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Our Season of Dread

May 9, 2020


Do you feel it too? A free-floating sense of dread? Maybe it’s the 2+ months of self-isolation. Maybe it’s the feeling that despite that and all my other efforts to avoid infection, I’m probably going to get it anyway at some point, because our government–both federal and state–is incapable of devising a coherent and effective response to Covid-19, and at my age if I do get it there’s a good chance that it will kill me. Or maybe it’s my outrage at watching all the lies and excuses and evasions and deceptions coming out of the White House every day.

But I sense that something more fundamental is happening. The pandemic has simply made inescapable the reality of what this country has become: an enormous Potemkin village whose prosperous and glamorous façade has concealed the rot and corruption and increasingly precarious existence of most Americans who are one paycheck away from desperation. And all the while, amidst the carnage, we are watching our national institutions being deliberately ripped to shreds.

The Trump response to Covid-19 has gone from denial, to blame, to self-pity, to self-praise, to now questioning if 78,000 (as of this writing) Americans have really died of the disease. What he has NOT done is fashion a coordinated federal response to marshal resources to meet the public health challenge and counteract its effect on the economy. All of that he has left to others and disclaimed responsibility for the result.

The federal relief bills made sure that large corporations and banks would be well taken care of, while directing relief funding away from smaller businesses in favor of publicly traded ones. We now have 33 million Americans who have lost their jobs, but Wall Street is bouncing back. In Texas, food banks are seeing lines of cars miles long to get food that people can’t afford to buy, while farmers across the country are dumping millions of gallons of milk and plowing crops into the ground to rot because they have no way to get the food where it is needed.

Republican governors are eagerly lifting stay-home orders and allowing businesses to reopen, thereby making it more difficult for laid-off workers to claim unemployment benefits. In Florida, the state’s unemployment system, which was intentionally designed to make it as hard as possible to get benefits, crashed under the weight of the applications. Of the more than 1 million claims that actually got through to date less than half have received a check.

Federal assistance to state and local governments under Trump has been distributed not on the basis of where it’s most needed, but on whether the local officials are sufficiently obsequious in their gratitude. This week Trump tweeted that he might condition aid to states on whether they eliminate “sanctuary cities, payroll taxes, and perhaps capital-gains taxes…also lawsuit indemnification & business deductions for restaurants.” This is what petty tyrants do.

The Center for Disease Control was once considered the premier public heath agency in the world, but it has been bizarrely invisible during the Covid-19 pandemic response and gave its last public briefing on March 9. In an interview with Bloomberg News, director Robert Redfield was asked who decided to discontinue them and responded that he didn’t know. “I just know that our regular briefing was discontinued.” The CDC has been reduced to offering “suggestions” or non-compulsory advice to meat-processing plants throughout the Midwest and South that have become major hotspots for Covid-19. On February 25, Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned of a serious outbreak in the U.S. and called for major changes to prepare. She has not spoken out in public since then. This week the White House quashed CDC guidelines for reopening restaurants, child care facilities and other establishments, as well as public transit, and told CDC officials that “it would never see the light of day.” A White House spokesperson said the guidance was “too prescriptive” and amounted to “countermessaging”.  Something clearly has happened to muzzle the once-great CDC.

The rest of the world has moved on without the US in responding to the pandemic. China was among 40 countries participating in a major international conference convened by the European Commission on May 4 focused on ensuring that vaccines, treatments and diagnostics would be affordable and accessible. The US was absent. As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently wrote in Foreign Affairs: “The world has watched in horror as an American president acts not as the leader of the free world but as a quack apothecary recommending unproven “treatments.” It has seen what “America First” means in practice: don’t look to the United States for help in a genuine global crisis, because it can’t even look after itself. Once there was the United States of the Berlin airlift. Now there is the image of the USS Theodore Roosevelt crippled by the virus, reports of the administration trying to take exclusive control of a vaccine being developed in Germany, and federal intervention to stop the commercial sale of personal protective equipment to Canada. The world has been turned on its head.

This reflects a profound shift to a crabbed and myopic view of American responsibilities in international affairs, which we now see everywhere, from the abrupt abandonment of Kurdish allies in Syria to casting doubt on US commitment to NATO and other allies (with the notable exceptions of Israel and Saudi Arabia).

