The New COVID-19 Normal

Herd Immunity is Impossible. Now What?

Faced with declining vaccination rates and persistent skepticism, Germany is now preparing for another autumn of living with COVID-19. Politicians are looking at several measures, including air purifiers for schools, compulsory testing for travelers and a pro-vaccine ad blitz.

Von Milena Hassenkamp, Christoph Hickmann, Armin Himmelrath, Martin Knobbe, Timo Lehmann, Martin U. Müller, Miriam Olbrisch, Gabriel Rinaldi und Christoph Schult


People in Berlin’s government district are currently saying a farewell – a slow, quiet farewell, with no statements, no press release, a farewell that can no longer be stopped. 

And it will have consequences for the months to come, maybe even years. 

It is a farewell to an illusion.

Last Monday, for example, German Health Minister Jens Spahn of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), held a small online meeting of experts – politicians, doctors and other officials. 

It centered on the autumn, the next steps in the fight against the pandemic, the question of vaccine booster shots. 

And about the goal politicians have been pursuing since the start of the year: herd immunity.

In other words, about the goal of immunizing so many people against the virus that it loses almost any capacity to threaten us. 

It would be the end of the pandemic, a triumph over COVID-19. That was the plan, the hope. 

The illusion.

Representatives from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s center for disease control, spoke up in the meeting: To reach herd immunity, they said, 85 percent of those aged 12 to 59 would need to be vaccinated, as well as 90 percent of all those above the age of 60. 

They argued that this would be possible by September. 

This was the official line that the RKI has been pushing for months – but there has been increasing pushback recently, including on Monday.

According to reports from the meeting, several participants made it clear that they no longer believe that goal to be realistic. 

They believe that the 85 percent won’t be met, by far. Health expert Karl Lauterbach of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), who also took part in the meeting, agreed.

"I unfortunately can hardly imagine at this point that we will reach herd immunity,” Lauterbach says, adding that the vaccination rate is already decreasing and that cases are going up again. 

The percentage of people who have been fully vaccinated stands at 47 percent.

Lauterbach has abandoned the illusion. 

Spahn must also now understand that there will be no herd immunity by the fall. 

So, what now?

One participant at the video conference reported that alternatives and consequences had been discussed at the meeting. 

"The models show that even if we reach a vaccination rate of 75 percent and assume that 10 percent can still get infected despite full protection, we won’t be able to manage without contact restrictions,” one person argued.

A return to contact restrictions? 

Despite well-functioning vaccination distribution? 

Even though there is enough vaccine available for everyone? 

Things are not going the way they were meant to.

Burst Illusions

The story of German pandemic policy is a story of failed dreams and burst illusions. 

At the very beginning, some hoped things wouldn’t get that bad. 

Then came the virus. 

And things did get pretty bad.

In the summer of last year, some leading German politicians gave into the hope that the worst was over. 

But then came the second wave, and it was worse than the first one.

Since the beginning of the year, when the vaccination campaign kicked into gear, many had hoped things would be finished by the fall, that enough people would be vaccinated or recovered from the disease by then that a return to normalcy would be possible, despite the colder weather once again pushing people indoors.

But that won’t happen. 

The vaccination rate isn't high enough. 

This is indeed a watershed moment, also from a psychological perspective.

It's like a war that the leadership recognizes cannot be won.

Thus far, pandemic policy, with all its restrictions and incursions into daily life had its hopeful moments. 

There was the assumption that everything would have an end.

All the prohibitions and rules – closed schools and daycare centers, weddings without guests, the wearing of masks outdoors – were only meant to last until the curve with the case numbers was flattened enough again, and then, once there was enough vaccine and enough people had received their jabs, it would all be over. 

This hope helped an entire country get through the winter.

The End to the Carefree Summer

Not reaching herd immunity means things won’t end now, or probably ever. 

Germany needs to prepare for a further autumn, and probably also a winter, with the virus. 

The delta variant is already putting an early end to the carefree summer.

Numerous leaders have said there will not be another lockdown. 

"Very soon, anyone who wants to get vaccinated will be able to do so,” says Thuringia’s governor, Bodo Ramelow of the Left Party. 

