There are no fresh flowers at the 9/11 Memorial any more. An American altar usually decorated with roses, carnations and postcard-sized Stars and Stripes is sequestered behind a makeshift plastic railing. Broadway, the “Great White Way”, is dark. The subway system is a ghost train. Staten Island ferries keep cutting through the choppy waters of New York harbour, passing Lady Liberty on the way in and out of Lower Manhattan, but hardly any passengers are on board. Times Square, normally such a roiling mass, is almost devoid of people.
In the midst of this planetary pandemic, nobody wants to meet any more at the “Crossroads of the World”. A city known for its infectious energy, a city that likes to boast it never even has to sleep, has been forced into hibernation. With more cases than any other American conurbation, this city is once again Ground Zero, a term no New Yorker ever wanted applied here again. With manic suddenness, our world has been turned upside down, just as it was on September 11th.
Nations, like individuals, reveal themselves at times of crisis. In emergencies of this immense magnitude, it soon becomes evident whether a sitting president is equal to the moment. So what have we learnt about the United States as it confronts this national and global catastrophe? Will lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have been in a form of legislative lockdown for years now, a paralysis borne of partisanship, rise to the challenge? And what of the man who now sits behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, who has cloaked himself in the mantle of “wartime president”?
Of the three questions, the last one is the least interesting, largely because Donald Trump’s response has been so predictable. He has not changed. He has not grown. He has not admitted errors. He has shown little humility.
Instead, all the hallmarks of his presidency have been on agitated display. The ridiculous boasts – he has awarded himself a 10 out of 10 for his handling of the crisis. The politicisation of what should be the apolitical – he toured the Centers for Disease Control wearing a campaign cap emblazoned with the slogan “Keep America Great”.
The mind-bending truth-twisting – he now claims to have fully appreciated the scale of the pandemic early on, despite dismissing and downplaying the threat for weeks. The attacks on the “fake news” media, including a particularly vicious assault on a White House reporter who asked what was his message to frightened Americans: “I tell them you are a terrible reporter.” His pettiness and peevishness – mocking Senator Mitt Romney, the only Republican who voted at the end of the impeachment trial for his removal from office, for going into isolation.