What Might Have Been

Running the World

This past weekend, for one of the first times since the quarantine began on March 13, my family and I ventured out of New York, down to the Atlantic City. AC is a grim place even in the best of times, and right now it is a pretty desolate and depressing wasteland. The hotels and casinos are closed and so are most other establishments, from chain stores to mom & pop shops to restaurants and bars that are heavily reliant on seasonal tourism, all of them anticipating a brutal summer that might drive many of them out of business.

While we were there, we went walking on the still-wintry boardwalk, amid a few other tentative beachcombers, most of them wearing masks and practicing social distancing. As we walked, a small plane flew over towing an advertising banner, not an uncommon sight in summertime. But instead of Budweiser or Coppertone or the Tropicana, the big red, white & blue banner read TRUMP 2020: KEEP AMERICA GREAT, buzzing slowly over the worst destruction this country has seen in over a hundred years, and with no discernible irony.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

At a time like this, there isn’t much point in indulging in alternative histories (or torturing ourselves with them), except when there is.

Imagining how the current crisis might have unfolded under a competent head of state, or any kind of functioning adult, can help cast a clarifying, if brutal, light on how our actual head of state has miserably failed us.

I have some conservative friends who, you will be unsurprised to learn, absolutely loathed Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady and a US Senator. But once Barack Obama became president, they had no more bandwidth for that. In fact, they temporarily became vocal admirers of Hillary, particularly when she was Secretary of State, praising her as strong and smart, tough on our enemies, experienced, yada yada yada…..all in implicit contrast to Barack, of course, their contempt for whom—intense as it was—they could never convincingly explain.

It didn’t take Nostradamus to figure out what was going to happen next. This was in Obama’s first term, when an eventual Hillary candidacy for the White House was already presumed but still very far off. I told these guys explicitly at the time, mark-my-words-style, that they would surely do a 180 and start hating on Hillary again as soon as she ran for president.

Of course, it came true in spades.

I bring this up merely to point out that even conservatives gave (and still give) Hillary credit for being smart, tenacious, ruthless, and supremely competent, even if it’s in the service of goals they abhor. Indeed, her formidability is one of their chief complaints about her, super-villain wise, although it is also inherently a compliment. (See Nanette Burstein’s great four-part documentary series “Hillary,” on Hulu….and also Curtis Sittenfield’s new counterfactual novel, Rodham.)

Unless you’re a Kool-Aid drunk Trump supporter, it is impossible to deny that a President Hillary Clinton would have handled this crisis more competently. Even if you hate her, you can’t seriously argue that she would have refused to acknowledge the danger when presented by the most knowledgeable people in the field, gutted the federal government of desperately needed expertise, held medical equipment hostage in demand for praise, ranted about her ratings on Facebook, advised the American public to take unproven drugs, ignored basic science and objective reality itself, and just generally made a dog’s breakfast of the US response.

We know this in part because we know how the administration in which she served as Secretary of State was preparing for precisely this sort of disaster, and because of how she conducted herself in five decades of public life.

Don’t think so? Believe that’s just liberal fantasy? OK. Enjoy your hydroxychloroquine-and-Lysol cocktail.

The Never Trump conservative Max Boot put it very well in a Washington Post article from March 21 called, bluntly, “This Wouldn’t Have Happened If Hillary Clinton Had Won.”

I weep in anger and frustration imagining what might have been if Hillary Clinton—a sane, sensible adult—had won. We couldn’t have avoided the coronavirus, but we could have ameliorated its effects.

Picturing how Clinton might have handled the pandemic is apt to make a liberal unbearably wistful. When one observes how other countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Finland and (all led by women, I must note) managed to anticipate, respond to, and otherwise minimize the effects of the virus, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the American death toll could have been kept under 10,000—a tenth of what we have suffered, so far. A per capita comparison is even more instructive. Taiwan currently has 0.3 deaths per million, New Zealand 4, Finland 55, and Germany 97.

The US has 287.

The economic damage might also have been greatly mitigated, belying the right wing screeching that we must choose between lives and dollars, and instead recognizing that they are inextricably connected. European countries that took swift action to prop up their economies, including protecting the paychecks of ordinary citizens, have suffered far less and are already beginning to rebuild. By contrast, using multi-trillion dollar stimulus legislation as a slush fund to funnel taxpayer dollars into the pockets of donors, cronies, and even one’s own businesses—while proposing cuts to unemployment benefits—has somehow been less helpful.

In the words of a certain US Marine: surprise surprise surprise.

HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER

Here’s the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson:

Only a handful of nations on Earth have arguably done a worse job of handling the coronavirus pandemic than the United States. What has happened to us? How did we become so dysfunctional? When did we become so incompetent?

I’ll tell you when: when we inexplicably entrusted the stewardship of this nation to a mentally deficient con artist and malignant imbecile named Donald John Trump.

(Although one could make a more sophisticated argument that we crossed that line when we became a nation that was even capable of doing such a thing—an acknowledgment that Trump is merely a symptom, not these disease itself. Sadly, that does not make it any better, and actually worse.)

As I’ve said ad nauseam, when history looks back on the Trump presidency, it will be appended with the initials SMDH. He will go down making Herbert Hoover look like a genius. It’s couldn’t happen to a nicer guy of course, but that is cold comfort right now.

PoliticsUSA’s Jason Easley makes the salient point that Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic is not just a matter of negligence or incompetence, but approaches active homicide in blocking measures that would have slowed the spread and saved lives, including the establishment of a national strategy, implementation of a national lockdown, encouragement of social distancing and mask-wearing, and efforts to ensure availability of sufficient PPE and adequate testing. As Easley notes, “Trump has routinely acted in bad faith out of self-interest, and now millions are sick, tens of thousands are dead, and 40 million are unemployed,” which is why “the US leads the world in coronavirus cases.”

As Harvard Law school professor Laurence Tribe tweeted, “This is worse than dereliction of duty; it’s getting close to active killing. Not quite murder, maybe, but getting close.” Gregg Gonsalves of the Yale School of Public Health has suggested that by doing so in the knowledge that the pandemic is disproportionately ravaging communities of color, Trump’s actions amount to crimes against humanity punishable under international law.

Show of hands: who’s surprised?

Max Boot again:

It was precisely because we were afraid of how Trump would mishandle his weighty responsibilities that some “Never Trump” conservatives supported Clinton in 2016. On May 8, 2016, I wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “There has never been a major party nominee in US history as unqualified for the presidency. The risk of Trump winning, however remote, represents the biggest national security threat that the United States faces today.”

I do not cite my earlier article—one of dozens I wrote in 2015 and 2016 warning in ever-more-urgent tones of the danger of electing Trump—as a way of patting myself on the back for prescience. It took no foresight to predict that Trump would be a catastrophe in a crisis. It was close to the conventional wisdom. Yet nearly 63 million voters chose to disregard such warnings.

For three years we were lucky enough not to have a major international crisis of the sort Boot describes, until we were hit with one much bigger and of a different variety than we ever imagined. And Trump failed that test even worse than his worst critics predicted. The Cessna with the Trump banner flying over Atlantic City is fitting, given that he has now done to the whole country what he did to that city as a deadbeat casino owner.

For all the people who hated HRC and thought Trump would shake up the system, or blithely looked past his manifold flaws and for some reason thought he was the better alternative, or talked themselves into some crazy conspiracy theory, or suffered from deep primeval reptile brain misogyny, I say: now look at us. Look upon the havoc that has been wreaked on this country in just over three years, look at the death, the economic devastation, the destruction of the rule of law, the beclowning of the judiciary, the quisling submission to a foreign power, the obliteration of truth as a common metric, the death of civility, the stoking of divisiveness, the resurgence of racism, and on and on…..

But her emails, amirite people?

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Which bring us to the really bitter irony at the bottom of all this.

It wouldn’t have mattered how well a President Hillary Clinton handled a crisis like this. She would have been crucified regardless, and with a viciousness that Donald Trump has never had to contend, not even for a moment.

On Medium, Umair Haque writes:

Can you imagine Obama getting away with letting 90,000 Americans die? How about Hillary? How many Benghazis is that, exactly? They’d probably have ended up disgraced, if not imprisoned. But Trump? He’s not just getting away with it, as usual—he’s gotten away with it for so long that by now he knows he can count on America’s bottomless appetite to be mesmerized by his cheap conman’s tricks as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.

But forget 90,000. Any deaths or economic pain at all would’ve been gleefully seized upon by the Republicans as reason to attack any Democratic president. And those attacks would’ve found some purchase, no doubt about it.

Obviously, there would not be the utter catastrophe of Trump’s handling as a point of comparison. A President H.R. Clinton couldn’t point to him and say, “Hey, at least I didn’t behave like a petulant child, spew lies, and line the pockets of my cronies while the country burned!” Because before Trump no one could imagine that the US would ever allow a president to do anything like that. Don’t be ridiculous!

So, continuing down this counterfactual road, we can presume that if Hillary had won in 2016 and been president when covid hit, she would have been absolutely crushed in the 2020 election, because that is typically what would happen to a chief executive who presided over the twin nightmares of a historic pandemic and the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, let alone one who demonstrably made both worse than they had to be. (But again, that doesn’t mean that that’s what will happen to Trump, because, as Haque points out…..Bizarro World.)

It’s a jarring thought. Much as it hurt to lose in 2016, might the Democrats have suffered even more had they won and been in power when this nightmare struck?

It’s almost as if this fascist sickness was bubbling up in the American body politic and going to come out sooner or later, one way or another, if not with Trump in 2016 then maybe with Trump in 2020, or with an even worse figure , if that’s possible to imagine. If Trumpism hadn’t triumphed when it did, it was likely to raise its hideous head at some point. In any case, it’s a grievous mistake to think that we’re going to eradicate it now, or ever, not without a major re-evaluation of who we are as a people.

Eugene Robinson again: 

The covid-19 pandemic has exposed the depth of America’s fall from greatness. Ridding ourselves of Trump and his cronies in November will be just the beginning of our work to restore it.

Indeed, the crisis has laid bare some of our greatest weaknesses, weaknesses that numerous observers have been howling about for quite a long time: virulent racism, raging inequality, a Darwinian economic system, and the general hoax of the American Dream. The optimistic view is that the covid crisis might serve as a slap in the face that causes us to take stock and change those things for the better. More pessimistically, it may lead us into even blacker times and an even more authoritarian response. The ugly scenes on the steps of state capitals like Lansing, Michigan offer a preview of that latter road, and just how dark it is.

It’s not a uniquely American sickness of course. At various times, fascism and its kissing cousins have taken root all over the world, and in much more horrible forms than this. But the United States of the 21st Century does seem to possess some unique tendencies that make it susceptible to that disease.

We alone among the major industrialized nations are unable to provide healthcare for our citizens, instead insisting upon the most inefficient, sadistic, and ineffective employment-based system imaginable. We alone are awash in firearms and on a regular basis shoot each other up like characters in a Sam Peckinpah western, resisting any common sense efforts to staunch that bleeding, instead hysterically screeching about the Biblical sanctity of the Second Amendment. Ironically, we alone see ourselves as “exceptional” (and by some accounts, divinely selected) and justified in doing whatever the fuck we want on the global stage. And we alone among the major powers are so deeply steeped in Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” making us highly prone to conspiracy theory, demagoguery, suspicion of authority, and Know Nothing anti-intellectualism.

It’s a perfect recipe for a Trumplike figure, as H.L. Mencken predicted lo those many years ago. The real wonder is it took so long to come to pass.

PROOF OF CONCEPT

Shortly after the inauguration in January 2017, I had a conversation with a friend—let’s call him Dustin. “How you doing?” he asked. “Not good,” I said. “Me either,” Dustin replied, “and the worst part is, I find myself hoping for bad things.” It was a brave admission, and something I felt too, though I wasn’t as courageous as him to volunteer it unbidden. But what we both wanted was for the rest of the country—the part that voted for Trump—to see just how bad the decision was that they had just made.

I guess we got our wish. It remains to be seen if even this crisis is enough to rouse some of our fellow Americans from their reverie.

Short of a nuclear war, this is about as bad a national nightmare as one could imagine, and I’m not sure we’ve seen the worst of it yet. Trump may or may not survive it, but it is certainly testing the limits of his shooting-someone-in-the-middle-of-Fifth-Avenue theory. A recent article in the Washington Post offered grim prediction of how bad the economic damage—never mind public health damage and loss of human life—will be, estimating it will take eight years for the economy to fully recover….and that is with competent leadership, which is by no means guaranteed. In fact quite the opposite, if the GOP remains in power in November.

Like many, I shudder to think what this country will look like if we have to endure four more years of this monstrous regime. In the words of the Lincoln Project’s much-praised “Mourning in America” spot, will there even be in America four years from now, at least as we once knew it?

If the Democrats do succeed in regaining power in November, you can bet that the Republicans will try to stymie them even at the cost of human life and further damage to the country, much as they did with their unconscionable obstructionism toward Obama after the 2008 crash. They will blame the Democrats for the economy not recovering fast enough, for every failure, for every death, eliding the fact that they were the ones who led us into that disaster and cravenly continue to make it worse.

Some think that process is already underway, with Moscow Mitch deliberately setting Biden up to take the blame. The Post’s Paul Waldman:

If you think Trump’s chances of reelection are dwindling, why would you try to save the economy now? Imagine if you passed measures that made the recovery easier but Trump lost anyway……Better to keep everyone miserable for a couple more years. McConnell can just confirm as many hard-right judges as possible between now and January, and consider his work done…..

Republicans are genuinely fearful that people will be too thankful if government helps them too much and that the crisis will make the passage of stronger safety-net programs more likely in the future. But if you thought Trump could still win, your best move would be to give the economy the biggest short-term boost possible with massive government spending, then worry about cutting it back later. Doing nothing now, even if you’re planning to promote cuts in a year or two, suggests only that you think the Trump presidency is all but a lost cause.

If we are lucky, Joe Biden and his successors may be able to pull us out of this. But like my fictional President Hillary, their reward, no doubt, will likely be ejection from office in 2028 by some firebreathing Republican challenger, or maybe even in 2024. (If Trump’s not too senile, or in prison, it might even be him. Or Ivanka. Or—shiver—Don Jr.) Recall that the Democrats held the White House for just four years after Watergate before the GOP took it back, making Carter’s term an island in a sea of twenty years of otherwise uninterrupted Republican rule, a period that included that historic scandal, the latter part of the Vietnam war, and Iran-contra, to name just a few highlights.

But let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. Job number one right now is was getting Trump out and giving the Democrats that chance in the first place.

I MEME ME MINE

In looking for the iconic Hillary-in-sunglasses photo to accompany this piece, I found it in what I believe was its original incarnation, a New York Times article from 2015 headlined, “Voters Unlikely to Care Much About the Hillary Clinton Email Furor.”

I’ll give you a minute to drink that in before filing under #Ironic AF.

Yes, voters probably were unlikely to care……until the Republican Disinformation Machine got hold of it. Said machine is currently hard at work making you think more about Burisma, Tara Reade, and “Terry and the Pirates” visions of China than the collapse of the United States into a failed state that Pakistan pities.

(Double irony: the photo was taken in 2011, while Hillary was en route from Malta to—wait for it—Libya.)

The Hillary Clinton presidency-that-never-was is a bitter lesson. But the really terrifying thing is that we may not have learned that lesson. Even now both the hard left and the repulsive right are shrieking that Joe Biden is just as bad as Trump, or worse. Trump meanwhile benefits from precisely the opposite effect, proving either that there is no God, or there is, but He’s a sadist.

Can Trump get away with this greatest gaslighting of all? If so, it will not be a testament to his alleged PT Barnum-style “genius” but to the absolute gullibility of the American people. And we will deserve what we get.

 

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Photo by Kevin Lamarque of Reuters. A similar photo by Time’s Diana Walker is also associated with that meme.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori

This Memorial Day marks the third anniversary of the debut of this blog.

When I was growing up, my father, an Army infantry officer, used to tell me that if at all possible, I should always take some time on this holiday and visit the local military cemetery to honor the fallen and pay tribute to what they gave for their fellow countrymen.

In that spirit, this time of year I frequently post about the sacrifices of American veterans. I never expected that I would be writing about the needless deaths of almost 100,000 of our countrymen and still climbing, rapidly approaching the number who died in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

It is bitterly appropriate that we should reach that grim milestone on this particular weekend.

I will (mostly) restrain myself from my usual vitriol directed at those who, through their malevolence and incompetence and avarice, led us into this sorrowful state of affairs. Our regular programming will resume next week.

For now let us simply pause and reflect on those we’ve lost.

That general admonition to remember what this holiday is about, which one often reads in the editorial pages on the last Monday in May, is usually accompanied by gentle scolding about taking time out from barbecues and beachgoing and parties. I’ve trafficked in that sanctimony myself. It’s fair enough.

