The power that governs us has been punctured. What we do next will define us.

by | Oct 4, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 1 comment

Now everyone knows someone who has coronavirus.

When President Trump sent a simple tweet at 1 a.m. Friday morning — “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19” — it was akin to trumpets bringing down the walls of Jericho. There was no more denying the enemy outside our gates.

How could the man with more resources than any American still fall victim to this disease? How could a president who has long downplayed the seriousness of this threat, suddenly, a month before the election, be boarding a helicopter to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center while wearing, almost ironically, a mask?

The measure of a man is what he does with power. Plato said that. And the measure of a country may be what it does when power is punctured.

We are living that challenge right now.

Friday was an unsettling 24-hour stretch for America — and especially for Michigan — in which our president went from the White House to the hospital, and our governor went from sole power to stripped power.

These two people, Donald Trump and Gretchen Whitmer — different parties, hugely different philosophies — still have one big thing in common: they govern us.

And now that their power has been challenged, what are we, the governed, going to do?

This isn’t about karma

Well, one thing we shouldn’t do is gloat. But we are. Trump’s announcement brought sympathy in many places, but ugly smugness in others. “I hope he dies,” wrote Zara Rahim, a former spokesperson for Hillary Clinton and staffer for President Barack Obama. Some actors and celebrities could barely contain themselves. Dominic West of “The Wire” expressed “joy” and said, “What goes round comes around.” Bette Midler tweeted, “I am certain he’s taking the Clorox cocktail.”

Media pundits, through somber tones, still wagged their fingers. One CNN host suggested Trump’s “dereliction” brought the virus to his body, and another said Trump’s “wanton disregard” for others made him “a symbol of his own failures.” An MSNBC host floated the theory that Trump was faking the whole thing to get out of the debates. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel likened the White House to “a summer camp with lice.” All this less than 24 hours after the president announced he and his wife were sick.

Some of the criticism is earned, sure. No sane person doubts that the president has downplayed COVID-19. Or that he has mocked Joe Biden for always wearing “the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” Trump’s bold words to the public defied his worried words to journalist Bob Woodward back in March, when he said that COVID-19 was “deadly” and that he played it down “because I don’t want to create a panic.”

So yes, Trump says and does bombastic, ridiculous and often nasty things. But if we think citing karma and saying “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” is going to help our country, we’re wrong. When people hope our president dies, then defend their views by essentially saying, “He started it!” they sound like 5-year-olds.

And this is no time for 5-year-olds.

How should we respond?

The same holds true in Michigan. For months, Gov. Whitmer has controlled our daily activities through a slew of executive orders on COVID-19. These orders affected everything, from who we could visit to how we could pray. She defended her moves — on schools, bars, bowling alleys, movie theaters — as protecting lives, and you can make an excellent argument they have done just that. Michigan went from one of the deadliest COVID-19 states in the country to somewhere in the middle. That didn’t happen on its own.

But on Friday at around 5:30 p.m., as if to lob one more grenade into our foxholes, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Whitmer did not have the authority to issue any of her emergency executive orders after April 30, the last day the Legislature had agreed to permit her such power.

And everything was up in the air.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey told me Friday that he believed the governor’s restrictions were immediately crossed out. Gov. Whitmer, who “vehemently” disagreed with the ruling, insisted they last another 21 days.

“Our decision leaves open many avenues for the governor and Legislature to work together to address this challenge,” wrote Justice Stephen Markman in the majority opinion, “and we hope that this will take place.”

Meanwhile, again, how do we, the governed, behave? Do we gleefully pack a local bar, fill a favorite restaurant, or jam Ford Field for a Lions game, thumbing our nose at Whitmer and her now-endangered orders?

That might make us feel better. But is it really the wisest way to behave on the same weekend the president is in the hospital with the coronavirus?

We might not be feeling better for long.

Where do we go from here?

The lesson from these seismic developments should be clear. It is not about grabbing the power, which Democrats nationally and Republicans locally are jockeying for right now. Quite the opposite.

It’s about how power is humbled.

It’s about how the large can be felled by the small. A lone match can bring down a house. A copper nail can kill a massive tree. A single lawsuit, filed by three medical companies, can wipe out months of a governor’s sweeping actions.

And a tiny, invisible droplet can carry germs into the mouth, nose or eyes and bring down the most powerful person in the world.

In light of that, our attitude should be humility, not hubris. Vulnerability, not volume. Do the tongue-clucking CNN folks forget that several of their most popular hosts also contracted the disease, despite taking precautions? Does the Chinese editor of a state-run media outlet who wrote “President Trump and the first lady have paid the price for his gamble to play down the COVID-19,” really think we forget how his country downplayed the virus to the world?

Pushing to the front to say how right you were when someone else is proven wrong only positions you for a similar comeuppance. This is not the time, with 208,000 Americans dead and more than 328 million potential virus targets still getting up each day in our country, to be preening about “I told you so.” Do you think COVID-19 gives a damn about our political parties, our court system or which cable news channel we watch?

What do we do now? That’s all that matters. We’re heading into the coldest months, staying outside won’t be an option, and we still must balance physical health with economic health. A sitting American president is sleeping in a hospital for the first time in nearly 40 years. Our biggest election is in a month. A Supreme Court position hangs in the wind. And in Michigan, we’re not sure what is allowed and what isn’t anymore.

Whichever path we choose next, nationally and locally, it needs to respect the danger of a single voice thinking it knows best, or a single dogma proclaiming it holds control. Mahatma Gandhi once wisely said, “The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”

He was assassinated.

What do we do now? Donald Trump and Gretchen Whitmer have almost nothing in common. They vilify one another. Yet on Friday, when each of them suffered a significant setback, both issued almost identical statements. Whitmer said in a news release, “We are all in this together.” And Trump tweeted out, “We will get through this TOGETHER!”

Maybe there’s a lesson in that.

Now everyone knows someone who has coronavirus. He’s the president of the United States. That’s not an opinion. That’s not fake news. It’s a whopping reality check.

And if we really plan to defeat this insidious threat, it won’t be by gloating, mocking or shoving one another aside to grab the reins.

It will start with humility, a recognition that we are all fallible, and more alike than different.

We can only build from there.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

1 Comment

  1. Theresa Ramus

    It is a sad situation but I hope that people have the common sense and take responsibility to protect the next guy and please wear a mask. Don’t let your guard down now of all times. People just think that their freedom has been gone but that is far from the truth. They just need to do the right thing and mask up. I saw restaurants last night that had to of been over the limit . They looked very busy.. That is their business but I won’t be going. People have a choice. Just don’t go in if it is like that and no social distancing. People need to know they do these things at a risk. They may have to pay a price for carelessness.
    A good article Mitch as always. I enjoy all of your writings.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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