Vectors of Pestilence


I went to medical school for exactly—hmmm, let me think—zero days, but even I know you shouldn’t drink bleach.

In fact, I barely scraped through ninth grade biology, but I did pretty well in history, and I do recall the last guy who told his followers to line up and drink poison. So Donald Trump should be excited that posterity is likely to remember him just as vividly.

This particular episode of the new TV miniseries version of Being There as scripted by Michael Haneke is merely the latest Trumpian absurdity that would be comic were it not so tragic. With 55,000 dead (a number that is surely undercounted) the US has now lost almost exactly as many lives to COVID-19 in the last three months as we lost in the whole of American involvement in the Vietnam war, which lasted roughly eleven years (and in which we finished a strong runner-up).

And this crisis is far from over, and that body count far from topped out.

Meanwhile, Trump is breaking records for self-praise and unearned credit-grabbing, as detailed in an astonishingly good piece of reportage by the Times, what it calls: “a display of presidential hubris and self-pity unlike anything historians say they have seen before.”

If there were ever a time tailor made for the 25th Amendment, this would seem to be it.

Of course we know that is never going to happen. History will also note the bitter irony that the Republican Party had just completed its Masada-like defense of Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, for crimes that were the very definition of abuse of power, just in time for him to preside over the worst negligent homicide of American citizens in modern times.


With armed troglodytes waving Confederate flags and demanding that we put tens or even hundreds of thousands of additional lives at risk because they want a haircut, and various Southern governors eager to accommodate them, we are likely to see an uptick in cases of the novel coronavirus in the coming months, if not a full-blown second or third wave. The rush to get back to “normalcy” is premature at best, notwithstanding the delusion that it is going to be possible at all.

Those Astroturf rallies, like the original 2009-vintage Tea Party, pretend to be organic and spontaneous phenomena, but in truth are organized and funded by plutocratic special interests who find it useful to hide behind fake populism. Likewise, the enthusiasm of governors like Georgia’s odious Foghorn Leghorn impersonator and election robbery specialist Brian Kemp might have more to do with cynical attempts to keep unemployment numbers down and avoid treasury-busting deficits that will doom their re-election. (But at least it’s good to know that he and Trump are having a mutual hissy fit at each other.)

That the President of the United States should openly foment this unrest, to the point of implicitly inciting violence, is of course unimaginable in any previous White House, to say nothing of mindboggling and irrational given that it is his own administration’s guidelines that Trump is encouraging rebellion against. It is of a piece with his Stalinist insistence that his own scientific advisors tailor the facts to the fantasy that best serves his ego, and recant and apologize when they contradict him, even as they are trying valiantly to save human lives.

But we should expect nothing less from this faux head of state.

Trump is a natural shit-stirrer. He functions most comfortably as an outsider unencumbered by responsibilities, the better to loft criticism and complaint, which suits his infantile narcissism. (“No, I don’t take any responsibility.”) So it is very hard for him to be in charge of anything other than his own organized family crime syndicate. In fact, he relishes chaos and lives to create it by way of pitting others against each other, whether underlings, foes, or just plain strangers. In the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole reminds us that “In his inaugural address in 2017, (Trump) evoked ‘American carnage’ and promised to make it stop. But now that the real carnage has arrived, he is reveling in it. He is in his element.”

Trump clearly views stoking anger over social distancing as his best re-election strategy, a more extreme version of the only one he has ever pursued, in fact: to gyrate his most devoted followers and turn this too into a partisan issue. He is like a baller who has only one move. And now, in the midst of a crisis where his future is in danger and his malevolence, ignorance, and incompetence have never been on more stark display—almost to the point where some people are beginning to notice—he’s found a way to do so again, with these insane rallies, public health be damned.

Peter Wehner in The Atlantic:

Trump is doing everything in his power to divide us, to keep people on edge, mistrustful and at one another’s throats. To that end, he will even cheer on people who are violating his own administration’s social-distancing guidelines.

