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“Midsommar”: The MAGA Version

Midsommar

Okay, here’s the plot: A white supremist cult has taken over America, but there is growing opposition and big protests keep erupting in cities across the country. The cult’s Dear Leader, a sociopath who feeds off the adulation of his followers and demands obsequious devotion from his subordinates, feels threatened and demands a massive police response and calls troops into the streets to control the protests, but this just galvanizes the protesters. They surround the White House, and Dear Leader scurries in fear to an underground bunker, but this just inspires popular derision and ridicule. So Dear Leader tells his Evil Sidekick, who controls the nation’s law enforcement, to clear the streets so he can appear strong in public. The Evil Sidekick mobilizes mounted cops and troops armed with tear gas and rubber bullets to run the protesters off. Dear Leader strides out of the White House flanked by ranks of cops in riot gear and followed by his daughter and most loyal flunkies to hold up a Bible in front of a church in a mystifying ceremony. But the protests continue.

At the same time a deadly plague is ravaging the country. More than 2 million people have caught the virus and 120,000 have been killed by it. Dear Leader tells his followers that it will miraculously disappear and everything will be fine, and they believe him. Doctors and scientists, however, say that people should close their businesses and retreat into their homes to keep the plague from spreading. Most people do that, and for a while it seems to be working. But Dear Leader is angry, because the plague makes him look weak, so he declares that it is over. Besides, he’s bored and craves the adoration of his cult. So he demands that the country open up again and people should return to their restaurants and bars and gyms and beaches and nail salons. And they do, because they want it to be over too, and they’re tired of being cooped up with their wives and husbands and children watching Netflix and Tik Tok videos. But the plague strikes back with renewed fury.

What is Dear Leader to do? The number of plague victims keeps rising and makes him look bad. Racist cops kill more black people, which multiplies the protests and brings more white people into the streets in solidarity. People start to whisper that Dear Leader is losing it and his support among the people is waning. He fears the courts might be turning on him as well, even the judges he installed himself. There are investigations led by an independent US attorney that may be going badly for him. He tells Evil Sidekick to remove the threat by firing the US Attorney, but the US Attorney refuses to leave.

Aha! says Dear Leader, I’ll stage a massive rally to show how much my followers adore me! Doctors and scientists plead that this is dangerous and people will get sick and die. But Dear Leader doesn’t care. “I’ll just make them sign a pledge not to sue me if they get the plague,” he says. “Besides, it’s probably only the old ones that will die anyway, and they’re just dead weight on the economy. Their kids will thank me because they’ll get their inheritance quicker.”

Now where and when shall we have the rally? Dear Leader consults the Malevolent Gollum, who loves putting brown children in cages. Oklahoma!, he says. They love you there. Let’s see, how about Tulsa! Next year is the centennial of the massacre there where white people rioted and destroyed a prosperous black community and killed lots of black people. The symbolism is perfect! And let’s do it on Juneteenth when black people celebrate emancipation from slavery. That’s makes it even better!

And so the decree went out, and the faithful gathered in their MAGA gear. Some burned face masks ceremonially to show how much they love Dear Leader. Actors were recruited on Craigslist just in case the crowd looked a little skimpy. Dear Leader threatened protesters with dire consequences if they showed up to demonstrate.

And now we await Dear Leader’s appearance on the stage. What will he say? What will they do?

I’m having a little trouble with the ending.

Getting Us Used to Troops on the Street

lincoln memorial

Were you shocked by the images this week of active duty US soldiers, military vehicles, and Blackhawk helicopters on the streets of Washington, DC? That was in addition to National Guard troops imported from states as far away as Florida. And federal law enforcement personnel in full riot gear assembled by William Barr’s Department of Justice probably from agencies such as the Border Patrol and the Bureau of Prisons and others who wore no identifying insignia or name tags and refused to state which agency they worked for.

