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'The Smell Of Buried Rot': 'Atlantic' Writer On U.S. Vulnerabilities In Pandemic Times


The pandemic has delivered shocking scenes here in America of chaotic leadership, hospitals begging for basic equipment while the virus ravages the most vulnerable and a polarized population inundated with misinformation. George Packer calls the United States now a failed state and writes in The Atlantic, (reading) if the pandemic really is a kind of war, it's the first to be fought on this soil in a century and a half. Invasion and occupation, he writes, expose a society's fault lines, exaggerating what goes unnoticed or accepted in peacetime, clarifying essential truths and raising the smell of buried rot. George Packer, welcome to the program.

GEORGE PACKER: Good to be with you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This past week, the president mused at an official briefing about people injecting disinfectant. Then as people said, it was taken out of context. Then he said he was kidding, despite video evidence to the contrary. You excoriate President Trump in this article for how he has dealt with this pandemic.

PACKER: I think he has an enormous responsibility on his head for needless sickness and death and suffering. When I wrote that we're a failed state, I didn't mean the textbook definition. Obviously, you and I both, Lulu, have been in failed states.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed - I was about to say.

PACKER: Yeah, Iraq and Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast from civil war from poverty. This is not that. The police are working. 911 works. Checks arrive in the mail. But in those days in March when ordinary people were trying to figure out what to do, there was no instruction, no guidance and no concern from the national government. And it gave me an eerie reminder of what it was like for people who I knew in those other countries to know that their government was of no use to them and didn't even seem to care about them during a disaster.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The unfolding catastrophe has roots, you say, in three relatively recent crises this century - 9/11, the Iraq War, the Great Recession. Why those events? How did America's response to those crises shape where we are now, in your view?

PACKER: I think the initial response to 9/11, as we all remember, was national unity. But I think the Iraq War and the financial crisis so jaded Americans about their government that the trust that's necessary for a national response to a crisis on this scale really began to erode in those years. And we might not have known how much it eroded until this one hit us, and we realized how thin the ties were between Americans and between Americans and their government and all the more so because, although Donald Trump is not responsible for either the deep inequality of many decades nor for the virus, he was an accelerant to both.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, one of the biggest problems you cite is how the federal government has been - and I'm quoting here - "crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties and steady defunding." And you say that experts who have been part of the civil service are essential workers.

PACKER: One thing that the Trump years have done is - he went to war with his own bureaucracy because he saw it as, in pursuing things like investigations and trials and intelligence work - he saw it as a threat to his own personal interests. So he wanted a government that was absolutely loyal to him. He drove out many leading civil servants. He created a chilling atmosphere for those who stayed. And so now what we have, essentially, is a federal government with a thin crust of loyalists and a cowed and frightened civil service beneath them who are afraid to even say the most basic things because they might be threatened with being fired, like Nancy Messonnier of the Center for Disease Control. So that's the damage that's been done to the federal government right when we need it the most. And we only realize the extent of the damage when we need it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say your article has gotten a great deal of pushback on the right. I'll quote one article in The National Review, which says your piece is, quote, "a fairy tale common to prosperous liberals" and states that underinvestment and underdevelopment that are characteristic of failed states are not remotely present here, that, per capita, U.S. spending on health care drives research and innovation and that this country is - yes, had been unprepared for this pandemic, but so were many others in western Europe.

PACKER: It's true that European countries - many of them didn't do much better than we did. But we'll see how history judges the Trump administration. We'll see how history judges the ideology of small government is better, and incompetent government may be even better than that. We'll see how it's judged when we have the final tally of American deaths.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Finally, in the piece, you do pose this question. Do we trust our leaders and one another enough to summon a collective response to a mortal threat? Are we still capable of self-government? What is the answer to that now in your view?

PACKER: Right now, I have my doubts. There is so much chaos in Washington and in the states that I have doubts that we have enough glue and trust between the states and the government, between the people and the government to have a really coherent plan for how to get out of this. But I think we have also a lot of ingenuity and talent and desire to help and sacrifice and generosity and courage that I'm not in despair. I'm just in a state of high alarm. And I'm hoping that in the coming months, we'll see those really powerful qualities of Americans come to the fore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's George Packer. His piece in The Atlantic is titled "We Are Living In A Failed State." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PACKER: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.

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