Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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May 11: The White House orders staffers to wear masks at work when not at their desks after two aides tested positive for the coronavirus last week. President Trump walks out of his own coronavirus news conference after clashing with two female reporters. Tesla tells workers to return to its California electric-car factory in defiance of a local shelter-in-place order designed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.*

From the Cutting Room Floor...

A friend, H—, wrote to me today. A part of her note jumped out at me:

“What really scares me is that we’ve become so abstracted from what is real… What happens when an essentially fabricated and contrived society clashes with something way too real? To me, COVID-19 has revealed that we have become so used to constructing reality we have forgotten how to cope with it. We must recognize that the lie might be easier, but it is no longer good enough.”[1]

“The lie,” H— calls it. That terminology resonates. It makes me think of the post-WWII realizations of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell.

They named a Big Lie uttered by propagandists of both the German fascist Reich and the Stalinist Empire. Both the Stalinists and the Nazis circumscribed the rights, even the humanity, of a large minority while at the same time convincing the majority citizens that the oppressed minorities were becoming more free. The Big Lie says that their ignorance is strength.[2] “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world,” Arendt wrote, “the masses [will] reach the point where they [will], at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything [is] possible and that nothing [is] true.”[3] The Lie is the comprehensive worldview that allows whole swaths of societies to witness the oppression of the socio-politically vulnerable in our societies, to benefit at least obliquely from that oppression, to deny that the oppression is happening, and to turn on and attack those who attempt to persuade us that our silence makes us complicit in that oppression. Two years ago, historian Zachary Jacobson argued that a single Big Lie had given way to thousands of little lies from Trump’s mouth peppering our daily lives.[4] But I’m not so sure it’s just the president’s Twitter account that defines the problem.

So, here’s another number tracking that way too real-ness to rattle us today: 6,000,000 Americans are out of a job. Many are surely losing healthcare, unable to pay the rent, their children going hungry. This is severe, but as Matthew Desmond reminds me in Evicted, this situation has been happening to the poor in our major cities long before the pandemic. “No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become,” he says.[6] The pandemic is steamrolling people who are already most in need of help, the people who have been ignored and marginalized for centuries in this country. That helps to explain why the latest Gallup poll measuring the percentage of American adults who consider themselves to be “thriving” has dropped ten points, representing about 25 million people. This is below 2008 recession levels. Perhaps as telling is the gap between where we are right now in terms of worry and stress, which have risen by twenty points.[7] You might think that the obvious precarity of so many families and individuals makes it incumbent upon officials to act in their defense. But that is not what is coming out of the White House.

Our impeached president is still tweeting about “Plandemic” and that the “coronavirus is a hoax.” Now, he has also seeded the idea of “Obamagate,” which, as far as I can tell, is a meaningless charge. When asked point-blank what the current president is accusing President Obama of doing, the has no answer.[8] In his 126-entry Twitter tirade yesterday, it was clear that he’s hoping the word “corrupt” sticks to Obama and Biden and not to himself.[9] Whatever it takes, really, to construct a scapegoat and distract people from the fact that, with 80,000 Americans dead and the largest economic crisis of our lifetimes looming, there is no coordinated national response from the Oval Office. And we are two full months post his national emergency television special.[10]

It’s not just the White House, either. Observe today’s spectacle of Shelley Luther cutting (illegally?) Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s hair. “It was ridiculous to see someone sentenced to seven days in jail for cutting hair. That’s not right, that’s not justice and that’s not Texas,” Cruz defiantly explained to reporters after Luther took his mullet.[11] As right-winged radio guy Tony Katz puts it, there are two Americas—that’s what Luther’s case really revealed. The one just wants its Constitutionally-enshrined freedom. “Liberty still reigns,” he insists on Fox & Friends. The other group, though, it wears “government issued grey garb” and it “awaits further instructions…. Right now, lockdown rules are endangering lives.”[12] (There’s the false personal liberty-or-public health dichotomy again.)

The most shameful part of this blatant hypocrisy surrounding Shelley Luther is that the whole thing was a PR stunt. What Luther failed to mention in her “but my children are starving” story before Judge Moyé is that she has plenty of money. “Woke Patriots” set up a GoFundMe for Luther before she decided to confront the Dallas authorities. It now has half-a-million dollars in it. She even received the $18,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan from the very government that she now is defying.[13]

Two Americas is right. Those promotors of the Lie today might deny that there are especially socio-politically vulnerable groups or individuals in America in 2020; or that the wealthy and powerful do not benefit from the oppression of that vulnerable group; or that those who attempt to persuade us that we are somehow complicit in hurting those who are socio-politically weak have their own ulterior motives—they’re pulling one over on us or profiting from our charity. Or maybe the promotors of the Lie today simply say (usually under their breath) that the vulnerable deserve it, just like the wealthy and powerful deserve what they have.