But there’s no need for hedonism-shaming. This Memorial Day, the idea of a barbecue, or going to the beach, or having a party, are all simple pleasures that we would be grateful to have. Forgoing them has, temporarily, become not just an act of spartanism at the beginning of summer, but of patriotic and humanitarian duty. Some among us are so eager to get those pleasures back that they would rush forward where thoughtful citizens (not necessarily angels) wisely choose not yet to tread.

Save a few centenarians who survived the Spanish flu, no living American has experienced this extent of sickness and death in this country. Nor have we seen such depths of economic hardship since the 1930s. The immediate future is disturbingly uncertain, creating profound psychological stress of its own. Accordingly, we are being—or ought to be—forced to re-examine almost every aspect of our lives and values and beliefs: that is to say, what kind of country we are and what kind we want to be. The answers are by no means certain and consensus even less so.

America is in the midst of a crisis that is testing our soul, or what’s left of it. So far we’ve seen incredible bravery, fortitude, and sacrifice—from first responders, health care workers, delivery people, mail carriers, store clerks, and others in all walks of life. We’ve also seen some of the most appalling greed, selfishness, dishonesty, criminal suppression of the facts, refusal to take responsibility, and even active efforts to make this crisis worse.

There is no need for us to pass judgment: God will take care of that…..and so will history, which traditionally is far harsher than the Lord.

Whether you believe in the deity or not, we don’t need to be literal when we say: God bless us every one on this Memorial Day like no other.

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Illustration of Florida attorney Daniel Uhlfelder, dressed as a certain famously somber figure.

 

 

The Strange Fruit Endures

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 9.38.45 AM

Sometimes the news seems totally disjointed and anarchic, a torrent of disconnected events. Other times there is a gestalt to it that arrives with lightning bolt-like clarity.

Last week was one of the latter.

The centerpiece of that clarity was a trio of shotgun blasts, fired on a street in south Georgia, on a Sunday afternoon.

THE GALLANT SOUTH

On Sunday February 23, two white men armed with a shotgun and a .357 Magnum pistol got in a pickup truck and followed an unarmed 25-year-old black man named Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging down a suburban street in Brunswick, Georgia. They accosted him and shot him dead while a third white man, a friend of theirs, filmed the incident.

No charges were filed for two months, until public outcry and the emergence of that video forced it.

I spent my last two years of high school in that part of Georgia, near the Florida state line, and quite a bit of time in other parts of Georgia too. When you hear the phrase “the Deep South,” this is it. I can assure you that, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s at least, the spirit of the Confederacy was alive and well there. I don’t imagine it has become a model of progressive race relations in the intervening years.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, that a couple rednecks would commit this hate crime is one thing; it’s quite another for the mechanisms of government to abet and excuse it.

In a letter to Glynn County police directing them to make no arrests, the elected District Attorney for the Waycross Judicial Circuit, George Barnhill, wrote that he thought the shooting was justified, and that the killers had committed no crime under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law. In Barnhill’s view, Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis McMichael, 34, had “solid firsthand probable cause” to chase Mr. Arbery, because they suspected him of being involved in a recent series of break-ins.

What was their “solid firsthand probable cause”?

They thought he looked like the alleged trespasser.

(“No such string of break-ins was ever reported to police in more than seven weeks preceding the shooting, Glynn County police Lt. Cheri Bashlor told CNN.”)

But the rote notion that Ahmaud Arbery was a criminal is par for the course in these cases. From the Scottsboro Boys to Michael Brown, such violent race-based vigilantism is often predicated on the claim that blacks are dangerous outlaws from whom white people must defend themselves…and since “the system” won’t do it, whitey often has to take matters into his own hands.

That irony is neck deep. Ask the African-American community what they think of the idea that the criminal justice system is rigged in their favor.

Similarly, the habit of white people, especially those with a credible racist streak, to confuse one black person for another is lethally well established. But even if Ahmaud Arbery had been a burglar (which I am positing only for the sake of argument), and even if he was fleeing the scene of a robbery (which he wasn’t, remotely) what possessed these two crackers to take it upon themselves to personally accost him with a pair of firearms, creating a dangerous situation where none existed or needed to?

I’ll tell you what possessed them to do that.

These guys were hunting.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Barnhill was not the first prosecutor on the case. The original one, the DA for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, Jackie Johnson, recused herself because of a conflict of interest: Gregory McMichael had been an investigator in her office before he retired. (He had also worked for the Glynn County police department from 1982 to 1989.) Barnhill was then forced to follow suit, because his son had worked with McMichael in that same office, and was still employed there.

The third prosecutor, District Attorney Tom Durden of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, was based in the nearby town of Hinesville, where I went to high school. He asked to be removed from the case. The Georgia Attorney General has now assigned a fourth prosecutor, Joyette M. Holmes, the DA for Cobb County,  who is a black woman, for what it’s worth. (The previous three would-be prosecutors were all white.)

Lest we forget, this is a state governed by inveterate election robber and minority-vote-suppressor Brian Kemp, a Republican of course, who seems to be permanently channeling Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke, and who ran an allegedly humorous campaign ad in which he pointed a shotgun at a teenage boy who wanted to date his daughter. (Hilarious!) These days, Kemp seems most focused on getting Georgia’s tattoo parlors and bowling alleys open to hasten the spread of the coronavirus.

In declining to prosecute, Barnhill blithely accepted the McMichaels’s argument that they acted in self-defense—another standard excuse in these cases, from the Simi Valley PD to George Zimmerman.

I don’t know about you, but when I am barehanded and approach two men brandishing a shotgun and a .357 Magnum, I don’t usually pick a fight.

The video shows that Arbery was indeed shot in a struggle over the shotgun, but the self-defense claim is specious. The killers initiated the confrontation, they were the ones who were armed when their victim wasn’t, and the other guy wound up dead. Sound like self-defense to you?

The McMichaels also seem poised to claim that Arbery himself accidentally fired the second of three shots during the struggle, two to the chest and one that hit him in the hand. As if that matters. And while we can correctly say that they pursued Arbery—stalked might be a better term—let’s not fall into their trap of calling it “hot pursuit,” as some sloppy news reports have. That implies the legitimate chase of a perpetrator fleeing the scene of the crime, not a defenseless jogger chased by armed men in a pickup truck….and lest we forget, at the risk of repeating myself, these guys were not law enforcement officers.

There is some small solace in the fact that their claim doesn’t figure to hold up in court. According to Michael J. Moore, formerly a US attorney in Georgia who reviewed the video of the murder:

…..the McMichaels appeared to be the aggressors in the confrontation, and such aggressors were not justified in using force under Georgia’s self-defense laws. “The law does not allow a group of people to form an armed posse and chase down an unarmed person who they believe might have possibly been the perpetrator of a past crime.”

As reported in USA Today, Sarah Gerwig-Moore, associate dean for academic affairs at Mercer University School of Law, adds:

……Georgia law does not allow for a self-defense defense when the person carrying out the shooting initiated the encounter. “A struggle over the gun does not establish self-defense,” Gerwig-Moore said. The McMichaels brought the guns into the incident, and she said they initiated the encounter by first approaching Arbery with the firearms. “He tried to disarm them really because that was his only hope of survival.”

POLICE ON MY BACK

It is telling that not one but two District Attorneys had to recuse themselves from the case because of their affiliations with one of the accused. That tells you all you need to know about how deeply “law enforcement” is intertwined with both racist vigilantism and institutionalized oppression and violence toward black people. But it has historically always been so.

During and after Reconstruction and into Jim Crow, it was commonplace in the South for members of the Klan to put on badges and become sheriffs, allowing them to carry out their terrorism under the imprimatur of the law. (Today, just pointing that out is likely to raise angry hackles.) But it isn’t just a matter of the past. The FBI continues to monitor the alarming presence of white supremacists in law enforcement.

The civil rights lawyer and anti-death penalty advocate Bryan Stephenson of the Equal Justice Initiative has written at length about the direct line from slavery to lynching to capital punishment. Violent white vigilantism and the codified, institutional oppression of black people have always gone hand in glove in America. (See also Michelle Alexander and The New Jim Crow.)

Anecdotally, I can tell you that I’ve heard appalling racism from cops and even prosecutors, firsthand. Are those just “bad apple” exceptions, rather than indicative of a systemic problem? See above. Even if that were so, how much better does that make it?

But the personal racism of individual members of the criminal justice system pales in comparison to the overall weaponization of that system against people of color, even as those examples reflect and perpetuate it on a granular level.

In a bitter irony, Mr. Arbery was killed three days before the eighth anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin, whose killer also claimed self-defense and was also not initially charged. When he finally was indicted for murder, George Zimmerman was let off scot free by a Florida jury, and by the DOJ which declined to press civil rights charges against him. That howling travesty of justice, of course, that helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement, which has itself become the target of outrageous vitriol from right wing Americans, to include prominent members of the GOP and of course its leader, the President of the United States.

So Ahmaud Arbery becomes yet another in a grim parade of African-Americans—mostly but not exclusively male—who have been violently murdered by white assailants, often directly by or with the assistance of members of the criminal justice system that is supposed to protect us, and had justice either denied or delayed by that same system.

But it gets worse. For let us now take a look at how the other half lives.

INSTITUTIONALIZED

News flash: the law treats white people differently, especially rich, connected white people. That phenomenon was on hideous display this week at the highest levels of American public life.

The understandable, all-consuming focus on the coronavirus provided cover for Bill “The Institutionalist” Barr to continue to act as a mob consigliere to the Trump crime family, issuing a de facto pardon for Mike Flynn, even though Flynn twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. No legal scholar can cite a previous case where a US Attorney General intervened to void the conviction of a defendant like that.

How excited is Roger Stone right now?

Asked by CBS’s Norah O’Donnell how he thought history would view his actions, Barr even openly snickered that “History is written by the winners.”

I’m not so sure Bill Barr should be so confident about how history is going to remember him and his pals.

As Adam Stein of The Daily Beast tweeted, “The head of the American justice system now saying publicly that there is no good or bad except what the strongest want. The definition of autocracy.” In other words, Barr and Trump and their band of pirates are no longer even pretending to respect the rule of law.

Thousands of former DOJ officials howled in protest, calling for Barr to resign, reprising the outrage of a few months ago when he similarly intervened to reduce Stone’s sentence. As of this writing, the judge in the Flynn case, Emmet G. Sullivan, has expressed such concern that he has delayed the implementation of Barr’s order and appointed a retired federal judge, John Gleeson, to look into the matter—a glimmer of hope that the judiciary is resisting Barr’s effort to eviscerate it, cold comfort though that is.

Another well-heeled white dude getting a break was Paul Manafort, who last week was given early release from prison and remanded to house arrest due to the covid pandemic. It’s a different story if you’re an enemy of the president, like his fixer-turned-accuser Michael Cohen, who was also supposed to be released from prison early because of the pandemic, but for some reason is still in. Weird, right?

The really worrying thing, as former FBI agent and Yale Law School professor Asha Rangappa writes, is that Barr is behaving so brazenly because he has inside information that makes him confident that Trump and the GOP won’t pay the price at the ballot box in November, or from Congress, in—oh, I don’t know—an impeachment:

Barr believes he’ll be on the winning side because he is creating a space where Trump can get foreign election assistance (voluntarily or involuntarily given); the FBI can’t investigate him or others for it and DOJ can’t charge anyone who helps; people who witness it and try to blow the whistle get buried; Congress (and therefore voters) remain in the dark; and allies who might step up to raise the alarm will have their intel leaked and sources blown.

Last week Franklin Foer had a terrifying piece about Russian election interference and the GOP’s unwillingness to stop it. Which is ironic, since the Flynn decision is part of an ongoing, brazen campaign by the White House to erase the public record of Moscow’s assistance in getting Trump elected the last time.

As part of that same effort, last week the DOJ was also in court arguing that the administration should not have to turn over to Congress grand jury material related to the Mueller probe, and before the Supreme Court arguing that neither the Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance nor even Congress have a right to see Trump’s tax records, not even in pursuit (or is it hot pursuit?) of a criminal investigation.

How the hyperpolarized Supreme Court will rule is anyone’s guess, even though it has twice before, under Nixon and Clinton, ruled unanimously against such outrageous claims of presidential immunity, as Jeffrey Toobin eloquently wrote in the New Yorker. We know that John Roberts is said to be deeply concerned about the legacy of the Court that bears his name. He ought to be. The Court’s decisions in the Trump era, and Chief Justice Roberts’ own conduct during the impeachment trial, don’t exactly bode well for his reputation as a dispassionate home plate umpire. If the Court hands down a 5-4 defense of Trump, its already hemorrhaging credibility will take another massive hit, as will the rule of law in this once proud country.

Not exactly a criminal justice matter, but also in the While You Were Sleeping Department, the administration and its Republican handmaidens in the Senate are currently trying to ram through the confirmation of Trump’s DNI nominee, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), the same wildly unqualified partisan attack dog who got his nomination slapped down a few months ago, before we were all preoccupied with the prospect of dying in a global plague.

Johnny Rat will make a fitting successor to Richard Grenell, the Internet troll who is now the acting Director of National Intelligence. Last week he was in front of the Senate, Barr-like, swearing up and down that he would uphold the law and stand up to Trump. “Trump’s top spy pick vows he won’t politicize intelligence” as the AP headline put it. Expect to see those words boomerang back in a few months when Ratcliffe eviscerates the Intelligence Community and turns its rancid remains into another arm of the Trump kakistocracy.

So the system really works for the likes of Trump, Manafort, and Flynn, and may yet work for Greg and Travis McMichaels.

For Ahmaud Arbery, not so much.

THE RACIAL CONTRACT

Notwithstanding the tragically naive delusion that the election of Barack Obama marked the dawn of a “post-racial society,” the irrational hate that laid Ahmaud Arbery out in a pool of blood on the black macadam of a suburban Georgia street has always been with us, and always will be until we reckon with it.

But between, say, 1968 and 2015, that hate had to hide its face in shame in polite society. No more.

Now we now live under a government whose leader openly cheers and supports these troglodytes, who praises the “very fine people” wearing swastikas and waving Confederate battle flags in Charlottesville, who talks of the “very responsible people” in body armor and carrying tricked-out AR-15s storming the offices of Democratic governors, demanding the right to die from covid-19. (I guess Trump knows from responsibility, even as he declines to accept any.)

These same people find it outrageous that Colin Kaepernick had the gall to take a knee in peaceful, silent protest, and what the hell was he so upset about anyway?

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes blisteringly of the implicit “racial contract” that defines how American culture operates:

A 12-year-old with a toy gun is a dangerous threat who must be met with lethal force; armed militias drawing beads on federal agents are heroes of liberty. Struggling white farmers in Iowa taking billions in federal assistance are hardworking Americans down on their luck; struggling single parents in cities using food stamps are welfare queens. Black Americans struggling in the cocaine epidemic are a “bio-underclass” created by a pathological culture; white Americans struggling with opioid addiction are a national tragedy. Poor European immigrants who flocked to an America with virtually no immigration restrictions came “the right way”; poor Central American immigrants evading a baroque and unforgiving system are gang members and terrorists.

And it doesn’t matter who you are or how high in public life you are; no person of color is exempt from this dynamic. On the contrary, in some ways.

As if to underscore the resilience of racism in America, Mitch McConnell decided to throw a hissy fit over the fact that last week Barack Obama criticized Trump’s handling of the pandemic in a private phone call. “I think President Obama should have kept his mouth shut,” complained Kentucky’s finest. “I think it’s a little bit classless, frankly, to critique an administration that comes after you.”

You could almost feel Mitch yearning to use the word “uppity.”

Maybe no living black American has had to endure more verbal abuse and character assassination than Obama, and done it with more grace and aplomb. But at this point I am ready for Luther, his anger translator. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait said it all with his headline, “Mitch McConnell Upset at ‘Classless,’ Norm-Breaking President.”

Serwer’s piece in the Atlantic is titled, “The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying.” Its gist is that Trump’s new strategy of declaring victory over the coronavirus and pretending everything is fine is motivated in part by statistics showing that the virus is disproportionately affecting people of color.

In other words, while Trump is more than happy to use the mechanisms of governance to protect his criminal enterprises and cover up his corruption and reward his accomplices, he has no interest in using it to help the American people, especially the black and brown ones.

This is not just shameful policy that ought to make us cluck our tongues as we change the channel; it’s a crime against humanity. Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health and co-director of its Global Health Justice Partnership, tweeted:

How many people will die this summer, before Election Day? What proportion of the deaths will be among African-Americans, Latinos, other people of color? This is getting awfully close to genocide by default. What else do you call mass death by public policy?

And I am being serious here: What is happening in the US is purposeful, considered negligence, omission, failure to act by our leaders. Can they be held responsible under international law?

So, what does it mean to let thousands die by negligence, omission, failure to act, in a legal sense under international law?

Attention International Criminal Court.

There is always the self-flattering temptation for a disconnected public to rationalize an event like Ahmaud Arbery’s murder as an aberration, tragic though it is. But when it keeps happening over and over and over again, it can’t reasonably be denied that it is anything but an anomaly, especially in the context of the brazen white privilege, and a deliberate policy of mass murder by laissez faire criminal negligence at the highest levels of our national so-called leadership.

