The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Trump Era: Its Effects and Lessons
by Glenn Aparicio Parry
One of the surprise blessings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that Mother Earth is catching a breath from the incessant economic activity that has severely impacted our ecosystems. We human beings— at least those that are healthy— have an opportunity to stop and reconsider what we have been doing to the Earth. Pausing from frenetic activity— and instead staying in place— is a blessing in disguise for many. It gives us all time to think.
In my case, I soon began considering the political ramifications of COVID-19, undoubtedly because I was just completing a book on American politics as the pandemic spread through the nation. With large sectors of the country shut down and the economy in freefall, Trump’s chance of reelection seemed unlikely. His cause was not helped by his administration’s decision to disband the pandemic response team the Obama administration had put in place, relegating any planning for pandemics to lower levels of the bureaucracy. This decision—compounded by another inexplicable one to refuse test kits from the World Health Organization—proved to be fatal errors, as the United States quickly became the worldwide leader in COVID-19 deaths. It is not simply that Trump is incompetent or lacking in empathy, while that may be true. There is something more going on.
While Trump is not Hitler, we can take a lesson from WWII. It was then that Allen Dulles, America’s chief intelligence operative, hired Carl Jung to find out what was occurring in Germany at the time—and specifically why the German people seemed to have fallen under Hitler’s hypnotic spell. (Jung was known as Agent 488 in the report that later became public). In his astonishing report, Jung asserted that Hitler was embodying the Norse god Wotan, “the ancient God of Storm and Frenzy,” a “personification of psychic force” that much like an extinct volcano being aroused to new activity, was making up for lost time.
At the end of his report, Jung ominously predicted that other personifications of psychic forces may be similarly sleeping in the modern consciousness, soon to be awakened. I submit that something like this has occurred with Donald Trump, except instead of the God of Storm and Frenzy, Trump has become the personification of the archetypal Trickster Figure. Trump delights in the art of deception, and this has become the guiding narrative of his existence.
This does not mean that President Trump is a conscious trickster. Tricksters, like the Lakota heyoka, act in a contrarian manner opposite from normal for the purpose of awakening others, shocking them out of their stuck ways of seeing the world. Trump appears to have little awareness of his role. He is an unwitting trickster reminiscent of the black dog in this White Mountain Apache story:
An old woman has been long at work weaving a beautiful rug. As she nears its completion, she pauses to stir a soup. When she stirs the soup, however, her black dog, asleep in the corner, awakens, pulls on a loose thread, and causes the rug to unravel. Where there was beauty and harmony, there is now confusion and chaos. But the old woman, returning from stirring the soup, is unfazed. She stares into the disorder, picks up a loose thread, and reimagines a new way to restore beauty and harmony.
The black dog, while he creates chaos by unraveling the order, gives us an opportunity to create something more beautiful in its place. In the best-case scenario, Trump is an apocalyptic figure in the original sense of the word: an unveiling or revelation. He is unleashing the shadow of the country, and while this is sometimes ugly to behold, it allows us to see America as it really is—which gives us the opportunity to make substantive change. This does not mean that change will come easy. Sometimes things need to get worse before they can get better.
In mythology, the closest parallels for Trump as trickster are the Norse god Loki or the Greek god Pan. Both Loki and Pan were mischievous disruptors who enjoyed unravelling societal norms. Loki, who brings the world to the brink of destruction before ultimately pulling back, is a close fit. So is Pan, with the upper body of a man and the legs, hindquarters, and horns of a goat. Pan is the horny god of instant gratification and lusty sexual dalliances. Interestingly, Pan is also the root of panic, pandemonium, and pandemic.
A trickster, like a skilled magician, makes himself the principal distraction. This is why the president keeps changing stories about the pandemic. After initially downplaying the crisis, claiming it might go away, he later claimed he knew it was a pandemic early on. By constantly shifting narratives he ensures that his own response to the crisis is always the main story.
Up to this point, changing stories worked for Trump before because he himself had been the principal agent of chaos. Now, the tables are turned. The same president who wielded fear toward his own ends is in danger of being upended by something more fearsome: a tiny virus.
The coronavirus also brought into stark relief many of the themes of the Trump presidency. Trump had long fed off the fears of the White working class. Therefore it was not surprising when Trump turned the virus into an immigrant, labelling it the “Chinese virus.” The virus became the enemy in a similar way that all fascist governments require an enemy real or imagined. A smattering of protests have arisen recently under the label #Chinesevirus. Trump has supported these rallies despite the obvious health risks to those participating in them. He supports the protestors because he knows it is his only chance to win reelection. If enough of the country believes this twisted narrative of foreign invasion, he could win re-election after all.
The flaw in this logic is that viruses do not discriminate. They do not care about nationality, race, or ethnicity. A virus has a simple goal: to reproduce in a host body. If the host immune system is strong, the virus is overcome. If the immune system is weak, the virus can kill by transforming the host body for its own purposes.
