Culture & Society

The Great Unmasking

Most Americans want to go back to normal, but some wish to make permanent the ‘temporary’ COVID controls

Fans pack Truist Park in Atlanta, GA on May 8, 2021 to watch a game between the hometown Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies. Image Credit: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

When Gypsy Rose Lee reached the predictable conclusion of her striptease act, she would tell the audience, “That’s all there is.” Soon we will be able to say something similar about the shape of the United States. During the last year, we have hidden at home out of fear of COVID-19 and faced each other through laptop screens or, more rarely, as masked strangers. From the state of the economy to the future of our politics, everything of importance to us has been shrouded in the fog of the pandemic.

But 286 million anti-COVID vaccines have been administered in the country. Forty percent of the population is fully immunized and more are joining them every day. The masks are coming off, and the time is near when we will finally gaze upon ourselves, stripped of ambiguities, and say, “That’s all there is.”

What will that group portrait look like?

Much will appear hauntingly familiar. Barring a calamity, Joe Biden will still be president—and he’ll still be trying to sign trillion-dollar checks to cure whatever ails the human condition. The flood of money will buy friends and influence people but won’t budge in the slightest the substantial minority that believes the 2020 elections were won by fraud. Similarly, the fast rollout of the vaccines will earn the administration credit, while attempts to bully the substantial minority of anti-vaxxers will incite controversy and condemnation. Biden will face the 2022 midterms on a razor’s edge.

Donald Trump will still preside over the U.S. government-in-exile at Mar-a-Lago. Once the most terrifying news story of all time and the center of everyone’s attention, Trump was superseded in both categories by the spread of COVID-19. The end of the pandemic will thus create an enormous vacuum in our politics and the news media.

To fill the void, the Republicans will look for Son of Trump: a leader who can keep the anti-establishment fires burning while not alienating the little coven of independent voters who decide all elections today. Democrats and the liberal media, for their part, will scour the opposition for Hyper-Trump: a Republican who will frighten the faithful into voting correctly in 2022 while paying for old news in The New York Times.

Despite a few hopeful sightings, this is a forlorn mission. The former president, one must hope, is one of a kind. But it is a measure of the acuity of our political class that its most urgent business will be identifying the next Donald Trump.

How the Pandemic Tamed the Internet

Even as we puttered around our homes in the pandemic year of 2020, digital platforms were swallowing the world. That made sense under the circumstances. We were worried about physical contact and nobody ever died from shopping on Amazon. Nevertheless, the tech companies’ imperial advance over the American economy was nothing short of astounding.

Amazon’s profits were up 220% from a year ago; total sales increased by 44%. In the same timeframe, Facebook profits grew by 53%, with 1.84 billion people—nearly a quarter of the human race—checking the platform at least once a day. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, saw a doubling of profits as sales surged 32%. Twitter added 20% more users, while advertising revenue grew by 38%. In the last three months of 2020, Zoom sales exploded by 370%. The combined 2020 revenue for Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft came to $322 billion, a far larger sum than the GDP of Egypt.

A handful of corporations now command the strategic heights over the economy and the information landscape, a concentration of power that is probably unprecedented in our history. Their natural impulse will be to consolidate and expand that power, if only to keep out the competition. If a bargain can be struck with the political class on a new, post-pandemic information order, these companies may well get their wish.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress about news censorship on Nov. 17, 2020. Image Credit: Bill Clark-Pool/Getty Images

Since the rise of Donald Trump in 2016, the elites have perceived the digital realm, correctly enough, as a vector of subversion. The web, it was asserted, delivered lies at scale—only such industrial quantities of deceit could account for the disaster of Trump’s election. In a four-year frenzy of righteousness, politicians like Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama, and a vast chorus of academics and journalists have called for the regulation of content on behalf of truth and for the “breakup” of the companies that commodify falsehood. The lords of Silicon Valley have been repeatedly summoned to Washington, there to be chastised by their betters. But nothing changed until the pandemic changed everything.

Governments everywhere treated the appearance of COVID-19 as the equivalent of a state of war. With science as holy writ, an ad hoc system of control that contradicted basic individual rights but seemed necessary to survive the crisis was imposed from above on an anxious public. In essence, we were told to stay home and wash our hands like good children. The freedom to gather in places of worship and public parks became a crime against science and was revoked for the duration. And if the authorities often sounded clueless, the public felt even more frightened and confused. Not surprisingly, most of us went along with the restrictions.