It is who we are. This is our strange and bitter crop.

********

Photo courtesy of Marcus Arbery

Strange Fruit” by Abe Meeropol (aka Lewis Allen)

Thank you Genie Smith for the article about Greg Gonsalves

 

 

Live and Let Die

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Over a period of about 48 hours this week, it became very clear what Donald Trump’s latest plan is for dealing with the coronavirus…..which is to, say his plan for getting re-elected, given that he clearly only cares about the former in terms of the latter.

Several sharp-eyed observers wrote about it: Bob Cesca, Jay Rosen, Amanda Marcotte, Heather Digby Parton. I am here only to climb up on their shoulders when I point out what it is:

He has decided just to declare victory.

What could be more Trumpian? Realizing that this deadly virus isn’t going to magically disappear, and seeing that his dogshit-awful response is not stopping it or even seriously slowing it down, he has fallen back on his usual lifelong strategy—lying his ass off—and hoping no one notices.

He may believe it, in his usual pathological way, or he may merely be talking himself into it, magical thinking wise, or he may know it’s asinine and be deploying it only cynically. Does it really matter? (That question applies to his entire life, frankly.) But any way you slice it, it’s a batshit thing to claim, if you’ll pardon the expression, and even more batshit to expect people to believe.

That of course has never been a barrier for Donald, because some people surely will.

TORA TORA TORA

As Bob Cesca writes in Raw Story: “Every ridiculous action taken by Donald Trump…..(e)very terrible decision, every whiny outburst, every childish tweet is issued with the goal of helping Trump get re-elected.”

Rather than safely and sanely handling the crisis, Trump continues to desperately rush things along like a Mountain Dew-guzzling little boy in the back seat of his parents’ car chanting, “Are we there yet?” Trump doesn’t know much, but he at least understands that the deeper the economy collapses into a historically massive recession, the worse his chances for re-election get, even with Russia’s help, even with disgruntled Bernie supporters refusing to vote for Joe Biden, even with voter ID and the possibility of limited mail-in ballots, and even with his $1 billion disinformation “Death Star” across the Potomac from Georgetown.

As long as his brainwashed fanboys are fed a constant diet of Trump’s ceaseless brags and knee-jerk indulging of his disciples’ self-destructive nincompoopery, he figures he can secure at least 45 percent of the popular vote, while the rest of the votes he needs to win are Moneyballed in key swing districts using targeted disinformation on Facebook.

It might work. We know that his cult of personality dead-enders will follow him all the way to Jonestown Phase II (condos still available!), even if this particular debacle is testing the limits of their zombiehood like nothing before.

But then again, it might not work, and sanity might yet carry the day (just kidding!). A POTUS who presided over the senseless deaths of a hundred thousand Americans (or whatever it ends up being), and simultaneously the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression— crises that we will still be in the midst of come Election Day—AND undeniably botched the response to both, making them far worse than they had to be, by all rights should be chucked out of office like yesterday’s fish. Lest we forget, Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by three million votes, and only squeaked into office by the narrowest of margins in the Electoral College, thanks in part to Republican ratfucking and foreign interference, along with the inherent weirdness of the system. He only has to lose a tiny sliver of malleable voters in the right states and he’s toast in 2020.

The fact that Team Trump is resorting to this misdirection strategy is therefore at once a measure of its desperation, and an admission of its absolute inability to respond to this crisis in an effective way, not to mention sheer chutzpah.

Cesca again:

It’s a huge gamble for Trump:  What he’s framing as tremendously strong action is, in reality, a bungled and botched response made worse by his foolish insistence on premature reopening. As though trapped in quicksand of his own making, the more he struggles to prop himself up with a facade of strength, the more brutally inept he looks to any non-cultist who’s paying attention….

(W)e’re still near the peak of the pandemic on a national scale with no end in sight, yet these badly deluded idiocrats are acting as if the war is over, even while the proverbial bombers are still buzzing through the air above Pearl Harbor.

THE GOLDEN BOOT

Two weeks ago I wrote that Trump was engaged in a Super Bowl of gaslighting in trying to convince us that he was handling this crisis ably. But as usual, he has undercut even my Death Valley-low expectations by brazenly claiming that there is no longer even a crisis to handle in the first place.

Trump once pulled the number 60,000 out of thin air as a body count prediction. We blew past that almost before the words were out of his cakehole. This week he casually dropped the number 100,000. His own experts put it even higher. It is now clear that he will declare as a victory anything under the worst case estimate of 2.2 million posited in March by researchers at Imperial College London.

Strike that: he will still declare victory even in the unlikely even that we hit 3 million or more.

Let’s call it the World Cup of gaslighting.

To that end, the journalist Jay Rosen writes that Trump and his team are engaged in “one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in US history.”

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible—by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial….

This follows the standard Russian pattern as described by Garry Kasparov: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” (See also Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation). It’s a strategy that perfectly dovetails with the Roy Cohn ethos that Trump has followed his whole life.

It almost goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway just for the record: with this craven, almost unbelievably self-aggrandizing strategy Trump is sacrificing human lives—the lives of the very citizens he is sworn to protect—for his own personal gain. More than one public health expert has suggested that he richly deserves to be impeached—again—for that alone. It may be the most despicable thing he has done while in office, which is saying a lot for a man who has also turned the presidency into his personal ATM, served as footman to Vladimir Putin, and kidnapped and caged children.

But Rosen also cautions against ascribing to Trump any sort of “evil genius,” which even his harshest critics are sometimes tempted to do.

To wing it without a plan is merely the best this government can do, given who heads the table. The manufacture of confusion is just the ruins of Trump’s personality meeting the powers of the presidency. There is no genius there, only a damaged human being playing havoc with our lives.

WE HOPE YOU WILL ENJOY THE SHOW

So what does this disinformation effort look like? A lot like the nothing-to-see-here-folks mantra that the right wing media was pushing back in February, before it was forced to reckon with the bodies piling up, at least temporarily.

It features Jared proclaiming 75,000 deaths a great victory, Trump’s surrogates shrieking about a Democratic hoax, pretend doctors (“but I play one on TV”) saying this is just the flu, and a massive effort to mobilize the national strategic reserve of racism and blame it all on China.

It also features Trump encouraging governors to violate the very guidelines for re-opening their economies that his own administration put out—a surreal sight—no doubt hoping that Republican ones will do so, in keeping with his fantasy that the economy is just sitting there waiting to go back into high gear, and Democratic ones won’t, and can be blamed for the resulting pain in those states.

No surprise, and key to this whole campaign, the White House has also begun openly questioning the accuracy of the death count…..which is indeed in doubt, but not because it’s overcounted. As the toll hits six figures—within a month, at this rate—expect to hear “Fake news!” bleating out from televisions all over MAGALand. The overwhelmed hospital workers we see on the news will be dismissed as “crisis actors,” and the public health experts who want to keep social distancing and other measures in place as deranged Trump-haters who just want him to fail.

Don’t believe me? It’s already begun on Fox.

Naturally Trump himself doesn’t seem embarrassed in the least by any of this, displaying the chicanery behind his tricks like Penn and Teller, and as usual, saying the quiet part loud. As Peter Baker writes in the Times:

He openly admitted in March that he did not want to let infected patients from a cruise ship disembark because it would increase the number of cases counted in the United States. He essentially made the same calculation on Wednesday by saying that more testing only reveals more infections and therefore increases the numbers. “In a way, by doing all this testing we make ourselves look bad,” he said.

Incredibly, he is even reviving the wishful thinking line from mid-March, even now, amid a national nightmare that looks something from like a Bunuel film, saying “This virus is going to disappear. It’s a question of when.”

Actually, it won’t just disappear, at least not on its own. It will be neutralized only through determined medical and political action that this administration is woefully unequipped—and unwilling—to take. Instead, they are homicidally prolonging and worsening it in a frantic attempt to avoid blame come November.

HEY STUPID: IT’S THE STUPID ECONOMY, STUPID

But even the electoral side of this bet is irrational, as the American public opposes reopening the economy too quickly by a factor of two to one. And if you think they feel that way now, wait till a hasty reopening makes the death toll spike.

Therein lies the rub: Trump’s whole hurry-up-and-reopen-the country mentality is predicated on the idea that as soon as we end the lockdown things will “go back to normal,” and the economy will boom again, and he can ride that wave to re-election (dishonestly, of course, given the extent to which our strong economy is actually Obama’s doing).

Pull the other one, as our English friends say.

This is utter delusion. The damage that the economy has suffered due to the pandemic is not going to reverse itself overnight, or even in a few months. It’s madness to think it will, no matter how much you want to remain president and avoid being indicted for a dozen different crimes and go to prison.

“Will some people be affected? Yes,” Trump said this week. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”

But the notion that we have to choose between public health and economic health is a false dichotomy. As many have written, myself included, the truth is that the two are inextricably connected. Rushing to prematurely re-start the pre-COVID economy will not allow us to right the economic ship; it will only cause it to sink faster, notwithstanding a brief bob to the surface before it goes under again.

And by the by, that damage to the economy, like the death count, is already worse than it had to be, owing to the hubris, greed, and incompetence of this administration. With this new Big Lie strategy, Trump is likely to make it worse still.

In Salon, Amanda Marcotte writes:

Trump has not hidden that he believes that American voters won’t care about widespread sickness and death, so long as the economy is doing well….It appears far more likely, however, that Trump’s strategy will result in the worst of both worlds: One where the economy is in the tank and the virus itself is devastating the country.

Trump’s path on this couldn’t have been worse, even if he was actively trying to destroy America. (Which is certainly one way to interpret his actions.) First, he delayed the shutdown recommendations and ignored the coronavirus for months, allowing infections to spread unchecked. Then, once the horse was already out of the barn, he reluctantly allowed shutdown orders to go forward. But being shortsighted and impatient, he and many Republican governors are now shutting down the shutdown well before the pandemic has been contained. The result is obvious: There will be a ton of serious economic pain, and most of that sacrifice will be for naught as the virus starts to spread again.

THIS EVER-CHANGING WORLD IN WHICH WE LIVE (IN)

Never one to be outdone by his lickspittle Mike Pence, this past week Trump visited a mask factory in Arizona without wearing a mask (only racquetball goggles). While he was there, some wit had the bowling ball-sized cojones to blast “Live and Let Die” over the factory’s PA system.

How perfect.

(But the reductive Guns & Roses version? Come on, man! We can leave the controversy of McCartney’s grammatical redundancy aside for now. But was a surprisingly big week for G&R news, as Axl Rose and Steve Mnuchin also got in a Twitter fight, which I hope leads to a “get in the ring motherfucker” actual fistfight, a la Axl’s feud with Bob Guccione, Jr. I’d love to see him beat Mnuchin like a drum. Afterward, he can give Trump a lesson on Chinese democracy. But I digress.)

Let’s be clear. To “let die,” in this case, is not some kind of benign euthanasia, or even a sin of omission, or even manslaughter for that matter, but negligent homicide. The US did not have to suffer 78,000 dead (as of this writing). We could have been South Korea, with less than 300. But we have an absolute maroon at the helm, and at the worst possible time.

“Live and let die” is especially apropos as it plays on the libertarian ethos that many of his right wing supporters claim as their bedrock principle, except when they need something from the government, like roads, fire departments, Social Security, the Pentagon, or tax breaks. In that regard, the pandemic has been a master class in hypocrisy, as the “pro-life” party that once spread campfire ghost stories of Obama’s mythical “death panels” now goes around openly proposing that senior citizens volunteer for ritual human sacrifice so we can all get haircuts and tattoos and go bowling again.

Last week we were also treated to the sight of Trump desecrating the Lincoln Memorial and telling Fox News that the likes of Jim Acosta and Kristin Welker and Paula Reid are meaner than John Wilkes Booth. But I’ll allow Donald his analogy, and take it one further. His declaration of victory over the coronavirus is as if Lincoln gave up after Bull Run, let the South secede, and then declared that he’d saved the Union.

But of course Trump would never have been on the Union side in that war, as evidenced by the Confederate battle flags that mark the appalling “liberate” rallies, ginned up by pro-Trump super PACs and other moneyed interests, rallies that he continues to openly encourage. Cesca again:

During this harrowing episode in our national history, we’re faced with two unprecedented calamities: an economic crisis and a health care crisis. Each one is being aggravated by a garishly costumed villain in the White House who lacks any interest in a rational, sustainable resolution. Sadly, this villain also possesses a base of loyalists who simultaneously recognize him as a serial liar while also insisting he’s the only government official who’s telling the truth….

Trump obviously wants these increasingly berserker protests to continue in hopes of forcing governors to, like Trump, ignore experts and reopen businesses and schools prematurely. Again, why? It’s partly so he can blame the governors, especially the blue-state ones, for any subsequent spikes in the numbers. It’s also because the protests amplify the grievances of his base, which is good for turnout…

The photos of these gun-totin’, Star & Bars-flyin’, death cult-subscribin’ angry white people demanding their “rights” are the photos that history books will print in the chapter about how the United States was brought down by the lethal, childish ignorance of its own citizens.

And while we’re talking about it, please don’t call these people “protestors.” Men with body armor and tricked out AR-15s forcing their way into the office of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, shouting “Lock her up!” and comparing her to Hitler are not “protestors.”

They’re domestic terrorists.

If these folks were black, you’d better believe Fox Nation would be screaming for them to be arrested and shipped off to Gitmo, if not out in the street with ropes taking matters into their own hands.

And Trump is saying Governor Whitmer should negotiate with them? Isn’t that rule No. 1 about what you don’t do with terrorists? Yes, unless you’re on the terrorists’ side.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

So in the end, will this gaslighting succeed in defiance of objective reality, even as the months go by and the bodies pile up and the pain multiplies and the economy continues to suffer?

I don’t know. But it is precisely what Orwell wrote about in 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

The con can be exposed, if we are smart and resolute. Rick Wilson, George Conway, and the other Never Trumpers of the Lincoln Project clearly got under his skin this week with their Reagan-referencing “Mourning in America” spot, which prompted what even by Trump standards was a temper tantrum for the ages. Hey Don, I know Roy Cohn taught you to attack, attack, attack, but didn’t anybody ever teach you the value of playing it cool?

But if Donald Trump manages to win re-election in spite of all this, we will not be able to say it was a fluke—like 2016—or an act of temporary insanity, or the result of Kremlin sabotage, or anything else other than an indictment of our own self-destructive stupidity.

If he wins with a minority of the popular vote, or under shady circumstances—that is to say, if he wins because we could not control that angry minority of right wing cretins who have gotten a chokehold on our democracy—that will be almost as shameful, because it will mean that our system is thoroughly broken and we can’t get out act together sufficiently to fix it.

Our collective willingness to go along with this bullshit—or to buck it—will be an acid test of America’s character. Right now it doesn’t look like we’re heading for a passing grade.

*******

Photo: I dunno, somewhere from the depths of hell, I guess.

 

 

 

The Price of Cynicism

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Impeachment seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?

Quid pro quo, “a perfect call,” Gordon Sondland: for something that so recently loomed so large on the national stage, these sound like vague echoes from a distant past, their meanings lost in antiquity. The coronavirus pandemic has so thoroughly consumed the news cycle, and our lives, and every waking moment, that everything that came before feels like ancient history.

For that matter, even the start of the lockdown feels like a lifetime ago. It’s almost hard to imagine resuming some semblance of normalcy when the time finally comes.

But the impeachment has been much on my mind lately, because it so starkly demonstrates the stakes of what can sometimes seem like mere partisan politics, and the terrible consequences of having an immoral, unprincipled party in power.

That has never been more clear than now, amid the ceaseless soundtrack of sirens in the streets of New York, and traumatized ER doctors committing suicide, and rotting bodies abandoned in trucks, and more dead than the US suffered in the Vietnam War, with no Paris peace talks in sight.

DEADPAN AND JUST PLAIN DEAD

A month ago, when the pandemic was still fairly new and the White House was still trying out defenses for its failure to respond, Mitch McConnell auditioned the risible claim Trump was unable to effectively prepare for the threat of COVID-19 because he was distracted by the baseless impeachment “hoax” perpetrated by the Democrats.

This was a lie so laughable that even McConnell—a man so straightfaced he makes Buster Keaton look like Robin Williams—could not maintain it. I’m sure it continues to circulate in MAGA World, but here in the reality-based community, where the elusive and possibly mythical swing voters graze, even the Republicans know it’s a non-starter.

Hilariously (we can laugh during tragedy, right?), Trump himself came along to undercut his own turtle-chinned defender, even as he recognized that going along could have helped him. CNN reports his response when subsequently asked about the issue at a press briefing:

“I think I handled it very well, but I guess it probably did (distract me),” Trump said…. “Did it divert my attention? I think I’m getting A+’s for the way I handled myself during a phony impeachment, OK? I don’t think I would have done any better had I not been impeached, OK?”

