If I have learned one thing over the last few weeks, it is that the psychology of the American public is weirder — and perhaps more flexible — than I ever would have thought.
Consider, as just one example among many, the issue of nursing homes. According to some estimates, about 40% of the deaths associated with COVID-19 have occurred in nursing homes, with more almost certain to come.
You might think that those 40,000-plus deaths would be a major national scandal. But so far the response has been subdued. Yes, there has been ample news coverage, but there are no riots in response, no social movement to “clean up the nursing homes,” no Ralph Nader-like crusader who has made this his or her political cause.
Nor has there been much resulting vilification. There are plenty of condemnations of technology billionaires, but very few of nursing-home CEOs. Many of the state and local politicians who oversee public-sector nursing homes have been rewarded with higher approval ratings.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, of those 40,000 deaths, surely a considerable number are African American (data by race is hard to come by). This could be an issue for Black Lives Matter, but somehow it isn’t.
One possibility is that Americans are responding to what is visible, and nursing homes are among the most secluded and segregated parts of society. A lot of Americans have never been in one, and news coverage of them (due in part to privacy issues) tends to be more policy-focused.
Perhaps most important, there is no viral smartphone video of elderly patients dying in their rooms, as there is of the riots on the streets. To put recent events in perspective, the number of Americans (of all races) killed by police peaked at 1,143 in 2018. On one day last week, May 30, nearly as many Americans — 1,010 — died of COVID-19.
Another oddity is that more than 100,000 Americans have died in the pandemic, again with quite a few more to come, and yet this has not ruined the reelection chances of President Donald Trump. This is not an argument over whether to blame Trump for those casualties. It is merely an observation that, historically speaking, Americans have held bad events against their president regardless of whether he was actually responsible. Economic conditions, for example, have long been powerful predictors of presidential elections, even though a president’s influence over the economy is much overrated.
You might argue that America today is simply and hopelessly polarized, and thus Trump can emerge from all this relatively unscathed. Surely there is truth to that. But if enough unlikely voters decided to turn out and register their dissatisfaction with the status quo, it would suffice to sway the election. It is far from obvious that such an increase in civic engagement will occur.
To put it more colloquially: COVID-19 just does not have Americans flipping out the way one might have expected. Large numbers of people are refusing to wear masks or engage in proper social distancing, even when their refusal to do so may put their lives in danger — not in some distant future but in a few weeks.
And the scolders are no better than the scolded. As recently as last week, there was plenty of criticism of those who do not take sufficient safety precautions in response to the coronavirus. With some exceptions, I am not seeing a comparable wave of criticism directed at the protesters and rioters. If anything, the protests may have nudged some conservatives into a more favorable view of social distancing strictures.
In his book “History Has Begun,” Bruno Maçães argues that American society is obsessed with entertainment and believes its own made-up stories, using quite subjective standards. By now it is almost a cliché to say that Trump can get away with comments, gaffes and lies that would end the careers of other politicians. Less common is the acknowledgment that the rest of the country is also not following the old rules about what qualifies as an outrage.
How freaked out will the American public be if the riots continue throughout the summer? Or what if a violent and organized domestic group were to launch a systematic attack on the White House and its Secret Service protectors? My honest answer is, I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.