No system of social control could function without the cooperation of the giant digital companies. They, too, were happy to go along. In what may have been the most consequential impact of the pandemic on American politics, Facebook, Google, Twitter and other platforms agreed to manipulate information searches so that only content approved by established health organizations would appear. Heretical opinions were blocked or removed. For Facebook that included “content coordinating in-person events or gatherings” as well as anti-vaccine arguments of any sort. By January 2021, YouTube had taken down 500,000 videos that strayed from the “expert consensus” on COVID-19.

The intent was to stop the diffusion of unscientific “misinformation” on the web and thus prevent harm. The practical effect, however, was to outsource editorial policy on billions of searches and reports to government officials and bureaucrats. The political elites now decided which “in-person events or gatherings” could be talked about on social media and which were to be met with silence. The temptation to push the mandate was obvious and irresistible. We should not be surprised that the system of control soon intruded into politics—or that its first target was that object of elite loathing, Donald Trump.

The Awkward Dance of the Digital Billionaires

The digital silencing of Trump after the events of Jan. 6 could be justified in many ways. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, believed the president would “incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government” if allowed to post on Facebook. Twitter also cited “the risk of further incitement of violence” as the reason for its ban. While these were debatable judgments, there could be little doubt that Trump had behaved with nihilistic abandon in his last weeks in office.

The difficulty came in discerning where to draw the line. More than 74 million Americans voted for Trump. As we have seen, a considerable portion agreed with the former president on the question of election fraud. Should they all be voted off the island?

The answer was an unhelpful “Maybe yes, but mostly no.” Twitter purged 70,000 Trump supporters on the grounds that they were associated with QAnon, the conspiracy theorists who purportedly spearheaded the attack on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. YouTube terminated 8,000 channels guilty of “alleging that widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.” Facebook banned ads that made the same claim, then extended the prohibition to all political ads—including ads for magazines of political commentary, like this one. Amazon, Google and Apple booted out Parler, a pro-Trump microblogging site, from their app stores and servers.

These measures were not particularly effective: Parler was back online within a month. The number of sites and users deplatformed was miniscule when compared to the immensity of the web. Yet a fateful boundary had been crossed without much thought for the consequences. The principle of exclusion could be stretched beyond the egregious Trump and the perpetrators of the Jan. 6 violence to people who happened to hold certain political beliefs.

The motive had little to do with science or truth. The tech companies had been persuaded to yield control of content to the health bureaucracy. On politics, reflexively, they were now genuflecting before conventional elite opinion, as embodied in the grayheads of the Biden administration.

The lack of clarity surrounding the bans meant that the line could move again. Control of so much digital space by such few companies meant that, to a significant extent, our political disputes will be conducted under their purview. For those who have sought to tame the web, these two propositions added up to a golden opportunity.

Facebook’s supposedly independent Oversight Board recently endorsed the permanent exile of Trump from the platform but then called the original decision “arbitrary” and begged the company for explicit rules. The plea reflects the mood of our unhappy elites. They want rules to govern information. They dream of a structure of order, reflecting their values, to bind the wild churning of the web. If the system of control erected around the lockdown could be transferred at will to other domains, the means to achieve this dream would be at hand.

After all, “misinformation” is a flexible category. If malicious lies can spread disease, they can also torment the disinterested public officials who sustain our democratic way of life. The same holds true for defense against “insurrection.” It can be called out on any manner of obnoxious and disrespectful characters, at the earliest stage of dissent. Thus, intervention was a sacred duty.

And why shouldn’t it be feasible? Donald Trump, that avatar of chaos, had been defeated politically and muzzled informationally. The venerable Joe Biden, relic of the last century, was now in the White House. The digital billionaires, seeking to consolidate their newfound gains, could be dealt with or bullied. Intellectuals and academics would applaud. All you needed was a special algorithm directed by a scientific, data-driven, truth-based Center for Internet Control.

The elites who run our institutions and the corporate masters of the web will enter the post-pandemic era in a position of strength but in need of each other to sustain that position. Many arrangements and permutations will be possible, including the attempt to bring law and order—and political conformity—to the digital frontier. The two groups differ in character and have been at odds since 2016. Self-interest now draws them together. Their awkward dance will be one of the more compelling spectacles of the world after COVID-19.