In other words, thrown a potential lifeline by McConnell, Trump’s sheer ego prevented him from grabbing it, so unwilling is he to concede any weakness or shortcoming at all.

Except it wasn’t really a lifeline at all, because it was so insultingly untrue.

Trump was impeached by the House on December 18; he was acquitted in the Senate on February 5th. During that period, he played golf (or was at one of his golf properties) four times. He held multiple campaign rallies (as documented by Leni Riefenstahl), and even hosted a Super Bowl party at Mar-a-Lago.

This was not a man desperately trying to eke out time to fight a pandemic.

And it was not because nobody told him there was a crisis. On February 5th, the very day he was acquitted, Democratic Senators including Chris Murphy of Connecticut were urging him to take stronger measures to prepare for the pandemic.

Instead, Mike Pompeo announced that the US was sending medical supplies to China.

We now know that the US Intelligence Community had warned of the pandemic in the President’s Daily Brief at least a dozen times in January and February, much as it had warned a certain previous Republican president about a certain Saudi’s intention to crash an airliner into a certain skyscraper. Of course, Trump alone among modern presidents famously disdains reading the PDB, preferring instead a bimonthly fifteen second recap on Snapchat, compiled by the folks who used to make Ren & Stimpy.

In the six weeks that followed his acquittal, Trump still didn’t respond, even as the flashing red warning lights grew brighter and brighter and the freaked-out experts shouting in his ear grew louder and louder. Very much the contrary. As we all know, he dismissed the severity of the pandemic with magical thinking, saying we would soon have “close to zero” cases, that it would go away with the warm weather, that we had it “very well under control,” that it would magically disappear.” Between February 10th and March 2nd, he also held another five campaign rallies across the US, drawing thousands of people into close quarters.

It was not until mid-March that he changed course and declared a national emergency, and even then only grudgingly, because it had been forced upon him.

Those six weeks, epidemiologists tell us, represent precious lost time that could not be made up and that led to the explosion of the virus in the United States.

To restate the oft-cited comparison, South Korea and the US both suffered their first known coronavirus deaths on the same day, January 20th (although we now know there had been some unidentified ones in the US earlier). South Korea took decisive action and has had only 250 deaths as of this writing. The US did not, and now leads the world by far both in known cases—over 1.1 million, about a third of all infections worldwide—and deaths, at more than 68,000 and still rising. And those numbers are surely undercounted, possibly by a lot.

In short, the notion that the six weeks of impeachment proceedings prevented Trump from taking action to address this looming disaster is the worst kind of bald-faced lie.

In the words of Captain Renault, I’m shocked, shocked.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Of course, Trump also had ample time to prepare for the COVID-19 outbreak before impeachment, as he was warned of what was coming—and its severity—multiple times and in multiple ways and by multiple sources prior to mid-December. The national security and law website Just Security recently published a comprehensive timeline of the myriad times and ways since 2017 that Trump and his minions have hindered our capability to respond to a pandemic in general and this one specifically. The Washington Post recently ran a similar piece. I recommend a deep dive into both to get the full scope of Trump’s criminal malpractice.

We all know that Trump’s only concern—apart from the ever-present prime directive of how he can financially profit—is how all this affects his prospects for re-election. To that end, in another dynamite, in-depth piece in the WaPo surveying the palace chaos inside the White House, the authors explain how his abdication of responsibility is partially deliberate, as a way to dodge accountability. Take, for example, the scattershot guidance to states for how to ease out of shelter-in-place:

(T)hough administration health officials produced detailed guidelines for reopening, those released by Trump were intentionally vague and devoid of clear metrics, making it easier for the president to avoid responsibility and harder for local leaders to interpret.

Wow, nothing like letting people die so you can avoid blame—you know, the way we expect a leader to behave. Whether it will work remains an open question. Trump has of course proved to be reliably bulletproof in every previous scandal, but at the risk of sounding naïve, I’m not sure the American people will fail to notice the extent to which he has fucked this one up.

In any case, the net effect of this appalling dereliction of duty has been to abandon the states to a mad, Darwinian, every-man-for-himself scramble, creating wildly destructive competition among the states and even between the states and the federal government.

For a particularly jawdropping example, consider Maryland Governor Larry Hogan—a Republican, I hasten to note—and the measures to which he had to resort to get COVID tests for his state:

(Hogan) quietly entered into negotiations with South Korea, with the help of his wife, Yumi, a Korean American. Exasperated with the lack of tests in his state, Hogan spent about 22 days arranging to procure 500,000 tests, negotiating with eight different Maryland agencies, the Korean embassy and officials at the State Department.

Once the FDA and US Customs and Border Protection signed off on the deal, a Korean Air jet touched down at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport on April 18 to deliver the supplies. Hogan said he was worried federal officials would try to commandeer the tests, so he had Maryland Army National Guard members and Maryland State Police officers escort and protect the cargo.

“It was like Fort Knox to us, because it was going to save the lives of thousands of our citizens,” Hogan said. “That was so important to us that we wanted to make sure that that plane took off from Korea safely, landed here in America safely, and that we guarded that cargo from whoever might interfere with us getting that to our folks that needed it.”

The move infuriated Trump, who has long chafed at Hogan’s criticisms and, according to advisers, saw Maryland’s deal with South Korea as a bid to embarrass the president.

Holy shit. Please take a moment to stop and think about that. An American governor felt he had to call out armed soldiers to guard precious medical supplies so that the nation’s ruling family wouldn’t steal them. That is the kind of thing that goes on in a Third World banana republic led by a kleptocratic Mugabe-style dictator. Which the USA now arguably is.

GHOSTS OF UKRAINE

Both before and after the impeachment, I wrote at length (and I do mean length) that bringing charges against Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors was not only the right thing to do on principle, but would also benefit the Democrats tactically and pragmatically. It was always a false choice that we could either hold Trump accountable under the law, or concentrate on defeating him in November, but not both. Tellingly, it was usually Republicans making that argument, Brer Rabbit style.

But the two efforts were always intertwined. Standing up for what is right, defending the Constitution, demonstrating that the Democratic Party has backbone and integrity, and setting a precedent to deter future would-be despots were all strong reasons for bringing this pretender to trial, no matter the inevitability of his acquittal by means of Republican ranks-closing. The alleged electoral fallout was also illusory. You don’t get people to vote for your side by being too timid to stand up to a bully, and it undercuts your claim that the man is a menace if you don’t use every recourse you have to stop him. Even if the process caused his brain-dead supporters to cling more tightly to him, and even drew in a few right-leaning fence-sitters, we were not going to win those people over anyway.

Now, of course, the pandemic has completely scrambled the electoral landscape and rendered all those calculations obsolete……but not to Donald’s advantage. In the wake of an unprecedented public health crisis that has left 68,000 Americans dead, impeachment looks more than ever like the right thing to have done.

Just five years ago the Republican Party recoiled at the mere thought of Donald Trump as its nominee. Since then it has made its peace with him, to say the least. As far as the peacemaking metaphor goes, it was less like a truce than an unconditional surrender of what remained of the GOP’s principles (cough cough) as it cravenly became a shameless cult of personality, presumably as a way to maintain power when demographics and democracy have made that objective otherwise untenable. And nowhere was that self-abasement more clear than in his impeachment.

For those who’ve forgotten: Trump’s extortion of a vulnerable foreign ally—one in the throes of a war with Russia, I hasten to note— by withholding Congressionally mandated military aid unless that ally would manufacture dirt on a domestic political rival is the very definition of abuse of power. Yet a party that wanted Obama tarred and feathered for putting mustard on his hamburger and for wearing a brown suit somehow found Trump’s actions completely excusable. (Trump, of course, demanded even more than mere tolerance: he insisted that his minions applaud him.)

Even sanctimonious frauds like Ben Sasse, and self-deluding weaklings like Susan Collins, and sclerotic retirees-to-be with nothing to lose like Lamar Alexander could not find the gumption to squeak out their displeasure. It was stomach-churning to watch the GOP debase itself at Trump’s feet, and for precious little gain I might add. In light of what has followed, it is even more horrific to think of it now.

These cowards must live with their consciences, and the knowledge that, for the sake of partisanship, or tax breaks for the rich, or conservative Supreme Court justices, or whatever Faustian bargain is their rationalization of choice, they willingly surrendered the stewardship of hundreds of millions of American lives to a lying, moneygrubbing, shockingly incompetent sociopath who fiddled “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” while Rome burned.

I hope every American voter sees that too.

By contrast, going into November, the Democratic Party can stand up and say that it did everything humanly possible to hold this monster to account. It can also say that it was thwarted only by the unconscionable hyperpartisanship of an opposition party that was willing to excuse and condone and cover for some of the most egregious abuses of power in American presidential history. And now we are all paying the price, in human lives. Imagine how history would have looked upon the Democratic Party had it not stood up and impeached him!

By cynically protecting Donald Trump and the malevolent incompetence of his reign (or is incompetent malevolence?), the Republican Party ensured that the very worst possible people in America would remain in charge during the most crucial phase of the most deadly crisis we have faced since World War II.

Call me naïve, but I would hope this might prompt a dark night of the soul for Collins, Alexander, Murkowski, Graham, Sasse, and the rest. I mention only these few Republicans who, for one reason or another we had cause to think might show an iota of integrity, or at least had histories that made their support of Trump even more hypocritical than most. The vast majority of their colleagues are so bereft of moral fiber as to be beyond even that level of desperate consideration. When you’re pinning your hopes on the integrity of Lindsay Graham, you know you’re far gone.

Beyond Governor Hogan, the few Republicans who have defied or broken with Trump can be counted on two fingers (preferably raised, palm inward, in the British manner): Mitt Romney, the lone GOP vote to convict in the Senate, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, whose popularity has soared in the Buckeye State for defying Trump’s “re-open the economy” madness.

Efforts are underway now to see if we can get these two extremely rare wild unicorns (Republicanus responsibilium) to mate and reproduce to rebuild the species, in captivity if necessary.

THE LAWS OF PHYSICS

Here in the moment, we are riven by tribalism and competing versions of reality: the one that empiricism supports, in which Trump botched this thing twelve ways to Sunday, and the fairy tale one where he deserves his self-awarded 10 out of 10. (Just ask Jared.)

It is certainly frustrating that more than a third of the country clings to that second narrative in stubborn defiance of the facts, with Trump’s floor of about 40% support holding irrationally steady, mindboggling as that is. But history is always much more clear-eyed.

Posterity will remember Donald Trump with withering contempt as the worst president in American history, a bigot and an ignoramus and a self-pitying fool whose criminal incompetence and towering ego led to tens of thousands of American deaths (if not more) and a historic economic collapse, all of which could have been avoided or at least minimized by even half-assed, mediocre leadership.

History’s verdict will be an enormous irony for a narcissist who launched his presidential campaign as a publicity stunt, never thinking he would actually win, only to have that victory ultimately destroy him, and his business, and his family, and his reputation forever. (Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.)

Sure, there will always be revanchists who cling to tiny minority views: that Nixon was a great man, that segregation was terrific, that the Sudetenland really did belong to Germany. Donald’s defenders will be similarly consigned to dusty corners of the dark web. But when our grandchildren’s grandchildren hear the name “Trump” (should the human species survive that long), it will be a synonym for the very worst that the USA has ever wrought.

And they will also remember the people who were his enablers and accomplices.

What do they teach us in elementary school? Actions have consequences. And the consequences of the Roman phalanx that the Republican Party formed around Donald Trump—over Russiagate, over Ukraine, over his hush money payments to porn stars, over his tax returns, over his foreign business entanglements, over all his manifold sins—are now tragically apparent as it tries to defend him over the greatest and most inexcusable failure of all.

Dear readers, I hope you and your families and your loved ones are well and safe and healthy.

Sadly, we did not have to be in a position where that is an issue.

**********

Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images

 

Vectors of Pestilence

Vectors

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.

CHAOS THEORY

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.

BRET, YOU GOT IT GOIN’ ON

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.

PLATE OF SHRIMP FOR ONE

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.

EXCEPTION AND RULE

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.

**********

Illustration: https://ethicsandspirituality.wordpress.com/tag/mr-clean/

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

The Super Bowl of Gaslighting

Super Bowl of Gaslighting (final)

If you live in the reality-based community, you may be unaware that in MAGA World there are millions of people who firmly believe that Donald Trump is a great humanitarian, a world-beating philanthropist, and a selfless benefactor of mankind.

I don’t mean amoral opportunists and cynics like Mitch McConnell who know Trump is a cretin but who have made a Faustian bargain. (Can you still call it that when both sides are the Devil?) I mean true believers who really think Trump is a wonderful man.

My handful of friends and acquaintances who are on that liquid diet of fluorescent purple Kool-Aid routinely regale me with tales of his generosity, his charitable donations, his acts of kindness, blah blah blah. Don’t bother sending these folks Snopes links debunking those fairy tales. As one woman told me when she refused to read what the non-partisan factcheckers had to say, “I like to make up my own mind.”

Not for these people the Donald Trump who had his charitable foundation shuttered by the state of New York for stealing money from children suffering from cancer. Fake news! No, their Trump is a latter day Albert Schweitzer who also knows more about ISIS than the generals and more about epidemiology than Anthony “Dr. Doom” Fauci with his fancy book learnin’.

Why these Americans are so willing to believe these salutary things about Donald in defiance of a Mt. Everest of evidence of his lifelong shittiness I don’t know. I do know that many of those same people think Barack Obama is the anti-Christ, so you do the math.

But if you’ll believe that Donald Trump has a heart of gold, you’ll believe anything…..including the howling lie that Trump has handled the COVID-19 pandemic like a champ. (Just ask him.) Because that is very much the narrative Trump and his amen corner in the right wing media are attempting to spin.

RASHOMON VS. REALITY

With the novel coronavirus pandemic we are witnessing what the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent called “one of the most monumental and destructive leadership failures in modern times—and the extraordinary lengths to which Trump’s propagandists are going to rewrite it as a spectacular triumph.”

Here’s the Post’s Max Boot with the truth:

(T)he coronavirus is the most foreseeable catastrophe in US history. The warnings about the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks were obvious only in retrospect. This time, it didn’t require any top-secret intelligence to see what was coming.

The alarm was sounded in January by experts in the media and by leading Democrats including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden. Government officials were delivering similar warnings directly to Trump. A team of Post reporters wrote on Saturday: “The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Within days, US spy agencies were signaling the seriousness of the threat to Trump by including a warning about the coronavirus—the first of many—in the President’s Daily Brief.” But Trump wasn’t listening…..

Trump was first briefed on the coronavirus by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Jan. 18. But, The Post writes, “Azar told several associates that the president believed he was ‘alarmist’ and Azar struggled to get Trump’s attention to focus on the issue.” When Trump was first asked publicly about the virus, on Jan. 22, he said, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China.”

In the days and weeks after Azar alerted him about the virus, Trump spoke at eight rallies and golfed six times as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Yet Trump would now have us believe, in his trademark Orwellian way, that he was on the forefront of the fight against this pandemic, and demands lavish praise for his “10 on a scale of 10” handling of it.

(Quickly checking my birth certificate. Nope, not dated yesterday.)

In an exhaustive account of the administration’s dysfunctional response, the New York Times recounts how Trump continued to ignore the warnings from all quarters while the federal government—that he had widely stripped of expertise and experience—did almost nothing to prepare.

Those 70 precious days that Trump squandered with his arrogance and his ignorance are the difference between the US and South Korea, which recorded its first COVID fatality the same day, but had a leadership willing and able to take decisive action. The contrast is etched in blood: Today the ROK is past the peak and on the mend, with just 232 deaths to show for it (a rate of five per million citizens). The US, by contrast, is still in the throes of the pandemic, harder hit than any other country on Earth, with over 40,000 deaths (123 per million) and still rising.

But Trump will have none of this. To flog his revisionist version of events, he recently took time out from what was supposed to be a public health briefing in order to play a campaign video allegedly showing how well he’s handled the crisis, a video made with taxpayer dollars (amateurishly so, it must be said), by administration staffers who might otherwise have spent that time fighting the pandemic.

The saddest part—available in the reportage from the Guardian—was Trump standing there watching it with the reporters, with a pouty little boy face, pointing at the screen as if to call their attention to it and say, “See? I am a hero!” (With a thought bubble over this head reading, “You fake news-reporting bastards.”)

FORGET IT, JAKE

One of the chief ways Trump is trying to deflect responsibility is by blaming China, with his nationalistic followers (including his lickspittle Lindsay Graham, who somehow manages to grow more odious by the day) quickly seconding the motion.

As with the best disinformation, there is just enough truth in here to sell the scam, and Bill Maher ain’t helping. But as Brian Stewart says, with the title of his recent Bulwark piece, “China Being Wrong Doesn’t Make Trump Right.”