But there is also method to Trump’s madness. From the moment he took office, the president has pursued a base-only strategy. Rather than trying to win over converts, Trump has decided his path to victory in November lies with inflaming his base, keeping his supporters in a state of constant agitation, even if that requires framing “a complex science/policy debate as evil oppressors vs. heroic victims,” in the words of the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

But it is more worrisome than even that.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent writes that it is part of the longstanding GOP plan to destroy the very idea that the Democratic Party is a legitimate political entity:

At bottom, President Trump’s ongoing support for right-wing agitators who want to own the libs by throwing off the oppression of policies limiting their own exposure to a deadly pathogen should sound unsettlingly familiar. It’s another expression of the idea that Democratic governance is fundamentally illegitimate—an idea Trump has pushed in many different ways for years…

(W)hat we’re now hearing carries echoes of the “Second Amendment remedies” phrase that went national in 2010, when a far-right tea-party candidate used it to suggest people might violently rise up against the Democratic Congress.

What’s different now is that the President of the United States has spoken directly to this particular aspect of the nascent movement. In calling on people to “LIBERATE” the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, even claiming the latter is “under siege,” he’s endorsing the idea that they are under illegitimate occupation by Democratic governors and lawmakers, and is arguably fomenting insurrection against them.

Adam Serwer makes a similar point, also in The Atlantic, noting the GOP’s recent embrace of a trillion-plus dollar stimulus package of the very kind it not long ago excoriated Barack Obama for pursuing:

(M)ost Republicans—including McConnell, Graham, Grassley, and Alexander—had voted for the 2008 bank bailout prior to voting against (Obama’s 2009) stimulus. In other words, they voted to help those most responsible for the Great Recession, then voted to stiff those Americans whose lives and livelihoods had been destroyed by the bankers’ greed and regulators’ ineptitude, and who would suffer through a sluggish recovery as a result.

As Serwer writes, in 2009 Mitch McConnell and his merry band of mustache-twirling silent movie villains “saw prolonging the Great Recession as a political opportunity to be exploited.” Now, of course, with the economic downturn sitting in their inbox and not the Democrats’, they have learned to stop worrying and love government spending, in keeping with their new motto “Deficits, shmeficits.”

But this is not mere inside-the-Beltway gamesmanship, economically devastating though it is:

The complete Republican reversal on the need for the federal government to address an economic crisis is not merely hypocrisy, although it is also that….

Washington gridlock does not stem from ideological differences about the size or role of government, although those conflicts inevitably shape legislation. It stems from the ideological conviction, held by much of the Republican Party, that the Democratic Party is inherently illegitimate and has no right to govern.

From Merrick Garland to voter suppression to the stimulus to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” what we are seeing is a concerted, multi-pronged effort by the GOP to convince much of Fox News-watching America that the “Democrat Party” (as they pettily insist on calling it) is treasonous and evil and has no legitimate claim to hold office.

Trump personally doesn’t care about the GOP or its effort to install a one-party rule, even though it’s a symbiotic relationship for these entities. Ideology is meaningless to him; in fact, he used to be a Democrat himself, as we know (not unlike that other great showbiz figure turned Republican hero, Ronald Reagan). He only cares about staying in the spotlight, and out of prison. That is itself a manifestation of his infantilism and malignant narcissism—but file under “dog bites man.”

The Times Literary Supplement‘s Lawrence Douglas writes, in a piece that originally bore the unimprovable title, “Godzilla of the White House”:

(Trump) cares little about political power conventionally conceived. Many political leaders have craved power while keeping a low profile—Dick Cheney comes to mind. Others have cultivated the adoration of crowds, but principally as a means of consolidating political power—think Hitler.

Trump, by contrast, seeks power simply to keep himself in the public eye; or, to put it differently, the only power he really craves is the power to command attention. He seeks purely to govern his brand, with chaos being the source and expression of his power. His power to spread chaos keeps him at the centre of attention, and remaining there, more than any policy commitment, is his principal political aim.


Another aspect of the moneyed class’s pro-GOP/pro-Trump campaign is the deployment of shock troop pundits like conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, who had a piece this week promoting this same nonsense about “re-opening the country.” It was an essay that, like much of Stephens’ work, does little more than repackage the standard mouthbreathing Fox News party line with a seemingly respectable veneer for consumption by the thinking audience. But that does not make it any more valid.

We all agree that the economic devastation being caused by the lockdown is very very bad; many of us feel it firsthand. Likewise it is true that a one-size-fits-all approach to easing out of shelter-in-place doesn’t make sense. But the urge to declare the crisis over (or limited to New York City, or a hoax from the start) just because we want it to be so doesn’t change the medical facts or the danger we are still facing.

