The words came from Jodi Doering, an ER nurse in South Dakota, and they were posted on Twitter over the weekend.
In her own quiet way, Doering proved once again that what is most simply stated is often what is most profound:
“I have a night off from the hospital,” Doering wrote. “As I’m on my couch with my dog I can’t help but think of the COVID patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA.
“All while gasping for breath on 100 percent Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you wear all that ‘stuff’ because they don’t have COVID because it’s not real.
“Yes. This really happens. And I can’t stop thinking about it. These people really think this isn’t going to happen to them. And then they start yelling at you when they get intubated. It’s like a fucking horror movie that never ends. There’s no credits that roll. You just go back and do it all over again.
“Which is what I will do for the next three nights. But tonight. It’s me and Cliff (the dog) and Oreo ice cream. And how ironic I have on my “home” hoodie. The South Dakota I love seems far away right now.”
I speak as an outsider on South Dakota – but perhaps not so much as you think. My ancestors were among the first white settlers in the state. My mother spent her earliest years on a homestead on a bald stretch of South Dakota prairie. My sister taught in schools in Rapid City and Sioux Falls for decades. My nieces and nephew grew up there. My knee still aches from a basketball game in a tournament in Rapid City when a big player from North Dakota (who may or may not have been Phil Jackson) fell on me.
But whether it’s South Dakota, Nebraska, New York or California, it’s come to this. Thousands of health workers in the U.S. are retiring, temporarily stepping away from their jobs or seeking less stressful assignments. Eight months into the pandemic and facing an unprecedented spike that brought more than 650,000 new cases in four days over the weekend, they are worn out, stressed out, used up. Who can blame them?
It all begins with falsehood, with people in high places deliberately scrapping the truth. Outgoing President Donald Trump began the process early on in this pandemic when he claimed it would be nothing, that it would just go away, that the churches would be full by Easter. Now Thanksgiving looms, and Christmas after that, and the goal is farther away than ever.
The Trump lies, picked up by his cult followers and rippling through a segment of the public like a prairie fire, have been repeated ad nauseam by a long list of people who ought to know better, including South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. Noem and most of her fellow Republican governors are as guilty as Trump and the Republican members of Congress of spreading the fabrications that make the lives of front-line health workers so much more precarious.
Doering’s words reflect how profoundly this mendacity has affected the public. Even at death’s door, her patients are still claiming COVID is not real as they gasp for breath, still claiming that Joe Biden is going to ruin America as they are made victims by the president they admire.
This is not a political movement. There is no rational cause, no believable platform at the core of it. It is a cult, and it begins with the man in the White House. The corrosive effect of the assault on truth will linger long after he has waddled off into the sunset, still ranting that he won an election he lost by 6 million votes.
Barack Obama, who will eventually be seen as the greatest president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has been as troubled by the assault on truth as anyone, perhaps because he has been the victim of so many lies. “What we’ve seen is what some people call truth decay,” Obama told 60 Minutes Sunday. “Something that’s been accelerated by outgoing President Trump, the sense that not only do we not have to tell the truth, but the truth doesn’t even matter.”
In a separate interview with the Atlantic, Obama elaborated: “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work.”
The American democracy is under siege because people who are under the spell of a cult leader are no longer capable of distinguishing truth from the baldest lie. As we saw when the followers of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple stepped up to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid, the lie persists right to the grave. No truth can erase it. COVID patients in the U.S. are dying at the rate of more than 1,000 a day, and yet the Trump followers among them are cursing the nurses who are trying to save their lives, because Trump and his enablers have told them the virus is not real.
Now, with Trump sulking in the White House and a bit more than nine weeks to go until Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. is like a runaway train with an insane engineer at the throttle. Biden can’t step in because it isn’t yet his time, so the gravest national crisis since World War 2 rumbles on with no effective national response.
As Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times: “The president, who has never shown much interest in governing, has finally dropped all pretense to focus on the core tenets of the Trump Doctrine: himself, cable news, Twitter, self-pity, and caterwauling.”
After a lifetime devoted to greed, grifting and self-glorification, Trump could salvage a shred of dignity by acknowledging that he mismanaged the pandemic, that the virus is real, and that he lost the election by a considerable margin. He could send the message on Twitter, if he’s unwilling to face the microphones with the truth.
He won’t. He will leave Americans to fend for themselves as he focuses obsessively on the endless grievances of a man who was born with a silver spoon and failed everyone. Even himself.