“I’m the one that brought back football, by the way,” Donald Trump said during the first presidential debate, as part of an answer that initially appeared to be headed someplace else. “I brought back Big Ten football. It was me and I’m very happy to do it. The people of Ohio are very proud of me.” As with everything else the president has ever said, he just kept on saying it, amping up his own foresight and heroism along the way as the spirit moved him. This is the way it usually works with Trump over a sufficiently long timeframe. The balance of every story changes, tilting away from what might or might not have actually happened—the Big Ten has repeatedly said that it never sought, and at any rate never received, any federal assistance related to starting its football season, and the White House has mostly characterized Trump’s effort as Making Lots Of Phone Calls—and more in the direction of the type of story that Trump most likes to tell. It is one in which he personally triumphs because of how brave he was, despite everyone telling him he was crazy and then not giving him any credit afterwards; it’s about him. In time, every story Trump tells becomes this story.
“By the way, we got you your football,” Trump said again the Saturday before last, this time at a rally in Wisconsin. “Congratulations.” A day earlier, the Badgers had thumped the University of Illinois behind a brilliant performance from redshirt freshman Graham Mertz, who completed all but one of the 21 passes he threw and accounted for five touchdowns. “I wouldn’t want to come to one of these places if you lost the game,” Trump said, to ruffles of the strained laughter he draws from his fans at moments when he seems to be drifting towards wrestling heel-style trash talk about whatever electorally significant but objectively podunk burg in which he’s found himself.
But Trump recovered, doing the gesture in which he appears to be imitating a cat catching a large nerf ball and honking, “By the way just so you know I got the Big Ten back. I also got the Pac-12. And you know how that happened,” he continues, silencing cheers with a flutter of his leather-gloved hands. “Right? Sleepy Joe Biden, when he heard they canceled the season, the Big Ten, I was working on China and other things so if you don’t mind I didn’t know too much about it. But they put out an ad, or something, that I was responsible for canceling Big Ten football. Me! And I said, ‘What the hell do I have to do with it?'”
And that’s the whole story, at least as it exists on YouTube, where Trump’s campaign put it. In this little blobule of anti-rhetoric, you can see the Big Ten’s return reach the end of its transition from an ostensibly crowd-pleasing campaign gambit targeted at voters in the midwest into something smaller and more identifiably Trumpy—something done more or less out of spite, to prove an opaque point to some rival or other, and for which he would now permit himself to be thanked. As far as he was concerned, the story was over. There stopped being anything to care about once he’d made his point, whatever it was. All that was left was for other people to put his whim into action, wait to see how it all would fail and who it would hurt, and then find ways to lay blame for it. At the end of the long chain of little collapses that made Trump president and brought us to this moment, this is the national pandemic response in microcosm.
Things change very quickly without ever somehow managing to change at all. Since that Saturday, Mertz and his backup tested positive for COVID-19, as did an increasing number of their teammates and coaches; Wisconsin’s scheduled game against Nebraska was canceled; the mandated 21-day recovery and testing protocol that the Big Ten instituted back in September is under scrutiny after a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that the risk of myocarditis appears lower than initially feared; on Tuesday, a second Badgers game, this Saturday against Purdue, was canceled as the number of cases in the program rose to 27, including head coach Paul Chryst. The pandemic continues to spread out of control throughout virtually the entire country, at a scale so vast that it would defy contact-tracing efforts even if such efforts were underway, which they are not. But that has been true throughout.
The old plan to defer the season until the spring was grounded in the thought that the pandemic would be better under control or at least better understood by then. No one really thinks that anymore, and so the new plan, which is more accurately just some things happening in the space where a plan might otherwise be, reflects that new understanding. The goal is no longer to have the season be safe, exactly. There is only intermittent and grudging commitment to the idea that it should be safer. The idea, now, is just simply to have it and see what happens. The results for Wisconsin have again echoed the general experience of the country. “I felt very confident—if we continued we were getting things under control,” Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez told ESPN’s Tom Van Haaren. “In the last three days, if I counted right, we had 11 positives in the program and just didn’t feel as though we had our arms around it.”