What is all this fascist repressive display about? As in many other cities, there had been large demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. And there had been a relatively small amount of vandalism and arson (nowhere near as much as in Minneapolis or even New York City, where no military troops were requested or sent). The mayor of Washington, DC, Muriel Bowser, did not request the troop presence, and indeed had to resist federalization of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department which was quite capable of controlling both the mostly peaceful protesters as well as a small number of provocateurs trying to exploit the situation. In DC, there was no “rioting” or “orgy of violence” that Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton hyperventilated about in a New York Times op-ed. DC has seen rioting before, and this most definitely wasn’t that.

Indeed, the most violent incident to date was when the massed military and police forces which earlier had barricaded protesters from Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, with no warning used mounted police, tear gas, and rubber bullets to rout a very peaceful crowd from H Street on the north side of the park. This unprovoked action was to clear the way for Trump and a gaggle of minions, including Defense Secretary Esper and Joint Chief Chairman General Milley (wearing BDU), to troop across the park between lines of gun-toting military police to stand outside St. John’s Episcopal Church for a moronic photo op with a Bible.

lafayette park

Because of the District of Columbia’s peculiar status, it is almost powerless to resist having its limited and always-precarious autonomy snatched away whenever a president or Congress gets the urge. DC has no votes in Congress, and as the NY Times noted, its mayor “could face consequences for protesting too loudly, unlike other mayors around the country who may be angered by the president’s posture toward protesters. Mr. Trump has not yet invoked his strongest lever of power over the city, an obscure provision allowing him to take control of the District’s police force in an emergency. But the White House floated the threat this week.”

So DC becomes the test case for this administration to see just how much it can get away with in using the military and police from federal agencies for political purposes, because DC can’t say no. The administration has established an armed perimeter extending beyond the White House grounds that almost calls to mind the notorious “Green Zone” around the US Embassy in Baghdad. It has sent columns of APCs rumbling down DC streets and deployed low-flying military helicopters using “show of force” tactics that use the prop wash to hurl snapped tree branches and other debris at protesters on the street.

The strategy seems to be to get the public accustomed to seeing military or militarized elements used for domestic policing, and with its high media visibility and unmatched iconography of its monuments and buildings, DC is the perfect place for that. If we become okay with seeing that kind of thing in Washington, DC, then why not in LA, Chicago, or New York? Yes, there are some annoying legal issues there, but this administration has never had a problem with flouting those and daring the courts or Congress to do something about it. Besides, local police forces have become so militarized that it’s often hard to distinguish them from special US Army units, so would we even know?

What is the end game here? The odd thing is that the protests were not focused on Trump until Trump made them focus on him. Is this just a ploy to get the “law and order” vote by trying to look tough and macho, or preparations for something more sinister–like maybe the election? This isn’t just a figment of my own fevered imagination. There are serious scenario planners among both Democrats and (anti-Trump) Republicans who are looking at these possibilities. What if Trump tries to cancel or postpone elections, or declare a state of emergency in key states to suppress certain voters? What if Trump loses but declares the election was rigged and won’t leave office? After all, he declared a national state of emergency to send US military units to the Mexican border and get funds for The Wall, and he has mused out loud about not accepting electoral defeat. He already has the Department of Justice in his pocket. He refers to cops as “my people.” What if the military stood with him? Whose orders would US military units obey?

It’s encouraging that a number of retired top-ranking military officers, including Trump’s former Secretary of Defense and chief of staff, have spoken out against politicizing the military. Esper has vacillated between going along with Trump and seeming to distance himself, and seems torn between loyalty and principle. What the current military leadership are saying among themselves remains unsure.

But make no mistake, if the American military forces become a partisan political tool, it’s game over for democracy in this country. We must not get used to this!

Has (Some of) White America Discovered its Conscience?

minneapolis

On the optimist/pessimist continuum, I tend to lean slightly toward the latter, but watching the ethnically diverse crowds protesting racist police violence in cities across the country has lifted my spirits a bit. I think it is significant that so many white Americans have turned out to march day after day. I’m trying to understand what that means and why this tragedy has produced this result when so many others in the past did not. What’s happening here and how deep does it go?

