In the late 1990s, conservatives and Republicans were fond of shouting “Where’s the outrage?” in response to Bill Clinton’s sex scandal. They couldn’t believe Clinton was getting away with it, as he preserved his high standing in public opinion polls and escaped removal from office. William Bennett, the right-wing moralist who had been education secretary in the Reagan administration, even wrote a book titled The Death of Outrage, in which he proclaimed this sordid episode cast a dark shadow on the entire nation: “This is moral bankruptcy, and it is damaging our country, its standards, and our self-respect.”
All the harrumphing was about an improper Oval Office tryst that did indeed tarnish the highest position in the land. But that fin-de-siècle chest-banging seems rather quaint and silly now, for today there is a lack of outrage over a far more significant matter: the death of more than a quarter-million Americans. On Wednesday, the United States set a new record for COVID-19 deaths: 2,804. This is just 173 shy of the death toll of 9/11—that cataclysmic event that reordered elements of American society. The United States is looking at that level of loss on a daily basis. Yet there is little uproar.
Where’s the outrage?
Has a single Republican leader declared this is not acceptable? Has the president of the United States said this must not continue? Corporate and religious leaders have not pounded the tables in public. Even many Democrats seem to be reluctant to cry out.
Of course, Trump cannot be expected to note the ghastly milestones. For 10 months, he has downplayed the pandemic and refused to adopt the basic advice of public health experts: encourage people to wear masks, to stay home, and to engage in social distancing. His inept response to the crisis has led to a death count far higher (per capita) than that in other industrialized democracies. His refusal to develop a robust testing program and to promote mask-wearing is certainly responsible for the painful deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.
Where’s the outrage?
It is true that 81 million Americans voted to fire Trump, no doubt much because of his coronavirus malfeasance. But 74 million others were not upset by Trump’s mismanagement. They essentially declared, “This is fine by me.” For them, the staggering loss of life for which Trump bears partial responsibility was not a deal-breaker. It was tolerable.
Trump has normalized much abnormal and indecent conduct in his four years as president. He trampled on a wide array of democratic norms. He engaged in demagoguery and disinformation. He poisoned the national discourse with lies and bigotry. And he is still doing so in his waning days in the White House, as he attempts to subvert the 2020 election results with baseless conspiracy theories and false claims of fraud. But perhaps worst of all is how he has cheapened the lives of Americans by refusing to fully recognize and to adequately respond to this horrific loss of life—and how so many have gone along with him on this hideous ride.
Trump has engaged in so many outrages as a candidate and president—paying off a porn star, aiding and abetting a Russian attack on the United States, calling for his foes to be locked up, pressuring a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent, refusing to explain suspicious business and financial dealings, separating families, engaging in racist rhetoric, encouraging violence—that these episodes lose their shock value. Human beings can only absorb so much outrage. Our brains are generally wired to accommodate to circumstances. It’s a survival mechanism. We cannot process and sustain the high levels of anger that Trump’s never-ending misdeeds trigger.
Trump’s greatest success in this realm has been escaping greater retribution for the flood of death and disease that has struck the United States on his watch. The death rate keeps climbing, but much of the national response is akin to the frog and the boiling water myth (which is utterly false). We grow accustomed to the grisly numbers. And expectations are so low for Trump that no one turns to him for leadership and action, as a dark winter bears down on the country.
What did Trump do on the historic day that COVID-19 deaths topped 2,800? He delivered an unhinged 46-minute-long speech in which he insisted he had won the 2020 election and the results were rigged against him by a wide range of unnamed conspirators. He said nothing about the American citizens who had fallen that day. Put simply, he is not doing his job. In the middle of a national emergency, he is not protecting the people. He is watching television, writhing in anger, and obsessing over fact-free allegations about an election theft that did not happen.
Where’s the outrage?
Joe Biden and his camp, perhaps wisely, are letting Trump have his authoritarian temper tantrum in a corner, for the most part ignoring it, and proceeding with the grown-up tasks necessary for governance. The Biden transition team, for example, arranged to meet with Dr. Anthony Fauci to discuss the pandemic. The president-elect and his White House team-to-be are preparing so they can confront this crisis as soon as they get the keys on January 20.
Meanwhile, Trump has been playing golf and stewing. His GOP colleagues don’t call him out. Republican voters don’t mind. And many of the rest of us shrug. That’s Trump being Trump. He has abandoned the ship of state—while resorting to underhanded measures to retain control of it. This is absolutely shocking. It is treachery. But in our much divided and tribalized country, there is no overwhelming consensus of anger directed at Trump’s negligence and betrayal.
Even though vaccines appear to be on the horizon, the coming days, weeks, and maybe months are likely to be grim, with ICUs and morgues flooded. Yet no national outcry has occurred. After months of deaths and distancing, has much of the country become inured? A good chunk of Americans, influenced by propaganda from Trump, Fox News, and other conservative media, probably still consider the pandemic a hoax or no big deal. (Several Republican governors still refuse to take the necessary actions, as the current surge intensifies.) They have been blinded. They will not see.
But as the bodies pile up, there still is too much silence. Perhaps it’s because we have reached outrage exhaustion. This has been a long, rough stretch. Who isn’t tired? Maintaining the fury regarding Trump’s inundation of wrongdoing was hard before the pandemic struck. And since then the massive amount of death has been numbing. The total pain may be too hard to grasp, as we all cope with our own challenges.
Trump’s recklessness during this crisis has been almost unbelievable. Had he done two simple things—demonstrated a degree of empathy and heeded the advice of public health experts—he may well have won reelection. Yet in his final days as president, he has amped up his dereliction of duty, as he desperately attempts to create a constitutional crisis rather than do all that is possible to counter the tide of death sweeping across the nation.
Where’s the outrage? Its absence is another casualty of the Trump years. Nevertheless, at this particular point, it might not even do much good. Trump is immutable. He will not in the next six weeks turn away from his narcissistic crusade to overturn or discredit the election to focus on saving American lives. No amount of popular clamor will move him toward that basic task. But Trump has hinted that he might seek restoration in 2024. If he does, those Americans who wish to avoid a repeat of this deadly nightmare will surely need to highlight how outrageous that would be.