Alan Alda’s character in Crimes and Misdemeanors is supposed to be arrogant and insufferable, but I always thought he had at least a small point when he argued that comedy is tragedy plus time. You can make jokes about 9/11 today, but it’s hard to say how much time had to pass before it was permissible to treat that day with anything but solemnity.
As he said, “If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it’s not funny.” That’s how I feel about a lot of things right now. For example, on Friday, the Washington Post wrote:
Inside the West Wing, some officials talk about the federal government’s mitigation mission as largely accomplished because they believe the nation’s hospitals are now equipped to meet anticipated demand — even as health officials warn the number of coronavirus cases could increase considerably in May and June as more states and localities loosen restrictions…
And on Monday, CNN reported:
Trump administration officials spent the weekend scrambling as they attempted to do contact tracing for Katie Miller, Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary who tested positive for coronavirus last week.
But they had not identified who Miller contracted the virus from as of Sunday, raising concerns inside the White House about how to contain the outbreak. Some aides expressed concern at how Monday would proceed without greater clarity on how the virus had originated and spread.
When I see those two pieces of reporting side by side, my first reaction is to bust out laughing. It almost reminds me of the “There’s always a tweet” meme, where it seems that people can always find a Donald Trump tweet from the past that contradicts or undermines whatever he is trying to say in the present.
Here the White House is trying to convince itself that it’s contained the viral outbreak and it’s safe for people to return to business as usual, but no sooner than they begin to implement this policy than they discover that their own workplace is unsafe. They tell us that we don’t need to do widespread testing and that an army of contact tracers are not needed, but the first thing they do when the virus shows up in the White House is attempt to do contact tracing. And the effort is unsuccessful.
This kind of karmic comeuppance would be funny, just as it’s funny to compare Trump’s past tweets to his current positions, except that the consequences are catastrophic. The initial response might be a guffaw as the cosmic irony of it all bends our sense of humor. But, after a moment of reflection, the laughs disappear. The joke breaks up on the shoals of seriousness.
Conservatives often need to learn from direct experience. Climate change isn’t serious until your vacation property is inundated by flood waters. Public health investment is a waste until your wife comes down with leukemia. Gay marriage is an abomination until it’s your daughter who wants to get married. School shootings are not an urgent problem until one happens in your community. The same applies here to the White House and their experience with the coronavirus.
Reality has punched them right in their lying mouths and exposed their self-delusion, and this is ordinarily the moment when conservatives might actually “get it.” If we want to return to normal, we need to be able to quickly trace new infections so we can isolate the people who are spreading the disease. If you don’t build this capability, opening the economy is not going to work and people are going to needlessly die.
Yet, because Donald Trump is uniquely insane, even this painful reality-slap is unlikely to cause a course correction. There’s a reason you’ve never seen Trump laugh. There’s a reason he’s never told a funny joke. Nothing with Trump ever bends. Things only break.