In the last week: Over 100,000 Americans were confirmed to have died of COVID-19, a disease that has disproportionately killed poor and black people in the United States; George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, died after a white police officer — with the apparent participation of three other officers — crushed his neck with a knee for nearly nine minutes; protests built across the country for days, leading to repeated clashes with police and fires across America’s biggest cities.
In the last week: President Donald Trump has continued to tweet a conspiracy theory suggesting a cable news host is a secret murderer; continued to promote a coronavirus “cure” that his own medical advisers say is ineffective; fought endlessly with Twitter over misinformation on his own account; and tweeted that “looters” should be shot in the hours after the first large protests began in Minneapolis.
In the immediate aftermath of waves of intense protests and unrest, Trump temporarily disappeared into a bunker before tweeting complaints at DC’s mayor. Bill de Blasio, mayor of the country’s biggest city, was so absent as members of the police force he theoretically controls were repeatedly seen assaulting demonstrators that former allies and leaders in his own party threw up a bat signal. Government officials in Minnesota and elsewhere blamed shadowy “outsiders” for inciting violence in their cities, and many defended police misbehavior or delayed consequences for it.
Americans are living in a vacuum of political leadership. After years of voting for and elevating people who pledge to shatter the establishment, Americans are in cascading crises that elected officials in this country do not have the ability or imperative to solve.
In a national crisis with an absence at the top, the country’s political leadership is as weak as its least capable local leaders. The response to the Minneapolis police, the NYPD, the fire-burners in Washington doesn’t just stay in those cities. It seeps out — frustration with the country’s systems is nationalized.
There are capable local leaders. Atlanta’s leadership, both Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and police Chief Erika Shields, have distinguished themselves in how they’ve spoken to and about demonstrators in the last several days, including with Bottoms’ pleas for people to stop damaging buildings and property and to stay at home. Bottoms fired two police officers over the weekend for using excessive force Saturday night, while other mayors initiated lengthy reviews. Houston police Chief Art Acevedo, shouting with a cracking voice, has effectively rallied against both political racism and “these little white guys with their skateboards” who just want to light fires.
But this year’s crises have repeatedly shown the limits of isolated or localized political will. Acevedo’s cry for justice and civility has been watched almost 6 million times on Twitter. But the video of an NYPD officer shoving a small woman in Brooklyn so hard that she smashed her head onto a curb has been watched almost 5 million times; the video of an NYPD van ramming into a crowd of protesters, flinging them aside, has been viewed almost 31 million times. A looter can livestream themself breaking into luxury stores on Instagram. For the better part of an hour on Saturday night, CNN aired live footage of their own Atlanta headquarters, guarded by a phalanx of riot police, as people outside went about smashing the building’s glass.
To say the obvious thing: Very little happens any more in isolation. Viral video of police brutality in Minneapolis spreads and enrages in New York and LA and Atlanta, the coronavirus moves without borders. This isn’t something that even the best mayor or governor can close up on their own. A weak or absent response in New York (where, among other things, de Blasio has excused the police officers who drove into the crowd of protesters Saturday and both de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo delayed imposing coronavirus stay-at-home orders for key days in early March) can ignite fury and COVID-19 outbreaks in Wisconsin.
The decades of racial and economic inequality that have led to this year are national problems: The structures that have left black and Latino Americans more likely to have the underlying health conditions that make them more likely to die from the coronavirus; a century of nationwide police harassment of black communities; decades of excluding nonwhite Americans from access to the country’s wealth and property, both as a matter of policy and as personal or corporate judgment. As the economy has cratered under COVID, almost 40% of American households living on less than $40,000 annually have experienced job loss, while the stock market is on a path to recovery.
But as the initial federal coronavirus relief begins to dry up, there’s nothing really happening nationally, unless your idea of justice is long-running committee investigations. There’s no reason to be surprised by the national political leadership vacuum three years into the Trump presidency. Trump was not elected to “preach civility,” “restore calm,” “rise to the moment,” or whatever your preferred cliché might be. He was elected to change what political leadership looks like, to tell the country's governors on a Monday call that they'll look like "jerks" if they do not "dominate" the demonstrators.
But we’re now seeing in full the incoherent matching of a president who tweets “LAW AND ORDER” with the burning of American cities, a president who claims to take hydroxychloroquine to great effect while Americans struggle to understand exactly where they are in the cycle of a pandemic. The vacuum has gotten to this: Americans aren’t even sure if it’s safe to go outside.