"We should return to a form of normalcy in the autumn – also recognizing the variants, which are spreading more aggressively.”

It's like a war that the leadership recognizes cannot be won. 

We will have to learn to live with the enemy, somehow, and hope that it behaves peacefully.

Partiers and police in Hamburg: Young adults are currently a major problem, with the number of cases rising especially sharply among them. Foto: Mich


How will this new normal look? 

Preparations are currently taking place across the country – some places are doing more, others less.

Oliver Eissing, the principal of the Wolfgang Ernst High School in the town of Büdingen, in the central German state of Hesse, is a pragmatist. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Germany was still talking about whether it made sense to wash one’s hands, he sent his custodian to the nearest supermarket to buy as much liquid soap and paper towels as he could transport.

In March, when Germany was yearning for an end to the second shutdown, Eissing received an offer. 

A company from the region asked if he wanted to test a new UV-C indoor air purifier. 

Eissing took up the offer. 

"In Hanau, our neighboring city, air purifiers were installed on every bus,” he says. 

He argues that what works for buses can’t be bad for classrooms, right?

Eissing had the first unit, a gray box the size of an 80-liter garbage bin, installed in the teacher’s room.” 

"We wanted to test how loudly it hums – and if the noise disrupts teaching.” 

It didn’t – the teachers found the noise tolerable.

Eissing was excited, he wanted to order more units, but the Wetterau district rejected it and pointed to a recommendation of the German Environmental Agency that air purifiers are only necessary in rooms that are hard to ventilate. 

"Our building has a large façade of windows,” says Eissing. 

"That was basically the end of the discussion.”

That makes it unlikely Eissing will have any air purifiers in the school this fall. 

He'll just have to open the windows and ventilate the rooms – even when it’s stormy and hailing outside.

Germany is often good at managing and bad at creating. 

This has also been the case during the pandemic. 

The federal and state governments reacted to new developments, but never developed a mode of strategic planning or foresight. 

They took a wait-and-see approach, which hit the schools and parents, teachers, children, especially hard.

Elementary school students in Düsseldorf: Could they be facing a continuation of hybrid learning or even the closure of schools again?

Elementary school students in Düsseldorf: Could they be facing a continuation of hybrid learning or even the closure of schools again? Foto: Political-Moments / imago images


Sometimes the children stayed at home, sometimes they did hybrid learning, with online lessons and half-full schools, and classrooms were to be frequently ventilated. 

The week before last, Health Minister Spahn was furious at a cabinet meeting. 

"If I had procured masks in the same manner that you are discussing ventilation here, we wouldn’t have any to this day,” he told his colleagues. 

Nevertheless, the cabinet decided to purchase 200 million euros worth ($236 million) of mobile air purifiers – almost one and a half years into the pandemic.

But in some German states, school is already starting up again in early August, by which point the devices are unlikely to have arrived. 

It’s also unclear how far those 200 million euros will go. 

Heinz-Peter Meidinger, chairman of the German Teachers’ Association, calculates that it would take 1.5 billion euros to fully equip Germany’s approximately 650,000 classrooms. 

That target seems about as far away as herd immunity.

Another impediment to herd immunity is that it would require us to vaccinate children, a tricky topic. 

Not even 2 percent of children and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 have been vaccinated – and not just because there hasn’t been enough vaccine up until now.

The pandemic is an large-scale experiment in how much solidarity a society can muster.

As has so often been the case during the pandemic, the people in charge have vacillated on the issue. 

The European Medicines Agency approved the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine for children above the age of 12. 

The Standing Commission on Vaccination (STIKO), on the other hand, has only recommended the vaccination for children with pre-existing conditions. 

Health Minister Spahn, meanwhile, has stated that children and youths should decide for themselves about whether to get vaccinated.

Parents are free to make their own decisions, but even well-intentioned ones are likely to feel uncertain at this point. 

And, so far, no vaccine has been approved for children under 12, anyway. 

Now, the pressure on STIKO is growing. 

Politicians from various parties are demanding it change its recommendation for children 12 and older.

Are schools facing another period of hybrid learning or even more school closures? 

Spahn seems to fear precisely that. 

