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Trumps war on science and Johnsons civil service purge may be on hold but their politics of polarisation lives on, says Guardian columnist John Harris

In most crises we tend to see the story we want to see. And in this one, those of us who cling on to collectivist, egalitarian ideas can discern things that speak to our sense of how the world ought to be organised. To find crumbs of political comfort in a dire public health emergency might seem inappropriate. But unforeseen events always have consequences beyond their immediate impact: just because they fit some of our existing beliefs that does not make them any less real.

Even if the new imperative of social distancing sounds like the ultimate example of individualism and frantic panic-buying does not exactly look like an expression of altruism, our shared humanity has also been brought to the surface, or soon will be. As the rapid appearance online of community help initiatives proves, we are already getting used to doing some of what the common good requires.

Quick guide

What to do if you have coronavirus symptoms in the UK

Stay at home for 7 days if you have either:

  • a high temperature
  • a new continuous cough

This will help to protect others in your community while you are infectious.

Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital.

You do not need to contact NHS 111 to tell them youre staying at home.

People who are self-isolating with mild symptoms will not be tested.

Source: NHS England

And as usually happens with sudden adverse events, the arrival of the Covid-19 virus has pushed the state and public sector into the foreground. The government machine suddenly looks less like the sclerotic inconvenience that annoys people like Dominic Cummings than the most basic means of help we have. Only weeks ago, people close to Boris Johnson were declaring war on the civil service and the BBC; now, both institutions are surely at the heart of however we collectively proceed. Ministers are suddenly back on the Radio 4 Today programme. Mindful that people have actually not had enough of experts, Johnson is now at pains to be seen deferring to the chief medical officer and the governments chief scientific adviser. If the big-spending budget suggested that Cummings and his allies quest to pull Conservatism somewhere different was in full roar, the arrival of Covid-19 surely means their revolutionary plans for the state have been postponed.

Something comparable may be afoot in the US. Last week, the New York Times ran a piece of political analysis headlined Trump meets an enemy that cant be tweeted away. Covid-19, said the writer, does not respond to Mr Trumps favourite instruments of power: it cannot be cowed by Twitter posts, it cannot be shot down by drones, it cannot be overcome by party solidarity, it cannot be overpowered by campaign rally chants. Reality, it seemed, had suddenly intruded on a presidency built on performance and manipulation, and Trump had instantly been found wanting.

Again, whatever ones politics, there is an undeniable truth to all this. As we know, the US is way behind other countries on testing, and cuts made by the Trump administration to crucial branches of government now look supremely reckless. The kind of denial the president was still pushing only a week or so ago forms part of the same picture: with accidental echoes of the occasion in 2006 when Johnson paid humorous tribute to laissez-faire government by praising the fictional mayor from Jaws and his decision to keep his beaches open, Trump has recently been lampooned as the real thing, downplaying a mounting emergency, lest it threaten the economic success on which his re-election might depend.

Boris
Johnson is now at pains to be seen deferring to the chief medical officer and the governments chief scientific adviser. Boris Johnson at his 13 March press conference on coronavirus. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Woven through this take on the presidents position is a progressive article of faith: the idea that although populists might be capable rabble-rousers, they always fall down when it comes to basic competence. This, clearly, is the Democratic partys collective rationale for the anointing of Joe Biden, the walking embodiment of the idea that the best alternative to Trumps misrule is the reassuringly dull, conventional statesmanship of yesteryear.

Might such a sea-change be a realistic prospect? For a long time now, all over the world, politics and government and their surrounding discourse have increasingly amounted to a spectacle of anger, rhetoric and a supposed battle of values in which the political right particularly its latter-day, populist incarnation has usually been on the winning side. The story perhaps began with George W Bushs consigliere Karl Rove, and his characterisation of his bosss detractors as the reality-based community: its subsequent milestones include both the arrival in office of a president whose metier is outrage and provocation rather than anything material, and Brexits triumph of prejudice and romance over facts and figures.

As reality bites, something about coronavirus feels like it might at least have loosened the grip of these ideas. Whatever his outbursts, every day brings unflattering footage of Trump among scientists, officials and the representatives of big US companies and the image of an awkward, impatient man, arms folded, seemingly determined to shut out whatever wisdom might be on offer. Here, the BBCs Newsnight recently saw fit to broadcast a characteristically nuanced view of the governments response to the virus from Nigel Farage, to a loud chorus of groans. His inclusion seemed not just incongruous, but silly. And therein lay a tantalising prospect: of a political discourse that might sooner or later reconnect to the basics of government, and the real world.

And yet, and yet. Europe is still haunted by populist ghouls, predictably claiming that the virus validates everything they stand for: Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen and Hungarys Viktor Orbn, whose national security adviser recently claimed to see a certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants.

Ten days ago, I was on a reporting job in Worksop, the former Nottinghamshire mining town in a local government district whose vote-share for Brexit was nearly 70%. The huge TV in the breakfast room was blaring out some or other piece about Covid-19, which soon caught the attention of the staff member in charge. I think this is all bollocks, he said. Youre not going to tell me it was a coincidence it started in an overpopulated country. Two fiftysomething men had just ordered their food, and instantly joined in. The first thing they can do is stop all these refugees coming in, said one. Their apparent default setting was stubborn disbelief, mixed with the conviction that this latest emergency would not have arrived had it not been for foreigners.

Donald
Reality, it seemed, had suddenly intruded on a presidency built on performance and manipulation, and Trump had instantly been found wanting. Donald Trump and his adviser at a press briefing on 14 March. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

As if clumsily leading his kindred spirits across the world to the correct position, Trump has moved through these two phases in a matter of days. Only a week or so ago, he favoured denial. Now, as evidenced by the televised address he delivered last Wednesday and his ban on flights from Europe, his embrace of drastic measures is framed by the kind of themes that won him the presidency.

His spiel contained the giveaway words America first; inside 40 seconds, he used the phrase foreign virus. By way of mood music, senior Republicans talk about the pandemic as the Chinese coronavirus or Wuhan coronavirus, and everything blurs into the ocean of conspiracy theory now swirling around online, which Trump is inevitably happy to stoke.

Whatever the controversies over its approach to the virus, and the prime ministers long record of playing to base prejudice, our own government has chosen a higher path. But hateful, ugly things are out there in the culture, and may yet rise to the surface. In stories of public service in the most awful circumstances and a rising sense that the only useful responses to this crisis are necessarily empathetic and humane, you see people and governments at their best. But whatever the impacts of the most serious health emergency in a generation, perhaps a model of politics based on division and polarisation is now so embedded that it will inevitably condition some of the worlds response. History suggests as much: steps forward always accompanied by lurches back, as humanity does what it usually does, and simply muddles through.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/15/experts-fashion-covid-19-reality-bites-trump-johnson