Two Americas. More of the Ahmaud Arbury materials came to light today and the notion that there are actually two versions of America couldn’t be starker. The two Americas has to do with who possesses the kind of power that allows you to break the law (assuming that shooting a man three times for no offense is a crime) and walk away.[23] As The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah noted, “It’s funny how in America if you break the law and look a certain way, you’re a criminal. But if you break the law and look a different way, then you’re a freedom-loving American exercising your rights.” Arbury’s mistake, such as it was, was being a Black man running through a white neighborhood in suburban Georgia. He was in the wrong America at the wrong time.

Elsewhere in America, there is some good news. Cases in hard-hit New York City continue to decline. And I am happy for people in France, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, China—and basically every country but the USA—who seem to have weathered the worst of it. As someone who studies foreign policy, I cannot help but think that this disaster will do irreparable damage to the international image of the United States as the great, global super-power. Perhaps this virus will be the death-knell of the American Century.

Here in the South, we have been under lockdown for three weeks, and yet there’s barely a plateau in the number of cases.

Looking at the University of Maryland’s COVID-19 Impact Analysis Platform, which uses mobile phone data to see how well we are performing at staying at a safe distance, dispels the mystery.[26] Beginning on April 3rd, when nearly every state was in lockdown, Americans did stay home—though only in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC was sheltering in place that consistent. What’s more, we seem to possess only a three-week tolerance. By the last week of April, we got bored and started sneaking out like teenagers. And on Friday, May 1, any semblance of collective compliance had disappeared. Why are we starting to open back up when we haven’t met the CDC guidance of having declining cases for two weeks? Is it because our legislatures are dominated by people who are wedded to the Lie?

A new strange threat might make us reconsider reopening: Pediatric Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (PMIS). Kids rushed to ICUs in New York and Washington with prolonged fever, rash, trouble breathing, rapid heartrate. Antibody tests show that they were exposed to the virus weeks, even months, earlier. It’s a complete mystery. And even though tests suggest the SARS2 virus, even kids who were otherwise COVID asymptomatic are showing this scary reaction.[27] I wonder how much more of these cases will develop as we reopen schools.

Meanwhile, pandemic notwithstanding, the country’s legal system still has to function. No one wants to spend a day or more in a courtroom right now. The Federal Circuit Court has been holding its arguments over the phone since March.[28] Judges are also cancelling arguments outright and making decisions based on briefs. SCOTUS is flushing some things through its system, notably. Meanwhile, civil and criminal bench and jury trials are being postponed again until June. The Eastern District of California Chief Judge Kimberly Mueller says today that she can’t guarantee cases going to trial within three years of being filed.[29] Now they are talking about virtual jury trials. It is hard to know what that means.

It will take years to figure out the impact that the pandemic has had on American law. Right now, as these cases are being decided, I wonder if the experience of the virus is leading to verdicts that are angry and vengeful or mild and tempered. Will memories of life before social distancing somehow affect how juries identify both themselves and those being tried?

Studies have shown that in times of crisis American juries become more reflective, more willing to stick it to corporations, more ardent defenders of the common good, and less likely to blame individuals in tough circumstances. After catastrophes, wars, and natural disasters juries often side with defendants. When a fight broke out over a stolen respirator patent during Hurricane Sandy, for instance, the jury returned a verdict for the defendant, against the patent designers.[30] The jury is still out on whether or not that trend will continue this year in either of the two Americas.



[1] The full letter can be read below.

[2] George Orwell, 1984 (Harper Perennial, 2014).

[3] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, First edition (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973).

[4] Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, “Perspective | Many Are Worried about the Return of the ‘Big Lie.’ They’re Worried about the Wrong Thing.,” Washington Post, May 21, 2018,

[6] Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Reprint edition (New York: Broadway Books, 2017).