Together with German Education Minister Anja Karliczek (CDU), he wrote to the states’ ministers of health and education last week. 

"After the summer holidays, our common goal should be bringing the pandemic under control without the further closure of daycares and schools,” the letter states. 

To do this, it argues, there needs to be "a systematic and sensitive testing plan for children.” 

But the letter also argues that this plan is missing in the states.

Spahn and Karliczek have been the target of a lot of criticism during the pandemic, and this time they don’t want to be the ones to get the blame, especially after they issued a warning.

Vaccination Fatigue

But air purifiers, testing plans and vaccinating children will have little effect if adults don’t get vaccinated. 

There is enough vaccine, and anyone who wants an appointment can get one quickly. 

But many just don’t want to.

Vaccination euphoria has seemingly given way to vaccine fatigue, and despite all the efforts and appeals, part of the population still doesn’t want to get vaccinated. 

The key question is how big that segment of the population will be. 

And how much of it can still be persuaded or pressured to get vaccinated.

Robert Koch Institute President Lothar Wieler (left), German Health Minister Jens Spahn and German Chancellor Agnela Merkel: Germany is often good at managing and bad at creating. Foto: REUTERS


Are mandatory vaccinations plausible? 

So far, that rule has only been applied in states like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which generally aren’t big supporters of human rights. 

The Vatican has also instituted mandatory vaccination for all residents and employees. 

But where else?

In France, anyone who works in a hospital or a nursing home must be vaccinated by Sept. 15. 

Greece has imposed similar rules. 

In Italy, medical personnel with contact to patients have had to get vaccinated since the end of May.

Applying Pressure

French President Emmanuel Macron once campaigned as an economically liberal politician, but amid the pandemic, he has been increasingly relying on regulations. 

Starting this week, anyone in France wanting to attend a public event with more than 50 participants will have to show a "pass sanitaire,” or a proof of vaccination, or that they have recovered from the virus or had a negative test. 

Starting in the fall, the French will also need to pay for their own PCR tests. 

Beginning in August, the pass will also be necessary to access shopping malls, long-distance trains, restaurants and cafes. 

That’s not a mandatory vaccination, but it does increase the pressure – and pushes things close to the edge of what is possible in a free society.

And in Germany? 

Angela Merkel and Jens Spahn reiterated last week that they do not plan to make vaccinations compulsory for those working in daycare centers or schools, for instance. 

But they, too, want to ratchet up the pressure.

The pandemic is a large-scale experiment in how much solidarity a society can muster. 

There was solidarity with the elderly and the sick because they needed to be protected more than everyone else. 

But what about solidarity with those refusing vaccines and placing their own reservations above the health of the general public? 

On several occasions last week, Spahn suggested how things might go. 

He did say that in a later stage of the pandemic, testing could stop being free of charge for people who haven’t been vaccinated. 

Together with other restrictions, this could, as in France, become an indirect driver of people getting vaccinated.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s CDU, disagrees. 

"I don’t believe that people who refuse the vaccine should be forced to pay for the tests themselves in the future,” he told DER SPIEGEL. 

"Many would then refrain from getting tested. 

This would lead to us losing the overview of the infection situation, which would be disastrous.”

The opposition views things similarly and is instead calling for more incentives. 

"We need a large-scale education and advertising campaign for vaccinations, ideally with celebrities from the arts, sports and society in general,” says Michael Theurer, the deputy chairman of the parliamentary group of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).

Green Party parliamentary group leader Katrin Göring-Eckhardt is calling for "attractive vaccination opportunities” to be brought "as close to people’s daily lives as possible.” 

She argues that there is still too little advertising and not enough information about accessible vaccination options, and that not enough is being done to debunk myths about the vaccines. 

"The vaccination in the pedestrian zone, in front of the supermarket or in front of the university cannot be an exception or a one-off project,” she says. 

But the federal government is actually promoting vaccination with an ad campaign featuring former "Baywatch” star David Hasselhof.

Young adults are currently a big problem, because their infection numbers are rising particularly strongly. 

Germany’s health and education ministries are already worried about the universities’ winter semesters. 

