Triumph, Disaster, and Progress: COVID-19 and the 2020 Election

Joe Biden’s victory is a Triumph amid an ongoing Disaster.

This election challenges us to “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” Unsplash

While there is still a lot we don’t know about what happened in last week’s elections, we do know that Democrats won the presidency. In addition to netting the second-largest popular vote margin this century, Joe Biden won a convincing electoral college victory. As America assesses the potential impacts of that victory, we may find some insight in the words of Nobel laureate (and, I am sad to report, notorious racist) Rudyard Kipling, who counseled the readers of his poem “If” to “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the White House is a Triumph amid an ongoing Disaster. They — and the country that elected them to lead — must reckon with both. The pandemic is perhaps the best lens through which to consider this.

Let’s start with the Disaster. Though overshadowed by news coverage of the election, this past week was one of the worst so far for COVID-19, both in the United States and at Furman. About 1 in 462 Americans tested positive for the virus last week. In addition to this record number of cases, hospitalizations are rising, and the death rate continues to hover around 1,000 per day. The silver lining is that doctors have learned a lot over the past eight months about how to treat this disease, so that patients who might have died if they had gotten sick in the spring are now more likely to survive. Even so, the virus is spreading uncontrollably nearly everywhere in the United States — including here in Greenville. The fact that this is happening as we approach the holidays and winter months is cause for alarm. Although many Furman students are insulated from the direct effects of this ongoing crisis, the virus continues to have a serious impact on our lives, and the informal interactions that sustain social health on campus will be constrained by some version of the Paladin Promise through at least the spring semester.

A crisis like this would be challenging under any president, but Donald Trump’s response to it has been particularly destructive because of his blatant disregard for institutions. His politicization of the CDC and the FDA has been especially damaging, not because they are perfect or infallible, but because they cannot function without public trust and reasonable opportunities to engage in the scientific process. The bizarre decisions made by the CDC this year under pressure from the White House do not engender confidence on either front. 

The incoming Biden administration promises to halt this undermining of institutions. Biden is an insider who not only understands how institutions work but thrives when they are working well. This is not to say that we should expect everything to snap back to a pre-Trump normal. Rebuilding public trust is a complex task that will take decades. But the Biden administration will stop the bleeding and allow scientists in government agencies the freedom to follow the scientific process without fear of being sidelined or losing their jobs altogether. Hence the Triumph.

Our tendency as human beings is to treat Triumph and Disaster differently, becoming absorbed in one or the other and failing to see reality as a result. As we learn more about the election and its aftermath, we will be challenged to treat them the same. The Trump presidency has been a profound Disaster, one that cannot be erased or reversed simply with reassuring words and a flurry of executive orders. But the Triumph that comes with its end is real. What comes next no one can say. Let’s hope that it’s progress.

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