The similarities are striking, the conclusions inevitable. Here in the UK, we have been comforted by the belief that, even if our own buffooned right-hander had his faults, at least he was not Donald Trump. But in the end, Boris Johnson managed to stumble even on this lowest obstacle. The British government’s response to the crisis has proven to be almost as flippant and ill-prepared as that of the United States.
Two nations that prided themselves on their extraordinary economic, historical and political status have been brought to their knees. Their fall from grace is the result of a damaged political culture and a distinct form of Anglo-American capitalism.
In the past four years, reckless political decisions have been justified by subjugating reality to rhetoric. The cost of leaving the EU would be “practically zero,” with a free trade agreement that would be one of the “easiest in human history.” Imaginary enemies have been erected and fake fights have been crafted as the two countries have tried to sever ties with other nations and international institutions.
The political discourse focused on the great abstract notions of renaissance and restoration, in a way that required few concrete deliverables. All the Conservative government needed to do was get Brexit, no matter how sloppy the job. In the United States, all Trump had to do to maintain the loyalty of his supporters was to bark on a wall with Mexico from time to time, pass a racist travel ban and wild various sports figures.
These are corrosive things – not only for the quality of public debate, but for the caliber of politicians. When government affairs are limited to populist settings, its ranks are purged of makers and filled in place of cheerleaders. This is how we ended up with the current cast of dazed conservative cabinet members. In the United States, the very concept of “administration” has disappeared. As a professor of journalism at New York University Jay Rosen says it, “There is no White House. Not in the sense that journalists have always used this term. It’s just Trump – and the people who work in the building. “
By the time Covid-19 hit their shores, the United Kingdom and the United States lacked not only the politicians but the bureaucracies necessary to respond effectively. Before the crisis, Trump made several attempts to fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the UK, the pandemic has hindered a conservative cabinet involved in a feud with its own public service. The intellectual and practical infrastructure for dealing with the facts has been vandalized.
But there is a longer, non-partisan story that has left the two nations incapable of an adequate response to the pandemic. The special relationship is not only a relationship of linguistic and cultural proximity, but an ideological partnership forged in the post-World War II period. Anglo-American capitalism, pursued by the right and center-left parties, rooted in a small government and fueled by exceptionalism, had dismantled the state. No notice or warning could have reshaped the machinery of government quickly enough to save lives. An economic and political model based on privatization, liberalization and the withdrawal of labor rights has created a system prone to regular crises, despite the fact that such shocks are considered to be ad hoc.
Economic and regulatory relationships has been strengthened by the transformation of the British and mercantile financial sector into a replica of the aggressive US markets. The city has caught up with Wall Street.
An interventionist foreign policy – morally public but cynical in private – gave the model an expansionary advantage, which helped the two nations project power abroad and defend their own financial and political interests. But wars have led to quagmires, and the rapid expansion of the financial sectors to economic experiences of imminent death. Neither has triggered a significant overhaul or reflection. After the 2008 financial crisis, when this system intervened in the “48 hours” of the “apocalypse”, two center-left leaders, Barack Obama and Gordon Brown, chose to consolidate the infrastructures that had brought their savings to edge of the abyss, recapitalizing the banks and revitalizing the markets, opting for more regulation than for fundamental reform.
Just as the financial crash has been treated as a malfunction of a particular unsupervised bug in the system rather than a feature of the system, so too has the failure to fight the pandemic, which is presented as an unexpected exogenous event, rather than the result of an ideology that allows the state to scramble unprecedented resources to save banks but not lives. A nurse will carry a garbage bag like PPE in the United States for longer than a failing bank may not be funded.
The hollow triumphalism over making America still big and the regaining of control by Britain becomes increasingly likely in such a system. Trump and the Conservatives have come down to this formula, which is not entirely out of begging or ideology. Without radically challenging Anglo-American capitalism, they have nothing else to offer their constituents. They must therefore separate economic suffering from politics and try to blame immigrants and foreigners. They must blame other countries and international institutions – the EU, WHO, NATO – for the feelings of helplessness felt by their own citizens. The swagger is a facade. Behind it hides a rotten national landscape.
As the bodies pile up, the failure of the United States and the United Kingdom will somehow turn to victory. The triumphalism will intensify; for sure. The only question now is how many will continue to believe it.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist