Years ago, when I hosted a syndicated television talk show, I learned a lesson about the American public’s attention span. “Ten seconds,” said my executive producer, “That’s all you have at the top of the show before the viewer either loses interest or sticks with you.”
"That’s crazy," I thought. But the ratings proved her right.
Viewers who weren’t turned on, tuned out.
Granted, it’s been impossible to change the channel and tune out a global pandemic that has upended life as we knew it. But in the past week that dynamic has crept into the national conversation. Fueled by encouraging news that the medical community has, at least for now, begun to control the pandemic, there’s a perceptible sense that the worst is behind us. After months of hanging onto every shred of Covid-19 news and vamping through collective cabin fever, suddenly I hear people buzzing about socially distanced barbecues, birthday parties, kids returning to school and — even the big Kahuna of the pandemic — getting a haircut.
Signs of life beyond this limbo are everywhere. As we face the reality of learning to co-exist with the virus, schools, employers, retailers and service providers are starting to roll out plans to safeguard our health. It may be a small thing but, every time I hear from a company like Costco or American Airlines detailing their safety protocols, my fear about an uncertain future recedes just a bit.
Psychologically, it’s like someone flipped a switch. Mental health experts say it’s probably attributable to how many of us are working through the so-called “Change Curve” devised by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. A variation on her five stages of grief, the goal is to slog through the shock and depression triggered by the pandemic then amble on to acceptance and understanding and finally graduate to what Kubler-Ross calls “moving on.”
Of course, Trump & Company simply skipped stages one through four and moved on. Even as the number of infected Americans passed the million case mark and the national death toll shot past the original estimate of 60,000, White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner called the Trump administration’s coronavirus response “a great success.” Channeling the magical thinking of his father-in-law, Kushner jauntily predicted, "by June a lot of the country should be back to normal, and the hope is that by July the country’s really rocking again.”
Kushner, who reminds me of the sociopathic boyfriend who wooed me in poetry and dumped me in doggerel, is whistling past the graveyard. He should be forced to watch this up-to-the-minute Johns Hopkins graphic that attests to how the Trump’s administration’s epic incompetence continues to result in needless suffering and death. On Friday, a top CDC official, Dr. Anne Schuchat, acknowledged that the U.S. could have substantially slowed the virus's spread if it had cracked down on travel from Europe earlier. As nearly two million travelers arrived in February in the U.S. from Italy and other European countries, Trump was still insisting the risk of the coronavirus to Americans was “very low” and didn’t block travel from Europe until March 11.
Now, as we wait for a national strategy to re-open our country, governors and mayors are again stepping up to fill the leadership void emblematic of this administration. According to this Washington Post editorial the path to reopening our country is clear: "What works is social distancing to break the chains of transmission of a virus that leaps from person to person,” the newspaper says. "We know it works because the early, explosive growth of new infections has slowed. But new infections and deaths are not yet on a downward slope. Every day, 2,000 lives are being lost. It is too soon to return willy-nilly to crowded places or to drop vigilance about masks, hand-washing and discretionary travel.”
Despite the yearning to resume some semblance of life as we knew it, polls overwhelmingly show the majority of Americans are willing to resist the urge to return "willy-nilly" to crowded places like movie theaters, malls, restaurants, schools or airports. Still, by Friday, more than a dozen states had begun to reopen their economies and public life, even though health experts warn about potential for a spike in coronavirus infections that would not be detected in official case counts for weeks. Georgia, which re-opened a week ago, didn’t have to wait that long — 1,000 new cases have been recorded in the past 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump continues to cheer on the protestors - many sporting swastikas, carrying guns and waving Confederate flags - who demand that their states be “liberated.” In another painfully tone deaf move, he didn't finally invoke the Defense Production Act to jumpstart America’s woefully inadequate ability to test for the virus; instead he did it to bestow the presidential imprimatur on the meat processing industry, celebrating burgers and chicken nuggets over humans and consigning employees, who are predominantly people of color, to a workplace Petri dish where their lives are at risk.
