Coronavirus reveals American exceptionalism at its worst

Coronavirus reveals American exceptionalism at its worst
© iStock, The Hill illustration

America is unique. Many luminous minds even consider the United States exceptional. Indeed, when compared to our Western, industrialized peers, this country stands out in a number of striking ways.

While exceptionalism is frequently viewed through a nationalistic lens, no event in modern history has exposed the more gut-wrenching aspects of American exceptionalism like the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the globe.

For starters, America’s closest European and Asian allies shake their heads in stunned amazement as death threats mount against our leading medical experts. In much the same vein, the notion of thousands of citizens placing their families’ and neighbors’ lives at risk by attending church services amid a highly infectious pandemic is utterly unheard of in other industrialized countries.

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Perhaps most egregiously, no other developed nation has witnessed the sobering imagery of miles upon miles of cars (and tens of thousands of families) lining up at overwhelmed food banks.

Simply put, these realities are unconscionable in any advanced country, let alone one with the United States’ rich history, staggering wealth (at least for some) and enormous capacity for moral and ethical leadership.

True American patriots would stop at nothing to address such societal shortcomings and align us more closely with the rest of the freedom-loving, developed world.

Case in point: Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciSunday shows - Spotlight shifts to reopening schools US testing official: 'Dr. Fauci is not 100 percent right' Trump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet MORE is the widely respected head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. His no-nonsense approach has made him the most trusted figure in America amid catastrophic turmoil. Indeed, his steady leadership has reassured millions of anxious Americans.

But not all of them. Death threats against Fauci – apparently based on the absurd notion that he is a “Deep State” operative seeking to undermine the Trump presidency – led federal agents to assign him a protective security detail.

Death threats against medical experts tirelessly working to save American lives do not occur in a vacuum. While they may be unheard of among our closest allies, the threats against Fauci are a direct reflection of the Republican Party’s decades-long war on science. From climate change to the ozone layer and beyond, the GOP has made undermining scientific expertise one of its ideological pillars.

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The reasons for this inexcusable, deadly rejection of science are beyond obvious: Billions of dollars in profits. Oh, and don’t forget political contributions. Worse, this unconscionable ideological position is amplified by a conspiracy-mongering right-wing propaganda machine pumping a steady diet of misinformation directly into the minds of millions of Americans.

The GOP’s profit-driven war on science aside, COVID-19 underscores the stark difference in American religiosity compared to our industrialized peers. More importantly, it exposes some staggering hypocrisy.

American ministers claiming the pro-life mantle are putting thousands of their congregants, their families and their neighbors’ lives in danger by holding church services in violation of public health orders. If that was not enough, America’s “exceptional” ministers are in breach of unambiguous biblical guidance on submission to governing authorities.

The Vatican’s pews, by comparison, were empty on Easter.

Yet again, this rejection of medical expertise does not occur on its own. No shortage of red state governors – many similarly labeling themselves pro-liferesisted enacting public health measures that save lives with remarkable effectiveness. Indeed, one high-profile “pro-life” Republican reached the pinnacle of hypocrisy by suggesting that “lots of” elderly Americans would be willing to “take a chance” on their “survival” by going back to work. The mind boggles at such “exceptional” moral and ethical dissonance.

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, this pandemic exposed the true state of poverty in the United States.

While we are constantly reminded of the mind-boggling statistics (“The top 0.1% own more wealth than the bottom 90%”), these abstract formulations mean nothing to most Americans absent sufficient context. Enter the coronavirus pandemic.

Seeing miles upon miles of cars – each representing an American family – lined up to claim food at overwhelmed distribution centers across the country is a truly sobering experience. That we inhabit the wealthiest, most successful nation in human history makes this reality utterly incomprehensible.

Moreover, this stark visual confirmation of alarming inequality exposes the hollowness of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE’s (pre-coronavirus) boasts of a booming economy.

But there is reason for hope. We know exactly why so many Americans find themselves in such dire straits. Understanding exactly how the United States got into this colossal mess can help get us out.

Four decades ago, Ronald Reagan assumed the American presidency. He proceeded to usher in an era where corporate bottom lines took precedence over all else, including paying American workers a decent, living wage. Outsourcing (NAFTA was Reagan’s “vision”), automation and any other job-killing mechanisms enacted in recent decades have their roots in Saint Reagan’s ideology of maximizing profit for well-heeled corporate management and shareholders at the expense of everyday working Americans. Wage and income data unambiguously reflect this truth.

Indeed, in the relatively short span of 40 years, the United States experienced an extreme societal shift. The social and educational mobility of the American middle class went from its vaunted, pre-Reagan position as the envy of the working world – when the United States was indeed exceptional – to a country with staggering wealth inequality and an (unheard-of) rising mortality rate.

Perhaps worse, Reagan catalyzed a fiercely anti-union undercurrent in the United States, which is directly linked to stunning declines in wage growth, educational mobility, health, life expectancy and overall living standards.

It is high time to reclaim America’s pre-Reagan exceptionalism.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.