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President Donald J. Trump speaks with Vice President Mike Pence and members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Thursday, April 23, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

President Donald J. Trump speaks with Vice President Mike Pence and members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Thursday, April 23, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Don’t Drink the Snake Oil—Or the Disinfectant

In a moment like this, where some steadying force is coveted, we have this circus instead.

Randall Amster

"Come one, come all! Welcome to the sideshow on the big stage, where anything is possible if you're willing to believe it. Whatever ails you, we’ve got what you're looking for! Chloroquine, the untested wonder drug—and who cares if the cure is worse than the ailment (even if I once said that). Try our new lines of injectable disinfectants—or as I call them, disinjectants (see what I did there?). Or how about the newest innovation in "medicine"—yes folks, step right up and get your Bottled Light—just crack it open and pour in all of that natural energy, and watch your woes magically disappear before your eyes."

As far as I know, this hasn't actually been the "cold open" of any presidential press briefing, but things are approaching this level of unvarnished mania. Clearly the sense of unpredictability draws in viewers and captures headlines, even as the stakes are high with this sort of pseudoscientific riffing from the most powerful podium in the world. Even the brows of the background characters—who are often called forth to both clarify and affirm such executive ramblings—are beginning to seem perpetually furrowed. The art of the three-ring presser is on full display right now, and people can't help but watch.

Still, feeling compelled to look at a train wreck isn't the same as hoping to be in one. In a moment like this, where some steadying force is coveted, we have this circus instead. None of us has the capacity to address the crisis at hand by ourselves, despite an incredible resurgence of DIY activities and societal creativity under isolating conditions—and even a nod of "you got this!" from above would go a long way toward boosting morale and keeping heads level. Instead, we get this combative, self-obsessed, reckless dissemination of half-truths, no-truths, U-turns, cul-de-sacs, and other assorted hyphenated balderdash.

"The art of the three-ring presser is on full display right now, and people can't help but watch."

And herein lies the problem. Slippery assertions are hard to confront directly, especially when they change all the time, and doubly so when even fainthearted contradictions can be punished by extreme vitriol. In situations where "reasonable minds" might agree to disagree while maintaining a sense of decorum and respect, it can seem terrifying when unreasonable behaviors move to fore and become normalized. Unless you're one of those people who are wired seamlessly to process gaslighting and intimidation as normal, the shock waves from regular exposure to these behaviors can be disorienting and depressing.

All of which leaves us in a worse place to navigate a crisis like this one, feeling even more isolated in the emotional doldrums of political vacuity. More than three years into this presidency, you might think we'd become habituated to these shenanigans, but somehow they keep escalating as the stakes rise. The erosion in this era of even the already-fragmented stable bases of our society—from functional institutions to acceptable activities—leaves little oversight intact, with nothing to check the balances or balance the checks. We're experiencing an acute moment of an ongoing crisis of power and perception.

At times it feels as if this farce will end with us waking up in The Matrix and having a good laugh with the programmers of this diverting simulation. This can't be real, like really real, can it? Alas, until proven otherwise, we have to take it as such—meaning that denial isn't a viable option. Nor is exasperated ruminating about our fate, since these sorts of antagonistic diatribes don't really move the needle of opinion very much, and in fact seem to harden the extant divides. What more progressive elements often fail to grasp is that the traits most disturbing to them are seen as virtues by the other side's core base.

This doesn't mean that we have to capitulate, retreat, or conflict; it's easy to become resentful or dejected, but we don't have to "become the enemy" in the process of standing up to tyranny. Indeed, if we can get to a place of having no enemies at all, staying in a mindset of compassion and solidarity instead, perhaps the effect of toxic politicking will be mitigated by refusing to take its ill-advised bait. It's a tall order, for sure, and saccharine invocations of "better angels" only go so far, especially in a crisis. But refusing to abdicate our basic humanity can be empowering; just don't expect us to drink the snake oil—or whatever disinfectant Trump's selling—in the process.


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Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is co-director and teaching professor of environmental studies at Georgetown University. His books include "Peace Ecology" (2015), "Anarchism Today" ( 2012), and "Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness" (2008).

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