In a letter, both authorities appealed to the heads of the German Rectors’ Conference and the Student Union that students "be informed on the local and regional levels about the importance and significance of vaccinations.”

Putting Vacation over Vaccination

But the problem isn’t just that people are refusing vaccines, it’s that it’s vacation season. 

As recently as spring, people were worried that they wouldn’t be able to travel without a vaccination. 

Now everyone can do so – which seemingly led many Germans to prioritize their vacation over their vaccination.

The number of vaccination shots being administered each day has been declining for weeks, and many appointments are not being kept. 

Recently, the idea of imposing penalties in such cases has been discussed. 

Those won’t be imposed, for now. 

Instead, the question is how to deal with those who are returning from vacation.

The issue was discussed last Tuesday by the Berlin COVID-19 crisis team. 

One possibility is requiring all travelers returning from vacation to carry either a negative test or proof of vaccination with them – no matter which country they are coming from, and whether they are entering Germany by plane, train or on foot.

Things could get uncomfortable for the unvaccinated, while, conversely, vaccination could offer travelers advantages. 

The crisis team is considering shortening the quarantine period for vaccinated people returning from so-called virus variant regions. 

At the moment, it is 14 days – with or without vaccination. 

"I’m strictly against mandatory vaccination,” says Interior Minister Seehofer, "but I’m definitely in favor of linking vaccinations to consequences, for example when it comes to rules for entering the country: no quarantine, no tests for vaccinated people.”

Deepening Divisions

The new normal will be bifurcated and will feel different for those with vaccinations than those without. 

This will deepen divisions – but the rift would be even deeper if nothing would change for those who had been vaccinated, and everyone had to make allowances for those who refuse the jabs.

But some things will be the same for everyone: new numbers and indicators. 

At the start of the pandemic, Germany stared obsessively at the absolute numbers and the so-called R value, the number of people, on average, that a person with the coronavirus passes the infection on to. 

By the time most people understood the latter, the incidence value – the number of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants in the past seven days – became more important. 

But another value beyond the incidence could attract new scrutiny in the future.

The more people there are who are vaccinated, the higher the incidence value can be without the healthcare system collapsing. 

Chancellor Merkel said last week that higher incidence levels could be permitted in the future. 

In the United Kingdom, the incidence is well over 300, but things are opening up nevertheless.

The Health Ministry doesn’t want to go that far, but officials there are also looking at a different value now: the hospitalization rate. 

Since last Tuesday, German hospitals have thus been collecting more data on their patients with COVID-19.

It’s a long, arduous road. 

The country is gradually learning to live with the pandemic, but it is struggling, partly because not all consequences are foreseeable. 

The new normal is only gradually becoming clear.

Long COVID Worries

Heyo Kroemer, for instance, the head of Berlin’s Charité University Hospital, recently had an encounter related to long COVID – when people who suffer from symptoms long after they were infected, like fatigue, shortness of breath, insomnia – that worried him.

"In a meeting with our deputy clinic directors last week, I was told that there is extreme demand from patients suffering from long COVID,” Kroemer says. 

His team believes that up to 10 percent of those infected with the coronavirus are affected.

"The severity of the infection and the severity of long COVID do not seem to correlate, based on our findings,” Kroemer says. 

That means a patient can have had a harmless progression of the disease and still suffer long-term consequences. 

That’s a scary prospect for a society, and Kroemer expects that long COVID will keep the healthcare system busy for some time to come. 

He expects university hospitals to set up central contact points for it.

What does that mean? 

Namely, that even if it’s all over one day, things still won’t be over. 

Latin America’s national identities are being questioned

Statues are being toppled in Colombia, while Mexico has apologised to the Mayans


“Mexicans emerged from indigenous people, Brazilians emerged from the jungle, but we Argentines arrived on boats. 

On boats from Europe.” 

So said Alberto Fernández, Argentina’s president, last month. 

It was meant as a friendly nod to Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, who was sitting beside him. 

Two decades ago the comment, which Mr Fernández attributed to Octavio Paz, a Mexican poet, but which was really more faithful to an Argentine rock song of the 1980s, would have gone unremarked. 

Not now: many took offence. 

What made his timing especially clumsy is that Latin Americans are once again engaging in one of their periodic bouts of questioning their national identities.

