Untold Story, the newsletter trying to figure out a better way forward for political journalism in what are now truly exceptional times: Let’s support the nurses and doctors at the front lines, the restaurant workers whose tireless behind- the-scenes work even in normal times gives us refuge from daily life — and is now providing us life-continuing sustenance.  

I don’t have any predictions or numbers or any idea when people will start taking COVID-19 seriously. But I do want to try to make sense of why our federal government’s failure is so momentous — and tolerated by so many.

Subscribe if you haven’t and send this on, please, if you’ve got access to that forward button and are so inclined…


I can imagine a relaxed and jovial Ronald Reagan workshopping a few slogans for the campaign trail, some nice lines to hit 'em over the head with and send 'em back to the dinner table talking about how Ronnie gets it. He was, of course, a trained actor, good at delivering a line. Even more, though, a politician is good at making big ideas really simple and Reagan was one of the best — maybe the best at this core trait of American hucksterism we the masses get weak-kneed for in our politicians. After all, he was the Make America Great Again guy before the current guy stole the line.

Anyway, Reagan knew this one would land and he'd deliver it with a particular gusto:

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language," and then he'd pause here with a mischievous flourish: "are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help."

And they'd all laugh and fall on the floor and have a good ol' time. There is so much to say about that one line, I think it would take a book (hey, there's an idea) to unpack it. But suffice it to say, it’s that ethos of government and the unofficial end of empathy in America that allowed Reagan and every conservative who worships him to both be responsible for running the government while working to dismantle it. The subtext is clear: why pay taxes at the end of the IRS’s overreaching sword, I mean you don’t get anything out of it, right? It just goes to poor people who didn’t work as hard as you did; and what does the government do for you anyway? 

In this case, it allowed Reagan and everyone who came after to be responsible for running the government while also throwing up their hands anytime something went wrong. The next logical step is Trump continuing to say whenever somebody pleads with him for more medical equipment or help, hey, the federal government is just “backup.” You’re on your own. 

We all know on some level that the world doesn’t look like this, and most people except that for a functioning society to work, there should be some form of federal government — you know, one that ostensibly works for us, the people — that builds roads and schools and keeps the peace and makes decision in a time of war or massive national health crisis. Sure, locals set their own priorities, but I never imagined that perhaps the largest, mightiest and wealthiest federal government in history would throw up its hands at crisis and say, ‘well guys, a government that provides essential service is not really what we do here.’

The COVID-19 virus, now a global pandemic, has exposed the emperor to be as bare and naked as he always has been. We are a wealthy nation revealed as a paper tiger. Isn’t as stark as ever that our health care system is run by profiteers, damn the consequences? Politicians, including a Democrat-run House of Representatives, know they can get away with bailing out the tiny percentage of people who fund their campaigns while throwing pennies to the rest of us. Hospitals fire nurses who try to bring their own protective gear when they won’t provide it. Then there are the grocery workers, delivery drivers, restaurant workers, cops, firefighters, EMTs nurses and other caregivers who now risk their lives every day but can’t get fair wages or sick pay in the event of the unthinkable — and increasingly, the inevitable. “I feel like we’re all just being sent to slaughter,” one nurse said.

Trump says only he can fix it —   And most Americans still expect the government to function and help us in a time of crisis, despite a Reagan ethos that permeates government.

A Huffington Post/YouGov poll taken at the height of the crisis, from March 13-15, shows that we expect the government to step up — we just don’t seem to care whether it does a good job.

Republicans and Democrats agreed that the federal government, almost more than anyone else — more than businesses, more than local governments, more than Target and Walgreens — has the most responsibility during this crisis. Specifically, 55 percent of Republicans surveyed and 79 percent of Democrats think the feds have “a lot” of responsibility. The numbers are similar for state government. 

The same poll shows slightly less than half of Republicans think the feds are doing a good job managing this crisis. But get this: just 39 percent of Republicans were “very confident” that the U.S. government’s statements about the coronavirus are reliable and accurate.

This is cognitive dissonance at its finest. So most, a healthy majority, believe the federal government has the most responsibility to combat this crisis, but they don’t believe the government is telling them the truth, a key part of any federal government response in a crisis. In fact, the guy at the top of that federal government is enjoying the best polls of his presidency.

People want the government to fail, or at least they expect it to fail. It’s what we’ve been conditioned to know and to understand. (Don’t worry, I’ll save the media’s role in all this for another time.)

In a way, this crisis captures our political moment perfectly: in order to help each other the most, we have to stay away from each other, i.e. practice social distancing in the new Orwellian phrase that permeates our nation’s telescreens. And because the government tells us so, those most likely to see anything the government does as a failure aren’t doing it

We romanticize the idea of rugged individualism, which we tie into our own “exceptionalism.” So this time, a generation removed from Reagan but propelled by the idea of government as the enemy, the government is nowhere to be found. It is barely putting up the guise of even offering the help, which long ago we decided we don’t need. The truth is, we’re all in this together, alone. It’s the system we asked for.