A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 201

Sunday, March 14

Trump, in his chaotic way, built on the anti-government, anti-institutional sentiment that had a takeoff moment in the 1980s during the terms of Ronald Reagan. Joe Biden, meanwhile, clearly stands for a return to the Big Institution can-do approach that had its defining moments under the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. 

Biden stated this openly in his March 11 address to the nation. 

Early on, he noted, “We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. It’s us, all of us.” Well O.K., it’s fine to appeal to everyone to get on board. 

But more telling and significant was his salute to two big drugmakers, Johnson & Johnson and Merck, for setting aside their capitalist rivalry and coming together in a temporary alliance to defeat COVID-19. “These two companies, competitors, have come together for the good of the nation, and they should be applauded for it. It’s truly a national effort, just like we saw during World War II.”

This is the approach that helped to end both the Great Depression and the threat posed by Germany-Japan during the 1940s. As many World War II chroniclers have noted, the countries that won that war were the countries that had the biggest factories. 

In the 1930s, government became a major employer, notably in such efforts as the public-works oriented Works Progress Administration (WPA). During the war years, private companies such as Ford and DuPont turned from making consumer goods to the production of tanks and munitions.

And although the New Deal had centralized some of the economy, there were those who felt it hadn’t gone far enough: A June 22, 1940 issue of Business Week argued that Germany had a mighty advantage with its statewide industrial coordination, otherwise known as a command economy. “To meet a victorious Hitler in an arms race or trade war we may have to adopt some of the totalitarian ways of doing things,” announced that magazine.  Certain U.S. notions about the rights of private property owners and of individual liberty could very well have to go, Business Week added.

But the application of overwhelming institutional power doesn’t work for everything. It didn’t work to defeat the popular forces in Vietnam. 

And the great vulnerability of this approach is that it does not inevitably enlist the great energy, enthusiasm, and talent of the masses. 

Can Biden’s recreation of the Welfare State—repudiated by presidents of recent decades especially Reagan and Clinton but also George Herbert Walker Bush and Barack Obama—truly inspire the American populace? It had better. Or we can expect more boneheaded, misdirected scenes such as the Trump mob explosion of January 6.

Dinner: Cold noodles and sesame sauce and a green salad.

Entertainment: More of season two of Fargo on Hulu.