Obviously, not all of white America has been similarly moved by the murder of George Floyd, but the marching crowds we’ve been watching on our TV screens often have been predominately white. I think this is something we haven’t seen before in protests of other, arguably equally egregious, killings.

First, there is the unavoidable evidence of the video. There have been videos of other inexcusable killings of black people, but never before have we been compelled to actually watch the face of the killers as they took a man’s life. I think it’s the casual indifference on Derek Chauvin’s face as he looks boldly into the camera while he slowly asphyxiates another human being that so profoundly horrified people who saw it. He clearly was unconcerned about any consequences. This time there was no possibility of throwing up mitigating circumstances or justifications. You just had to confront what was there before your eyes.

I think it’s safe to say that most white people do not want to be associated with that, and many are looking for a way to state publicly that they don’t condone such actions. There is increased awareness that policing in this country is not equally applied, and most white Americans find that offensive, at least in principle, because it clashes with their idealization of what America is supposed to represent. As case after case has made local and national news, often through the fortuitous existence of cell phone videos, white Americans have begun to realize just how commonplace police abuse of black Americans really is. Before video, you could plead ignorance because you never personally witnessed it and probably had few, if any, black friends would would tell you about it, but now you really can’t avoid it anymore.

I also believe that the dawning acceptance that White Privilege really exists has started to influence how many white Americans, especially younger ones, see the world. Most white people don’t want to think of themselves as racist, but there has always been a large amount of self-delusion about what racism really meant and how it operated in ordinary life. I think, perhaps, there is beginning to be a greater realization, at least among some white people, of how thoroughly racist assumptions and actions permeate American society.

It’s my belief that virtually every white American carries a buried reservoir of collective guilt for the crimes committed against black Americans throughout our history up to the present day. We process this guilt in many different ways–sometimes constructive, sometimes not, and sometimes grotesquely twisted. For those who do acknowledge that guilt, at least internally, turning out for these demonstrations may feel like an act of penance and a way of saying: “See, I’m not like that, I’m one of the good ones.”

Let’s just stipulate that the presence of thousands of well-meaning white people in these demonstrations is a Good Thing and represents a little progress towards reducing the willful blindness of white America regarding what Michelle Alexander has called “the New Jim Crow”. If there is greater white support, maybe some police reforms will come out of this. Maybe there will be less gross disparity in arrests and sentencing when whites and blacks commit the same crimes. When you think of it, those are really pretty modest goals. These protests could be the start of ending racially abusive policing and mass incarceration, but that will require sustained attention and political pressure against entrenched resistance.

When the memorial services are over, and the protests subside, and everyone goes back home to their own neighborhood, the challenge for white Americans of good will is to examine their own assumptions and attitudes and actions to see how they may contribute to the persistence of racial inequality in our country.

When a black family moves into your block, do you worry that it will affect property values? If you send your child to private school, is it really about academics and safety or something else? If you like the idea of diversity in your child’s public school, is there a point where it becomes “too diverse”? Do you feel awkward or uncomfortable in a conversation with a black person? Do you have any black friends that you actually socialize with outside of office lunches with co-workers? If you walk into a bar or restaurant and most of the clientele is black, does it make you feel anxious and a little foreign? If an unknown black person knocks on your door, what is your first thought?

The point here is that the policing we now have is a cruder reflection of the fears and prejudices of white America, which has generally been obliviously comfortable with it because it makes us feel safe, even if once in a while we are appalled when forced to look at a specific result. It’s not just rednecks and MAGAts, but nice liberals in nice neighborhoods who have tacitly authorized the system that we have.

 

 

“I Am Your President of Law and Order”

Trump with bible

I don’t think the country has really grasped what happened yesterday. Donald Trump abandoned any pretense of concern about police violence against African-Americans and implicitly cast his lot with white racist forces of this country. And he simultaneously politicized the US military by threatening to use the armed forces as an instrument of his domestic policy. And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense stood right there next to him as he did it.

