The Trump administration surprised many liberals and Democrats by betting that whenever it “reopens” America, it will not be held responsible for any COVID-19 deaths that occur afterward. The White House seems to be betting that the executive branch can “play” the pandemic in much the same way that the rest of America’s institutions “play” any other society-wide problem – accepting credit for any success while denying blame for any failure. Liberals might be less surprised by this if they recalled that large institutions’ lack of accountability is the dominant trend of the first two decades of the 21st century. Size matters; if everyone has been part of something, no one can ever be blamed for that thing. “Too big to fail” isn’t just for Wall Street; it’s for every situation and institution that has insinuated itself into American life. And it’s also relatively new.
This may come as a surprise to younger readers, but back in the 1990s, institutions were often held accountable for bad practices. That decade began with banks being held responsible for predatory lending practices (ending the “S&L scandal”). Israel and Palestine signed the Oslo accords in 1993, indicating mutual accountability. The National Rifle Association advocated gun control, signing on to the assault weapons ban as part of the crime bill of 1994. Afterward, crime rates plunged throughout America, most visibly in New York City and especially Times Square, which went from undignified to Disneyfied. Pharmaceutical companies became bound by new and real regulations, even as tobacco companies became poster children for corporate accountability, as was well known by the time of the Al Pacino film The Insider (1999). At the same time, PG&E became poster children for public environmental accountability, as was well known by the time of the Julia Roberts film Erin Brockovich (2000). Meanwhile, the federal government successfully pursued an anti-trust case against America’s most profitable company, Microsoft. Oh, and did I mention that President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich worked together to bring the national deficit from more than $1,000,000,000,000 (that’s a trillion dollars) to $0? In short, problems got solved. Maybe not everyone was happy with every result, but large-scale malfeasance often led to salutary consequences.
Not only do we not solve problems anymore, but we use the size of problems as the reason no one can solve them. Partly this is because of the red-state-blue-state rhetorical division which began in November 2000, whereby both major political parties fund-raise based on charging the other party with a lack of accountability…that never comes. But it’s more than that. In one sense, when America’s banks offered way too many unrealistic mid-2000s loans and mortgages to low-income borrowers, the banks were following a home-ownership-promoting President, George W. Bush, who had very successfully promoted unaccountability in everything from deficit spending to ignoring Osama Bin Laden to fighting in Iraq under false pretenses to Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to pollution deregulation to Hurricane Katrina. But in another sense, the banks were simply following larger trends in unaccountability, from the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal to Israel’s eschewing of the Oslo accords to Major League Baseball’s widespread steroid use to the NRA’s new embrace of assault weapons to Silicon Valley’s rewriting of the monopoly rules that brought down Bill Gates (allowing Google to buy YouTube, Apple to dominate MP3 players, etc).
The key history of the financial crisis is Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book “Too Big to Fail,” but many people missed Sorkin’s key takeaway: it’s not only the sheer size (or market value) of the company, but rather its insinuation into American lives. 80% of restaurants fail during their first year, but McDonald’s and Starbucks always do fine. Any local car dealership may go out of business, but Detroit’s Big Three car companies cannot suffer serious consequences because of their associated employees throughout the country. A gun dealer might fold up shop, but suicides and massacres will continue unabated because the weapon industry plays hardball (and gets great free advertising from Hollywood). A given surveillance company might close forever, but Silicon Valley will keep gathering and monetizing all of our “Big Data” and surveilling us. Breaking Bad’s Walter White can fritter away his life, but Big Pharma can’t fail because – all these things considered – we’re now addicted to opioids.
Accountability is always for a few fall guys, or what Bush once called, in the context of Abu Ghraib, “a few bad apples.” And so the old white male pooh-bahs of banks, Baseball, the Big Three, Big Pharma, Big Data, and the Bush administration sit around smoke-filled rooms toasting their successes and complaining about their yachts. As Paul Krugman observed long ago, they rigged the game so that it’s heads they win, tails we lose. In the 90s, people talked about the next Big Tobacco, the next industry that Americans would no longer tolerate. Nobody talks that way anymore. Banks make ridiculous loans, crime festers, guns proliferate, opioids destroy, climate change worsens, the deficit explodes, and no one can quite be held accountable for any of it exactly because everyone has in some way contributed to it. America is an apartment building run by landlords who insinuate themselves into every single aspect of their tenants’ lives while refusing to make the slightest of repairs.
Sure, two decades of unaccountability has generated some discontent with untouchable large institutions, as seen in the populism that powered Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, as well as in #blacklivesmatter and #metoo. But somehow this never quite translates to defenestration of leaders. Show me one police department that changed captains because of Black Lives Matter. Sure, #metoo brought down Harvey Weinstein and probably Jeff Epstein, but look at how depraved those two men were. Anyone who has finished Ronan Farrow’s #1 bestseller “Catch and Kill” is well aware that most predators have escaped accountability, not least because of powerful institutions that Americans aren’t ready to give up, like NBC News.
This is the full and all-important context of President Trump’s (non)response to the pandemic. Perhaps one of Trump’s key advisers noticed that in some strange way, the ubiquity of COVID-19 resembles the ubiquity of guns, crime, racism, surveillance, persecution of religion, rape culture, predatory loans, and so many other things that are everybody’s fault and, therefore, nobody’s fault. In the 21st century, systematic problems equate to systematic unaccountability. Liberals ask: but how can the GOP let millions of Americans die? The answer: because the GOP and Fox News will point to various liberal governors’ responses as evidence that the pandemic was liberals’ fault. You heard it here first.
Even without coronavirus, Trump and the GOP are too big to fail. (In 1964 and 1984, a major candidate could lose 44 or more states; that cannot happen now when at least 40 states are locked for one of the two major parties, leaving ten or less “in play.”) Trump’s 2016 strategy was to present himself as the guy turning the page from an old corrupt era. His 2020 strategy, whether he knows it or not, is to prolong into a third decade the great era of unaccountability. We will have to see if the pandemic motivates Americans to really turn the page on two decades of public neglect, and finally hold large institutions and their leaders accountable.