China certainly does bear unforgivable blame for hiding the nascent crisis, lying about the extent of the problem, and stonewalling the rest of the world at a time when foreknowledge and preparation could have saved tens of thousands of lives all over the globe. All those sins were exacerbated by the authoritarian Xi regime….and ironically, are largely the same sins, and same authoritarian impulse, that Trump displays and admires.

But the administration’s fingerpointing at China makes a convenient distraction from its own grievous culpability, not to mention fueling racism and xenophobia (Trump’s go-to move), which hardly need any more gas here in the land of the free. Trump’s attempts to blame China ring especially hollow given that for weeks he was meekly reluctant to press Xi on what was going on for fear of offending him, in fact praising the Chinese….until it suited his purposes not to.

Of course, none of this should surprise us. This is who Trump is, precisely as Adam Schiff said in his powerful “Midnight in Washington” speech in the impeachment trial, and he will never change: “You can’t trust this president to do the right thing, not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can’t.”

KYLE SHANAHAN’S SOCIAL RESPONSIBLE PLAY-CALLING

I’ll concede that in the title of this piece my metaphor is slightly off. “Super Bowl” implies a contest between two evenly matched forces. (Unless it’s the Seahawks and Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.) But what we are witnessing is not Trump and an opponent trading competing visions of an artificial reality; what we are witnessing is Trump frantically spinning his own false narrative in defiance of the facts, science, and empirical reality. If it’s a head-to-head NFL-style matchup, it’s Trump vs. The Truth.

But you get the idea.

Speaking of Super Bowls, as a 49ers fan I was heartened to read that epidemiologists now think that last year’s devastating 4th quarter collapse, in which the Niners blew a ten point lead in the final seven minutes, wound up saving thousands of lives by obviating a victory parade through densely packed downtown San Francisco. (“You’re welcome”—Kyle Shanahan.) It’s no joke: experts believe that the town of Bergamo, Italy became the hardest hit in all of that devastated country because of a Champions League match there on February 19th, in a stadium packed with 40,000 fans, many of whom had traveled from visiting Valencia and took the virus back with them to Spain.

In any case, California’s elected officials, including Governor Gavin Newsom, SF Mayor London Breed, and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, deserve great praise for their quick and responsive handling of the pandemic, as evidenced by that enormously populous state’s relatively low death rate—around 1100 as of this writing, or just 29 per million—one of the lowest in the country. (Shanahan helped by failing to call a timeout at the end of the first half and barely running the ball in the second.)

But while we’re in the world of sports, temporarily paused though it is, let us stop for a moment to note another measure of the Awfulness of Donald Trump.

Trump has long coveted ownership of an NFL franchise, but has been blocked by the other team owners, which may be the only time I’ve ever rooted for that abhorrent group of gaseous plutocrats. (You can’t really blame them: he almost singlehandedly bankrupted and destroyed the USFL as owner of the New Jersey Generals, inspiring one of the most famous epistolary takedowns in sports history.) That grudge is part of why, as president, Trump waged war on Colin Kaepernick in order to hurt the NFL, along with his own virulent racism and fake patriotism, and the political advantage he gained in pandering to his neo-Confederate base.

It also gives you some idea of just what a hideous human being Trump is that even an elite club of racist, asshole billionaires are repulsed by him.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Even now, while American are dying by the thousands, Trump remains concerned almost exclusively with how he looks, his approval ratings, and his own re-election prospects, all on display at his daily televised campaign rallies, er, I mean press briefings.

And the outrages keep on coming. A sample:

It was revealed that in the early days of the crisis, even as the White House was telling Americans not to wear masks, it was secretly ordering 3600 masks for its own use.

Trump threatened to exercise an arcane, never-before used provision of presidential power to adjourn both houses of Congress in order to push through recess appointments without the bother of confirmation by the Senate.

In an act of towering egotism and transparent pandering, Trump insisted that his own serial killer-like signature appear on the relief checks that are going out to almost every American. As the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman writes, this means that “the Internal Revenue Service—an agency that is already understaffed and overworked after years of budget cuts—is now devoting resources to implementing a public relations task meant to make Trump look good.”

Most Americans will get their money via direct deposit and be spared the sight of that scrawl, but still, some low-information citizens will uncritically assume that the money is Trump’s largesse—which is how he sees it too—or possibly even that it came out of his own pocket, rather than bipartisan Congressionally appropriated funds that he had little to do with. (See the top of this essay.) The sheer shamelessness of this ploy may cause it to backfire, however, as the mechanics of putting his name on the checks has delayed their issue. (I guess it took him longer to sign all those checks than he thought.)

On that same front, numerous outlets, including Vanity Fair and the investigative journalist David Cay Johnston, reported that the $2 trillion economic rescue package passed by Congress included provisions specifically tailored to go into the pockets of real estate developers like Trump and his son-in-law Jared “The Uncanny Valley” Kushner. Truly the Trump/Kushner kakistocracy knows no bounds, even in the midst of the worst public health crisis in 100 years. (Meanwhile, the WaPo’s Hugh Hewitt risibly defended Kushner. That Hewitt and the despicable Marc Thiessen are the best that the Post can manage for “credible” conservative commentators says it all about Team Trump.)

At the same time, the much vaunted Paycheck Protection Program ostensibly for small businesses proved so incompetently organized and managed (if not outright corrupt) that it ran out of money, though not before doling out most of its funds to companies that are not small by any reasonable measure, like Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which got $20 million dollars.

With the masks, the checks, the CARES bill, and the PPP, we see that Trump’s putative concern for so-called regular folks is a cruel joke. We keep hearing, “The virus doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor,” which is true medically speaking, and a rare leveler in this second Gilded Age. But viewed another way, it could not be more false: the statistics grimly show that the pandemic is hitting the poor, the economically disadvantaged and vulnerable, and people of color harder than anyone else. (Not a big shock.) And the government isn’t doing anything to counterbalance that.

In other words, the virus may not care if you’re rich or poor, but how well you are able to weather it does depend very much on your tax bracket.

Finally, in the latest not-from-the-Onion-but-could-be-from-the-Onion news, hundreds of angry, semiautomatic-weapon-toting, overwhelmingly white pro-Trump protestors—some waving Confederate flags—gathered in virus-welcoming throngs on the steps of state capitol buildings in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia to demand an end to shelter-in-place measures. In Lansing, they chanted “Lock her up!,” for no apparent reason other than those outlined in The Handmaid’s Tale, in reference to Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whom Trump had previously dismissed as “a woman governor.” As icing on the rancid cake, that Michigan astroturf protest turned out to have been organized by a group with links to the family of Betsy DeVos and her brother, Blackwater founder Eric Prince. Connections were also revealed to pro-gun groups, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Kremlin’s hand in it as well, much as it was in fomenting divisive rallies in 2016. In any event, the mentality of people who think they can fight a virus with AR-15s requires no comment. Every single thing about this reeks of the criminal stupidity of Trumpism, but above all the juvenile temper tantrum at being asked to make sacrifices, that a virus won’t bow to their will, and the impulse to blame it all on government and Democrats and a woman of course.

So naturally, the Trump administration jumped in to disavow this madness and call for the protestors to stand down.

Just kidding! One of Trump’s advisors, the submoronic Stephen Moore, called for “civil disobedience” (against his own administration?), telling Trump supporters to “protest against these government injustices” and be like Rosa Parks.

Who is rolling over in her grave.

Trump himself responded by tweeting LIBERATE MINNESOTA, LIBERATE MICHIGAN, and LIBERATE VIRGINIA in support of these batshit rallies. The man simply can’t help pandering to the very worst that this country can produce. As if to out Onion the Onion, he also remarked of these protestors carrying battlefield weapons and demanding reckless public health risks, “They seem to be very responsible people to me.”

Is he aware that he’s President, and his own staff created the guidelines that these troglodytes are screeching about? More to the point, are those troglodytes aware of it?

WILL TRUMP GET AWAY WITH THIS ONE TOO?

So apart from simple appreciation of the theater of the absurd, what’s the point of dwelling on Trump’s campaign to rewrite history and cast himself as our savior, rather than Typhoid Mary with a spray-on tan?

Only that it bears on the election. Which, for all his headspinning criminality, incompetence, negligence, rapaciousness, and general malpractice, Trump could still conceivably win.

Yes, by all reasonable metrics, Trump ought to lose in a McGovernesque landslide. He is bungling the response to the worst pandemic in a hundred years, one that has already killed 40,000 Americans, and also the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression as a direct consequence thereof, with commerce ground to a halt, the markets in freefall, and 22 million Americans out of work. (As if, even before all this, being the vassal of a foreign power wasn’t enough to doom him. Because, oh yeah, he also got impeached a couple months ago.)

And broken record time: while no one blames Trump for the coronavirus, we can rightly blame him for an epically horrific failure to respond in any kind of even marginally competent way, which has made matters infinitely worse than they had to be.

But while there is good reason to think he’s in big electoral trouble, Trump’s defeat is November is far from assured. After a brief “crisis bump” at the start of the pandemic—tellingly, far smaller than other world leaders got, or an American president normally would—Trump’s approval rating has dipped again….but only back to its regular level. We know that thus far it’s had a floor of about 40%, which is the point at which Kool-Aid hardens into concrete. (Scientific fact. Look it up.)

We keep hearing that this scandal is different than Pussygate, Russiagate, Group-of-SevenGate, Ukrainegate, and all the rest. We keep hearing that you can’t gaslight a virus, in the words of the very wise Charles Blow, and that is true. But it’s not the virus that needs to be gaslighted: it’s the American people. And we tend to suck up gas like mother’s milk.

Trump’s supporters long ago proved that they are impervious to reason, facts, and even their own self-interest, so don’t look for them to turn on him even when they lose their jobs, their savings, and their very lives. In the same way that they persist in believing he is a great philanthropist, I can readily imagine his myrmidons sticking with him all the way down into the mass grave, and dragging the rest of us along with them. And that, my friends, is the dictionary definition of a death cult.

As I still have my get-out-Internet-jail-free card when it comes to breaking Godwin’s Law, let me offer a simple comparison.

Plenty of Germans stood by a certain someone to the truly bitter end, even as their country was bombed to cinders, with Russian troops approaching from the east and Americans from the west, while their erstwhile leader cowered in a bunker poisoning his dogs and putting a pistol in his mouth and unwittingly providing fodder for an endless supply of Internet memes.

And these Germans did so not because Schicklgruber was a totalitarian and they were forced to, though some were. Millions of them did so willingly.

American exceptionalism notwithstanding, do we really imagine that the American people will be wiser, saner, or more humane, in circumstances that are not nearly so dire? The events of the past four years suggest we will not. I invite your attention once again to the aforementioned festival of Darwinian stupidity on the steps of the Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia state capitols.

We have no idea how the election will play out and only a fool would try to predict it. This is a fluid, fast-moving environment with a crazy high optempo. Who, six weeks ago, imagined the state of the world today? Trump’s fortunes may fall if 100,000 to 240,000 Americans die, as he arbitrarily warned some weeks ago, or half a million or more, as some projections had it. Some pundits have suggested he was lowering expectations with that highball estimate, so that if it’s only 50,000 (only!) he can claim victory. The ultimate irony would be if we avoid the worst and his ass is saved thanks to the efforts of governors like Newsom, Cuomo, Murphy (of New Jersey) and Walz (of Minnesota).

But as of today we already have over 40,000 dead and are on track for something like 60,000, according to the latest dart-throw. To this layman’s eyes, watching the curve, it’s hard to think it won’t be far more….and that’s not even considering that the count is surely underreported due to sheer lack of testing. Living in New York, I know my share of people who have (or have had) the virus and not one of them had a test that would put them in the official count.

So, yes, in normal times, these circumstances would amount to electoral doom. But these are not normal times. And if there is one thing we ought to have learned in the past four years, it’s that Trump followers are unmoved by scandal that would have sunk any previous politician, by common sense, and even by objective reality itself.

Ask Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps the only true thing Donald Trump ever said had to do with gunplay on Fifth Avenue. So as the author Mort Rosenblum writes, “We are faced with two existential questions: Do sentient Americans outnumber the ignorant and the apathetic? And are Republicans so committed to their own interests that they are prepared to let this unhinged madman destroy their children’s world?”

This calculus does not even take into account the extreme lengths to which the GOP is going to exploit the pandemic as cover for further advancement of one-party rule in this nation, which we discussed last week. It was glorious to see their outrageous efforts to suppress the vote in Wisconsin fail, as voters of the Badger State chucked a Republican state Supreme Court justice out on his ear, the first time in 12 years that an incumbent had been removed from the Court, and another bad omen for Donald. For that very reason you can bet the GOP will try even harder next time.

But we showed in Wisconsin that we can beat them even when they cheat, and we can continue to do so if we stay focused, sound the alarm every time they try to pull this shit, and not let up the fight until Trump is frogmarched out of the Oval Office by US Marshals in January 2021.

THE CREEPY CRAWLIES

Finally we must note Trump’s claim last week, apropos of “re-opening the economy” (whatever that means), that “When somebody is president of the United States, your authority is total.”

We learned long ago that Trump hasn’t read the Constitution, if in fact he can read at all, so this typically arrogant overreach shouldn’t come as a surprise. But on the heels of his appalling March 13th Rose Garden denial of any responsibility at all for the current crisis, it says something about how lame he is even at his favorite thing, which is being the boss.

A slew of sharp-eyed observers immediately weighed in to lacerate him.

Charlie Sykes of the Bulwark writes: “There is something quintessentially Trumpian about the claim of total authority and zero responsibility. He alone can save us, he insists, but don’t blame him if he doesn’t.” Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic of Lawfare echo that in a piece for The Atlantic called “The Lazy Authoritarian,” saying, “Trump needs the optics of authoritarian assertiveness without any actual responsibility.” Comparing America’s would-be strongman to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who may have gone further than any other despot in exploiting the pandemic, the LA Times’s Windsor Mann writes that, “As much as (Trump) would love to have dictatorial powers, he doesn’t want to put forth the effort necessary to seize them. Just as he inherited a fortune, he wants to inherit an autocracy.”

True to form, it didn’t take long for Trump to punt that “total authority” he had just grabbed and pass the responsibility for those decisions to the states—not because someone gave him an audiobook of the Constitution (read by Dennis Haysbert, presumably), but out of craven ass-covering. As the Washington Post reports:

Trump’s the-buck-stops-with-the-states posture is largely designed to shield himself from blame should there be new outbreaks after states reopen or for other problems, according to several current and former senior administration officials involved in the response who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

OK, so as usual Trump has feet of clay. But just the mere speculation about “total authority” is fraught. Also in the Bulwark, Bill Kristol writes of the dangers of even purely “performative authoritarianism”……and worse, the dangers of those who don’t think it’s dangerous:

(O)ne thing that alarms me is how chic it is to be conspicuously not alarmed. If you want to be viewed as a sophisticated Trump critic—not one of those vulgar Never Trumpers—you’re allowed to be somewhat dismissive of, regretful about, or even at times contemptuous of Trump. But not alarmed. Alarmism is de trop.

I mean, after all: Why are your heads exploding just because the commander-in-chief—a man who seems not to understand anything about American government, or the Constitution, or the law—is claiming to have total authority at a moment when 23,000 Americans have died in the course of seven weeks from a pandemic this man did almost nothing to prepare for?

Such little children, with your exploding heads.

(Note that his figure of 23,000 deaths was just five days ago. It has nearly doubled since then.)

Kristol’s point is that this sort of too-cool-for-school dismissiveness is usually what precedes an authoritarian takeover. (They laughed at Hitler too, etc etc.) In the New Yorker, Masha Gessen makes the same point when she writes of “autocratic creep”:

At the end of the day, like at the end of so many days, all of Trump’s threats and claims can be normalized or chalked up to so much authoritarian hot air. This is exactly how autocracy works: it creeps in, staking one claim after another, but it does not firmly and finally announce its own arrival….

From the inside of a country, things generally don’t look as dire as they do from the outside, because conditions are quickly normalized, because people know that things can always get worse, and because modern-day autocrats don’t generally announce when they are usurping power….

(The pandemic has) created all the conditions for Trump to continue his autocratic attempt. The stories of dramatic power grabs elsewhere may also have dangled the hope that at least we will know when the worst has arrived. That is a false promise. The autocratic creep continues.

Our autocratic creep is in the White House, and he favors really long neckties.

*******

Illustration: The Ringer

Shanahan jokes courtesy of Eric LaFranchi, Anthony Weintraub, and Michael DeNola

A Special Circle of Hell Awaits

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 5.03.50 PM copy

This past week in the New York Times, the columnist Frank Bruni wrote:

When the direness of this global health crisis began to be apparent, I was braced for the falsehoods and misinformation that are Trump’s trademarks. I was girded for the incompetence that defines an administration with such contempt for proper procedure and for true expertise. But what has taken me by surprise and torn me up inside are the aloofness, arrogance, pettiness, meanness, narcissism and solipsism that persist in Trump—that flourish in him—even during a once-in-a-lifetime emergency that demands something nobler.

Under normal circumstances, these traits are galling. Under the current ones, they’re gutting.

