I saw a movie last week. A friend recommended it. His cinematic tastes are more sophisticated than mine, but Mars Attacks delivered exactly what the title promised, and more. Mars didn’t just attack; its inhabitants annihilated almost everyone in the cast. Pierce Brosnan was decapitated and Sarah Jessica Parker’s head was transplanted onto a chihuahua. When President Dale (Jack Nicholson) pleaded for peace, a Martian hand of friendship impaled him through the rectum. All that stood between earth and oblivion was, inexplicably, the music of Slim Whitman. The aliens disliked it so much that (spoiler alert!) their brains exploded. As a result, humanity prevailed.
It would be an exaggeration to call the film good. Dumbing down is its own reward though, and I had my reasons for watching it. An excuse, at least. I’d been thinking about the apocalyptic atmosphere that descended as COVID-19 spread out of Wuhan and Milan, and a story Mikhail Gorbachev had once told about Ronald Reagan. In November 1985, during a nuclear arms control summit in Geneva, the American president apparently ended an afternoon session early and invited his Soviet counterpart on a lakeside stroll. Accompanied only by interpreters, Reagan then raised a subject that was playing on his mind. If extra-terrestrials were to invade, he wondered, would the USSR help defend earth? ‘Without a doubt’, said Gorbachev.
The very idea of a US president who dreams of global cooperation is almost poignant in 2020, and Reagan’s sunny personality couldn’t be more different from the dark presence glowering out of the White House today. But Reagan trod a fine line between ludicrous and bellicose, playing up to his cowboy image in an era that teetered on armageddon. President Dale’s unhappy fate in Mars Attacks was a reminder that not every threat can be negotiated away, but the casting of Jack Nicholson as a reasonable man also hints at an unexpectedly serious point. The gravity of a global crisis is no guarantee against ridiculous or inadequate political leadership.
High-flown rhetoric about the scale of the COVID-19 threat was widespread outside the United States when this pandemic began. In March, the World Health Organisation and Chinese government both urged the international community to take concerted action for humanity’s sake. By early April, no less a figure than Matt Hancock was rallying the human race. It was ‘in the midst of a war’, he said, and history proved ‘that when the world unites against a common foe, we will prevail.’ A couple of days later, the Queen pitched in. She recalled a more divisive conflict – the Second World War – but ‘this time’, she reassured viewers, ‘we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour.’
That almost sounded convincing. As I counted emergency vehicles and hearses on my rides around lockdown London, ominous developments far away felt strangely familiar. A friend who’s been working on a book about life in an isolated Peruvian village told me that the virus was somehow spreading through the Amazonian rainforest. An aid worker I know described its effects in the world’s largest refugee camp: the residents of Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar had been doubly confined, and they were worrying not just about COVID-19, but also rumours that anyone showing symptoms would be murdered in quarantine. Hardships were often worse elsewhere, but the sense of menace was ubiquitous. It seemed to be touching everyone, in ways more shareable than ever before.
That’s changed, in that people are now angry and sceptical as well as distressed, and the prospects for inter-governmental collaboration look even worse. As if hankering for a War on Terror to call his own, Donald Trump’s only crisis strategy has been to conjure more adversaries into existence. Two days after Benjamin Netanyahu became the first world leader to call COVID-19 an ‘invisible enemy’, the president borrowed the phrase to declare war on it. In the three months since, his tweets, interviews, press briefings and speeches have attacked the ‘invisible enemy’ (along with the ‘Wuhan virus’, the ‘Chinese plague’ and ‘kung flu’) more than a hundred times. Under cover of the verbal barrage, he’s withdrawn United States from the World Health Organisation and escalated political assaults on not just China, but Canada and Europe too. The only fears he hasn’t whipped up are those he senses might be his fault. Asked on 20 March what he’d say to Americans ‘who are scared’, Trump told NBC’s Peter Alexander, ‘I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think that’s a very nasty question.’
Contemplating the violent vocabulary of Donald Trump for long never did anyone any good. But the language has echoes closer to home that deserve notice. Boris Johnson first mentioned the ‘invisible enemy’ just two days after Trump, and when the prime minister announced his own ‘wartime government’ on 17 March, he was deliberately evoking the alliance against Hitler. ‘Incredible’, an astute American friend observed at the time. ‘He’s dreamed of being Churchill in the wilderness for years. Now it’s all come true, and you can’t even complain about the war he’s chosen to fight.’ Three months on, her cynicism’s redundant. Winston Churchill, for all his flaws, rose heroically to the moment. Johnson, having targeted a morally indefensible foe, has been ceding ground throughout.
Caricatures notwithstanding, the prime minister is quick-witted and eloquent, and the difficulty he’s had in articulating this pandemic’s enormity is correspondingly telling. His first effort on 12 March – a sombre warning that many families would ‘lose loved ones before their time’ – was so surprising that it was impressive. But Johnson reflected a lot more anxiety than he soothed, and after COVID-19 came close to killing him, he seemed hostage to his own clichés. Speaking after his hospitalisation, he said that: ‘If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.’ Ostensibly heartfelt, the reduction of a brush with death to a supernatural street crime casts doubt on whether Johnson saw beyond his lucky escape at all. Even as an expression of optimism, the statement rang false. Since the day the coronavirus was supposedly wrestled to the floor, the number of lives it’s claimed has almost doubled.
Johnson’s inadequacy is so apparent that his approval ratings have plummeted, and since his dependence on Dominic Cummings was exposed last month, it’s become common to hear that he’s lost the psychological plot too. Rumours are circulating that late fatherhood is proving stressful or that post-intensive care syndrome has set in; my favourite fantasy is that shame is belatedly gnawing at his soul. Chances are he’s just finding hard work a chore though. And though his inner demons are probably awful to behold – more terrible than any invisible mugger – only one misfortune would definitely instil shame. Deserting the metaphorical battlefield would be an admission of real defeat.
My own bet’s on a prime ministerial offensive. Now that Johnson has announced a major dismantling of the lockdown on 4 July, he’s bound to try and switch attention to more comfortable political arguments – including Brexit – so as to recover his footing. That could make the next few weeks particularly dangerous. His lurch to liberation clearly owes more to calculations of political advantage than it does to serious assessments of practical readiness. Though Johnson told parliament on 20 May that the UK would have a ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace operation in place by the beginning of this month, recently released official statistics show that a quarter of those who’ve so far tested positive for COVID-19 haven’t been traced at all. That puts all the talk of invisible enemies into its proper context. If the government was focused on eradicating an unseen virus, a more efficient system to identify carriers would have been developed long ago.
I’m keener than ever to mix and mingle, but the prime minister’s claim to parliament yesterday that ‘at every stage, caution will remain our watchword’ inspires no confidence at all. With tattered military ambitions in mind, Boris Johnson’s performance reminded me of advice urged on Lyndon Johnson at a pivotal moment during the build-up of US troops in Vietnam: ‘Declare victory and go home’. That would have been a sensible strategy back in 1966 – countless lives would have been saved – but it would be a disastrous course of action today. That’s not to say risks shouldn’t be taken; they’re unavoidable. But this pandemic is a lot more complicated than the war Boris Johnson had in mind when it began – and its political challenges are only going to get tougher.