NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 26: A man in a full protective suit delivers supplies to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York City.
Perhaps it is inevitable that middlebrow culture seems particularly meaningful at moments of disarray. When Donald Trump won the presidential election in November 2016, the hottest cultural phenomenon was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, and each song — ostensibly about the American Revolution and its aftermath — seemed to resonate to our embattled political culture.
The cruelty of the new president’s policies quickly made moments in the performance into opportunities for resistance. Each evening, when Hamilton and Lafayette high-fived and shouted: “Immigrants — we get the job done!” a Broadway audience descended from, and dependent on, migrants would erupt in cheers.
The threat from the nascent Trump administration felt existential in the weeks after the election. It quickly intensified as it became clear what kind of suffering Donald Trump planned to inflict on the most vulnerable among us. On Friday, January 27, a week after being sworn in, Trump created his first crisis. With a hasty Executive Order, he banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days, prohibited the admission of refugees for 120 days, and indefinitely suspended entry to Syrian refugees.
Over several weeks, squads of pro bono attorneys, often brought there free of charge by Uber and cab drivers, flooded Kennedy and Newark airports to free detained visa holders. In those days, I walked down the streets of New York repeatedly listening to Miranda’s song “Right Hand Man,” which describes the British massing for an attack off the coast of Lower Manhattan in July 1776. “British Admiral Howe’s got troops on the water,” the chorus sings, “Thirty-two thousand troops in New York harbor.”
It is no exaggeration to say that New Yorkers, 87% of whom had voted for Hillary Clinton, understood Donald Trump as an existential threat from the outset. As New Yorkers marched for immigrant rights in the coming days, we made it clear that Trumpism would proceed over our dead bodies.
Because of the gross incompetence of the Trump administration, a New Yorker is dying as you read this post. Our schools, our cultural institutions, and our public life are being strangled by an uneducated, vain, and incompetent man who is remarkably similar to Hamilton‘s foppish and fictional King George III. “I will kill your friends and family,” the sovereign warbles before he flits off Hamilton’s stage in Act I, “to remind you of my love.”
Donald Trump doesn’t love any of us, but as we all know, exhibiting love and appreciation for him is a prerequisite for getting him to do his job at all. So perhaps it is no accident that this vain and unprepared President sees no reason to help a city that will never vote for him. As of yesterday afternoon, 5,489 New Yorkers have been killed by the novel coronavirus in less than a month: 731 died in 24 hours, as Donald Trump dithered about which governors are nice to him and which don’t show proper gratitude.
New Yorkers understand revenge: we’re kind of good at it. When those British troops landed in 1776, fighting their way through Brooklyn and into Manhattan as Washington’s army retreated, they expected to garrison troops in the city. But on September 21, as the King’s troops fought Washington in Harlem, a fire, probably set by patriots, broke out, and about a third of the city burned. It would take seven years even to begin rebuilding New York City.
To remake our city, we will need to learn from our pandemic experience. We begin this week’s issue with thoughts from New School economist Paulo dos Santos about what the pandemic has revealed: that the workers we need the most from in a crisis are the workers that we value least. Next, José Ángel Navejas reminds us that the pervasive sense of foreboding and limbo that engulfs us now is utterly familiar to the undocumented — many of whom still risk their lives to clean, cook and care for others, even as the rest of us shelter in place. And Native American poet Natalie Diaz urges another lesson on us: to reimagine wounded, suffering bodies as things of beauty.
Next, we look at how pandemics undermine democracy. Kriszta Kovács explores the opening that this public health crisis has created for extending the authoritarian rule of the Orbán government in Hungary. At the same time, Sławomir Sierakowski shows, populist governments have adopted this tactic more broadly while snuffing out media attention to their opposition. Jeffrey Kopstein closes this section with a reminder that bureaucratic failure in the face of COVID-19 was an inevitable outcome of Trump’s patrimonial presidency. “Precisely at the time, we need a state bureaucracy to be running the show,” he writes, “we can’t have it.”
We close this week’s issue with history. Gaëtan Thomas and Guillaume Lachenal write about how familiar plagues and pestilence are. Although “The `lessons of the past’ were known by heart,” they write, “it is hard to overstate how unprepared they left us.” Perhaps, as Lukáš Likavčan and Benjamin Peters write about Prague in the 1920s, this is because scientists and technologists are so optimistic. But as we know, optimism is often unwarranted when it comes to the natural and political worlds which science inhabits. In our final essay, historian Kate Brown explains how we can understand scientific catastrophes, even in the face of efforts to conceal them.
How long will it take to understand the full implications of what this virus—and in the case of the United States, what Trump’s incompetence—has done to us? Now — as I teach online, watch small businesses I cherish veer towards bankruptcy and read reports of presidential press conferences I can no longer bear to watch — I hum a line that recurs throughout Hamilton: “History has its eye on you.”
History is a character in our lives now, just as it was Hamilton’s silent castmember. History labors by the side of every medical worker, and it sits on the bed of every stricken citizen. History walks the picket line with Amazon and Instacart workers. It rides the nearly empty subways and busses that take people wearing homemade masks to essential jobs, and it comforts the children who can’t do learn remotely because their families can’t afford an internet connection.
History has its eye on Trump. And that story, a story about the most untutored, fickle and murderous presidency in modern American history, will now be written over our dead bodies.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.