There was never any reason to feel confident, of course, just as there was no compelling reason to expect that this or any other possible approach would or could work. But also, given the crushing reality of the situation, what else was there to feel, if not confidence? What was there to do, if not some doomed and officious bit of executive rationalization? The questions are very difficult, here, but also a long and brutal winnowing up and down the culture has fixed it so that there was only one answer to find. The bottomlessness and abandonment of this moment—a weirdly proud unwillingness to understand or acknowledge the virus, an inability to conceptualize a massive social challenge in terms above or beyond the individual or formulate any kind of response in terms beyond empty aggression and brute force—is all that’s left. It’s a uniquely American failure. The public is presented with an abundance of choices and options and plans, but nothing remotely like an actual alternative. Again, there is the sense that it has all been leading up to this. But also that might just be the difficulty of imagining how things might be different after generations of insistence that this is the only way it could be.
If there has been anything of value to find in these last few years, it has been what they’ve shown about how decline actually happens. World history and national fantasies provide some templates, all of which currently seem both tragicomically grandiose and kind of poignant in their rational ergo‘s and as a result-ing. Decadence always figures into these explanations, and as moralistic and wildly subjective as that undeniably is, American culture is luridly, deliriously guilty as charged on that count. But there is also the image of Visigoths storming down to sack the capital, which is much more cinematic than the collapse we’ve chosen. For so massive a trauma, it is rather startling how dull it all is from one moment to the next. It’s a tepid combination of flabby unworkability within various vital institutions that is exacerbated by various inexorable shocks from without.
Mostly, though, it is about that absence of any alternative. The consecutive and concurrent failures to manage COVID-19 are horrifying, but also followed and amplified each other in predictable ways; as every failsafe failed, there was only bluster and bargaining and a desperate cynicism left. The Wisconsin State Journal‘s story tracing the Badgers’ outbreak is full of familiar failures, from testing needs that outpaced testing capacities to the coaching staff possibly not following guidelines on social distancing or mask-wearing, but all those individual mistakes are best understood as component parts of a larger collective one. “You look at our state, look at our entire nation and across the world,” Michael Moll, an assistant athletic director for sports medicine at Wisconsin, told the State Journal. “As hard as people have tried, we haven’t completely solved this, we haven’t figured it out. We’re just trying to do the best we can.” That statement may be true as far as it goes, but it’s the “best we can” part that sticks. And even if it’s true, it’s meaningless. The extent to which the institutions that might have made something more like success possible have been compromised or corroded by generations of steepening austerity and an abstracted ideological opposition to their very existence have made it so that there wasn’t much that anyone could have done.
It is vanity, probably, to assume that decline or collapse would or should feel more significant than this. It all feels futile, naturally—near-term wins and losses are marginal, and the foundation needs so much work that heroic feats of drywall-installation seem beside the point. One party has, for a few generations, touted not just government but governance as inherently bad. When in power, that party has reliably turned institutions inside out and against themselves, and so made its strange faith real. When out of power, that party gives way to one that seems for the most part to have accepted their opponents’ rancid priors as reality and its own job as fundamentally janitorial. Without legitimacy or funding, and without a real and engaged defense from anyone in power, and under the relentless downward pressure of Market Forces, those institutions have atrophied into expert impotence, or become robust and vicious living satires of themselves.
The failures of the Trump administration in dealing with COVID-19 absolutely were a matter of choice, but also simply a matter of fact—the government he oversees just could not have overseen a serious response to this or any other serious threat, for reasons mostly unrelated to the unseriousness of the man himself. Trump’s weird lies and wild negligence are on him, but they are just the strange stupid answers that a strange and stupid man would make up when asked a question that he knows he cannot answer. In the most basic sense, this system and everyone in it were all set up to fail. The realization of this arrives like the weather—inarguably, implacably, first from above and then everywhere. Everyone mostly does the best they can; everyone can see, every day, just how much that’s worth when it’s the only thing left.