Culpable Leadership in “Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers” – Chicago Review of Books


As of January 25, 2022, the coronavirus has killed more than 800,000 Americans. More will die before it is brought under control. For frontline workers in particular, the pandemic has been a dangerous, stressful period, characterized by what seem to be difficult choices but are often not choices at all. They continue to return to workplaces they know to be unsafe, on terms they have not chosen, because they need to pay their rent, their car loans, their utilities, and grocery bills. For the wealthy and powerful, in contrast, the past two years have been a time of opportunity–crises always are.

As Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers author John Nichols observes, it is widely recognized the “pandemic made the rich richer.” It is less widely acknowledged that politicians have exploited the crisis to further their interests. Many people in the United States have died as a result of incompetence; however, some lives have also been the collateral casualties of attempts to strengthen a position within a party, influence an election, or satisfy a lobby. Nichols argues that those responsible should face meaningful consequences. He also recognizes that with “only the rarest and most insufficient exceptions, economic and political elites in the United States have enjoyed a regal level of impunity for more than 230 years.” Speaking truth to power is rarely sufficient to effect change because those in control often know what they are doing. President Donald Trump was aware, no later than February 2020, that Covid was “deadly stuff.” Exposing injustice is nonetheless a necessary act, a contribution to rational, democratic discourse. Nichols emphasizes the difficulty of holding the powerful to account and the need to do so, and this tension propels his urgent, angry book.

Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers is valuable primarily because of its insistence on judgment. Despite Nichols’s wide-ranging research, there are few revelations about the management of the pandemic. It is hard to see how there could be; the failings of the powerful have been on public display. It is important to reiterate that Jared Kuschner is incompetent, that Mike Pompeo, Ron DeSantis, and Kristi Noem have consistently privileged their political ambitions over the public good, and that Amazon risked the health of its workers whilst making immense profits, but all this is or should be familiar. Nichols does usefully emphasize the damage caused by people who have received comparatively little attention–such as Rebecca Bradley, the Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice who helped block public health measures in the state, and Elaine Chao, who refused to implement mask mandates on public transport–but his greatest contribution to discussions of the pandemic is his focus on culpability.

Nichols positions his book within a tradition of activist literature exemplified by Michael Foot, Frank Owen, and Peter Howard’s Guilty Men (1940), which attempted, with considerable success, to hold the “Men of Munich” to account. Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers is an intervention in an ongoing crisis rather than a description of it–an effort to shape a historical narrative that is not yet fixed. The book is particularly concerned with ensuring  that “those who sinned against human decency… must never again be accorded the honors of high office or the comforts of high station” but Nichols also argues, more broadly, that we should resist the “pressure to forgive and forget.” Reconciliation might appear necessary to ensure the political system continues to function but, in the United States at least, it predominantly serves the interests of powerful minorities, ensuring they never have to answer for acts of commission or omission. 

In the case of the pandemic, the stakes are high. When Trump left office, a report “associated with the medical journal Lancet determined that had Covid-19 death rates in the US corresponded with those of other G7 countries” during his tenure “40 percent fewer Americans would have died.” Around 400,000 lost their lives to the disease during his presidency, meaning there are 160,000 excess deaths to account for. Although he “did a miserable job,” Trump is obviously not the only person responsible; there is “a lot of blame to go round.” The pandemic has been a test of leadership, competence, and commitment to public service that the United States has largely failed. Those lost and those left behind deserve a reckoning.

Nichols’s writing is most effective when most acerbic. His descriptions of Ron Johnson as a “nutcase… a BS superspreader,” Rebecca Bradley as “dangerously delusional,” and Trump as “a damaged man whose erratic political philosophy began and ended with his own self-preservation” emphasize his contempt for people who betray their office. The faults of the last administration are particularly egregious but responsibility for the crisis was “decades in the making” and extends across the political and economic establishment. Trump is a symptom of a damaged society and Nichols draws attention to the ways in which Democrats such as Rahm Emanuel left the United States vulnerable, “offshoring basic industries” that might have provided desperately needed supplies as Covid took hold. 

Despite widespread concerns about polarization, the most significant problem has long been the overlap between the two parties, both of which have embraced rather than just accepted a neoliberalism that has weakened collective institutions and the values that sustained them. One result of these shared interests is that, in moments of crisis, elites have closed ranks, accepting even catastrophic failures of leadership as part of the political process. A state that aspires to be democratic in substance rather than just in name cannot accept this kind of impunity. As Nichols recognizes, change is hard to imagine when the “courts are packed with partisan judicial activists who protect their benefactors in the legislative and executive branches,” but his book makes a forceful case for the political as well as moral importance of ensuring that the guilty men and women of the pandemic face judgment.


See Also

Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers

by John Nichols


Published on January 25, 2022

Ben Clarke

Ben Clarke is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of “Orwell in Context,” co-author of “Understanding Richard Hoggart”, and co-editor of “Working-Class Writing.” He is currently editing the “Routledge Companion to Working-Class Literature.”


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