In Colombia in April indigenous demonstrators toppled a statue of Sebastián de Benalcázar, a Spanish conquistador. 

Monuments in Bogotá to Queen Isabella of Castile and her hired help, Christopher Columbus, were also attacked and have been removed for safe-keeping. 

Chile has decided to make June 24th a public holiday as “the day of the original peoples”. 

In May Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, apologised to the Mayans for the abuses of the past five centuries. 

Pedro Castillo, a left-wing teacher and the presumptive winner of Peru’s presidential election, said that to be “of Andean blood” is to be “authentically Peruvian”. 

Some of his opponents brandish red and white flags featuring the cross of Burgundy, an emblem of Spanish colonial rule.

National identities evolve everywhere. 

And they tend to be closely linked to race. 

That has been especially so in Latin America. 

Most of the region became independent two centuries ago, just when the French revolution and the European Romantics made nationalism fashionable. 

The new nations set out to create collective identities. 

It was a tricky task, as Simón Bolívar, the liberator of northern South America, wrote: “We are neither Indians nor Europeans, but a race halfway between the legitimate owners of the land and the Spanish usurpers.”

Throughout the 19th century historians, painters and poets worked to create national myths and heroes. 

These were generally whitish men: although Indians and black slaves were accepted as part of the nation, it was in subordinate roles. 

In the 20th century more inclusive national identities emerged, centring on mestizaje, the racial and cultural mixing of indigenous people, Europeans, Africans who arrived as slaves and immigrants from elsewhere. 

“There is not a single Latin American, from the Rio Grande to Cape Horn, who is not an heir to each and every aspect of [this] cultural heritage,” Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican writer, declared in 1992 as the region marked the quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival.

That commemoration in fact prompted a questioning of mestizaje. 

In 2010 around 42m Latin Americans, or 8% of the total, defined themselves as indigenous, according to censuses; others took pride in their African descent. 

These people tend to be poorer than average, whereas elites tend to be whiter than average. 

Racism and racial tension survive, albeit in less overt form. 

Take Argentina: behind the European façade proclaimed by Mr Fernández lay the extermination of some indigenous people in the 19th century and the hidden survival of others. 

Or Peru: according to Gonzalo Portocarrero, a sociologist, its history contains two persistent fantasies, that of a race war feared by whites and that of Inkarri, the return of the Inca emperor to rescue his people from bondage. 

Portocarrero, writing in 2015, thought both were fading. 

Recent events call that conclusion into question.

Statue-toppling is currently widespread, and there is an element of anarchist vandalism to it. 

But Latin American leaders would be foolish if they fail to recognise that in recent mass protests there is a demand not just for material improvements but also for more inclusive national identities in countries where the pandemic and the prior economic slowdown have deepened social fractures. 

The conquistadors were brave, but they were brutal too. 

They belong in museums, not in public squares (Columbus is a more complicated case, as a generic symbol of the European roots of many Latin Americans). 

But while Latin America should pay due recognition to its cultural and ethnic diversity, it should not lose sight of the many things its people have in common. 

Cultural mestizaje is in some ways a myth and it should not be imposed. 

But it remains the only inclusive and unifying narrative the region possesses. 

Covid doesn’t mean we can’t have fun

There’s no scientific reason to stop people enjoying themselves outside

Jemima Kelly 

People enjoy the seaside in Brighton, southern England. There is no evidence to suggest beaches have led to a single outbreak of the virus © PA


As temperatures soared to their highest levels of the year last weekend, we saw the return of that 2020 classic: the telephoto-lens shot of sun-scorched Brits packed tightly together on beaches, along with headlines like “What pandemic? 

Bournemouth Beach absolutely rammed on ‘busiest day ever’” and disapproving grumbles on social media.

In Australia, where a lockdown has been reimposed after a rise in Covid cases, police have threatened to close Bondi Beach, with photos showing pram-pushing mothers being stopped for not wearing masks on the paths that run alongside the coast. 

“#COVIDIOTS” is the common social media response to images of people daring to have a nice time at the seaside — the term has been trending on Twitter in recent days.