Earlier in the day, after a phone call with Vladimir Putin (yes, really!), he had berated state governors over the phone, calling them “fools” if they didn’t use the National Guard to break up protests against police violence in cities across the country. “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time,” he said. “They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.” Trump said it would be quick and easy, like getting rid of Occupy Wall Street. He put Defense Secretary Esper on the line to talk about the need to “dominate the battlespace”. Trump told the governors, “But you’ve got to arrest people, you have to try people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years, then you’ll never see this stuff again.” At the beginning of the call,  Trump noted that Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also present and that the president had “just put him in charge” of managing the unrest in dozens of cities. No one in the White House seemed to know exactly what that meant. He also announced that he would “activate” Attorney General William Barr. No one seemed to know what that meant either. (The full audio of the phone call is here.)

Nowhere in the call was there any expression of concern about the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis or other black victims of police violence or of any need for police reform. It was all about coming down hard on violent protesters and making lots of arrests.

Later in the afternoon, the White House set up in the Rose Garden for another Trump appearance before the press corps. There was some speculation that he might take the occasion to say something conciliatory to tamp down the raw emotions across the country, but he used the occasion to double down on his belligerent remarks to the governors. Trump announced that he would send U.S. military units to end the unrest; if mayors and governors didn’t do it, he would do it for them to protect property “and 2nd Amendment rights.” He also revealed that he had deployed military units from Ft. Bragg, NC to police Washington, DC. Then to show he meant business, he had massed federal and military police, including Park Police on horseback, use tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets to chase completely peaceful protesters out of Lafayette Park across the street from the White House so that he could walk one block to boarded-up St. John’s Episcopal Church for a bizarre photo op while holding a Bible awkwardly in his hand. 

Evidently, the administration means to invoke the “Insurrection Act” of 1807 as the authority for deploying US military units against American citizens, even though “Posse Comitatus Act” of 1878 imposes strict limitations on using US military forces for domestic political purposes, including requiring permission from state governors before deploying military units to their states. He apparently started with DC because, not being a state, it has no governor, and therefore is powerless to object. Indeed, according to the NY Times, “an Army Black Hawk helicopter descended to rooftop level in the Chinatown district of Washington on Monday night, kicking up dirt, debris and snapping trees that narrowly missed several people. The military also used Lakota helicopters to perform the maneuver, known as show of force, which is often conducted by low-flying jets in combat zones to scare away insurgents. The crowd quickly dispersed into surrounding blocks. Minutes later, the Black Hawk returned for another pass.”

Trump’s authority to use US military units against its own citizens is highly questionable legally, as well as truly terrifying constitutionally. But in the current climate who is going to stop him? He could almost certainly find a pliant Republican governor, like Brian Kemp of Georgia, to request a deployment. And even if he didn’t, Trump would probably not hesitate to send them himself, just to assert his power. If the past three and a half years have taught us nothing else, he will have no qualms about trampling past norms and practices, and neither the courts nor Congress will deter him.

Indeed, it seems entirely possible that we have now passed some critical turning point and entered unknown territory. The reference to “activating” William Barr certainly means that the US Department of Justice is completely on board, and will do Trump’s bidding. That dog-whistle reference to “2nd Amendment rights” in his Rose Garden remarks is an unmistakable signal to white supremacist militias that they have his approval for vigilantism. If he also has a compliant Department of Defense ready to follow his orders on domestic policy, we are in deep trouble. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that the groundwork is being laid to derail or manipulate the November election if it looks like he might lose.

 

“Law & Order” Worked for Nixon; Will it Work for Trump?

law and order

As I watched the television images last night of protesters and burning buildings in Minneapolis, my mind kept going back more than half a century to 1968, another momentous and horrendous year in US history–probably no less fraught than 2020, including a deadly flu pandemic late in the year.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed in Memphis in April, sparking riots of rage that devastated cities across the country. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in LA, throwing the Democratic nomination for president in turmoil since LBJ had already announced that he wouldn’t run again. The Vietnam War was raging and anti-war protests were everywhere. Young men who didn’t wanted to be drafted into the army were fleeing to Canada. The civil rights movement was still encountering massive resistance, especially in the South, and George Wallace (the segregationist governor of Alabama) was running for president as a 3rd party candidate. It was Wallace who used the phrase (tweeted last night by Trump) “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” at a rally in Pittsburgh in 1968.