Bret’s whole argument is that New York’s numbers are astronomical because of its population density. But California is by far the most populous state, including two very large cities, even if they are not at New York City’s level…..but it has had an amazingly low fatality rate. San Francisco is about 62% as dense as New York, so by Bret’s metrics its fatality rate should be proportionate. Yet as of this writing NYC has suffered 11,817 dead; San Francisco County has suffered only 22. (If Stephens was right, it should be about 7300.)

The reason for the difference? San Francisco’s intrepid mayor London Breed led the way in taking this pandemic seriously and implemented a lockdown much faster than the rest of the country. Los Angeles is about a quarter as dense as New York, and under the leadership of Eric Garcetti locked down later than SF but still relatively early, and has only suffered 84 deaths.

In other words, the argument that these “re-open the economy” types, whether they are Confederate flag waving, AR-15 toting Tea Partiers or Pulitzer Prize-winning, seemingly reasonable New York Times columnists, are really making is that because social distancing has worked we ought to stop it.

Which is like saying “The parachute succeeded in slowing our descent; we can take it off now.”

Stephens himself concedes that returning to some semblance of normal economic activity depends on widespread, effective, reliable testing—and we have nothing like that, and nothing like that on the near horizon, So the whole argument is a bit academic. Of course, that won’t stop various states from opening up without proper testing (or Trump from encouraging it), so I guess we’re gonna find out see what that looks like regardless.

I will tell you, however, as someone who had a skydiving accident that landed me in the hospital and then in a back brace for six months, a parachute is a pretty handy thing to have when you’re otherwise falling to your death.


To paraphrase a dying Dick Rude bleeding out on the floor of a convenience store during a robbery gone wrong in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), “In the end, I blame society.”

Libertarians like the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby have focused on how regulation and bureaucracy hindered American government’s response to the coronavirus, in the criminally inept rollout of testing kits, for example. Which is a valid point. But they willfully ignore the other half of the picture, which is the way this same crisis has laid bare the bankruptcy of the libertarian canard that “government is bad.”

We are currently enduring a catastrophe of epic proportions in large part because the federal government has severely botched its response. That is not proof that “government is bad”—it’s proof of how badly we need a competent, functioning federal government.

As much as we would like to govern at the most local level possible, in a crisis of this scope, only the feds have the resources and centralized capability to respond in a cohesive, strategic manner. The current incarnation cannot, however, because of Trump’s evisceration of the federal bureaucracy and his contempt for expertise, science, and objective truth full stop, not to mention his own personal pathology. If some state governors are behaving in an exemplary manner (while others are not), it’s because they have been given no choice. But even their best efforts may not be enough, and should never have had to be the first line of defense.

Last week the New York Times published a gutting piece noting that thanks to Trump and the GOP, the world doesn’t look to the US for leadership anymore. On the contrary: much of the world is watching the United States’ pathetic, self-harming response to the coronavirus with mouth-agape astonishment and sorrow for this once-great power. ““America has not done badly, it has done exceptionally badly,” said Dominique Moïsi, a political scientist and senior adviser at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne.”

But as bad as Trump is, he cannot be saddled with all the blame. The shamefulness of the American response to the pandemic, as compared with most other developed countries, is the result of the deliberate, ideologically driven choices the Republican Party and the conservative movement have promoted stretching all the way back to Reagan, and, truly, long before that.

So with all due respect, let’s not come away from this crisis having learned only that “regulation is bad.” We inflicted the worst of the pandemic upon ourselves not only with red tape, but even more so with the false belief that governance itself is a force for ill. The devastation through which we are living ought to be sobering evidence to the contrary.


For this is the sad truth about the coronavirus: it has killed once and for all the pathetic, self-flattering fraud of “American exceptionalism.” (Add another death to the toll.) But then again, that’s unfair, for that myth has long been dead; the pandemic didn’t kill it, it only exposed the rotting corpse. (Somebody fetch the Clorox.)

The irony, as my friend Ruth Hereford writes, is that it is this “blind belief in American greatness and our susceptibility to propaganda and spin that itself has made us even more vulnerable to this virus.”