What’s a bit odd about all this outrage is that there is no evidence to suggest beaches have led to a single outbreak of the virus. 

“The chances of human-to-human transmission is very low in that environment,” Professor Karol Sikora, a consultant oncologist and former WHO director, tells me. 

Offices, on the other hand, have caused plenty of outbreaks: over 500 were reported in the second half of 2020 — more than from supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafés combined, according to the BBC.

So why does nobody moan about all the people who have chosen to return to the office simply because they prefer it to being stuck in the house all day? 

Although we now know that the virus is airborne and therefore spreads far more readily inside than outside, it seems that nobody worries about these workers because, unlike beachgoers, they are not assumed to be having a good time.

As science writer Tom Chivers tweeted over the weekend: “18 months into the pandemic we’re still taking disapproving photos of people on crowded beaches. 

They’re outdoors! 

It’s good! 

The virus is not spread by fun!”

It’s not just beaches that are targeted by logic-lacking spoilsports. 

When the outdoor pool finally reopened at an apartment complex in Spain’s Costa del Sol this month, residents were told sun loungers were prohibited; if they wanted to sunbathe, they must do so on towels on the ground. 

Julia Jerzycka, whose 83-year-old mother lives in the complex and would find lying on a towel difficult, gathered residents’ signatures and convinced management to reverse the decision. 

But only personal sun loungers were permitted because communal chairs apparently posed too much of a threat from surface transmission.

Of course, the buzzer to enter the complex is touched far more frequently by many more hands than the chairs, but Jerzycka says that management doesn’t appear to have thought of putting hand sanitiser alongside it, and no soap is provided in the showers by the pool either. 

“It feels like they’re not trying to implement the things that would actually make sense,” she says. 

“It’s about the removal of fun . . . but also they’re not even using their own logic.”

Part of the reason that seemingly irrational rules are being set by such petty tyrants is that communications by governments and scientists have been inconsistent throughout the pandemic. 

Initially we were told that the virus was not airborne and was spread by respiratory droplets that land on surfaces, then easily pass on to other humans — a transmission vector now believed to be rare.

But some people just seem to have an issue with others having fun during a pandemic. 

There seems to be an idea that not having a good time could somehow help contain the spread of Covid-19.

The virus, though, doesn’t discriminate between the virtuous and the degenerate. 

With most restrictions in Britain now lifted while cases and deaths climb, it’s important that we remain cautious. 

But we need not equate caution with asceticism.

So if you find yourself whingeing about how packed the beach is next time you’re at the seaside, perhaps remind yourself that you are part of the reason it is crowded — surprisingly easy to forget, it seems. 

Then enjoy it! 

Life is too short to waste energy trying to prevent ourselves, and other people, from having a jolly nice time.

MAGA Maoism

What could possess one of America's two main political parties to transform itself into a cult of personality in which obsequiousness trumps merit? An examination of the Communist Party of China during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution suggests some striking parallels.

J. Bradford DeLong



BERKELEY – How does former US President Donald Trump still command the Republican Party’s complete allegiance? 

Everyone knows he has terrible judgment and a vindictive, petty personality. 

Even Trump’s own daughter and son-in-law are reportedly distancing themselves from him.

And yet, whatever Trump says is still gospel for the overwhelming majority of Republican officeholders and commentators. 

For recognizing the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s election, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming was stripped of her GOP House leadership position.

Now, the furthest any Republican will go in challenging their dear leader is former Vice President Mike Pence’s observation that he and Trump “will never see eye to eye” on the events of January 6, 2021, the day Trump incited a violent insurrection at the US Capitol. 

Some of the gullible Trump supporters who stormed the building, seeking to block the certification of Biden’s victory, also wanted to execute Pence by hanging.

There is a disturbingly strong historical analogy to the Republican Party’s transformation into a cult of personality: the Communist Party of China under Mao Zedong. 

At the CPC’s Lu Mountain Plenary Meeting in 1958, Marshall Peng Dehuai pointed out that Mao’s judgment was flawed, and that he could no longer be trusted as primus inter pares. 

The only question was whether the other party grandees could move ahead without Mao’s charismatic link to the party’s gullible base.

But Mao struck first. 