There are, of course, other players in the game, even if one excludes the establishment Republicans, who will be left out in the cold, and the Trumpists, who will be the target of any bargain. The public will be deeply involved. It has claimed possession of the web and will not yield that stake without a struggle. Directly or indirectly, the quarrel over digital content will cast a large shadow over the 2022 midterms—and will persist, I suspect, long after that.

The Theory of Permanent Pandemic

A system of control set up to manage a specific emergency might be expected to wither away once the emergency is over. In the U.S., that future is already here—even if it is unevenly distributed. Lockdown restrictions have been abandoned by a growing number of states, and the public has responded enthusiastically. In Atlanta, 100,000 baseball fans attended the Braves-Phillies games over a weekend. Near Dallas, 70,000 gathered in an indoor arena to witness a boxing match; masks were not required. In Miami, the beaches and nightclubs are teeming with boisterous revelers.

Having recently traveled in the American South, I can attest to the frantic energy of the crowds I encountered. The sense of normality felt positively abnormal as COVID-19 seclusion, social distancing and covered faces were consigned to the dustbin of history.

But the state of emergency is a source of unquestioned authority, and the possibility of making it permanent will always tempt those in charge. Some states are having trouble letting go. To defeat COVID-19, they have invented bizarre schemes of colors, steps and stages, and elevated an “abundance of caution” to be the highest principle of government. How long that abundance can stretch has been left unsaid. However, it is an axiom of the bureaucratic spirit that no structure or procedure, once in place, should be allowed to vanish.

Anthony Fauci, mellow voice of the federal health bureaucracy, said in April 2020: “If ‘back to normal’ means acting like there never was a coronavirus problem, I don’t think that’s going to happen until we do have a situation where you can completely protect the population.” That was before the vaccines arrived, but it isn’t clear whether Fauci has changed his mind. A more recent article by the editor of the MIT Technology Review struck a similarly fundamentalist note: “As long as someone in the world has the virus, breakouts can and will recur without stringent controls to contain them.”

Leon Trotsky long ago preached the doctrine of permanent revolution. Those who believe in “stringent controls” until the last man, woman and child in the world is virus-free today advocate a theory of permanent pandemic.

Among most Americans, fear of COVID-19 is steadily receding. The crowds in Atlanta and elsewhere attest to that. The vaccines have offered liberation; even the abundantly cautious CDC has been forced to concede as much. If the start of the pandemic was a tragedy of errors, the final episode has been a triumph of medical technology and government intervention. Yet there is a reluctance to celebrate and no consensus about what comes next.

Decision-makers seem divided into two groups. One is searching for some justifying principle—permanent pandemic, racial “equity,” social justice—to retain the current system of controls, particularly, as we have seen, with regard to information. The other is interested primarily in economic recovery. More than any election outcome, the competition between these goals will determine the shape of post-pandemic society.

Elon Musk as Token of Mass Migration

Proponents of control will enjoy certain advantages. The Biden administration inclines in their direction. Many on the left have come to regard the pandemic restraints as an ideological stance. One popular tweeter, who has been vaccinated, insisted that “the inconvenience of having to wear a mask is more than worth it to have people not think I’m a conservative.”

Others find the promise of freedom to be a source of “anxiety.” “Is it safe to bring kids into a grocery store where people aren’t wearing masks?” worries a writer in The Atlantic. “How do you know whether a maskless person is vaccinated?” Such concerns may well weigh with the youngest among us—the most risk-averse and anxiety-prone cohort on record. And there may be millions who, having hunkered in their cubby holes in silent isolation for a year, perceive the open future with the panic of agoraphobia.

But I doubt it. Americans of every persuasion will opt for prosperity. This is not a prediction but an observation of what has already taken place in many parts of the country. While the economic recovery is widespread, a few regions are leading the way. Mountain West states like Utah and Idaho, for example, are booming. Texas has become the potent engine of U.S. economic growth.

At the same time, tightly regulated jurisdictions will continue to drive businesses to more welcoming climates. Elon Musk’s sensational exodus from San Francisco to Austin is merely one example of a broader trend. Hedge fund billionaires have abandoned New York City and relocated their companies to Florida. Workers and their families will pack up and head where the jobs are: Nearly 1,000 people move to Florida every day.

