"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 27, 2020

No Love In The Time Of Quarantine–How COVID And Donald Trump Spoiled A Perfectly Good Marriage

Quarantine is a bad trip no matter when or how happens, but quarantine in COVID America is as bad as it gets.  It is tough enough to be tightly wound with family members who should be far from home in their law offices downtown, adolescent children who should be under their school’s supervision, and toddlers who make ‘working from home’ and impossibility; but worse still when partners fight. 

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Harvey and Melissa Falls had grown politically apart for years.  He had become more and more conservative, much like his John Birch Society parents but with a Tea Party edge.  There were few conservative activists in the Eisenhower years before the rise of Barry Goldwater, William F Buckley and the New Right; but the elder Mr. and Mrs.. Falls were as outspoken as any about about the dangers of  social collectivism, the growing totalitarianism of the progressive state, the international influence of communism; and the particularly insidious and pernicious growth of socialism in America.  Roosevelt’s wealth redistribution and economic interventionism could come back again.

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The Sixties were his undoing, said his mother.  There was always something very naïve and ingenuous about the boy, something emotionally needy, so it was no surprise that in his twenties he fell in with the wrong crowd.  It was only a surprise that the idealism of the era remained an influence for so long. Until his mid-fifties, Harvey  had never experienced a crisis of political faith.  He had always marched in lockstep with his progressive colleagues; but as he grew older the blush began to fade from the bloom of the rose. 

He found himself angered at the selfish, anti-republican movement of identity politics, the persistent embrace of a culture of entitlement instead of individual responsibility, and the constant, interminable howls of protest against racism, rape, abuse, elitism, environmental depredation, and capitalism.  In other words the more Harvey saw of progressivism and its arrogation of right, the less patience he had with it, and before long, he had left it all behind.

An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, said Harvey’s mother, well into her 90s and delighted to see that her formerly liberal son had finally become educated about its ills. “They all come home”, she said.  Anyone who has lived a moderately long life and kept their eyes open at least part of the time can only conclude that human beings will always remain nasty, unchanged, and unimproved and that circumspection, not optimism, should be one’s modus vivendi. 

Harvey’s wife Melissa had also been raised in a conservative home. Her father was from good, independent, Western stock and never questioned the principle of individual enterprise but never thought to codify his beliefs within any political cast; and her mother, a Southerner not far removed from her antebellum plantation ancestry, was, like her husband, a natural conservative.  While her husband’s conservatism came from a natural philosophical fundamentalism, hers arose out of a Southerner’s hatred for the federal government.  They both were conservatives by nature and breeding, but were never as outspoken as their son-in-law’s family.

Unlike her husband, Melissa had been completely diffident about the Sixties, so her turn left was surprising.  Her mother had tried to disabuse her of such ‘unbecoming’ sentiments (Mrs. Townsend, despite her frequent demurrals, was still a Southern belle at heart) but to no avail. “She was always an impressionable girl”, said Mrs. Ball, resigned to the fact that her daughter was somehow traitorous to both the solid, Western traditions of individualism and discipline; and the Southern way of grace and gentility.

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No one was able to pinpoint why Melissa became progressive.  Perhaps it was because of Richard Nixon.  Her visceral hatred for this greedy, uncouth, duplicitous man was understandable thanks to the severe rectitude of her parents – a deep-seated morality which was offended by crude, illicit behavior.  Her dismissal of Ronald Reagan was equally understandable thanks to her Ivy League, elite education which valued logic, reason, and academic virtues – all of which film star cowboy Reagan did not have. 

However it happened, progressivism took root; and the older she got, the more virulent and obsessive she became.  No subject was out of bounds.  No seemingly innocent observation by her husband went unchallenged.  The weather might be nice and unseasonably warm, but at the expense of climate destruction.  The salmon might be delicious off the grill, but had been grown in the intolerable conditions of Norwegian fish farms.  Gas at the pump might be less expensive than last year but only due to the environmentally hostile fracking and drilling for oil in the most fragile ecosystems of North America.

All of which is to say that when the COVID-19 quarantine of 2020 shut Harvey and Melissa down tight, and when all hatches were battened, there was no peace.  Rather than doing the needful – simple protections against infection, avoiding potentially infectious contacts with others, stocking the larder with necessary provisions, and praying that it would soon end – Melissa conflated her visceral hatred for Donald Trump into a virulent objection to his every action in response to the virus. 

He could do no right.  He was grandstanding, flip-flopping, lying, feathering his own political nest, politicking, currying favor instead of listening to experts, focusing his efforts on practical, evidence-based solutions, and rallying Americans around a common cause.  COVID-19 in Melissa’s mind was not simply that of an epidemiological evolution and rational public health measures to deal with it, but a political cause.  Everything was seen through her politically-honed, progressive vision.  Discussion between her and her husband was impossible. Everything was Trump’s fault, and if millions died, their blood would be on his hands.

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COVID-19 was an unfortunate turning point in Melissa’s life.  She had gone around the bend and become as rabid, incontinent, and impossibly doomsday prophetic as her progressive friends concerning climate change.  Religious fundamentalists were right – the Second Coming, Armageddon, and the end of the world would certainly come within our lifetimes. 

There had been love in their marriage, Harvey admitted, but he knew it had irretrievably left when his wife had become transformed from a loving, reasonable woman to a political succubus. It happens to all shut-ins - the gnawing, unsettled nerves, the nasty thoughts without bar time to forget them, no audience for complaint, no outlet for anger and resentment – but when circumstances are right…’pre-existing conditions’ in the lexicon of the day…and when bilious political hatred has already spoiled the soup, there is no return.

In our generous, inclusive age, perhaps one should also consider Harvey’s role in the final disassembly of the marriage.  Perhaps he had provoked his wife, doing the usual conservative fandango about triage, cost-benefit, risk analysis, and concerns about increasing government power; but he had not.  If fact when she started in, he simply changed the subject, went to stir the sauce, or filled up his glass.  While he was a Republican, he was less a partisan political supporter than a follower of Hamiltonian federalism and a descendant of the Enlightenment.  Political parties come and go; but the fundamental principles of democratic conservatism do not.  It was, therefore, unlikely that any confident, principled, and academic thinker would fight with anyone over political policies let alone with a wife who had gone off the rails.

There were many young couples in his neighborhood who drank and screwed their way through the quarantine, happily locked out of offices and conference rooms; and many others with young children with whom they were delighted to be before they grew up; and many more who had always been politically aligned and who could commiserate about or applaud Trump together.  Harvey was one of the unlucky ones who by circumstance and the pool table random fate of ricocheting balls, found himself at a strange unpredictable confluence of background, upbringing, character, and personality.  No one could have predicted COVID-19 or the demise of a once-promising marriage.  So be it.  Life was never meant to be smooth sailing or a bed of roses.  ‘Principled detachment’ was how one Yale professor had described it. 

But what of Melissa? Would the coincidence of COVID and the the dissolution of her marriage shake some sense into her?  Would her overheated political engine cool down? Would her bile drain? Would reasonableness and memory of good sexual times have the day?

The outcome of any soap opera is never a sure thing, only the predictability of the characters is – and that is what keeps viewers tuned in.  No one actually cares about resolution, only the melodrama leading up to it; and so it is with the saga of Henry and Melissa Falls.  If anyone wants to learn a cautionary lesson from it, all well and good; but most will dismiss it as an unnoticed casualty of COVID, nothing more.

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