But it wasn’t original with Wallace. It was first used by Miami Police Chief Walter Headly in a 1967 speech (the year of the Detroit riots) to describe his department’s policy to “combat young hoodlums who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign.” He added, “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality.” Which was certainly true.

As it happened, the 1968 Republican convention during which Nixon secured the nomination was in Miami Beach from August 5-8. Several black civil rights groups including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress on Racial Equality, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee held a rally at the same time in Liberty City–one of larger black neighborhoods of Miami. A white man in a car with a “Wallace for President” bumpersticker tried to drive through the neighborhood. The car was pelted with rocks and bottles, and the driver fled on foot, but this set off three days of riots and looting, to which the police responded with massive force, killing three black men in the process.

Across Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach, safely protected literally by drawbridges, most GOP conventioneers probably were unaware of what was happening in Liberty City. Nixon’s acceptance speech attacked LBJ’s anti-poverty programs. “For the past five years, we have been deluged by government programs for the unemployed; programs for the cities; programs for the poor,” Nixon said. “And we have reaped from these programs an ugly harvest of frustration, violence and failure across the land.” The Republicans loved it.

Three weeks later, in Richard Daley’s Chicago, the Democrats held their convention, which is the one which most people remember from that year. Thousands of anti-war protesters poured into the city, and Daley was ready. The National Guard had been mobilized and told to shoot to kill if necessary. A series of confrontations with law enforcement eventually culminated in the famous “police riot” that clouded downtown Chicago in tear gas and resulted in thousands of arrests. I can vividly remember driving through Georgia and Alabama at the time and listening in disbelief to what was happening on the car radio. It was utter chaos, and unlike the Miami riots which mostly just got local coverage, everyone in the country saw it on television.

All that turmoil didn’t go down well in Middle America. Nixon and Agnew branded the war protesters as anti- American and unpatriotic and made “law and order” the centerpiece of their campaign. And it worked.

Nixon squeezed out a narrow plurality of 500,000 votes over Hubert Humphrey and won the election. Wallace got 14% of the vote.

Flash forward to 2020. Another deeply polarized country traumatized by the Covid-19 pandemic. An African-American community fed up with entrenched racism and police brutality. An unexciting establishment Democratic candidate. And an utterly unscrupulous Donald Trump who is unpopular with a majority but commands a large base of culturally racist white “real Americans”. Of course he’s going to play the law-and-order card. He needs to scare white people.

Perhaps the most fundamental divide in American politics is whether you prioritize property or lives. It’s a constant throughout American history. It’s playing out today in the debate about opening up the economy in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Those TV images of burning buildings in Minneapolis have now become a symbol of that dichotomy.

America has changed since 1968, but has it changed enough? Especially White America? Do you vote for property or people’s lives? What do you value most: order or justice?

Memorial Day 2020

Memorial Day 2020

I wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always obsessed with the daily news. I don’t really like being like this. For decades, I paid only casual attention to our national politics, because there didn’t seem to be all that much to be concerned about. I think most Americans were like that. And maybe that was the problem.

But this country wasn’t always like this either. For me, things shifted in a fundamental way after 9/11, when the Bush/Cheney administration instigated a war with a country that had nothing to do with the attack, based on lies about WMD. I thought then that it couldn’t get much worse than that, but how wrong I was! Now we have an administration that lies about everything.

Today we have at least 100,000 Americans dead from Covid-19. That’s more Americans than died in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. But this time there is no external enemy, even if Trump tries to fabricate one by blaming China. The enemy is Us–the dark side of our national fetish of individual freedom at the expense of what the Constitution called “the general Welfare”, made worse by our country’s enduring racism. It is literally killing this country.