While party officials like Peng Zhen, Luo Ruiqing, Lu Dingyi, Yang Shangkun, and Deng Xiaoping were purged, Peng and Liu Shaoqi both turned up dead, and the rest of the grandees got with the program.

That program was the total chaos of the Cultural Revolution. 

Recognizing that those who had benefited from the initial purges would need to be kept insecure and toothless, Mao continued to shake things up. 

Chen Boda was purged, Lin Biao was eliminated, and Deng – with his reputation for bureaucratic competence – was brought back into the fold, only to be purged again after being threatened with the promotion of Wang Hongwen (backed by the rest of the “Gang of Four” and Kang Sheng) and then Hua Guofeng.

Through all this shuffling, only two personnel qualifications mattered: obsequiousness and powerlessness. 

If the official in question fulfilled both, he would be praised, honored, and promoted. 

If he lacked one or the other, he would be taken down a peg, sent to work as a pipefitter, or assassinated (the one exception was Zhou Enlai, whose unfailing sycophancy perhaps made up for the fact that he wasn’t entirely powerless).

This process could be sustained because there was always an ample number of party officials who saw the chaos as an opportunity for their own advancement. 

But while deferentially doing Mao’s bidding could yield career advantages, he was old, low on energy, and on his way to meeting Karl Marx in the great beyond. 

So, the court intrigue continued, with officials falling over each other to “work toward the Chairman,” even though nobody but Mao’s nephew and closest aide could claim to understand his incoherent grunts and scrawls.

Even after Mao’s death, various factions competed to show that they had been truer to his wishes than anyone else. 

Mao’s immediate successor as party chairman, Hua, continued to quote Mao – “If you are in charge, I am at ease” – while extolling the successes of the Cultural Revolution. 

Wang and the rest of the Gang of Four boasted that they were Mao’s true ideological heirs. 

Even Deng maintained quietly that he had remained in Mao’s favor after his second purging, and that it had been Mao, via Wang Dongxing, rather than Deng’s military allies, who had protected him from the Gang of Four.

The comparisons to the Republican Party under Trump should now be obvious. 

The most sycophantic and impotent Republicans are duly selected by Trump for promotion, while those with any modicum of power or self-respect are cut off at the knees. 

Trump knows that the latter cohort would seek to sideline him as soon as it gained power or forged its own links to the base. 

The purges are carried out from Mar-a-Lago, where Trump denounces his former appointees and aides as losers and RINOs (Republicans in name only).

Hence, Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, is said to have requested an audience and been refused. 

And everyone knows that Trump is “disappointed” in Pence and regards Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as “a dumb son of a bitch.” 

According to Trump, the Democrats have the advantage, because “they don’t have the [Mitt] Romneys, Little Ben Sasses, and Cheneys of the world. 

Unfortunately, we do. 

Sometimes there are consequences to being ineffective and weak.”

And yet, the overwhelming majority of Republicans cling to Trump, hoping that appeasing him will benefit them personally. 

During the putsch attempt on January 6, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reportedly asked Trump, “Who the fuck do you think you are talking to?” 

But soon thereafter, McCarthy voted to overturn Biden’s election, and then crawled on hands and knees to Mar-a-Lago to pledge fealty to Trump.

And why shouldn’t he? 

Trump is dangerous to cross, has a charismatic link with a gullible base, and will not be a political force for much longer. 

He is old, low on energy, and on his way to meeting Roy Cohn in the great beyond. 

And even after he passes from the scene, various Republican factions will continue competing to show that they are truer to his wishes. 

That’s how parallels work.


J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.

A Little Geopolitics Is a Dangerous Thing

The term geopolitics first came into vogue after Germany's defeat in World War I and has since come to be used as a rationalization for zero-sum conflicts. But insofar as it represents a false notion of geographical determinism, it is utterly inappropriate for a globalized world.

Harold James


PRINCETON – Any hope that Donald Trump’s messy departure from the White House would at least restore a modicum of calm to the world must now be discounted. 

Already, there is a dangerous new international threat: the return of “geopolitics” in shaping international security.

Consider the events of the past six months. 

Within weeks of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, got into an extraordinary spat with his Chinese counterpart at a bilateral meeting in Alaska. 

