Calming the stampede

The Biden administration finds itself having to proceed in two directions at once: restoring competent governance even as it deals sternly with the criminal delusions Trump left behind.

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The staggering incompetence of the previous administration’s handling of COVID-19, Gene Lyons writes, poses both a threat and an opportunity for President Joe Biden.

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Some years ago, my wife and I were walking along the edge of a horse pasture when a stampede broke out. We heard them before we saw them. Nine big mares went thundering past at a dead gallop, a thrilling and somewhat scary sight.

I knew them all by name, they knew me, and a horse will never trample you on purpose, but these were 1,500-pound animals fleeing headlong at 30 mph. The only thing to do was freeze for a heart-stopping moment. As the herd swept past, I noticed the two youngest animals at the rear looking back over their shoulders and making eye contact, as if to say: “I don’t see anything chasing us. Do you? Why are we running?”

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Just then the lead mare went pounding into a run-in shed and stopped dead. The rest imitated her at once. Evidently the whole thing had been caused by a horse fly on the herd boss’s butt.

The equine equivalent, if you will, of Donald Trump tweets about election fraud. Except that the horse fly was real, and if you’ve ever been bitten, you’d run too. Most of Boss Trump’s aggravated supporters, however, are stampeding from largely imaginary dangers.

Consider, for example, the Colorado man who told The New York Times that he quit his job as a fuel truck driver because he refused to wear a mask. He sees masking not as a temporary public health measure but a harbinger of tyranny. He sees himself as “a guy up on the wall of a city seeing the enemy coming, and ringing the alarm bell.”

He asked reporter Sabrina Tavernise if she’s “OK with internment camps if you refuse to wear a mask or take a vaccination?”

In short, he’s a naive fellow whose judgment has been overwhelmed by Trump and right-wing talk radio. It happens to a lot of guys who drive trucks; all alone on the highway with Rush Limbaugh.

At this point, it’s worthwhile revisiting the wisdom of Charles Mackay, the 19th-century Scottish author of “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

The abiding political question of the moment is how many Trump cultists are as smart as those two skeptical mares at the back of the herd?

Also, can calm, steadfast Joe Biden now end the stampede?

On a related question, it’s also worthwhile quoting Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat. Asked by NJ.com what he thought about letting bygones be bygones after a Trumpist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, he responded with deadpan Jersey sarcasm: “Yes, we’ve got to come together,” he said. “I’m not going to condemn someone who just attempted to kidnap and kill me. It would only foster division.”

In short, the new Biden administration finds itself having to proceed in two directions at once: restoring rational, competent governance even as it deals sternly with the criminal delusions Trump left behind.

The staggering incompetence of the Trump administration’s handling of COVID-19 vaccines poses both a threat and an opportunity. “This will be one of the most challenging operational efforts ever undertaken by our country,” Biden has said. “You have my word that we will manage the hell out of this operation.”

They damn well better. It’s the public health equivalent of the Normandy landings of 1944. The lives of millions are at stake. To be honest, I thought Biden was exaggerating when he said just after the election that the Trump administration had no plan for the vaccine rollout. But it was simply a fact.

Partly because Trump as president had no interest in anything that didn’t directly affect him, and partly because he filled his administration with incompetents, the matchless capacities of the federal government to produce, distribute and administer the vaccines mainly sat idle.

When people begin to see the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Guard setting up thousands of mass inoculation sites and sending mobile medical teams into remote communities, the political climate in the country will also begin to change. It will be a hard slog, but the day this accursed plague begins to recede will be the day Trumpism does, too.

Ask somebody who’s already been vaccinated how relieved they feel.

Meanwhile, as Malinowski implies, some of those jerks who invaded Congress need to do some serious prison time. Maybe even the head insurrectionist himself, depending upon how much active collusion investigators can find.

“The mob was fed lies,” Sen. Mitch McConnell has said. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence” to stop the votes being counted.

The word for that is sedition, and the remedy begins with impeachment.

Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Times.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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