[7] Dan Witters and Jim Harter, “Worry and Stress Fuel Record Drop in U.S. Life Satisfaction,”, May 8, 2020,

[8] Aaron Rupar, “Trump’s Latest Twitter Meltdown Featured QAnon and a Lot of ‘OBAMAGATE,’” Vox, May 11, 2020,

[9] Anna Nemtsova, “In Baku, the Trump Tower Dares Not Bear His Name,” The Daily Beast, March 16, 2020, sec. world,

[10] Sloane Hughes, “Happy Anniversary To Obama’s Tan Suit, The Worst Thing To Ever Happen Ever,” Funny Or Die, August 28, 2019,

[11] CBS DFW, “Sen. Ted Cruz Gets Haircut At Salon A La Mode After Owner Shelley Luther Released From Jail,” CBSDFW 11 News, May 8, 2020,

[12] Ari Kasle, “Katz on Fox & Friends: Shelley Luther Highlights The Two Americas,”, May 7, 2020, Strangely, given their passion for people trying to have freedom during quarantine, neither Katz nor Cruz mention Castro-Garcia or Mata, who each received fines and up to 180 days in jail for doing beautician work out of their own homes. Thankfully, Webb County District Attorney Isidro Alaniz said that, because of Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order regarding Luther, the DA will not prosecute Castro-Garcia or Mata either. Sandra Sanchez, “UPDATE: DA Will Not Pursue Charges against ‘Unlicensed’ Laredo Home Beauticians,” BorderReport (blog), May 9, 2020,

[13] Dan Solomon, “Arrested Dallas Hairdresser’s GoFundMe Launched Before She Even Reopened,” Texas Monthly, May 8, 2020,

[23] Rick Rojas, Richard Fausset, and Serge F. Kovaleski, “Georgia Killing Puts Spotlight on a Police Force’s Troubled History,” The New York Times, May 8, 2020, sec. U.S.,

[26] Robert Herschbach, “UMD Researchers Develop Platform To Track Social Distancing Compliance,” UMD Right Now: University of Maryland, April 13, 2020,

[27] Maria Godoy, “Mystery Inflammatory Syndrome In Kids And Teens Likely Linked To COVID-19,”, May 7, 2020,; Erika Edwards, “At Least 85 Kids across U.S. Have Developed Rare, Mysterious COVID-19-Linked Illness,” NBC News, May 7, 2020,

[28] Davis, Ryan, “Attys Prep For Phone Hearings As Fed. Circ. Braces For Virus,” Law360, 03/12/2020,

[29] Coe, Aebra. “Remote Courtrooms Here To Stay As Judges Tackle Backlogs,” Law360, 05/11/2020,; Davis, Ryan. “Virus Curbs More Hearings, Trials In Fed. Circ. And WDTX,” Law360,” 05/11/2020,

[30] Francis Morrison and John Tanski, “6 Lessons On Jury Advocacy In The Wake Of A Crisis,” Law 360, May 11, 2020,

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Contributor's voices

If you’ll allow me to be dramatic for a moment: kind of like the universe itself, COVID-19 spreads at an exponential rate and is apparently impossible to understand. My feeble human brain strains to process the flood of economic, medical, social, and political uncertainties. The reality I so firmly believed in and defined myself in rapidly unravels and I, the great hero of my own crisis saga, mostly watch Netflix. I am worried about so many things that will inevitably change. I am worried I will change. 

When all this started, I hopefully and naively promised myself I would be a perfect quarantine companion. I would do all the chores. I would be a pillar of love and support for all my people. I would be steady and optimistic and helpful. All of which is to say, I would respond to the lack of control over my life the way any good narcissistic control freak would. I was desperate to be the type of person that would respond well in a crisis. I consider myself among the absolute luckiest of all people in the world who are dealing with this. I have a financial safety net, a strong support system, access to food and shelter, and an ability to physically distance myself from the outside world. Even so, my ridiculous attempts to fight the pandemic obviously failed. 

The painful part started in late March. My partner, Michael, is a doctor. My heart broke every morning he woke up early to walk the four miles to the hospital so as not to risk transmission on public transportation. I was furious with myself when I felt like cracking because I was safe at home while he worked tirelessly. I was safe while millions of Americans risked their health to keep mine safe, millions more lost their livelihoods, and tens of thousands more died. 

When Michael was reassigned to work in the COVID unit at Mass General, I returned to Ohio to care for my family. I sat with my grandmother in my parent’s kitchen as she received news that her friends had passed away. I nervously waited for Michael to let me know he was okay, even as he watched his patients suffer. I logged on to zoom to attend meetings and classes and funerals.  I watched the purported leader of the free world tell his terrified and desperate constituents to drink bleach.  

