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This crisis looks worse than 9/11 and the 2008 collapse. Will we finally fix our politics?

The government, and the U.S. political system, had failed for years at such routine tasks as balancing its books and forging policy consensus. Now, it is failing catastrophically at its most basic function: protecting the American people. In a call with the nation’s governors on Monday (the same day he gave himself a 10 out of 10 for his coronavirus response and said that, while the buck “normally” stops with him, this case is different), Trump offered governors his solution to the critical shortage of ventilators: “Try getting it yourselves.”

It’s tempting to blame Trump for the dysfunction, and he has unquestionably made things worse. But he merely exploited a political system that has been unraveling for a quarter-century or more. There are many causes: the realignment of parties along racial lines and into ideologically opposite blocs; the passing of the Greatest Generation which, having experienced war, knew that political opponents weren’t enemies; the toxic injection of unaccountable money into politics; and the polarization, vitriol and disinformation spread by social media and cable-news voices.

As I’ve chronicled this deterioration, I’ve often been asked what it would take to fix things. My standard response: a crisis beyond anything we’ve seen.

The 2001 terrorist attacks healed us briefly with what President Franklin D. Roosevelt once called the “warm courage of national unity,” but that fell apart in the campaign of 2002 and the Iraq War. The crash of 2008 didn’t unify us at all.

But this crisis could be bigger than both. And its early days showed the American political system at rock bottom. Both sides defaulted to finger-pointing, and Trump treated the public to a barrage of false reassurances and disinformation. The government lost crucial time to prepare the country for the virus as a botched testing program let the illness spread unmonitored and unchecked.

Instead of rising to the moment, as President George W. Bush did with a bullhorn in the rubble of the World Trade Center, Trump spoke of a “hoax,” compared the pathogen to an ordinary flu, said it would “miraculously” disappear and then informed Americans “I don’t take responsibility at all” for testing failures. Trump allies Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh amplified the disinformation, while another, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., suggested that the virus is a North Korean plot.

There can be no warm courage of national unity with this happening. Seventy-one percent of Republican primary voters believe the virus has been exaggerated for political reasons, and only a bare majority of Republicans were convinced the virus is definitely not a hoax, last week’s Economist/YouGov poll found.

Elsewhere, though, there are hopeful signs. The House passed its coronavirus relief bill, with paid emergency leave, by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, 363 to 40. And Democratic voters are flocking to the steady leadership offered by former vice president Joe Biden over the ideological purity of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

At Sunday evening’s debate, Sanders tried to use questions about the coronavirus crisis to talk about Medicare-for-all, but Biden delivered a message of national resolve: “This is like a war, and in a war, you do whatever is needed to be done to take care of your people.”

At times, Trump seems to grasp that this is what a leader should do. “Everybody is so well unified and working so hard. It is a beautiful thing to see,” he marveled in a tweet Monday. Alas, this came after his retweeting of messages declaring “Joe Biden is a train wreck” and “Sleepy Joe is SO CONFUSED.”

Trump won’t bring about the repair and recovery of our way of governing. He can’t. This crisis has only highlighted his ignorance, his hucksterism and his incompetence. The White House chaos brings to mind Eliot Cohen’s prophetic words from November 2016 when the national-security expert warned fellow conservatives joining the Trump administration they would find “rabble-rousers and demagogues, abetted by people out of their depth and unfit for the jobs they will hold, gripped by grievance, resentment and lurking insecurity. Their mistakes — because there will be mistakes — will be exceptional.”

Now it’s time to pray for Trump, and for Vice President Pence, and for in-over-his-head Jared Kushner. For now, they are the leaders we have.

But as we contemplate economic collapse, mass death and the fracturing of our way of life, let’s also resolve to rebuild our political system so this never happens again.

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