It is not necessary to summon rancid ghosts or recall those old no-Irish-need-apply hatreds to know that national stereotyping is a pretty flawed, dangerous metric.
Every country, every society, is the sum of its parts, even if one part exploits a fleeting dominance to disadvantage or grievously mislead compatriots. It is, or was, nevertheless tempting to paint our neighbours with one dismayed, less-than-flattering brush after they voted — democratically — to leave the European Union, but the 52:48 margin of that decision shows how inaccurate stereotyping can be.
That decision, even as its fourth anniversary looms, still seems a kind of betrayal, one made even less attractive by the extreme, too often dishonest and ill-informed Brexiteers’ vitriol.
Those excesses, like the no-Irish exclusions, have faded until the next time — but they will inform any view of the fate that befalls Britain as the pandemic’s economic legacy bites. How else might it be?
That lemming certainty is active in America, and it may change our world even more than Brexit.
Even though more than 55,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus — more than 25% of the world total — a Florida county relaxed restrictions, and its beaches were crowded at the weekend.
Hair salons in Georgia, Oklahoma, and other states are open for business.
In Denver, health workers protesting against those demanding that restrictions be lifted were accused of being traitors, of being actors and “fake health workers”.
Even America’s friends, those still happy to acknowledge its better angels, balk at this terrible, infectious backwardness.
But how could it be different? America’s president has undermined his own health system by using his weapons of choice — Twitter and dishonesty — to encourage protests. Not only did Trump, through his narcissism and ignorance, squander America’s great advantages when he had an opportunity to prepare for the inevitable onslaught, he now exacerbates catastrophe by ever more bizarre, unhinged behaviour.
Tragically for America, and the West too, comparisons with Britain’s George III, known as “the mad king who lost America” are ever more plausible.
Elected to make America great again, Trump has made it a laughing stock — but when the laughing dies down and the consequences of America’s abdication of its role as a world leader become clear, then the full depth of the tragedy becomes all too apparent. George III may have lost America, but Trump risks losing much, much more and that loss will be felt be every country once happy, or at least secure, in the idea of being an ally of America.
Tempting as it may be to paint Trump as the architect of this tragedy, he is but leader of the band. Without the support of millions of Americans, he would be just another clown wallowing in his 15 minutes of fame.
He is not the first, nor will he be the last, to do so. However, if he is still in the White House this time next year, the tragedy moves to a different plane.
If that happens, it will be time, among many other things, to ask if we are vulnerable to such a collapse of basic decency. And, if we imagine we are not, why do we think that? Why do we think we are different to our America cousins?
Why do we think we are immune to disastrous groupthink?