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A Rorschach Epidemic

Published at City Journal

The coronavirus has swallowed up everything. Its microscopic image — a grey mothball with small red crowns emanating from its core — is found in every newspaper, website, and television program around the world. Though the virus remains mysterious, it has revealed much about us. In a matter of weeks, it has become a global Rorschach test, exposing an infinite range of human preoccupations. The virus itself is a simple machine, neither dead nor alive, but it has inspired an endless stream of broadcasts, editorials, tweets, and multitrillion-dollar policy responses.

In the realm of politics, Covid-19 has become a proof point for ideological factions. Some on the left cite the shortage of ventilators and empty store shelves as failures of capitalism, arguing that Medicare For All and nationalization of industry would solve the problem. Some on the right argue that the FDA has stifled innovation, and that the private sector is best equipped to handle the crisis. Even fringe ideological groups, such as doomsday preppers and bitcoin miners, have claimed that the recent shutdown orders vindicate their longstanding predictions of societal collapse.

On an international level, commentators have busied themselves predicting the next global realignment. China doves view the epidemic as “making China’s model look better and better,” praising the Communist Party’s assertion of police power and advanced technology to maintain order. China hawks, on the other hand, assert that Beijing covered up the outbreak and placed the world at grave risk—promoting this message through the #ChinaVirus debate on social media. “Hard decoupling,” these critics say, is the only way to counter China’s malign global influence and dangerous monopoly on the world’s supply chain.

Here in Washington State, the original epicenter of the crisis in the U.S., the Rorschach test has begun to split along partisan lines. Progressives in Seattle sense an opportunity for “big structural change,” advocating for $500 million in new corporate taxes, a general strike against Amazon and Instacart, and the seizure of vacant apartments and hotels to house the homeless. In rural counties, fear is growing that the state government is encroaching on constitutional rights by shutting down gun stores, churches, and small businesses. Right-wing militias and Antifa groups are escalating their rhetoric, with some leaders agitating on social media for a shooting war.

The virus reminds us that in a time of panic, people retreat to their familiar corners — and that the most extreme views find an audience. Though it’s easy to become disoriented in this abstract world of fear and speculation, I’ve found comfort in limiting my own thoughts to my immediate environment — a rural town in the Puget Sound — where all is still calm. Delivery trucks are making their rounds and the grocery stores remain well-stocked. Emergency-room doctors have been preparing for an onslaught, but fortunately, the curve has started to bend, and the local hospitals still have capacity.

Many observers predict massive social realignments after the virus, but my sense is that the status quo ante will largely return. In my neighborhood, no one appears to be preoccupied with hard decoupling from China or big structural change; most families are worried about their jobs and how to manage with the kids at home for the next few months. The shutdown restrictions have prompted some grumbling, but the general sense is that everything will be okay again — eventually — even if most don’t want to say so out loud.

Either way, the virus will run its course. It will play out its own internal logic, as policymakers attempt to balance their concerns for public health and the economy. For most of us, the coronavirus reveals more about our fears and fantasies than our understanding of chloroquine and community spread. Despite our best efforts, the virus will continue its invisible rampage and deal some unknowable damage to our society, our economy, and our way of life. In the end, we can only hope that my skeptical neighbors are closer to the truth than those forecasting graver scenarios. We’ll find out soon.

Christopher Rufo

Director, Center on Wealth, Poverty & Morality
Christopher Rufo is the director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth & Poverty. He has directed four documentaries for PBS, Netflix, and international television, including his latest film, America Lost, that tells the story of three "forgotten American cities.” Christopher is currently a contributing editor of City Journal, where he covers poverty, homelessness, addiction, crime, and other afflictions. Christopher is a magna cum laude graduate of Georgetown University, Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow, and has appeared on NPR, CNN, ABC, CBS, HLN, and FOX News.