How does a national catastrophe like this become a litmus test for political loyalties? It begins with denial–the assertion of our governing administration that the virus wasn’t a threat, that it would miraculously go away, that it was all under control, that it could be kept out of the country, that we were well prepared with no shortage of vital equipment, that it would be over by Easter or Memorial Day or the 4th of July, that we can go back to living normally as if it never happened and wasn’t still spreading across the country.

It takes a president who subverts and contradicts his public health experts on every possible occasion, exaggerates and lies about testing for the virus, and shrugs off any responsibility for the federal government to create and carry out a national plan and procure and distribute supplies and equipment and funds to beleaguered states on the front lines of the pandemic. A president and his acolytes who want to keep the numbers down because they look bad.

It takes a network of paranoid paramilitary groups and online conspiracy mongers backed by very rich and powerful people like Betsy DeVos to threaten armed insurrection because social distancing somehow imperils gun rights.

And it takes a President and his subservient party who see the pandemic in blue-state-vs.-red-state terms and who just really don’t care about the segments of society that are bearing the brunt of the casualties. It’s a lot easier not to give a damn if you think that the virus is only killing people in states that aren’t going to vote for you anyway. Or in states that will vote for you, that it’s just confined to places like meat-packing plants where the workers being sickened are mostly immigrants or black people, not “regular folks” as a Wisconsin supreme court judge put it. Or in prisons, because nobody cares about them, and they’re mostly black or brown people anyway.

Oh yeah, the old folks. That’s a little trickier, but let’s get real. They’re in God’s waiting room already and a drag on the economy. If they’re in nursing homes, they’re probably not voting anyway. If they die, maybe their kids will be upset for a while, but they’ll inherit what’s left of the money before it’s all spent to keep the olds alive, so they’ll get over it. And the dead will all be in a better place.

Besides, what’s important is being able to do anything you damn well please. It’s all about freedom. Never mind the harm you’re doing to other people through your negligence and self-indulgence. It’s fine! We got this! It’s done!

So sure, hit the beaches and link up the party boats on the Lake of the Ozarks and party like it’s 2016 and pretend to give an occasional thought to the fallen in wars fought by this most belligerent country on earth.

But while we’re at it, let’s take a moment to remember the tens of thousands of lives lost unnecessarily to Covid-19 because of our government’s inaction and willful neglect, and the tens of thousands who will die in the coming year. And try to remember a country that used to be better than this.

“We’re all in this together” is just another lie.

 

 

Our Season of Dread

Michigan

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.

 

Odd Numbers: How Many Missing Covid- 19 Deaths?

Covid cases

New York Times, 5/5/2020

I’m a bit of a data geek, and since I’ve been stuck at home I have been poring over the published statistics on Covid-19. One thing that particularly struck me as strange was the surprisingly low number of Covid-19 deaths per confirmed case in Texas and Florida, compared with other states with large numbers of cases. What might explain that?

There are two measures of the deadliness of a disease. The disease mortality rate is the number of deaths divided by the actual number of infections. The observed case-fatality ratio is the number of deaths attributed to the disease divided by the number of confirmed cases (times 100, to express as percentage).

To compute the former, you need to know the true number (or at least a credible estimate) of infections, and that is still unknown. So at this point epidemiologists can only make informed guesses about the disease mortality rate. It is generally believed that the true number of Covid-19 infections is far larger than the number of officially confirmed cases.

So we are left with the observed case-fatality ratio, for which we have actual numbers provided by state health departments gathered from data provided by hospitals and other health officials. Here’s what these numbers show (based on data published in the New York Times as of 5/4) for states with the highest numbers of cases:

  • New York           7.6  (i.e., 7.6% of confirmed Covid-19 cases ended in death)
  • New Jersey         6.1
  • Massachusetts   7.4
  • Illinois                 4.1
  • California           4.1
  • Pennsylvania     5.4
  • Michigan            9.4
  • Florida                3.7
  • Louisiana           6.7
  • Connecticut       8.5
  • Texas                   2.7

What would account for these rather large variations? Why would Covid-19 patients in Michigan be dying at more than 3 times the rate in Texas?