The United States has also tussled with the European Union over Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that will deliver Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing (and thus weakening) Ukraine. 

And, for its part, the EU imposed tougher sanctions on China, citing its policies in Xinjiang, to which China responded with sanctions of its own.

Then, in June, a naval contretemps between Russia and Britain in the Black Sea evoked parallels to the 1850s Crimean War. 

And a meeting between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin did little to reduce US-Russian tensions. 

When it comes, Biden’s first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping is unlikely to be any warmer. 

The G7 is rebranding itself as a club of rich democracies that will set “basic rules of the road” for the rest of the world. 

Never mind that other powerful countries have no interest in rules set by someone else.

“Geopolitics” is the word most used to describe these developments, most of which are framed as new iterations of old issues. 

Russia, for example, is said to be continuing the Soviet tradition of using energy exports to induce dependency in others. 

Hence, Nord Stream 2 reprises President Ronald Reagan’s struggle over German participation in the construction of a Soviet pipeline four decades ago. 

Blinken calls it a “Russian geopolitical project to divide Europe.”

A classically ambiguous concept, geopolitics has both innocent and perilous uses. 

For some, it promotes a vague sense of geographical contingency. 

For others, however, it amounts to geographical determinism, implying an endless conflict in which space matters more than ideas, maps more than chaps. 

The term’s danger lies in its inherent nihilism: it leads us to assume that no one can be seriously interested in values, because there can be no universal good.

After World War I and the failure of a dangerously ambitious German vision of “world politics” (Weltpolitik) under Kaiser Wilhelm II, a new term was needed. 

It was supplied by Karl Haushofer, an officer and strategic theorist at the Munich Military Academy, who had been deeply influenced by a relatively brief spell as a military attaché in Tokyo. 

The word Geopolitik had been coined by a Swedish politician, Johan Rudolf Kjellén, in 1900, and Haushofer adopted it with relish.

It was Haushofer who first conflated geography with necessary conflict, making all international politics into a bitter but inevitable zero-sum struggle between haves and have-nots. 

He believed it was his mission to create a new political science – “the science of the political life form in a natural living space.” 

Geopolitics was the doctrine of the “earth-connectedness of political processes,” and must ultimately “become the conscience of the state.”

Starting in the 1920s, Haushofer rapidly acquired admirers from the marginalized elements of the international order. 

Adolf Hitler may well have been influenced by his thinking; he dictated Mein Kampf through the Haushofer disciple Rudolf Hess. 

Karl Radek, the secretary of the Comintern, was certainly impressed (there was even a Soviet journal of geopolitics). 

And geopolitical thinking has since returned with a vengeance to Russian politics, following the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Haushofer has been enthusiastically embraced by Aleksandr Dugin, a quasi-fascist strategic analyst who is widely believed to have influenced Putin’s worldview.

There is a common pattern here: geopolitics tends to be the favored term for historical losers who want to give a cynical twist to their efforts to dismantle a victorious intellectual project.

This was not what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meant in 2019, when she declared that she would lead a “geopolitical Commission.” 

The point was to distinguish the new Commission from a “political” one that would interfere in EU member states’ internal affairs, and the term seemed to suggest that Europe would engage openly with others. 

In a globalized world, many Europeans thought that Europe writ large needed a voice, and they were sympathetic to the argument that even large member states like France, Germany, or Italy could not be influential on their own.

But under current circumstances, geopolitical posturing once again looks like compensation for impotence. 

The bad symptoms associated with the old geopolitics are reappearing and hampering solutions to global problems like the COVID-19 pandemic, which will not end until there is universal vaccination.

Using “geopolitics” promiscuously achieves nothing, because invoking the term is no substitute for substantive discussions and an airing of conflicting interpretations. 

Thinking in terms of great-power clashes, and sparring over who is the bigger hypocrite, will neither resolve international disagreements nor solve common problems. 

The only way to do that is to focus on what achieving common goals actually requires.


Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation. A specialist on German economic history and on globalization, he is a co-author of The Euro and The Battle of Ideas, and the author of The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm, Making the European Monetary Union, and the forthcoming The War of Words.