The destruction of norms and institutions goes far beyond that. Among the most sinister is the transformation of the US Department of Justice from the country’s senior law enforcement agency with independence from the White House to a virtual law firm for the Trump Organization. While this has been unfolding for quite some time, probably the most stunning act was the DoJ decision on May 7 to drop charges against Michel Flynn to which he has plead guilty and confessed in writing more than once. This clearly was AG Barr’s doing, as he personally signed the request while the lead prosecutor withdrew from the case.  The overall game here is to discredit and ultimately bury the entire Russia investigation (and try to replace it with an ersatz Ukraine scandal in time for the presidential election). To this end, on May 7 the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to block an appeals court ruling that requires the Justice Department to give Congress certain secret grand jury material from Robert S. Mueller III’s special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Should SCOTUS decide to protect Trump from congressional oversight in the runup to the 2020 election (which is what this is all about) Trump’s triumph over the rule of law will be virtually complete.

Another case now before the Supreme Court is even more crucial to the principle that a president is accountable to the rule of law. Trump v. Vance concerns a subpoena issued by the New York state district attorney to President Trump’s accountants demanding the release of tax returns and other financial documents to a grand jury. Trump’s astonishing argument is that he has “temporary absolute immunity,” meaning he cannot be criminally investigated for anything or by anyone while in office. His lawyers are even using the Covid-19 crisis to support this position, arguing that “the nation requires the president’s undivided attention.” There is ample precedent against the Trump position, including US v. Nixon and Clinton v. Jones, but nothing is certain with this court. Kavanaugh has written articles in support of “absolute immunity” (which is probably why he was nominated to the Court), and the conservative majority on the Roberts court has been highly deferential to Republican issues. This is the court, after all, that decided that corporate money is “free speech” (Citizens United), gutted the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder), and declared that nothing could be done about partisan gerrymandering so it was perfectly fine (Rucho et al v. Common Cause et al).

The demolition goes on everywhere you look and began immediately after Trump’s inauguration. Politico reported in March 2017 that a supervisor at the Energy Department’s international climate office had told staff not to use the phrases “climate change,” “emissions reduction” or “Paris Agreement” in written memos, briefings or other written communications. The New York Times tallied up almost 100 environmental regulations that the Trump administration either has already killed or is in the process of reversing. These deal with air pollution, drilling and mining, infrastructure, animal protection, toxic substances, water pollution, and other issues. The EPA has been gutted and hundreds of its scientists have left. Amidst the Covid-19 crisis, as millions of Americans have lost their jobs and therefore their health insurance coverage, the Trump administration is pushing forward on another suit now before the Supreme Court that, if successful, would eliminate Obamacare while putting nothing in its place.

Then there is the US Postal Service, which Trump is now trying to kill. The Post Office has long been a target for conservative ideologues who want to privatize it and tried to cripple it financially by imposing a requirement to prepay pensions for workers decades into the future. Now Trump has decided to hold the USPS hostage, apparently mostly because it has a large contract to deliver packages for Amazon, whose owner Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post, which is frequently sharply critical of Trump. Eliminating the USPS would also throw a monkey wrench in plans, pushed by the Democrats and opposed by most Republicans, to greatly expand vote-by-mail in this year’s election. Trump just named Louis DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman who is currently in charge of fundraising for the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, to serve as the new postmaster general–another in a long line of Trump appointees whose mission is to take a wrecking ball to the agency they lead. It might be also noted in the context of unprecedented job loss, that the USPS is a major employer with nearly 500,000 workers, some 40 percent of whom are minorities.

Using the pandemic as an excuse, Trump is again pushing to eliminate the “payroll tax”, which is Republican code for defunding Social Security. The list goes on and on.

If a foreign adversary had contrived to put a puppet in the White House to cripple the US, could they possibly have conceived of success as unimaginable as what Trump has actually done?

So we continue to cower at home, eager to go out and dreading what will happen if we do. What began as a public health crisis has become, like everything else, another front in our seemingly endless cold Civil War. The critical battle will take place on November 3. If we lose, we will not recognize the country that emerges from the rubble.


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