When President Trump announced several months ago that the spread of the novel coronavirus constituted a national emergency, he invoked—whether he knew it or not—the National Emergencies Act, the 1976 law that formalized the executive branch’s powers in such situations. Before that point, presidents had asserted this authority in ad hoc and constitutionally dubious ways, and emergencies tended to go on indefinitely. (At the time the act passed, the declaration of emergency with which Harry Truman mobilized the country for the Korean War was still in place.) The new law brought all ongoing emergencies to a close, and it established that future ones would expire a year after being declared unless formally renewed by the president. In addition, it empowered Congress to bring an end to national emergencies at any time.
But Congress has never successfully used this power, and the executive branch has allowed fewer than half of the sixty-five emergencies declared under the law to lapse. Thus Trump’s National Emergency Concerning the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak joined a list of thirty-four ongoing national emergencies. One of the most recent is the National Emergency Concerning the Southern Border of the United States, which Trump established last year to divert military funding to the construction of his “big, beautiful wall,” while the oldest is an executive order signed by Jimmy Carter, Blocking Iranian Government Property, which followed the 1979 hostage crisis, and which has been renewed thirty-nine times by six different presidents.
It may seem strange that a hostage situation that was resolved four decades ago should still be recognized annually in the Federal Register as a current crisis, but there is a simple explanation: declaring an emergency is often a necessary prelude to imposing sanctions, which can remain in place so long as the declaration is renewed. For this reason, the vast majority of active national emergencies bear such names as Blocking Assets and Prohibiting Transactions with Significant Narcotics Traffickers (declared by Bill Clinton in 1995) or Continuing Certain Restrictions with Respect to North Korea and North Korean Nationals (declared by George W. Bush in 2008) or Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Burundi (declared by Barack Obama in 2015).
The spread of the coronavirus is something of an outlier among this collection of what are already supposed to be outlier events: it is a true national emergency. That is, it’s an acute crisis that poses an immediate threat to people all across the country, and one that demands a response that is out of the ordinary.
Real national emergencies are not annual occurrences; in fact, they are exceedingly rare. The September 11 attacks certainly qualified on the day they occurred, and perhaps in the days immediately afterward, when it remained unclear whether they were part of a larger plot. But that emergency was more or less over by September 14, when President Bush declared the National Emergency by Reason of Certain Terrorist Attacks because of “the continuing and immediate threat of further attacks on the United States.” (That was the first of two 9/11-related declarations, which have been renewed close to forty times between them.) Of course, it may be that there was an immediate threat of more attacks, and that the executive powers conferred by this declaration helped us avoid them, but there is something paradoxical about a threat that fails to materialize yet remains “immediate” for two decades.
Perhaps one defining feature of a real emergency is that people cannot help but recognize it as such. While there are not many Americans walking around mindful of the immediate threat to our nation posed by certain persons contributing to the situation in Burundi, we are all thinking about the pandemic every day. There is a tendency to focus on the exceptions—the Trump Administration’s failure to acknowledge the danger in January and February; the head-in-the-sand idiocies of certain Fox News hosts; the small protests demanding a premature reopening of the economy—but the truth is that the seriousness of the pandemic and the need for a drastic response are rare points of consensus in a country that can’t seem to agree on anything. One of the reasons that mortality has been somewhat lower than predicted is that experts underestimated the rate of social-distancing compliance. Despite the social-media outrage prompted by photos of crowded beaches, people have taken to quarantine in surprisingly high numbers. As of this writing, only 12 percent of Americans believe the lockdown has gone too far, which is far fewer than believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya or that there is a deep state plotting to take down the Trump Administration.
But while nearly everyone supports the measures currently in place, everyone is eager for them to end. There is nothing more natural than the desire for an emergency—a real emergency—to be over. No one wants to live in a state of permanent crisis, and it should be part of the definition of a real emergency that it doesn’t go on forever.
In this issue of Harper’s Magazine, we begin to look forward to the aftermath of our present emergency. In his Easy Chair column, Kevin Baker examines how earlier crises—including the black death—have been catalysts for social change, and wonders whether the current pandemic might bring about some positive transformation. In our cover story, Barrett Swanson travels to Texas to participate in disaster-response training, and asks what it would take for us to stop merely reacting to disasters and start trying to prevent them.
President Trump’s COVID-19 declaration may or may not join the ranks of annually renewed national emergencies, but the actual coronavirus crisis will have to come to an end one way or another. An emergency that lasts for twenty (or forty) years is not an emergency; it is simply life.