“We have too many people in power who are too comfortable with other people’s deaths,” Reverend William Barber said when asked for his reaction to Mr. Trump’s order. Reverend Barber might just as well have been calling for a national reckoning, “In the same way the Vietnam War sparked a national conversation about social injustice, we cannot go back to the “normal" that allowed this to happen."
Increasingly, the good news is that Democratic dominoes are lining up fortuitously for the November elections. If we continue on this trajectory, we won’t be going back to our pre-pandemic world, we’ll be celebrating an enhanced majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, a Democratic-led Senate and a president who’s actually read the Constitution. If that monster blue wave materializes, we’re also likely to flip critically important state legislatures and seat new Democratic governors.
As WaPo columnist Jennifer Rubin puts it bluntly: "Rarely have polls painted as consistent a portrait of President Trump’s and Republicans’ standing: Terrible.” PRRI’s poll of battleground states finds, “Trump’s favorability in battleground states has dropped substantially since March, from 53% to 38%.” Non-college-educated voters, who previously were a key part of his base, are falling away. “Trump’s favorability among non-college graduates in battleground states has dropped 20 percentage points between March and April (59% to 39%), putting it more in line with his favorability in 2019 (45%).”
Veteran analyst Stuart Rothenberg says the race to flip the Senate mirrors Mr. Trump’s demise in popularity. "Democrats no longer need an “upset or two” to win control of the Senate later this year. In fact, while the fight for Senate control in November is a toss-up, I’d probably put a pinkie on the scale for Democrats right now,” Rothenberg predicted. Right now, pick-ups look good for Mark Kelly in Arizona and John Hickenlooper in Colorado. Sara Gideon is running strong against Maine senator Susan Collins and Cal Cunningham has emerged as a serious threat to incumbent Senator Thom Tillis from North Carolina. Governor Steve Bullock initially was trailing Senator Steve Daines in Montana, a state Trump won by 20 points. But, Bullock is benefitting from the glow being lavished on governors earning high marks for their handling of the pandemic and his race has tightened. In the marquee race of this cycle, challenger Amy McGrath may just wind up making good on her pledge to “Ditch Mitch” — she's effectively tied in the polls with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Even long shot candidate Jaime Harrison is gaining on South Carolina juggernaut, Senator Lindsey Graham, and forecasters have switched the contest from “safe” to “likely” Republican, a small if momentary victory by itself.
As for presumptive presidential contender Joe Biden, many Democrats are already kvetching that he’s blowing it — that he’s too low profile, that he needs to break out of his basement and have a more commanding presence. Despite his recent forceful denial of allegations of sexual assault, there is concern that it could derail his campaign, which is founded on the promise of restoring sanity, civility and decency to the presidency.
Biden is also pledging to help bring Americans together. Mission impossible? Watch his new ad, then decide. Here was one friend’s reaction, “It reminds me of the award winning commercial “Morning in America” that Hal Rainey did for Ronald Reagan. It returns us to the country we lost and gives us hope to work together to achieve an even greater nation.”
Finally, even as we chart a tentative path forward, we know there will be seismic changes ahead as we learn to live with the threat of the coronavirus. We may not know for certain when we'll once again go out to dinner at a restaurant or escort our kids back to school or attend a basketball game — or, get that haircut. But we do know that the overriding quest to stay healthy and safe will translate into a sweeping reset.
That’s the topic of the livestream event, “Life after Covid-19: A Brave New World,” I’ll be moderating on Sunday, May 17th at 3:00 PM. Join me and our panelists — historian Douglas Brinkley, bioethicist Dr. Zeke Emanuel and NYT columnist Nick Kristof — for the interactive forum which will benefit charities on the frontline of the pandemic including the American Nurses Foundation Coronavirus Fund. Tickets may be purchased via the invitation below.
Conversations On the Green premieres its 8th season May 17th, 3PM via live stream on any internet-connected device. Register for this Virtual Event Now!