He’s quite right of course. Except for the part about being surprised.

Did anyone really think Trump would rise to the occasion of this crisis? Far from drawing forth some latent leadership ability that lay dormant for 73 years (or even an iota of previously undetected humanity), the sheer extremity of the crisis has brought out the worst in him, which is really saying something.

For even with our Marianas Trench-low expectations, Trump’s behavior has been jawdroppingly appalling.

We all know the litany of absolutely unconscionable things our Dear Leader has done to make this pandemic worse than it had to be—what the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent called “one of the most monumental and destructive leadership failures in modern times”:

His ignorant refusal to heed all the many, dire warnings of the coming catastrophe.

His lies about how we had the virus “controlled,”about how one day it would just miraculously disappear, about the availability of testing.

His dallying not only in invoking the Defense Production Act, but his complicity in the profitable export of crucial medical supplies, including PPE and ventilators, at a time when the best medical experts were beseeching him to stockpile them.

His pitting of state against state in a Darwinian economic battle for those desperately needed supplies, part of his general, abject failure to provide even the charade of national leadership.

His refusal to take responsibility, and eagerness to blame anyone and everyone else, no matter how absurd.

His laughable call for non-partisanship while daily attacking various Democrats and the press with his trademark adolescent invective, his questioning of whether various states really need help, and his suggestion that they didn’t plan properly.

His empowering of his arrogant, entitled, idiot son-in-law, whose world-beating embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger effect is a whole blog post of its own.

His repeated contradiction and even stifling the medical experts within his own administration, not to mention his personal modeling of the worst possible social distancing behavior.

His reckless speculation about re-opening the country prematurely.

His consistent hawking of an unproven cure, manufactured by a company in which he has a financial stake, amplified by his handmaidens in the right wing media like Hannity and Ingraham and Limbaugh. (Alex Jones was so bad the FCC had to tell him to stop promoting his own fake cure. Which raises the question: have they seen Jim Baaker’s show?) It goes without saying, or should, that this behavior is not just a conflict of interest at a level no previous president of either party would dream, not even Nixon, but absolutely immoral, criminal behavior of the lowest order. From the President of the United States.

I could go on, but I know that I long ago disappeared into a tedious form of journalism that my friend Matt Bardin describes as nothing more than “Donald Trump Bad Man.” But if the wingtip fits.

(On Saturday the New York Times published an exhaustive account of the administration’s negligence and failure to act, and Trump’s own personal culpability. A few days earlier the Washington Post had run a similar piece.)

As a result of these and other actions and inactions, tens of thousands of Americans thus far have needlessly died due to his criminal negligence, and still counting, to say nothing of the punishing economic pain that has come along with the public health crisis.

It can’t be said enough, for those right wingers who insist upon making the false accusation: No one blames Trump for the coronavirus. But we correctly blame him for his pathetic, murderous failure to adequately respond to it, which has made it much more devastating than it had to be.

One need only look at a graph of the virus’s spread to see the grisly consequences of his botched response. The US now has almost a third of all confirmed coronavirus cases in the world, and that number is surely underreported, given the unforgivable lack of testing. This weekend passed Spain to lead the world, as it were, in total deaths, topping 20,000. (In my blog post of two weeks ago it was just 2000.)

Trump has, to my knowledge, still not offered a word of sympathy for the virus’s victims or their families, perhaps because he is too busy bragging about his own (mythical) efforts in combatting it, complaining about an insufficiently worshipful press, spreading harmful disinformation, and demanding praise and tribute from governors before he will release federal assistance to them. With characteristic rapciousness, Trump treats taxpayer-funded federal resources as his personal stash that he has the right to dispense or withhold at his regal whim, and for which Republican officials are all too eager to bow down and grovel. (Looking at you, Martha McSally). It’s no coincidence that he has doled those precious resources to states like Florida, with Republican governors and electoral votes he craves, while sadistically withholding it from blue states like New York and California.

So I’m with Frank Bruni on this: It is hard to envision any grown adult less equipped to lead the country during a crisis like this, or one who would have behaved in a more damnable manner than Donald J. Trump. A navy blue suit filled with steaming horse feces would do no worse, and probably better, since at least it would not actively do harm and try to line its pockets in the process.

Truly, a special circle of Hell awaits this monster. For my money he cannot take up residence soon enough.

RAHM COM

Trump’s horrific handling of the pandemic, and the extent to which he and his administration bear the blame for how lethally it has played out, is all bad enough. But with Trump, whenever you think he’s hit rock bottom, he somehow finds a way to dig.

Let’s start with the Purge of the Inspectors General.

In trying to contain the economic damage the of the virus, the GOP first tried to ram through a “stimulus package” that little more than a slush fund for its own use. When Congressional Democrats partially succeeding in inserting some mechanisms for oversight, Trump immediately announced that he had no intention of complying with the mandated measures.

True to his, uh, word, he has since fired the Inspector General responsible for overseeing the package.

But the firing of that IG, Glenn Fine, of the Defense Department, is just part of a broader slow motion Saturday Night Massacre in progress. He also vindictively fired the Intelligence Community IG Michael Atkinson who forwarded the Ukrainegate whistleblower complaint last winter, part of the White House’s ongoing post-impeachment purge, and attacked the DHS IG for honestly reporting the government’s egregious and manifold failures in the coronavirus crisis—i.e., for doing his job. (Bill Barr went on Fox to applaud, and to praise Trump’s “statesmanlike handling” of the crisis.)

Trump has also signaled that he wants to fire several more IGs. In a way, it makes perfect sense, as an Inspector General is the very definition of everything Trump abhors: an independent watchdog charged with rooting out corruption, fraud, waste, and malfeasance.

In a piece for USA Today, Kurt Bardella, formerly a senior advisor to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, writes:

Trump feels empowered to obliterate the guardrails of checks and balances. Bit by bit, he has stripped away the levers of oversight until there’s nothing left. It started by ignoring congressional subpoenas for his financial records. It continued as Trump refused to cooperate with the House impeachment investigation, stonewalling Congress’ attempts to hear witness testimony and conduct depositions with administration officials close to the president. And now he is leading a purge of the final remaining frontier of oversight—the inspectors general.

And that’s not from some bleeding heart liberal: Bardella was a Republican until 2017, and worked for the House Oversight Committee’s then-chairman Darrell Issa, the longtime congressman from California (now retired) who in the pre-Trump era represented one of the most hardline conservative factions in the GOP.

The purge of the IGs is just the latest and most visible of Trump’s attempts to use the pandemic as cover to advance his autocratic agenda while our attention is focused elsewhere, like on the corpses piling up in New York City. The Washington Post notes that the Trump administration has also “moved to weaken federal gas mileage standards, nominated a young conservative for a powerful appeals court and sent scores of migrants back across the southern border without a customary hearing.” (Stephen Miller, call your physician about that permanent hard-on.)

It’s a whirlwind of activity taking place away from the spotlight that highlights how the twin crises of a viral outbreak and an economic slowdown have not slowed Trump’s aggressive push to advance his broader agenda in the months before he faces voters.

In some cases, Trump is continuing to do what he had been doing, pushing policies that have won him plaudits among his conservative supporters. In others, he is using the broad powers granted to the executive branch amid a national crisis to pursue policy goals he has long sought and in some cases struggled to achieve.

That piece was titled, “Trump Forges Ahead With Broader Agenda Even As Coronavirus Upends The Country. It should have been titled, “Trump Makes Shameless Power Grab During Public Health Crisis He Fomented.”

But as Rahm Emanuel used to say, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

This, of course, is par for the course for authoritarian rulers, whose ranks Trump has openly pined to join. Here’s Richard North Patterson in the Never Trump conservative website The Bulwark:

COVID-19 has metastasized his authoritarian pathologies. Trump’s nightly press briefings pervert a president’s obligation to inform and unify Americans in crisis —commingling grandiosity, lying, blame-shifting, and disinformation with attacks on our principal defense against untruth: an independent media. “The LameStream Media,” Trump recently tweeted, “is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope it will be detrimental to my election success.”

This likely augurs a chilling politicization of pandemic relief: the misdirection of federal assistance to buttress red states, propitiate swing states, reward obeisant supplicants and punish governors who displease him. Already it is widely reported that Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, whose incompetent response mimicked Trump’s own, is getting everything he wants from the national stockpile. As to the future, Trump has floated this disturbing criteria: “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”

ON WISCONSIN

But the centerpiece of this crime spree is the all-hands-on-deck effort by Trump and the GOP to undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming election—something keen observers on both the left and the right have noted.

Here’s Elie Mystal of The Nation:

Three weeks ago, I wrote that the real threat to the 2020 election is not that Donald Trump will use the coronavirus to try to cancel it but that Republicans will try to steal it, state by state, county by county. In an election in which a record number of people may attempt to vote by absentee ballot, Republican state officials can choose simply to mail ballots to people in counties that traditionally vote for Republicans—and not mail enough ballots to the far more populous counties that traditionally vote for Democrats. In so doing, they can slant the general election toward Donald Trump and other Republicans running for election without Trump having to go through all the bother of declaring himself “dictator for life,” which might spook Mitt Romney.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, the Bulwark’s Patterson agrees:

COVID-19 debilitates democracy: confining candidates, shutting legislatures, stifling peaceful assembly, curbing voter registration, and limiting personal engagement. As the pandemic proliferates, anxiety permeates an involuntarily passive populace. Donald Trump seems resolved to exploit this paralysis by squelching dissent, politicizing relief efforts, and corrupting the November election….

Trump’s most obvious subversion of democracy is his blatant resolve to suppress turnout in November—thereby increasing the electoral impact of his fervent supporters. To limit the public health dangers of voting during a pandemic, the House is proposing to give citizens the option of casting mail-in ballots in November 2020. To secure his own reelection, Trump means to quash this.

As Jelani Cobb writes, “the novel coronavirus pandemic dovetails exceptionally well with part of Trump’s agenda and that of the Republican party in some states: voter suppression.” For decades, Republicans have fought to suppress voting by minorities and the young. Trump’s campaign is spending millions to prevent Democrats in critical states from passing voting-by-mail. As Georgia House Speaker David Ralston explained, it “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia (because) it will certainly drive up turnout.”

Blood-boiling as it is, this too should come as no shock.

Many observers, myself included, have long been warning that the GOP has no intention of conducting a fair election in November, and has as much as openly said so: through the myth of voter fraud, gerrymandering, voter suppression, disinformation, dark money, and even solicitation of foreign interference through bribery and blackmail. But the pandemic has accelerated that process, given it myriad new angles, and lent fresh urgency to our need to stop it.

And of course, in that there is spectacular irony:

The GOP is using this crisis—which it arguably fomented with its inaction, incompetence, and venality—as cover to steal an election that it otherwise stands to lose because of that very crisis.

Nowhere has that brazen Republican scheme been more on prominent display than in Wisconsin last week.

A quick recap:

Because of the pandemic, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor very reasonably asked its Republican-controlled legislature to postpone the primary, as many states have done. The Republicans refused. Because of course.

He then asked them to send absentee ballots to every registered voter in the state. Again they refused.

At the national level, Democratic National Committee sued the Republican National Committee to extend by a week the deadline for the voters to receive absentee ballots. A district court granted the request, the GOP fought it (because of course), and the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court ruling. But the five Republican-nominated justices on the Supreme Court, in an unsigned opinion, reversed it, siding with the GOP. (Surprise!)

In a scathing dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: “The majority of this court declares that this case presents a ‘narrow, technical question.’ That is wrong. The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic.”

Kurt Bardella notes that the SCOTUS’s decision is part of a nauseating pattern:

For anyone hoping the Supreme Court will assert its role as the third branch of government, it has delayed hearing cases, including three lawsuits involving Trump’s tax returns and financial dealings. And yet, somehow, the Supreme Court managed to reverse a federal judge’s order to extend absentee voting by a week in Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday. The result was that voters had to choose between their health and their civic duty.

The court’s refusal to move forward with cases that impact the president, coupled with its willingness to interfere with the Wisconsin election, foreshadows a very dangerous path as we look ahead to the November elections. In essence, the court’s conservative majority is just another political instrument for Trump to wield.

It may be hard to see the forest through the trees in this time of social distancing, but make no mistake about it, our democracy is in the midst of a three-alarm fire. The highest court in the land has effectively been hijacked—serving only the interests of Donald Trump. Congress is no longer a co-equal branch of government, a result of Trump’s toxic brand of obstruction.

As a result of this brazen and indefensible attack on democracy by the GOP and its judicial vassals, we all saw the outrageous images of Wisconsinites forced to stand in line for hours in order to vote, in masks, six feet apart, when they could easily have been given the opportunity to do so safely from home. We also saw the ridiculous, Onion-worthy image of the Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly Robin Vos in mask, rubber gloves, and a protective gown, insisting all was fine and it was “incredibly safe” to go vote.

This is an omen of the fiasco November promises to be nationwide—and nothing would please Trump and the Republican Party more. As Mystal writes:

The entire Democratic theory of overthrowing Trump has been to inspire massive voter turnout. Turnout led from the urban centers and their close suburbs. The “blue wave.” But it is in these densely packed communities that Covid-19 is hitting the hardest. And there is already evidence that the African American community, the base of the Democratic party, is being disproportionately killed by the virus.

Republicans can use all of this to their advantage. If people have to choose between risking their lives by going to vote, or staying home, most people will stay home—and who can really blame them? If Republicans can make it hard for people to vote absentee, particularly in high-population centers where there is going to be the most demand for absentee voting, Republicans can win.

Wisconsin shows them how.

Some, such as Sarah Kendizor, author of Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, have suggested that it was no accident that the administration let this virus run rampant. I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far; I don’t give them credit for that much foresight. But I do firmly believe that, per Rahm, Trump and the Republican Party know how to exploit an opportunity. And they need to, because the virus has damaged their chances to win fairly, not that they ever intended to fight that way.

Kendizor:

Trump covers up crime with scandal and covers up malice with incompetence. His administration would like you to think that they’re inept, that they’re just stumbling into these situations. That’s not the case. And the key thing to remember is that it’s not Trump as some geopolitical mastermind; it’s an inner circle of Republican backers and ideological extremists, many of whom have massive financial interests and certainly their own agenda.

Is there any boundary beyond which Trump not go, any dirty trick that would be off limits?

Just kidding! Of course not.

Noting that “democracy is not self-executing,” elections expert Richard Hasen wonders:

What if Trump is ahead in Michigan and Pennsylvania on election night and he declares victory, but after millions of absentee ballots are processed ….Biden is declared the winner in those states and wins the election? Will Republicans believe Trump if he claimed the later count was the result of fraud, despite all the evidence to the contrary?

Of course they would.

Unconstrained by basic respect for democracy, Trump will attempt whatever he can. Who intervenes then? Our politicized Supreme Court?

This past week the comedian Kumail Nanjiani quipped: “Super cool to realize right now that our whole government has just been on the honor system for centuries.”

Lest we forget, it was just 20 years ago that a disputed presidential election had to be decided by nine judges in black robes, and even that was a partisan shitshow. Since then matters have only gotten worse. As Bardella reminds us, by turning the Supreme Court into just another partisan arm of the GOP, like Fox News or the US Senate, Trump has removed even what little was left of that institutional fail-safe:

By taking a wrecking ball to independent oversight, Trump has made the presidency into a dictatorship. At this point, the only recourse we will have left to save our democracy, repair the institutions of government, and restore accountability to the American people, is to vote in November to save “the soul of this nation.”

That is, assuming Trump, the Republicans and the Supreme Court let us.

ONE WAY TICKET ACROSS THE STYX

Let’s be clear: We are watching the criminal destruction of our republic by a sociopathic game show host-cum-con man, under the cover of a crisis helped bring about. Donald Trump and the Republican Party are exploiting the pandemic as an excuse for a further neo-fascist power grab and a permanent end to fair elections in favor of one-party rule.

As recently as a month ago the conservative pundit and historian Max Boot wrote “that Trump is the worst president in modern times—not of all time.” But he has now revised his estimate:

That left open the possibility that James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding or some other nonentity would be judged more harshly. But in the past month, we have seen enough to take away the qualifier “in modern times.” With his catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus, Trump has established himself as the worst president in US history.

His one major competitor for that dubious distinction remains Buchanan, whose dithering helped lead us into the Civil War—the deadliest conflict in US history. Buchanan may still be the biggest loser. But there is good reason to think that the Civil War would have broken out no matter what. By contrast, there is nothing inevitable about the scale of the disaster we now confront.

Whatever happens in November, Trump cannot escape the pitiless judgment of history.

Somewhere, a relieved James Buchanan must be smiling.

And so is Satan, as he and his chambermaids get Donald’s room ready for him.

********

Illustration adapted from photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Solitary Confinement Tips from Simon Mann

Simon Mann

COVID lockdown giving you the blues? Don’t tell it to a former British SAS officer turned mercenary who spent almost six years in African prisons.