In the end, like Trump himself, COVID 19 is a change agent. It is impacting not only human health, but the political, economic, and social environments we engage in. When the environment changes, an organism has to adapt. If we survive the virus, we come out stronger. In a similar manner, the country must more than survive the Trump administration; we need to learn from this and change. We must rethink everything, from the economics of the neoliberal world order to our looming ecological challenges.
Modern virulent viruses such as swine flu, Ebola, and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) of which COVID 19 is part of, come about due to the dominant way human beings interact with nature. The human species has diminished animal habitats all over the world. It is because of this that humans are increasingly becoming infected with animal pathogens. The only solution for this is to rethink how we interact with the more-than-human world. A politics that includes nature in our planning, not one that simply dominates her, is imperative.
Positive Ramifications from COVID-19
With people dying, many observers are understandably reluctant to point out the positive potential of the epidemic. But every crisis has both danger and opportunity. As Erwin Lazlo has pointed out, this crisis has brought us to a bifurcation point. This is our chance to choose something other than returning to normal. We should not squander this opportunity.
It should now be apparent to all that the cessation of human economic activity has had a positive effect on the ecology. NASA images show a clear drop in air pollution in major cities. The skies are quieter, devoid of continual air travel. Carbon emissions are down far beyond any goals from the Paris climate accords. There have been reports of more birds, fish, and mammals returning to habitats they had abandoned. Some of these reports are inaccurate; dolphins may have always been in the Venice canals, for example, but we can see them now because the waters have cleared. Even the Ganges River is looking better. Some claim it is now fit for drinking, though I would not recommend it. What is indisputable, however, is that the suspension of human activities has had a positive effect on the ecology.
All of this brings to mind something that Oren Lyons, Haudenosaunee elder and Faithkkeeper of the Turtle Clan, said to me a few months ago. He was relating a story from a time he was in Davos, Switzerland, engaged in a conversation with the world’s most powerful business leaders. He told them that they were like horse jockeys in a race. “You are whipping your horses faster and faster to get to the finish line more quickly—only the finish line is a brick wall or an abyss,” he warned them. The business leaders vehemently protested. “You don’t understand, “ they said in unison. “We would lose our jobs if we did not maximize profit.” The Haudenosaunee elder then asked if they had any children or grandchildren. Upon confirming that one gentleman had a grandson the same age as his, Lyons asked him, “When are you going to start acting like a grandfather instead of a businessman?” Lyons’ point is that we all have a responsibility to make decisions based on the welfare of future generations. That is why many Native American tribes typically plan for the next seven generations.
Moreover, the story Oren Lyons told is accurate. We do not even know the amount of species on the planet, but we do know that the rate of extinction has been increasing at a rate of somewhere between 1000 to 10,000 times faster than normal (if we consider normal to be what was the case before the industrial revolution). The new normal is mass extinction. This was the normal before President Trump was elected. His policies may have exacerbated the problem, but they did not cause it. Is continued environmental destruction the normal what we want to go back to? No. We must instead take this opportunity to change.
For openers, I would suggest a voluntary imposition of rolling moratoriums on human economic activity after the health crisis passes. If all 192 of the nations that signed the Kyoto protocol on climate change were to impose an annual two-week moratorium on economic activity in their nation, this would have the net effect of giving the Earth a continued breather. My proposal is only the tiniest of interventions, but it is a step toward changing our values and prioritizing the health of nature over economic growth. As the Cree Indian proverb says:
Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish has been caught, and the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money.
This is not only about climate change. It is about imminent ecological collapse on a global scale. Climate change is not the cause of this. Climate change is the result. Climate change is the result of centuries of careless manipulation of our environment, something that could only have occurred because we have severed our emotional connection to the land. We have stopped loving and caring for places in the way we used to do. Instead of caring for the land, we have reduced her into an economic resource to be pillaged.
While many people are suffering economically these days, we cannot go back to the way things were and expect any other result than our own demise. We all want to be healthy. But we can never be fully healthy on a diseased and distressed planet. Every living being on this earth is connected in a sacred hoop of interdependence. This is the most important takeaway from both the pandemic and from climate change.
The ancients understood that human beings are the microcosm of the macrocosm. We are made of light, air, water, and earth, just like the planet. We heatedly debate whether humans are causing climate change, but this is a distraction from a larger truth: we are an integral part of the climate. Humans, like all mammals, breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. The trees take in carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight for the process of photosynthesis, releasing oxygen in the air and storing glucose for food. The seemingly opposite, but deeply reciprocal processes of respiration and photosynthesis sustain all life on Earth. The climate is part of us; we cannot overcome it with force. Even viruses need not be forcefully overcome. Soap and water will do. In the end, the coronavirus and climate change are not our enemies, but our teachers. They are teaching us what we most need to learn: the interconnection of all things.
Glenn Aparicio Parry, PhD, is the author of the forthcoming book Original Politics: Making America Sacred Again(SelectBooks, June 16th, 2020), of which this essay is partially excerpted from. Parry is also the Nautilus award-winning author of Original Thinking: A Radical ReVisioning of Time, Humanity and Nature (North Atlantic Books, 2015). www.originalpolitics.us