But there are problems with these numbers too.

The number of confirmed cases (the denominator in the ratio) depends to a large extent on how widely the population is being tested. The more you test, the more cases you will find–particularly cases that produce few or no symptoms. Testing in the US so far has been woefully inadequate in general, but there are wide differences in the rate of testing between states. Among states with large numbers of cases, New York has tested the most (as of 5/4) at 5.0% of the population. Massachusetts is at 4.5%, Louisiana at 3.8%, and New Jersey at 3.1%. At the lower end are Texas, which has tested only 1.3% of its population, California and Pennsylvania at 1.8%, and Florida at 1.9%.

One might think that we could be pretty sure that at least the number of deaths (the numerator in the ratio) would be accurate. After all, there is a body which can be counted and for which a death certificate must be issued listing cause of death. But the statistics depend precisely on what is listed as cause of death (COD), and as with the living, the dead are often not tested to see if the virus was present. If the COD is entered as, say, pneumonia or heart failure, that death will not show up in the Covid-19 figures.

Apparently, this has been a significant problem. New York reviewed causes of deaths that were not initially reported as Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, and subsequently added more than 5,000 to the state’s official death toll from the disease. The Washington Post reported that the US recorded an estimated 37,100 excess deaths in the early stages of the pandemic in March and the first two weeks of April, nearly 13,500 more than were attributed to Covid-19 for that same period. The New York Times just published another analysis of “excess deaths” based on CDC data, but the data for most states only goes through early April and for some (like Texas) only through March. The Washington Post also reported that in Alabama one out of ten patients that died with Covid-19 were not listed as dying of Covid-19. How widely this is still happening is unclear.

Could some of this misreporting be deliberate? The Tampa Bay Times reported that Florida state officials “have stopped releasing the list of coronavirus deaths being compiled by Florida’s medical examiners, which has at times shown a higher death toll than the state’s published count. The list had previously been released in real time by the state Medical Examiners Commission. But earlier this month, after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the medical examiners’ death count was 10 percent higher than the figure released by the Florida Department of Health,” state officials began withholding this information.

Why would some officials want to low-ball the death count? Perhaps, like Trump, they are anxious to re-open their states and localities for business, and bigger death numbers make things look bad. Of course, there might be other more benign explanations.

But back to the observed case-fatality ratio, are there other things that might explain the rather wide differences between the states? There could be differences in the prevalence of underlying conditions or “co-morbidities” such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, COPD, etc. There could be differences in degree of access to health care and insurance coverage. If certain states are harder hit, it may be more difficult to get admitted to a hospital there. It could be a function of where a state is on the Covid-19 timeline. Deaths typically lag behind a surge in Covid-19 cases, and some states in the middle of the country did not see cases emerge until weeks after states on the east and west coasts.

So in the light of all of these factors, why would the Covid-19 death toll in Texas be so much lower? It can’t be because health coverage in Texas is so great. In fact, according the Census Bureau, Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured residents in the entire country at 17.7%, which is worse than Mississippi. (Florida isn’t far behind at 13%.) Texans have a lower life expectancy (78.8 years) than New Yorkers (81.0 years) and residents of other northeastern states hit hardest by Covid-19. The median age in Texas is among the youngest (34.8 years), but not that much lower than neighboring Louisiana (37.2 years), which has much higher reported mortality from Covid-19. But then again Florida also has a low case-fatality ratio and a much older population (median 42.2 years). Perhaps the most plausible benign explanation is that Texas got hit later than other states, and is not as far along on the curve. With Texas among the states most eager to end social distancing restrictions, the numbers could soon change drastically.

Would more extensive testing make a difference in this measure of mortality? Perhaps, though if the number of confirmed cases increased as a result, it would actually lower the observed case-fatality ratio, unless there were also a comprehensive review of causes of death during the pandemic that raised the fatality number as well. But just looking at states with similar levels of testing and similar case numbers such as Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, it’s difficult to explain why Texas and Florida show much lower numbers of Covid-19 deaths.

