The state of the union is deplorable, and all signs suggest things are going to get worse, perhaps much much worse, before they get better.
We are in the midst of the worst health crisis the United States has faced in a century. More than 105,000 Americans have been reported dead of Coronavirus and more than 1.8 million infected with the disease, though we know the real numbers are substantially worse.
We are in the worst economic crisis we have faced since the Great Depression. But the unemployment crisis, with over 40 million filing unemployment claims in the past two months, a quarter of the workforce, is the worst we have seen in our history.
We are in the midst of upheavals in American cities on a scale that we have not seen in over 50 years. From the front gate of the White House to the streets of nearly every major American city, the confrontations between police and protestors have grown uglier with each passing day.
We have seen America’s standing on the international stage plummet to levels unimaginable since before the First World War. The president of the United States — seen as a menace and a laughingstock by the leaders of the Western Alliance he has done so much to try to weaken — was rebuffed in his attempt to host a meeting of the G7 group of leading economies as Germany’s chancellor said she would not attend and the White House very quickly concluded that the rest of the group was unlikely to participate without her so they announced the meeting had been “postponed.” America is no longer a beacon to the world but is now seen as a pariah state, actively trying to undermine the international order it spent most of the past 75 years leading the efforts to build.
As mind-bogglingly horrific as our current situation is, we must brace ourselves for these current crises to deepen and for more shocks to come. There are at least three major factors that make this grim prediction a near certainty.
First, the crises themselves are far from being resolved. Indeed, a case could be made that they are likely to get worse before they get better. Certainly the toll taken by the COVID pandemic will grow. They will grow as the pandemic expands, as it is still doing in many states. They will grow as more accurate tallies are conducted of the dead and infected. They will grow because epidemiologists see the possibility of a second spike. It is worth remembering that the second round of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 was far worse than the first, the disease having mutated in the interim.
The pandemic is now getting worse in Latin America and the global South. It is becoming winter there. Our experience with the infection spreading to us from both Asia and Europe should remind us that no outbreak is really remote from us or unrelated to our possible future. Travel bans and closed borders provide only partial protection. What is more, the kind of international cooperation that is essential to managing such a challenge is now impossible thanks to the shockingly reckless decision by the United States to withdraw from the one institution capable of managing the crisis.
A deepening or protracted pandemic worldwide, a second spike in the U.S. or a dangerous second wave that may strain hospitals as it comes at the same time as traditional flu season, have not been fully figured into the grim economic forecasts that show many of the world’s most important economies in recession, the U.S. contracting by as much as 6 percent this year, 150 million people thrown out of work worldwide, spreading famine and food insecurity that will impact over a billion people worldwide and high unemployment in America perhaps remaining in double digits through the end of 2021. Most of those projections were based on the assumption of “V-shaped” recoveries (a quick rebound) or “U-shaped” recoveries (not as quick but rebounding nonetheless.) If a second spike hits, if the pandemic in the South is worse than projected, if there is a major second wave, if progress toward a vaccine hits a snag, if anything upsets the markets expectations regarding a pronounced rebound starting soon, then the currently disastrous economic news will only get worse.
As for violence in America’s cities, see the preceding paragraphs. If economic conditions remain the same or worsen, if as projected many jobs lost do not come back, if states can no longer provide essential services as their tax bases shrink and demands grow, the result can only be more anger and the potential for more unrest. If, as may be the case, bad actors seek to foment that unrest, the likelihood of a long hot summer will only grow. If the president or his Justice Department tries to use the unrest as they have the other crises to grab authority, circumvent the law or target their enemies, that too can fuel a backlash.
Worldwide and at home, Trump has already proven he is willing to tear down American institutions as well as international ones to advance his perceived self-interest or that of his sponsors. His allies on Capitol Hill have already worked to make foreign interference in the upcoming election more likely by defunding and blocking efforts to protect against a wave of attacks on our democracy the intelligence community believes have already begun. He has already indicated he will trade U.S. favors overseas for efforts to stop his political opponents at home or to provide narratives that serve his political goals.
What can we expect of such a president as the election draws near? Only the worst. He has already repeatedly demonstrated he values nothing more than his own skin or his own bank account. He knows losing the election will lead to a loss of the protections from prosecution that he has as president. For him, remaining in office is an existential issue. So too it is for many of his supporters. He is already laying the groundwork for massive voter suppression and, should he need them, for claims of election fraud or even grounds to postpone the elections. Prudence demands we expect worse.
Further, overseas there are many countries that see Trump’s weakness or his support for the agenda of autocrats and kleptocrats alike as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If they feel Trump is leaving, they are likely to seize use the next few months while he is still in office to advance their often destabilizing agendas. China’s move against Hong Kong, which would have been much less likely were there a strong U.S. president at the helm of effective international alliances, is one example. Netanyahu’s brazen plan to annex Palestinian Territories—that would be actively opposed by any incoming Democratic administraiton—is another. Russia’s moves to increase its role in Libya are another. We should expect more to come—and with it, more risk of escalation and more damage, much of it lasting, to America and our standing.
Needless to say, as bleak as this outlook may be, there is one scenario that is not unlikely that could make it grotesquely worse. After all the above, Trump could win re-election and see his return to office as a mandate to further advance his attacks on the rule of law in the U.S., to expand his racist and nationalist policies, to gut environmental protections, to weaken health coverage and the social safety net for the poor, to defund states that are home to his political opposition, to attack our allies, to gut our alliances and treaties, to empower our enemies and to further eviscerate America’s standing in the world and thereby our national security.
Recovery from this grim moment in our history will be a huge job of work. The “normal” many people would like to return to no longer exists. Innovation, creativity and boldness of vision will be as important as political will, whether the objective is creating millions of new jobs, ensuring we are no longer as vulnerable to public health disasters or rebuilding the international order.
That all begins but cannot end with voting Trump out of office. But it also requires that we understand with clarity the profound and deepening peril we face and that we together take the actions necessary to stop those who are putting our lives, our way of life, our country and our world in such jeopardy.