Population flows that were visible before the pandemic will thus swell to the proportion of mass migrations. The control-oriented states of the Northeast, and possibly California as well, will continue to transfer their humanity to the business-minded South and West. The ability to work from home will spur this movement: You can now enjoy New York or San Francisco salaries while paying Decatur, Georgia, housing prices. Radical shifts in home construction will feed the process. While new homes in Idaho, Texas and Florida are going up at warp speed, California and New York seem unable to build at all.

Companies that demand a return to the office will discover, as Google did, that they no longer have complete authority to make that call. Urban areas will have to wait, maybe forever, for the reappearance of COVID-19 refugees. Disaggregation, that digital impulse, will reach the level of the individual American—and in consequence, the pale, puritanical controls of the North will yield to the super-tanned exhibitionism of Miami, Florida.

The Parable of ‘Miami Tech Week’

New York, San Francisco and Chicago won’t vanish in a puff at the start of the new times. They will remain great cities, hubs of finance and technology. On occasion, too, the urban public will assert itself and disregard the politics of control. But creative energy has fled elsewhere. Big-city elites seem consumed by a fever dream of egalitarian virtue, and will continue to tear down institutions like schools and police departments in pursuit of Utopia. Economic life, to them, is either a natural phenomenon like the air we breathe or an enemy to be subdued. The best minds will walk away from the rule of the righteous.

Where will they go? While the future is veiled in uncertainty, a hint of things to come can be obtained from the most fascinating non-event of this transitional period: “Miami Tech Week.”

In April of this year, the word went out, mysteriously, among the movers and shakers of American technology: “Come to Miami. A lot of people will be there.” Tech elites who had already relocated to the city touted the idea on social media, but it soon took on a life of its own. Hundreds of rich venture capitalists and hungry startup founders flew in from San Francisco (where the number of round-trip tickets sold to Miami surged to double the usual number).

Some unknown wit on the web came up with the handle “Miami Tech Week.” It wasn’t a conference. It wasn’t an agenda. It wasn’t even a week. But it may well have been the first instance of a city going viral.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez hosted more than 100 of the visitors to a Cuban-style “cafecito” in front of City Hall. Suarez is the prototype for a new kind of Sunbelt elected official—in the words of Balaji Srinivasan, “the first CEO of the city” and “the first American politician that’s using social media not to dunk on half of his constituents, but to grow the pie for all of them.” Suarez is best known for his Twitter tag line, “How can I help?” He makes the tech migrants feel welcomed. Innovators and investors, it turns out, prefer a warm embrace to being hectored and condemned for their success.

South Beach at night. Miami is ostentatious, garish, diverse and growing fast. Image Credit: CD Wheatly/Getty Images

Miami is a garish city. Office towers are painted gaudy colors, music from the night spots can be heard a mile away, traffic is insane but often eye-popping. “I saw more Lamborghinis in my first week in Miami than I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” observed Tech Week attendee Mike Solana.

The place was built on immigration and growth. Northern cities preach diversity; Miami makes it happen with a shrug. From sculpted bodies on the beach to glittering vehicles at art deco hotels, the goal of life seems to be to display what you have earned. The “shameless materialism” of the Miami style may offend the puritanical mind, but the fixation on growth, Solana judged, “is absolutely what attracted technologists to the region.”

Miami Tech Week, an event that never was, has been explained as a “meme” or a “vibe.” Srinivasan was closer to the mark when he called it “the beta test of a physical location.” The gathering in Miami was a parable for a world with multiple jurisdictions yet no hard boundaries, in which information is on the cloud and population is on the move—and reasons must be given for settling here rather than there. Old power, old wealth and old prestige will not be enough.

The United States will emerge from the pandemic trending to become Miami. Population will surge to the growing regions of the country, and only a new Berlin Wall will prevent our cultural center of gravity from shifting South and West. Life, therefore, may at times come to feel too loud, crude and exhibitionistic; it will also stir with a creative ferment that is instinctively opposed to any form of control. Those who wish for a bit more grace or wisdom will get lots of home construction instead. That’s who we are—and in this latest portrait of America, that’s all there is.

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