In a piece for The Atlantic aptly titled “We Are Living in a Failed State,” the intrepid George Packer compares the US response to the pandemic to that of a third rate kleptocracy “like Pakistan or Belarus–like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”

Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter. When test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were found to be in desperately short supply, governors pleaded for them from the White House, which stalled, then called on private enterprise, which couldn’t deliver. States and cities were forced into bidding wars that left them prey to price gouging and corporate profiteering. Civilians took out their sewing machines to try to keep ill-equipped hospital workers healthy and their patients alive. Russia, Taiwan, and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power—a beggar nation in utter chaos.

Hot on Packer’s heels, last weekend the Irish Times’ aforementioned Fintan O’Toole delivered one of the most scathing and accurate summaries of the current moment I have yet read, which is high praise in an age when stellar journalism is undergoing a renaissance even as it is under attack:

The country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful. Will American prestige ever recover from this shameful episode? The US went into the coronavirus crisis with immense advantages: precious weeks of warning about what was coming, the world’s best concentration of medical and scientific expertise, effectively limitless financial resources, a military complex with stunning logistical capacity and most of the world’s leading technology corporations. Yet it managed to make itself the global epicentre of the pandemic.

It is one thing to be powerless in the face of a natural disaster, quite another to watch vast power being squandered in real time—willfully, malevolently, vindictively. It is one thing for governments to fail (as, in one degree or another, most governments did), quite another to watch a ruler and his supporters actively spread a deadly virus. Trump, his party and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News became vectors of the pestilence.

Let me quote Mr. O’Toole at further length, because why should I try describe the current horror show when he has already done so with such eloquence? (Where is my bottle of bourbon and the remote?)

The grotesque spectacle of the president openly inciting people (some of them armed) to take to the streets to oppose the restrictions that save lives is the manifestation of a political death wish. What are supposed to be daily briefings on the crisis, demonstrative of national unity in the face of a shared challenge, have been used by Trump merely to sow confusion and division. They provide a recurring horror show in which all the neuroses that haunt the American subconscious dance naked on live TV.

If the plague is a test, its ruling political nexus ensured that the US would fail it at a terrible cost in human lives. In the process, the idea of the US as the world’s leading nation—an idea that has shaped the past century—has all but evaporated….

(W)ho is now looking to the US as the exemplar of anything other than what not to do?

He goes on to write of how the pandemic has savagely exposed the once widely held delusion that the GOP would rein Trump in, instead “surrender(ing) abjectly to him,” and “(sacrificing) on the altar of wanton stupidity the most basic ideas of responsibility, care and even safety.” Of the GOP’s eagerness to re-open the country, he notes the anti-science, conspiracy-mongering, religion-based wellspring of such thinking, saying, “This is not mere ignorance—it is deliberate and homicidal stupidity,” and notes the bitter irony of Fox feeding it, bringing Republican politicians millions of dollars in donations from the very people most vulnerable in the pandemic.

The US response to the coronavirus crisis has been paralysed by a contradiction that the Republicans have inserted into the heart of US democracy. On the one hand, they want to control all the levers of governmental power. On the other they have created a popular base by playing on the notion that government is innately evil and must not be trusted….

The crisis has shown definitively that Trump’s presidency is not an aberration. It has grown on soil long prepared to receive it. The monstrous blossoming of misrule has structure and purpose and strategy behind it. There are very powerful interests who demand “freedom” in order to do as they like with the environment, society and the economy. They have infused a very large part of American culture with the belief that “freedom” is literally more important than life. My freedom to own assault weapons trumps your right not to get shot at school….

There has been no moment of truth, no shock of realisation that the antics have to end. No one of any substance on the US right has stepped in to say: get a grip, people are dying here.

That is the mark of how deep the trouble is for the US—it is not just that Trump has treated the crisis merely as a way to feed tribal hatreds but that this behaviour has become normalised. When the freak show is live on TV every evening, and the star is boasting about his ratings, it is not really a freak show any more. For a very large and solid bloc of Americans, it is reality.

Let us close with O’Toole’s surely accurate prediction of what we have to look forward to in the coming months:

As things get worse, (Trump) will pump more hatred and falsehood, more death-wish defiance of reason and decency, into the groundwater. If a new administration succeeds him in 2021, it will have to clean up the toxic dump he leaves behind. If he is re-elected, toxicity will have become the lifeblood of American politics.

Either way, it will be a long time before the rest of the world can imagine America being great again.



Thank you Thomas Anthony Farmer for bringing O’Toole’s article to my attention, and Sylvia Sichel. for doing the same with Bret Stephens’.

One thought on “Vectors of Pestilence

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