Welcome to the Fourth World

How Trump has initiated America’s undoing—and how coronavirus is helping him speed it up.

Americans have a better chance of keeping themselves and others safe by ignoring what President Trump says. He has already contributed to the death of an Arizona man who, along with his wife, took chloroquine (used to clean fish tanks!) the day after Trump misinformed the country about its anti-viral effectiveness. Medical experts criticized the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization for its use, because too much can kill you. In fact, its use against malaria is not necessarily applicable to COVID-19 without careful clinical trials to establish proper dosing. In the wife’s case, it sent her into critical condition. Even doctors who listened to Trump are writing prescriptions to hoard the drug for themselves, depleting supplies for those who really need it for lupus and other ailments.

This is what the United States has come to. You can’t believe your president, the one who is getting a 55 percent approval rating for his handling—or mishandling—of the pandemic. You shouldn’t have accepted his cavalier assessment that the supposed severity of the virus was just the Democrats’ “new hoax” that would soon disappear. You can’t trust his absurd assurances that sufficient tests and medical equipment are available, or that they’re not really needed in bulk.

You certainly shouldn’t act on his push to fill the churches on Easter and to go back to work—advice he’s now recanted by extending preventive guidelines until April 30. His contradictory and self-absorbed briefings have encouraged millions to take the disease less seriously than warranted, which could lead to the collapse of law enforcement, health care, fire departments, infrastructure maintenance, and food supplies as those essential workers drop into sickness.

Trump is a national security risk. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t been paying attention. He refuses to talk to governors who don’t fawn over him. He claims to have inherited “a broken system.” Yet he has been in office for more than three very long years, during which he has watched TV compulsively, tweeted his grievances and insults, played lots of golf, come to work late in the morning, and governed the way Boris Yeltsin did in Russia as it descended: by simply firing people, as if the federal government were his TV show, The Apprentice.

The cost is now apparent. An excellent analysis by Jennifer Steinhauer and Zolan Kanno-Youngs in The New York Times documents the handicaps created by the widespread vacancies in key federal positions, the massive departures of top scientists and specialists in emergency management, and the colossal inexperience of political lackeys Trump has appointed. It’s a reminder of the Soviet Union in its final years, as political orthodoxy mattered more than expertise.

There is a reminder of another kind. Anyone who has been in a Third World country, whether in deep poverty or in wartime, knows the familiarity of harrowing accounts we are now receiving from American hospitals. In Cambodia, too, patients waited for hours or days in hallways. There, too, doctors and nurses were overwhelmed and often helpless in the face of insufficient methods of treatment. People died when decent medical care could have saved them.

We are now in a Fourth World—“a new category of nations: those once mighty and noble that are falling into frailty and disrepute.” Those words are from a piece I wrote the day before Trump was inaugurated. It was entitled, “America Enters a Fourth World.” My apologies for quoting myself, which puts me off when writers do it. But I’ll continue shamelessly, and you can read the whole essay here to see how obvious Trump’s defects were even before he took office as “the most childish, reckless, and truthless president in modern American history.”

The Fourth World “is a place of undoing. It is a place where moral values of the common good are picked apart, strand by strand, until only the shreds of caring and justice remain. It is where progress is dismantled: progress—albeit fitful and incomplete—in mobilizing the society through government to protect the impoverished from utter ruin, the innocent from false imprisonment, minorities from tyranny, children from hunger, families from dangerous foods and medicines and polluted air and water, and the earth from the end-stage of catastrophic global warming.

There is nothing divinely ordained about America’s greatness. Once Trump and the radicals who will populate most of his cabinet finish their efforts to destroy what has been painstakingly constructed over decades, it will take a generation to recover. That is the actual time when it will be appropriate to plead, “Make America Great Again!”

The term “Third World,” coined in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, a French demographer, evolved into the optimistic label “developing countries.” In the meantime, it spawned the category “First World” to mean the industrialized capitalist countries, and the “Second World,” the industrialized communist countries. Only “Third World” survived for a while as common shorthand.

Welcome now to the Fourth World. “In Trump’s vicinity, truth dies,” I wrote the day before his inauguration. “He facilitates the erosion of shared reality in a polarized society more infatuated with opinion than fact—or, rather, that believes opinion is fact.”

Three years and two months later, he is still fooling millions of Americans. His misleading, self-serving opinions interact with a credulous public to produce a toxin. “Don’t believe anything that the president says,” advised the Arizona woman whose husband died. In other words, we need to observe social distancing—from the president and his babbling.

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David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of seven books, and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report.