America the Unserious
What the Chinese spy balloon incident reveals about the degradation of our public life
I don’t want my headline to be misconstrued. The United States has an elected government with the responsibility of responding to unanticipated events, like a Chinese spy balloon slowly traversing the country over the course of several days. Assuming the preliminary reporting in The New York Times is accurate, the Biden administration handled the situation with the proper mix of gravity and deliberativeness. Could the president and his team have done things a little differently? Sure, probably. But for now, I don’t see grounds for any sweeping critique of their moves over the past week as the drama unfolded in the skies and on the ground.
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So when I use the word “unserious” to describe our country, I don’t mean to impugn the people running the show in Washington, let alone all Americans. But neither am I simply responding to cognitive toxicity on Twitter. That’s certainly a big part of it—but not just in the form of know-nothing anonymous accounts and troublemaking bots.
I’m talking mainly about how the right responded to the balloon—on Twitter, but also in published articles, on cable news, on talk-radio programs, and in public statements.
Now, since the instinct on the right these days is always and immediately to revert to whataboutism, let me concede a few things. Yes, the center-left became incredibly reactive during the Trump administration, leaping to maximal criticism whatever the 45th president and his team said and did. So to some extent there is a parallelism here—and the unseriousness is more pervasive than one might conclude from what I’m about to say about populist rot on the right.
It's also true that there is a long history of everyone from ordinary, ill-informed Americans bitching on barstools to public figures spouting off irresponsibly in various forms about complicated issues of foreign policy. So in that respect, there was nothing new about what we saw and heard over the past several days. But of course, there was something new about it—and that, I think, is the way the media ecosystem and political incentives now combine to facilitate a public culture pervaded by bad faith and bullshit.
The Anatomy of Performative Outrage
Political communities spy on each other. This is true even among allies, but it’s certainly the case among geopolitical rivals and opponents, especially when they command the resources to do it in the most sophisticated ways. We park spy satellites in orbit over other countries to keep tabs on them. We tap phones and monitor digital communication. We engage in acts of deep-cover espionage. And yes, China obviously launches balloons to gather intelligence about what’s going on in the United States (and probably elsewhere).
Once the Pentagon became aware of the balloon over Alaskan airspace, it made sense that we would take its presence seriously in both military and diplomatic terms. When the balloon crossed over the northern border of the contiguous United States in the vicinity of Idaho and Montana, that represented something even more serious. But then word got out and Republicans saw an opportunity to score domestic political points.
But wait—how did Republicans know what the Biden administration had done or was doing wrong when the White House and Pentagon were releasing minimal information about the balloon and our response to it? They obviously didn’t. But that didn’t matter. The balloon was right there floating overhead across the red-state heartland, China is now widely (and reasonably) considered our primary rival and opponent on the world stage, and the administration wasn’t instantly blowing it out of the sky. That was enough to generate performative outrage about the president being a feckless coward.
Was it true? It hardly mattered. It fit the party-approved narrative of White House senility and ineptness—and provided an opportunity for elected representatives to display just how little respect they have for the minds of the people who elect them to office. Or, in some cases, those who fail to elect them to office.
Kari Lake lost her race for governor of Arizona last November, so you might think this tweet was a function of her lack of practical responsibility. She represents no one and holds no office, so she can say whatever the hell she wants. But she wasn’t alone. Here’s an actual officeholder, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, trying to prove he’s every bit as tough, and apparently just as capable of hitting a target 60,000 feet overhead with a handheld firearm, as Lake.
And just to show such seriousness isn’t limited to the lower house of Congress, here’s freshly minted senator JD Vance of Ohio getting in on the action. (The wood pile in the background is an especially nice rustic-populist touch.)
But Republicans weren’t only tweeting gun-toting images of themselves. South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson took advantage of the fact that an F-22 fighter jet eventually downed the balloon a few miles off the coast of his home state to pronounce that the “catastrophic Chinese Spy Balloon spectacle” demonstrated “President Biden and Vice President Harris should resign.”
Such a resignation would, of course, just so happen to result in the presidency being handed to the Speaker of the House, who just so happens to be Republican Kevin McCarthy. But no matter: Wilson thinks the American people aren’t partisan. They just honestly think the balloon episode confirms Biden and Harris are “failures,” an impression ultimately rooted in the supposed fact that “their open border policies have allowed hundreds of identified terrorists into America to commit mass murder.”
For the Sake of Political Gain
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