One of the funniest responses to the president’s announcement that he had tested positive for the coronavirus was assuredly not meant to be laughed at. Florida Senator Marco Rubio issued a stern warning on Twitter in his toughest tough-guy voice: “Any adversary who views news of @POTUS testing positive as an opportunity to test the United States would be making a grave mistake.”
This weightless collection of threatening sounds is a characteristic statement from Rubio, a true thought leader among the class of Republican politicians who have substituted “posting” for “statecraft.” But even for him, it is a truly pathetic example of the form. Rubio may picture himself staring down Iran or North Korea, daring them to try something, but the real audience for that sort of rhetoric is domestic. Politicians like Rubio need to convince Americans that we face constant external danger that requires eternal vigilance, regular shows of strength, and a Pentagon budget immune to audits or cuts.
Meanwhile, in actual America, in the midst of a pandemic exacerbated by a ruinous absence of basic competence at nearly every level of American government, the president was rushed to the hospital in a helicopter—with the White House seemingly waiting for the markets to close so as not to spook them—after contracting a deadly virus solely because he was too stubborn and stupid to wear a mask consistently or to avoid spending time in enclosed environments with crowds of strangers.
A hostile foreign power is less likely to “test the United States” right now than it is to enact the old Onion story about the FBI uncovering an “Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States.”
America’s primary adversary, the one that could inflict the most real damage on this country, is its own political system and the irresponsible, stupid, craven people who operate within it.
But as Rubio showed us, there is no display of American failure and self-inflicted weakness large or embarrassing enough for our hawks not to respond to with risible belligerence. The audience for this sort of talk may be minuscule—Rubio is one of a few politicians whose primary political strategy is to attempt to graft 2014 conservative politics onto 2020 as everything breaks or burns—but that doesn’t mean that messaging will always sound as toothless and feeble as Rubio’s attempt does.
There is one dark scenario I was trying not to entertain as Twitter spent the weekend speculating about the president’s condition, in the absence of any reliable information or trustworthy spokespeople. If things get worse for Trump (or for those who were infected after spending time with him), a lot of powerful people are going to want to find an external enemy to blame for our national humiliation. Because we are in many respects a very stupid and frequently psychotic country, it is worryingly possible that our ruling elite will respond to a serious threat to their well-being—a threat to their very lives—by lashing out.
The impulse is already on display. Embattled Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, best known for engaging in suspicious stock trading at the very outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, was already trying out some jingoism mere hours after the Trump news broke. “Remember: China gave this virus to our President @realDonaldTrump and First Lady @FLOTUS,” she wrote on Twitter. Then, after a line break for emphasis: “WE MUST HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE.”
It should be terrifying that, not long after learning that our decrepit president had gotten himself sick, one of our elected officials responded by trying to stoke jingoistic anger toward a supposed national enemy. Loeffler was not the only prominent Republican to treat the president’s condition like a foreign attack. Representative Mark Walker, the vice chair of the House Republican Caucus, asked—with an uncertain amount of irony—whether it was fair “to make the assessment that China has now officially interfered with our election.”
But responding to national crises by stoking jingoism and promising to get tough on our many enemies is a truly bipartisan habit. The foreign policy establishment’s hunger for confrontation with China is real—Biden foreign policy adviser Michèle Flournoy has spent the whole campaign cycle making repeated calls for the Pentagon to spend more to maintain our military supremacy over China in the name of “deterrence.” And there is every reason to believe that a national tragedy could stir up the sort of media-driven nationalist hysteria that characterized the American mood in the period after the September 11 attacks.
To the great frustration of hawks in both parties, the American people’s appetite for this sort of outward exertion of force for the sole purpose of maintaining our hegemonic power has been declining. In this environment, it is absurdly hard to maintain the beliefs that we are the greatest country in the world, that our actions are always heroic and virtuous, and that we are the only nation allowed to operate anywhere on the globe with complete impunity. But I still worry that Washington’s warmongers, whose continued influence depends on defending those shibboleths, believe they could recapture that War on Terror magic, given the right inciting incident.
The ghouls would love nothing more than a chance to stoke some jingoistic fury about how meddlesome foreign powers are to blame for our own political incompetence and societal decline. If Trump’s irresponsibility gets someone important killed—even if it’s himself—the hawks will seize the opportunity.