I also often thought about Sisyphus. An ancient Greek myth describes a uniquely terrible punishment ideated by the gods in which Sisyphus is condemned to an eternity of futile labor. Sound familiar? I’ll refrain from commenting on whether or not COVID-19 is a punishment from the gods, but I feel a certain Sisyphean turmoil in my quarantined life. I was raised to believe that you work for a purpose and for progress. So maybe it’s no wonder that spending an inordinate amount of my waking hours doing the dishes over and over again only to dirty them feels ridiculous. And maybe it’s ok we all feel a bit untethered as we realize that one of the capital “T” Truths of the American cultural narrative can evidently be put on pause. 

I am scared for the lives of people I love. I am scared for the US and global economies. But the thing that really keeps me up at night is Adam Curtis. In 2016, Adam Curtis made a documentary called “HyperNormalisation.” It’s the kind of movie that changed the way I see this reality but is also so weird and opaque I wouldn’t necessary recommend it. Anyway, the basic idea is that, mostly through technology, an “unreal” world has been created. And this “unreal” world we live in now was manufactured to be so comforting and coherent that we’ve become completely blind to its inauthenticity. The movie gets pretty conspiratorial and unwieldy, but I can’t totally disagree with the thesis. 

This is the thing that scares me now: we’ve become so abstracted from what is real, we can’t even tell what is real anymore. So, what happens when an essentially fabricated and contrived society clashes with something way too real? To me, COVID-19 has revealed that we have become so used to constructing reality we have forgotten how to cope with it. Perhaps this also explains why we’ve been so ineffective in our response to climate change, and certainly does not augur well for a future fight against climate change, but that’s a whole other thing. Either way, we *must* recognize that the lie might be easier, but it is no longer good enough. 

Hang on, I’ll try to get somewhere a little more optimistic. Both the Sisyphean ordeal and disillusionment kind of have the same answer. Through a cynical lens, the myth of Sisyphus represents how repetition makes our lives meaningless, and Sisyphus is perhaps most tragic when he is conscious of the meaningless nature of his struggle. But maybe the myth isn’t actually about condemnation and ceaseless mundanity. Maybe it’s actually about freedom. And maybe it’s the type of freedom that can also relieve us of our unreality. 

At first, I tried to fight the reality of the pandemic by baking cookies and pretending things were okay and secretly curling up in a ball to cry in the shower. The way out of purposelessness, though, is through acceptance. I can accept this situation is, well, totally fucked. (sorry, is that allowed?) I can accept that the information that pops up on my phone and TV is also totally fucked. And these things can and actually should make me afraid and furious and despondent. I understand now, though, that the way to be free is not to reject or deny these feelings, it’s to feel them as fully and unapologetically as I possibly can. 

The way to rebel against the “system” of unreality and the painful mundanity of quarantined life is not through circumvention but directly through the heart of it. I could act strong and unafraid and jolly, but this only perpetuates these fundamental fictions. I could protest the stay at home order, but this only sustains a shared denial of reality. I could seek productive pastimes, but this only immortalizes the delusion that productivity is an identity. Instead, I could do something real, even if it is very small. I can love my family and friends and accept their love in return. I can cry and rage and fall apart. I can put myself together again. COVID-19 will change the world and will change me in ways I can’t begin to fathom. But I will continue to hope that even if it doesn’t make me or the world any better, it might just make it all a bit more true. 

—Hannah Wexner

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David Muir of ABC News interviews Donald Trump about “reopening” during a trip to Phoenix on May 5, 2020.

Sarah Cooper, “How to Obamagate” (TikTok, May 22, 2020),

Trevor Noah, “What the F**k is ‘Obamagate’?” The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Comedy Central (May 12, 2020),


*If the pdf thumbnails are not appearing, please reload the page.

Rupar, Aaron. “Trump’s Latest Twitter Meltdown Featured QAnon and a Lot of ‘OBAMAGATE.’” Vox, May 11, 2020.
Maxouris, Christina, and Eric Levenson. “US Coronavirus Death Toll Passes 80,000 as States Move to Phased Reopening.” CNN, May 11, 2020.
David, Raluca, Toby Phillips, Arnaldo Pellini, and Katy Jordan. “Education during the COVID-19 Crisis,” April 16, 2020.

Desiderio, Andrew, and Kyle Cheney. “Senate Republicans Break with Trump over ‘Obamagate.’” POLITICO, May 11, 2020.

SIDLEY. “COVID-19 U.S. Employment Law Update and Guidance for Employers,” May 11, 2020.

Playford, Adam, Kathleen McGrory, Steve Contorno, Caitlin Johnston, and Zachary T. Sampson. “How Florida Slowed Coronavirus: Everyone Stayed Home before They Were Told To.” Tampa Bay Times, May 10, 2020.
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Additional Links
  • Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Reprint edition. New York: Broadway Books, 2017.

* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.