When it comes to how to deal with solitary confinement, not many people have a leg up on Captain Simon Mann. A household name in the UK, Mann was born into a long, proud line of British Army officers. Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, he served in the prestigious Scots Guards and then in the elite SAS before famously becoming a soldier of fortune in southern Africa.

In late 2003, long retired from the gun-for-hire game, Simon was approached by a group of shadowy Anglo-European players (including Margaret Thatcher’s ne’er-do-well son Mark) to organize a coup to overthrow Teodoro Obiang, the brutal dictator of the tiny but oil-rich West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. The operation proved to be a setup. Even as Simon and his men were in the air, his backers doublecrossed him and used the threat of a coup to extract oil contracts from a suddenly compliant Obiang. Mann was arrested on the tarmac of the airport in Harare, Zimbabwe, where he and his men had stopped to refuel, and thrown in prison under the heel of Obiang’s rival, the equally godawful Robert Mugabe.

Mann spent the next five years and eight months in African prisons—four in Zimbabwe and then another twenty months in EG itself after Mugabe “sold” him—much of it in solitary confinement, until he was finally freed through his own face-to-face negotiations with Obiang, and the heroic efforts of his intrepid wife Amanda back in England. The British government never did acknowledge its own clandestine role in the coup, nor its attempts to cover it up while it let Simon rot. (For the full story in all its gory glory, see his 2011 memoir Cry Havoc.)

Having known Simon for a little more than a decade, I can hardly think of a more centered, Zen-like individual…..let alone one better equipped to give advice on how to handle this surreal global moment. (In fact, he has recently begun a consulting practice aimed at teaching those very skills.)

Now in peaceful retirement in the south of England, he spoke with me by Skype.

SOLITUDE FOR BEGINNERS

THE KING’S NECKTIE: So Simon, here in New York we’ve been locked down a little over three weeks, and the other day my nine-year-old daughter was starting to get a little stir crazy. I suggested that we needed some structure, and told her that when you were in solitary confinement you had a strict routine that included a “daytime layout” for your cell, and then a “nighttime layout” that you rearranged it into at the end of every day.

SIMON MANN: Yes. You know the Navy SEAL Admiral McRaven—he’s got a book titled Make Your Bed. “Get up every morning and first thing, make your bed.” And that is so right. What a banal thing, but that is just the absolute tip of the idea. Because it’s that routine. It’s the discipline.

TKN: When you were in that position—which was much more extreme than what anybody is going through now—was it your training that enabled you to cope? Did it go back to Eton, or Sandhurst, or the SAS, or what?

SIMON: I’ve had many discussions—as I know you have as well, Bob—about what goes into making somebody ready to do very extreme things. Obviously you very quickly get into the nature/nurture argument: how much of this was born in you and how much of it was brought to you, so to speak. I think that the people who go into things like elite military units tend to be of a certain type anyway. That’s why they’re there.

In my case, you’ve got a child who probably has that anyway, but then he ends up the captain of rugby at school. And then he goes to Sandhurst and he gets all that culture built into him on top of what he had anyway. And then he goes into the Scots Guards and then he goes here and there and then he ends up in the SAS. Well, if he ends up in prison after all of that, you bet he’s got a whole load of stuff that other people haven’t got. But also he was probably born with something a little bit that way anyway.

TKN: Well, what is your advice to someone who doesn’t have both the nature and nurture, and then hasn’t gone through all the training that you went through? What about an ordinary Joe who’s not in the kind of extreme circumstances you were in, but is still dealing with something that’s new to them, like this lockdown, or this crisis full stop?

SIMON: Hopefully, I think the system I devised for myself totally applies to the ordinary Joe, and that’s what I’m trying to teach with this new website and webinar I’m creating.

In prison, I had four legs of the table and they were 1) routine, 2) exercise, 3) something artistic, and 4) keeping a log of the first three—a journal or a record. So I had like an audit trail, which in my case in Zimbabwe had to be hidden because it was illegal to keep any kind of record, but it was very important to me. I could look at my piece of paper and say, “Look, you’ve managed to do all three things every day without missing anything for the last three weeks: I am sticking to my routine, I am doing my exercises, I am doing something artistic. Good man.” (laughs) That gave me a good feeling; it gave me a very strong feeling that I was achieving something. And I’ve read elsewhere that lots of therapists get their patients to keep a diary. It’s very beneficial.

TKN: And was that a technique you developed yourself or had it been taught to you?

SIMON: Routine and exercise came really naturally through my background, birth, upbringing, education, and training. (laughs) Like you, I had a soldier for a father and grandfather as well. In fact, both my grandfathers. And then, you know, all the jokes about the English prep school system and then Sandhurst, and now you’re really talking turkey.

I mean, at Sandhurst they say to you, “Why do we make men clean their boots the morning that they’re going over the top in World War I? Why do we do that?” The reason is because you’ve got young guys and they need those touches of routine. Today is just another day. You’re gonna get up, you’re going to have breakfast, you’re going to clean your rifle, you’re going to clean your boots, and then you’re going to go and attack the fucking German army and you’re probably going to get blown to pieces. But those points of routine help people deal with the extremity of the situation.

And we were taught that at Sandhurst. And in my case, I’d already grown up in that sort of way. So it’s, “Yeah, yeah, it makes sense. That’s what we’ll do.” (laughs)

And then, in my case, you end up in the Brigade of Guards where only the best is good enough. Whatever we’re going to do, we’re going to do it to the absolute best of our ability, no questions asked, and we’re going to do with enthusiasm. That was the mindset which I encountered in the Scots Guards. When the firemen of London went on strike and we were told to go and be firemen, we said, “Right, we’re going to be the best firemen that London has ever seen. We’re gonna do this to the absolute maximum of our ability. We don’t care that our soldiers are paid less than the firemen and they’re all on strike. We don’t care that we’ve got the wrong equipment, we don’t care about this, that, or the other thing. We’re just going to do this to the nth degree.” And that’s the Brigade of Guards.

And, yeah, that is very extreme, but you are in an institution where basically you are being told to do that. That is the tradition, that is the culture, and the drill sergeants and the officers and the adjutants and everybody else are going to make sure that that is what happens. There is no wavering. If you waver for a moment you’ll be placed under close arrest.

But then you say, “Right. Now we want that level of discipline and mentality, but we want you to enforce that on yourself.” Now we’re into Delta or the SEALs or the SAS: that is that guy who can keep that level of dedication, discipline, and everything else going on his own.

And then in my mind, I said, “Right. Now the ultimate test is to do all of that, but actually do it in solitary confinement.” (laughs)

TKN: It’s remarkable.

SIMON: Well, I don’t think it’s that remarkable, I think there are loads of people who can do that kind stuff. They just haven’t been as…..(laughs) I was going to say lucky. But yeah, in many respects, a lot of that actually comes from a very privileged background in my case.

So the routine part of it to me came very easy. Next, exercise. You got to be fit, you’ve got to be strong. And that was also a way of giving two fingers to all the guards. In my mind that was a factor. I’m going to do press-ups and sit-ups in my cell even though they know that I’m sick and they are going to think, “Fuck, I couldn’t do that.” I’m putting one over on them. They will respect me more, and in the end I may be able to use that for escape. This is my mentality.

And then the artistic thing was something I read. Amanda sent me an introduction to psychology book, and in it was a study where, instead of trying to work out what made people happy, they went and talked to people who are happy and looked for common characteristics. I’m sure you’ve heard of that in psychology. And one of the things that happy people do is they do something creative. They are creative. And I thought, “Wow, that’s a good idea. I’m going to do that.” So I built that into the system.

Now I’m setting up this website to do strategic coaching with senior management—not necessarily with this pandemic crisis, but going forward from here. Because I think there’s a great demand for people to try and be imaginative and creative, and with senior management that can be very difficult, because you’re so close to the woods, you cannot see the trees. And to have someone to talk to who is outside your box I think is very valuable. I’m going offer a free webinar where people can come in on Zoom, and I’ll talk my talk for 20 minutes, and then maybe we can have 40 minutes of Q&A. And if people want to book an hour with me privately, they can.

PUSHING TIME

TKN: So that was your psychological regimen for survival.

SIMON: Yes. It’s like a tightrope. On the left hand side, you have despair and on the right, you have over-optimism. Because the thing that’s most likely to drive you straight into despair is disappointment. Disappointment is the worst thing. So you’ve got to stay on that line. And that’s a hard thing to do.

When I was in prison, a letter from home might knock me off the line for two weeks. It would take me two weeks to recover my balance. And I quite understand why long term prisoners sometimes simply cut themselves off from their families. They don’t want visitors because they’ve got to that place in their head, where I got to, walking along that tightrope day by day. That’s all it is. It’s today. Here you are, your fellow prisoners, and the guards—they are family. The cell is your home and today is today and that’s it.

And that is the way you learn to push time. That’s how you are able to do the time. Which is a terrifying thing to do because you’re basically training yourself to waste your life. As they say in the business, you’re “pushing time” and it’s very, very difficult and very destructive because all the time you’re thinking, “Fuck, this isn’t really what I wanted to do! But if I don’t maintain this equilibrium, I’m not gonna make it. So this is what I’ve got to do.”

I was stunned by that when I was first told it by another prisoner in Zimbabwe. He explained it to me, but it took me another 18 months to understand what he was talking about.

That was the tightrope. Because on the one hand, I did hope. But on the other hand, If I thought about it really hard, I thought, “What are these guys most likely to do?” Meaning my captors. There was the fear of death—they always could’ve put me against the wall and shot me. And I always knew that that was possible, even if it would have been for their own political reasons. As we all know, everything boils down to domestic politics. You know, when Donald Trump says something about Iran, it’s all about domestic politics. And I didn’t know what domestic politics were going on in Equatorial Guinea, so there was always the possibility that that might happen.

So the fear of execution never left me. Then there was the fear of simply dying from malaria or whatever. Being murdered was another possibility.

But when I thought about it, I thought, well, they probably won’t kill me, ‘cause that would be a big hoo-ha. (laughs) But what they might easily do is just keep me for another five years. Nothing to them. And that would have killed me. I think that would have killed me actually.

Thank God they didn’t do that.

NEW FISH, DIFFERENT POND

TKN: So when you were in prison in Zimbabwe you must’ve had one mentality, and then when you were extradited to EG and put in prison there—kidnapped, really—that must’ve changed your outlook somewhat.

SIMON: You know, in Zimbabwe it was a rollercoaster. I was in prison there for four years, and the last year I was pending extradition to Equatorial Guinea. So that was very frightening because everybody had told me—friends and foes alike—that if I did end up in Equatorial Guinea, I would be shot.

So throughout that year I knew that at any moment I might go. And the regime was up to all sorts of mischief. They tried to kidnap me once, you remember, and they failed. So it was ups and downs. One minute I thought I was about to get smuggled out of the prison, another minute I thought I was about to go to Equatorial Guinea. And I didn’t know.

When I did finally get extradited, I thought I was going to be shot on arrival, right on the tarmac. And then discovering that I wasn’t, obviously that was good news. (laughter) Then it became another rollercoaster. But the mindset in terms fear and dealing with the fact of where I was and what was happening was pretty much the same.

It was extremely irritating to be a new prisoner again, because in a prison there’s a kind of a seniority, not only in terms of your crime, but also in terms of how long you’ve been there. If you’ve been in a prison for four years, you have respect from other prisoners, from the guards, even from the people in charge of the prison, and you get treated in a certain way. Then suddenly when I was kidnapped by the CIO (ed.: Mugabe’s secret police), it was like back to day one. That was really annoying. (laughs) I just thought, “You bastards. Fuck you. I’m a senior prisoner. I’m Simon Mann, you don’t treat me like that!” (laughs) Of course they thought that was very funny.

TKN: Did you actually say that to them?

SIMON: I think I did. Yeah. I said, “Why are you treating me like this, you know that I’m a good prisoner. I’ve been here for four years, I know you guys, I’ve never given you any trouble. So what’s the problem? What’s the beef?” When you start putting handcuffs behind somebody’s back, what’s the point? That’s just torture. It’s fucking painful. I had a hernia. They knew I had a hernia. The hernia kept on coming out, and with my hands behind my back I couldn’t get my hernia back in. I couldn’t lie down. I couldn’t sit down because I couldn’t get up again because the hernia would come out. And I said, “What is the point of this? You know I can’t escape. How the fuck am I going to escape? I’m in a cell, in leg irons, and handcuffs. What is the point? It’s just torture.” And I’ve been here with you guys for four years, you know me—why are you doing this?

TKN: And what was their answer?

SIMON: They were pretty nasty at that point. It was the CIO and their job was to take me to EG. Remember, it was extremely secret so that the people guarding me didn’t even know who I was. They were soldiers and they were frightened because everyone in Zimbabwe is frightened of the CIO. So they were scared and so they weren’t taking any shit from me.

FUCK YOU, CHANTIX

TKN: It’s true, though, odd as it may sound, when you talk about being “lucky enough” to have had that experience. I often think about the late John McCain. If you had asked him in 1967, before he was shot down, “Hey John, how would you like to be a prisoner of war for five and a half years?,” I’m confident he would’ve said no. But the experience he went through was this crucible that made him into the man he was.

SIMON: I did some work with a psychologist from the Leadership Trust who had been hired by the SAS to look into the whole divorce rate and the suicide rate issue. This was way back in the Eighties, so before Iraq and Afghanistan and any of that. The SAS was very worried, and basically saying, “Look, the suicide rate in the SAS is higher than the Army and the Army’s is higher than civvy street. And this is dangerous, because there isn’t an existential war going on, and if we’re training people to commit suicide, somebody’s going to come along and shut us down.”

So this psychologist did a big study on it and she came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the case at all. We weren’t training people to do that; we were the people who’d be doing that anyway. Her point was: Who invented SAS selection? Who runs SAS selection? Who came up with the whole bloody amazing thing in the first place? You guys, who are in it now. So you basically self-selected. You are that section of the population which probably would be more liable to have those misfortunes anyway, even if you didn’t join the SAS, or the Army, or anything else. That’s who you are.

TKN: Did you ever get to that low point any time in your ordeal where you considered it?

SIMON: Suicide?

TKN: Yes.

SIMON: Yeah. I did play that game with myself. I had a suicide pill—which was of course a virtual pill because I didn’t really have one—and the idea was that it was instantaneous and painless. And in my mind, I would put this virtual pill on this little sort of ledge in my cell, and I told myself, “If you wanted to take it, and it was really there, you would take it.” That’s what you want to do, and that’s what you better do, because all we’re talking about here is methodology. If you “take that pill,” by whatever messy means you come up with (laughs), it’s morally the same thing. It’s just about physical courage, and you should do it.

I did play that game with myself. But I never got to that point where I said, “Yeah all right, I’ll take that now.”

I started the audit thing in Zim in order to try and stop smoking, Because I had masses and masses of cigarettes, loads of cigarettes, and I was smoking like 20 a day and I thought, “Oh my God, this is ridiculous.” I thought I was going to get out, and I cannot go home to Amanda smoking 20 cigarettes a day. (laughter)

TKN (incredulous): So not only are you 6000 miles from home, in a Zimbabwean prison at the mercy of Robert Mugabe, and in solitary confinement, but you decided to quit smoking at the same time?

SIMON (laughs): I did, yes. Which was really hard. Not least because, of course, the cigarettes were the currency in the prison. So I had literally hundreds of cigarettes in the corner of my cell. So as I gave up, I would look at all these cigarettes and think, “Oh man.”

But I kept a little audit and I tried to cut down the number of cigarettes by at least one a week. And I got down to four a day and I thought, “Oh, you’re pathetic. If you are only smoking four cigarettes a day, you can smoke no cigarettes a day.” And that was it. I gave up smoking.

And then—wait for it (laughs)—because I thought I was going to get out for Christmas. I think it was around about beginning of December, I wasn’t smoking anything. A week later I discovered I wasn’t getting out.

TKN: That’s what you were talking about: disappointment. Right there!

SIMON: Yeah. Massive, huge disappointment. Plus, the reason for giving up had gone as well. (laughs) But somehow, I managed. That wasn’t so easy to give up. Just stick with it. Stick with the program. 

COOL BRITTANIA

TKN: Have you been in England through this whole lockdown?

SIMON: Yes. I was supposed to be in Johannesburg but at the last minute we called it off because I might have gotten stuck there indefinitely.

TKN: That would have been ironic.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, there are worse places to get stuck. (laughter)

TKN: And what’s the mood in Britain right now? Stiff upper lip and all that?

SIMON (laughs): I think we’ve got the full gamut. We’ve got stiff upper lips and we’ve got some nonsense going on. For example, the police, bless them, turned up at a cornershop somewhere and said they shouldn’t be selling Cadbury Creme Eggs because your shopping is meant to be essential things only and the crème eggs are not essential. Oh for Christ’s sake! Come on guys!

TKN: Ah, but they are! That cream egg was never more essential than right now….

SIMON: Exactly!

