He gave us an almanac too, but now we need a little more.
Benjamin Franklin was incredibly gifted, and although many of his witty sayings were, well, let’s say borrowed from other sources, he was pretty good at tossing them around and adding his own touch.
I thought of Franklin this morning while considering the developing internecine war between state governors and the Trump administration—between the state leaders who feel they have a handle on what’s happening with their constituencies, and Trump who has a better handle on watching the death toll pass 22,000 and labeling it a success.
But it’s almost as if Franklin had Donald Trump in mind when he filled the blank spaces in his Almanack with pithy observations—as if he knew that 226 years after his death, the country he helped create would lose its collective mind and choose a bumbling ass as its leader. And so when Franklin wasn’t toying with a lending library and contemplating a fire department, he was warning us not to elect Donald Trump.
Or maybe he was just noticing how every age produces its own Donald Trumps—windbags with little to say and infinite amounts of time to say it. And so Franklin warned us against people who lacked moral character:
It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright.
And those too willing to fall in love with their own words:
Silence is not always a sign of wisdom but babbling is ever a mark of folly.
He that speaks much is much mistaken.
And those stable geniuses who follow their own “gut”:
He that won’t be counseled, can’t be helped.
And the person who accepts no responsibility for his action or inaction:
He that is good at making excuses is seldom good at anything else.
And the bombastic and inflated egotist:
He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.
But what made me think of Franklin here in the second month of the Coronavirus shutdown, was this:
Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that.
As a country we have begun to slow down the spread of the virus. I don’t think anyone can justifiably deny that the steps we have taken to isolate have been effective. And although Trump apologists will deny it, the earlier we had begun this on a national level, the fewer deaths there would have been: remember, Trump did not issue a disaster declaration in all fifty states until April 11. On that date we had topped 500,000 cases and counted just under 19,000 deaths.
We've all learned things the hard way—it's no fun—but learning them twice is the province of fools.
Enter Donald Trump who, after making it clear that the states were on their own and could rely upon the federal government only for guidance, now wishes to be in charge of the same states he dismissed as ineffective days ago. And worse, the same man who was too late in making the most rudimentary decisions when they would have helped, now is threatening unilateral decisions that could extend this crisis by months and even, some experts claim, years.
I'm all for reopening the country, and I can foresee many approaches that would work and even maintain some effective distancing. But someone looking at Massachusetts and North Dakota and seeking behavioral consistency would miss the point entirely. And anyone claiming Trump would never be so stupid as to make such a sweeping generality just hasn't been paying attention.
And so, as it did in November 2016, it may come down to us. What will we do when our governor asks us to isolate ourselves and our favorite restaurant opens by presidential fiat? It may be a question of what means more to us: the health and safety of our fellow mortals, or an order of wings. I'd like to think most of us would choose the former, but I'm not as confident as I was before November 2016.
Experience does run a tough school. Now that we know that, let's not learn it twice.