The new lives we’re living under pandemic rule feel so foreign that apt comparisons elude us. But that hasn’t stopped us from looking. The closest points of reference I’ve seen are to major moments that scarred the American psyche: brutal, physical assaults like Pearl Harbor or September 11th. Immediately afterward, Americans came together and unified with a common purpose. Our group identities expanded. Suddenly, we were Americans first.
This is natural: Evolutionary psychology teaches us that life-threatening crises cause humans to seek physical security in groups. The popular expression is “safety in numbers.”
But just as our collective trauma has ignited a craving for the visceral kind of it’s-going-to-be-OK-ness that only comes from being together, togetherness has never been more dangerous in the literal sense. Our longing for unity is physically subversive to medical recommendations and yet, emotionally, it is precisely what America needs.
As we keep away from strangers for fear that they are contagious or that we may unknowingly be a danger to them, we are also distancing ourselves even further from people who think and experience the world differently than we do, exacerbating divisions that were already there — divisions Donald Trump enjoys and exploits. And with his disastrously chaotic response, as well as the daily and weekly changes in recommendations, which must be teased away from misinformation and contradiction, it’s never been more difficult to understand our call to action.
These things put our situation in stark contrast to the aftermath of September 11th.
Then, like now, we were a politically divided nation. Less than a year before the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush had won one of the most contentious elections in modern American history. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, our sense of national identity, of camaraderie, was easy to find, easy to feel. We hugged our neighbors, honored our first responders, attended vigils and saw record levels of blood donation and military enlistment. Each of us wanted to do our part.
On Sept. 20, just three weeks after the attacks and six months after his inauguration, Bush delivered a nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress in which he said, without a hint of disingenuousness, “The world has seen the state of our union, and it is strong.”
The statement brought one of the first of many bipartisan standing ovations he received during the address. The next day, his approval rating reached a record 90 percent. Only a year earlier, that kind of consensus would have been thought impossible.
At its best, that’s the role of strong, competent leadership: to create unity and clarity when both are in short supply. We need that now, and we aren’t getting it. As new cases and death counts climb, as we see jaw-dropping unemployment claims and a sputtering economy, and as we do our best to navigate the effect of all of this on our daily lives, there has never been a greater need for informed, trustworthy leadership. And it’s never been more clear that our president is no leader — and is neither informed nor trustworthy. In fact, on the precious few occasions Trump happens to let slip some truth, one could be forgiven for thinking it an accident.
This chaos only heightens the threat and intensifies our drive for security and togetherness. But as we do the mental and emotional gymnastics required to feel we’re a part of something bigger despite our isolation, it would help to have a leader in the Oval Office capable of inspiring us to a common cause.
Instead, let that cause be voting in November.
While it feels like so much is out of our control, we do still get a say in how we citizens respond to a crisis like this. And though many Republicans parrot the convenient trope that “now is not the time for politics,” I beg to differ. Now is not the time to lay down the most decisive tool of action available to most Americans. Now is the time for an appropriate and collective response to the failure of elected leadership this crisis has exposed.
Now is precisely the time for politics.
It might not be within our power to keep a virus from entering our community, but it is within our power to vote: Based on what we have observed, based on the qualities we need in a leader, and based on facts.
If you feel powerless in the face of this pandemic, remember this empowering tool. Yes, you can and should stay home, and wash your hands, and wear a mask. Continue to cheer from your window to show your support for essential workers and savor as many moments of community and connection as you can find. But, please, don’t stop there. Remember that we choose who we want to lead us, and that leadership matters most in times of crisis.