TKN: Over here, when the Governor of New York shut down all “non-essential businesses,“ he exempted liquor stores. So there’s a liquor store across the street from me here in Gowanus and it’s open for business and doing quite well.

SIMON: I’m sure it is. Though I haven’t touched alcohol for three months.

TKN (surprised): Really?

SIMON: Nothing to do with the virus; I was just having a lot of trouble with gout, and I just thought, “Ah, bollocks, I’m going to just give up alcohol.” So that’s gone the way of cigarettes.

TKN (laughs): Soon you’ll have no vices left.

SIMON: Ah, you’d be surprised, Bob…..

***********

For group and private consulting services with Simon Mann click here.

Photo: The Daily Telegraph

 

 

The Sound of Sirens

Ambulance Speeding in New York, Blurred Motion

Last week I was talking online with one of my oldest friends, who lives in California. Inquiring about how things are in New York, he asked, “Have you heard a lot more sirens lately?”

“Funny you should ask,” I said. “I have. At least I think I have. But I wasn’t sure if it’s just my imagination, or paranoia, or maybe that they just stand out more because the streets are so quiet.”

“It’s not your imagination,” he said, and I listened, because he is on the faculty of the Homeland Security program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. “The FDNY’S EMS department got more 911 calls yesterday than any day in its history.”

PRETTY VACANT

We are told that New York City is now the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than half of the United States’ confirmed cases in New York state as the US passes China for the most worldwide. (“We’re number 1! We’re number 1!”) After taking about a month to hit 1000, the national death toll doubled to more than 2000 in two days and only promises to get worse in the next month, or so we are told by reliable authorities. The countervailing misinformation from unreliable authorities only adds to the anxiety and confusion.

Here in Brooklyn, the streets are eerily silent and empty.

People in surgical masks scurry away from you.

Supermarkets have guards posted outside to regulate the number of customers who can go in at any one time.

Most businesses are shuttered, and the ones that aren’t—like the car wash on my corner here in Gowanus—astonish me even more.

Runners still traverse the streets, more than ever, it seems, with all the gyms closed. Being able to go outside for a brief daily walk is a godsend. But now we are hearing word that even that is unsafe. What limited human interaction remains is fraught with anxiety that has accelerated even from last week. Even in the stairwells and laundry rooms of apartment buildings, neighbors keep their distance (as they should, of course).

Friends in the service industry—waiters, bartenders, cooks, musicians, actors, barbers, shop employees, and many others—are all out of work and face dire and immediate financial repercussions. The ripple effect will eventually hit us all, while the impact on the homeless and most vulnerable is beyond imagination.

But as surreal and sinister as life is hunkered down in our apartments, it would be easy to miss just how bad things really are……unless you need medical care.

The stories coming out of New York’s already overwhelmed emergency rooms and ICUs are chilling: of patients “hotcotting” ventilators like submarine crewmen, of doctors and nurses using trashbags as makeshift surgical gowns and plastic takeout lids as facemasks, of reefer vans called in to accommodate the bodies. The Javits Center is being turned into a giant hospital ward, the USHS Comfort is pulling into the harbor, and Army field hospitals are going up in Central Park.

Even while living in the middle of it, like most New Yorkers, I see these nightmarish images primarily on the news (and I pray it stays that way). Worrying numbers of FDNY and NYPD personnel are already out sick, further debilitating the capacity of the system. The infection rate among medical staff is even more alarming, with the peak of the pandemic still two to three weeks away, by the best estimates. And as Italy foreshadowed the US, New York is foreshadowing the rest of the country, with New Orleans close behind. (Worse, in fact, in terms of the impact per capita.)

To quote Fannie Lou Hamer, from another context, is this America? These are the problems of an impoverished Third World country, not one of the richest and most developed, one that flatters itself to be “exceptional,” and the leader of what we used to call the Free World. The pandemic is a natural disaster, but our unpreparedness to handle it is the bitter fruit of the deliberate choices we as a nation have made: to allow our healthcare system to atrophy and rot, to embrace Gilded Age levels of inequality, to value profits over humanity.

Because the most galling part of all is that it didn’t have to be so.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

In an epic piece for The Guardian, Ed Pilkington and Tom McCarthy report on the diametrically different responses of South Korea and the US, which both saw their first case of the coronavirus manifest on January 20:

One country acted swiftly and aggressively to detect and isolate the virus, and by doing so has largely contained the crisis. The other country dithered and procrastinated, became mired in chaos and confusion, was distracted by the individual whims of its leader, and is now confronted by a health emergency of daunting proportions.

Within a week of its first confirmed case, South Korea’s disease control agency had summoned 20 private companies to the medical equivalent of a war-planning summit and told them to develop a test for the virus at lightning speed. A week after that, the first diagnostic test was approved and went into battle, identifying infected individuals who could then be quarantined to halt the advance of the disease.

Some 357,896 tests later, the country has more or less won the coronavirus war. On Friday only 91 new cases were reported in a country of more than 50 million.

The US response tells a different story. Two days after the first diagnosis in Washington state, Donald Trump went on air on CNBC and bragged: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China. It’s going to be just fine.”

In terms of total deaths, the US will soon surpass China, where the virus first appeared, despite being just a quarter of its size. And China’s toll has essentially flattened out at around 3300 thus far, while the American curve continues to rise on the way to what Dr. Anthony Fauci now projects to be 100,000 to 200,000 nationwide before this is all over. (The worst case scenario posited by Dr. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in London that finally caught the Trump administration’s attention projected 2.2 million dead in the US if there were to be no government intervention at all.)

Despite the dishonest claims of Trump’s followers that he is being unfairly blamed for an unforeseeable natural disaster, the numbers above bespeak precisely what he can be held blamed for: how criminally poorly he handled a crisis that was in fact very much foreseen and could have been prepared for, and was by other nations.

In a piece for Foreign Affairs titled “The Coronavirus Is the Worst Intelligence Failure in U.S. History,” Micah Zenko writes:

(T)he Trump administration forced a catastrophic strategic surprise onto the American people. But unlike past strategic surprises—Pearl Harbor, the Iranian revolution of 1979, or especially 9/11—the current one was brought about by unprecedented indifference, even willful negligence….

The White House detachment and nonchalance during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak will be among the most costly decisions of any modern presidency. These officials were presented with a clear progression of warnings and crucial decision points far enough in advance that the country could have been far better prepared. But the way that they squandered the gifts of foresight and time should never be forgotten, nor should the reason they were squandered: Trump was initially wrong, so his inner circle promoted that wrongness rhetorically and with inadequate policies for far too long, and even today. Americans will now pay the price for decades.

Pilkington and McCarthy’s piece is called “The Missing Six Weeks: How Trump Failed the Biggest Test of his Life,” and it is aptly titled:

Those missing four to six weeks are likely to go down in the definitive history as a cautionary tale of the potentially devastating consequences of failed political leadership…..

Most worryingly, the curve of cases continues to rise precipitously, with no sign of the plateau that has spared South Korea.

“The US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort,” Ron Klain, who spearheaded the fight against Ebola in 2014, told a Georgetown university panel recently. “What’s happened in Washington has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.”

Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the US government’s response to international disasters at USAid from 2013 to 2017, frames the past six weeks in strikingly similar terms. He told the Guardian: “We are witnessing in the United States one of the greatest failures of basic governance and basic leadership in modern times.”

Trump is dancing as fast as he can to convince America that he is our savior and not the man who led us into a historic but avoidable catastrophe. And some believe him, and always will, even as the corpses pile up. But the majority of Americans, being sentient creatures, see the awful truth. And history damn sure will.

LOVE THE ONE(S) YOU’RE WITH

Twenty years ago I edited a documentary for Showtime called Yesterday’s Tomorrows, about how people in the past imagined the future. (It was the brainchild of Barry Levinson, who directed it, produced by Richard Berge, with associate producer Kenn Rabin.) Most of it was lighthearted—the 1939 World’s Fair, Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion car and the Monsanto home of the future, jet packs and video phones and colonies on Mars. But the climax of the film dealt with dystopias, and featured a new interview Richard conducted with Charlton Heston, commenting on the trio of dark-hued sci-fi movies he made between 1968 and 1973: Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, and Soylent Green. Notwithstanding Heston’s odious politics, particularly his shilling for the NRA, he was a gracious interviewee, and even gamely repeated for us Soylent Green’s famous climactic line. (Spoiler alert: don’t watch at dinnertime.)

I keep thinking back to those not especially good films, especially Omega Man, when I look out at the desolate streets of New York. It’s a case of life imitating art, at least in how we process it. Since no one is left alive who remembers the Spanish flu, we have no first person experience of a pandemic on this scale. In terms of verisimilitude, science fiction offers our only points of comparison. (And there’s no lack of them. See also 28 Days Later, The Leftovers, The Walking Dead, The Road, et al.) It’s the same dynamic at play with war movies, where “realism” is an accolade that usually means “measured up to Saving Private Ryan,” not “reminded me of Khe Sanh.”

The empty streets are more surreal in their way than the rubblized remains of German or Japanese cities after the Allied firebombing of World War II, which represent a more conventional kind of destruction. I think also of the “neutron bomb” and the headscratching that greeted the concept when it was first explained to the American people in the 1970s and ‘80s. A bomb that kills people but leaves buildings standing?

The images it conjured are very much like the lifeless streets of the five boroughs right now.

I am sure that my experience of lockdown and shelter-in-place is not remarkably different from most New Yorkers’. Ironically, it is proving a boon to Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix, three giant corporations that were already in the process of taking over the world.

Perhaps the only solace is this rare and unexpected time of forced togetherness with loved ones. Presuming we survive it, we may look back on this time as a strangely sweet one, in terms of closeness with our families. (Of course, that presents its challenges too, which in turn has generated plenty of comedy on the web.) A friend with college-age children remarked to me that he and his wife would probably never have had three—or more—months of this kind of uninterrupted communion with their two sons ever again, were it not for this lockdown. (Not for nothing, his wife is a doctor treating patients with COVID-19.) For those of us with young children, it’s equally poignant.

Like any life-threatening event, the coronavirus has tended to strip away the quotidian bullshit and forced our attention onto the things that really matter in the human condition.

Of course, we could just as easily have done that with a weekend meditation retreat.

As NYC has emerged as the pandemic’s global epicenter, the term “Ground Zero” is being tossed about, which is a bitter irony for all of us who lived through 9/11. There are similarities of course, but also vast differences. Both nightmares spurred camaraderie and a sense of collective resilience and community among New Yorkers….but in this case it’s all done from a distance. 9/11 of course also set in motion a chain of events that would reshape the modern world, most dramatically with the Iraq war and a new evolution of the national security state and permanent state of endless war. The long term effects of COVID promise to be similarly extensive, though in what form we can only speculate.

But unlike 9/11, which was very much a communal experience, it is the particular cruelty of this contagion that the sick must suffer in solitude without loved ones to comfort them, and go to their graves in funerals without mourners. Hey, I read Sartre and Kierkegaard and Camus and that lot in school, like everyone; I know we all die alone. But this puts a particularly fine point on it.

A QUICK CHECK-IN WITH NERO

As this blog is usually a go-to, one-stop-shop for vitriol against our tangerine-tinted tyrant, I would be remiss if I did not include a quick recap of all the latest things to make your blood boil. And there were plenty of them this week, like last week, and I’ll wager next week too. (Vegas is giving long odds on Don suddenly becoming an empathetic, competent, Rooseveltian leader.)

Charlie Sykes made the analogy that “Trump is an arsonist who wants to be given credit for being a fireman,” but the metaphor falls apart at the “fireman” part. He’s more like an arsonist who continues to flick matches onto the blaze.

There was his demand for praise from governors before he would release desperately needed emergency supplies to them. (In addition to the everpresent demands of his insatiable ego, Trump also wants bites he can use in campaign ads, from Democratic governors in particular.)

There was his press conference of March 23rd that put me in mind of Churchill—you remember, his famous “blood, sweat, toil, and tears” speech of 1940, when he told the British people: “This is all gonna be over very soon, I promise you, believe me.”

There was his petty, petty signing ceremony for the bipartisan stimulus bill, which passed the Senate 100-0, but to which he invited zero Democrats. (Bonus: Trump, Mnuchin, Kudlow, Pence, McConnell, Chao, McCarthy, et al stood shoulder to shoulder and Don handed out pens without a Purell bottle in sight.)

Immediately after that signing, there was his shameless push to gut the oversight provisions to keep this from being a slush fund/slash/personal ATM for the GOP and the Trump family that Democrats fought so hard to stop. (“I’ll be the oversight,” said Dracula, volunteering to watch the bloodbank.)

There was his reported insistence that the relief checks that are to go out to almost every individual American taxpayer bear his serial killer-like signature, not that of a Treasury Department functionary as would be routine.

There was his insane suggestion that he might disregard the advice of every public health expert and try to “re-open America” for business as usual as early as Easter. (This notion was driven, we learned, by Jared Kushner, the poster boy for arrogant entitlement and unearned self-confidence, who apparently has been whispering in his father-in-law’s ear that the Dr. Faucis of the world are a bunch of Chicken Littles. Kush-Kush should stick to his areas of expertise, like bringing peace to the Middle East.) Fortunately, reckless as Trump’s suggestion was, he does not have the kind of unilateral power to do that that he imagines. We are lucky to have the likes of Andrew Cuomo, Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Jay Inslee, Phil Murphy, and the like looking out for us.

There was his unconscionable scoffing at New York’s need for upwards of 40,000 ventilators, and his delay in invoking the full force of the Defense Production Act to mobilize industry to make them and other urgently needed personal protective equipment.

There was his implication that hospital workers are stealing masks and selling them on the black market, a vile lie doubly dishonest because it’s delivered with his trademark qualifying shrug. (“A lot of people are saying….I dunno, someone should look into it.”) Here he betrayed his usual grifter’s instincts, for as Scott Sinkler writes, “There are two things you can absolutely rely on Trump for: 1) To always say the thing that’s the exact opposite of the truth, and 2) To always accuse people of doing the exact thing he’s doing, or would do if given the chance.”

There were his sociopathic tweets about the great ratings his daily press briefings are getting, even as thousands of Americans are dying, which may be a new low even for him. Truly, fiction bends the knee at the sheer monstrousness of this real life ogre. (And yet Trump supporters I know continue to praise and support him, and what’s more, insist that he is a great altruist and humanitarian. Jim Jones never had a flock so suicidally devoted.)

There were his continuing, jawdroppingly irresponsible musings about possible cures and snake oil remedies—misinformation that is not merely inaccurate, but represents a genuine threat to people who unaccountably rely on Donald Trump as their main source of medical information, which a majority of Republicans do. (Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight reports that, “Nine of the ten states that have seen the most rapid increase in coronavirus from Monday to Thursday are states that voted for Trump in 2016.”)

There was his macabre, goalpost-moving self-congratulation at Dr. Fauci’s estimate of hundreds of thousands of dead. As Heather Digby Parton wrote in Salon, “Last month Trump was assuring us that the U.S. only had 15 cases and they would be down to zero in no time—and now pretty much any number below 2.2 million is proof that his genius leadership saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”

In short, Trump remains possibly the worst imaginable person to have in charge during a crisis of this sort and scope, one focused almost exclusively on how he looks, on how he can dodge responsibility, how he can downplay it with gaslighting and magical thinking and even use it for his own financial and electoral gain.

As Peter Wehner writes in The Atlantic:

The qualities we most need in a president during this crisis are calmness, wisdom, and reassurance; a command of the facts and the ability to communicate them well; and the capacity to think about the medium and long term while carefully weighing competing options and conflicting needs. We need a leader who can persuade the public to act in ways that are difficult but necessary, who can focus like a laser beam on a problem for a sustained period of time, and who will listen to—and, when necessary, defer to—experts who know far more than he does. We need a president who can draw the nation together rather than drive it apart, who excels at the intricate work of governing, and who works well with elected officials at every level. We need a chief executive whose judgment is not just sound, but exceptional.

There are some 325 million people in America, and it’s hard to think of more than a handful who are more lacking in these qualities than Donald Trump.

THE TIMES THAT TRY

We are living through a surreal moment that beggars everything that has come before in the previous four years, and that—ICYMI—was already pretty surreal. Even the battle over Trump, who himself represents an unprecedented threat to the republic, has been dwarfed by the coronavirus and the unforeseeable ways it promises to reshape almost every aspect of American life. It remains to be seen just how epochal this crisis will be, but it is not inconceivable that it will mark a sea change on the order of the Great Depression or the Second World War. The coming weeks will begin to tell the tale.

We are up against a force of nature and can’t yet know the outcome. But already we have seen acts of tremendous courage and selflessness from many of our countrymen, with healthcare providers and first responders leading the way. Despite our worse-than-leaderlessness at the top, no matter how bad this pandemic gets, I retain my faith in my fellow Americans and in humanity full stop to rise to the occasion and help one another to endure and prevail. We can’t control anything else—only how we acquit ourselves in this crucible.

Outside I can still hear the sirens.

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Photo: Getty Images