It’s probably important to note that there are also major differences in the case-fatality ratios of different countries. Among the countries with major outbreaks, Belgium, the UK, and France have ratios of around 15%, which is much higher than the US as a whole at 5.8%. Again, it’s difficult to account for the differences, and harder to know if the numbers are actually counting the same things in the same way.

As I write this, the official US death toll from Covid-19 has just passed 71,000. The true number is almost certainly significantly higher. Let us hope that the real numbers are not being fudged to make the political optics better.

 

Conservatives Wanted to Kill the Federal Government. They Succeeded.

map with portraits

You’re welcome, America!

 

If nothing else, the Covid-19 crisis has made glaringly plain just how hollow America’s claims to being the “best country in the world” have become. We now have a federal government that has gone from outright denial and misinformation to floundering incompetence, directed by a president who still won’t declare a national stay-at-home order to slow a pandemic that by best-case estimates will kill more Americans that died in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. If the “best case” doesn’t happen, it could well kill more Americans than World War II.

So we get a daily spectacle on TV of desperate hospital personnel wearing garbage bags for protection and pleading for masks so they don’t have to keep reusing the few they have and risking their own lives. Of refrigerator trucks lined up at hospital to load bodies of the dead because morgues and mortuaries are full. Of New York Governor Cuomo telling us frankly that his state’s hospitals will be overwhelmed in a week or so. And of Trump and Pence giving us lies and happy talk that there are plenty of medical supplies and equipment and testing kits out there, even though the evidence is plain as day that if they do exist, they’re not getting to where they’re needed.

US inability to respond to this crisis effectively didn’t just happen by accident. It is the logical result of decades of conservative efforts to shrink the federal government until it “can be drowned in a bathtub” and denigrate government in general while promoting privatization and assumption of government functions by for-profit enterprises. And here we are with an federal government that sees its role as a “back-up” for overwhelmed state and local authorities and is reduced to begging companies like Ford and GM to retool to make medical equipment that isn’t being produced in the US anymore. And delivering such material obtained in China at government expense to private companies who then sell it at inflated prices to the top bidder, because they “don’t want to disrupt the supply chain.”

We have been left with a federal government leadership that ignored warnings about possible pandemics and failed to prepare mobilization plans or to stockpile adequate emergency equipment or hospital capacity to deal with such a crisis because spending on that wouldn’t be cost-effective, and believed the private capitalist market would immediately spring in to action to handle a crisis far better than government. Turns out it doesn’t quite work that way.

It is obvious that a consolidated procurement agency for now-scarce medical equipment is needed in order to avoid the price-gouging and competitive bidding for these items by all the states individually (and indeed by governments around the world), but that is anathema to the ideology of this regime so it doesn’t happen. Instead we have the government spending public money to fly critical medical supplies from China and delivering it to private for-profit brokers who then control where it goes according to who is willing to pay the most. The opportunities for corruption are truly mindblowing.

Current business practices are based on just-in-time supply chains, which collapse when entire economies are shut down and transportation is disrupted. In such emergencies, government intervention is critical to mobilize what is still functional and distribute supplies rationally where needed, but if you don’t believe government should to that, then chaos ensues, as we now see.

Conservative ideology also is the reason why the US, unlike every other advanced country in the world, lacks a universal healthcare system. As we all know, there remain large gaps in our patchwork coverage which leave millions of Americans without health coverage in the best of times. This administration and the entire Republican party has labored ceaselessly to peel back Obamacare and right now is pursuing a case to the Supreme Court that, if successful, will destroy the ACA completely, depriving the millions of people now covered by its protection. That would be bad enough in normal times, but when people are being laid off suddenly in unprecedented numbers during a deadly pandemic, this is a recipe for an even greater disaster. Because, for most people, health insurance is contingent on their employment, when there are massive layoffs, as is happening now, the number of people who find themselves suddenly without coverage is skyrocketing, meaning that many will face a deadly disease without any assurance of medical care. But universal health care would be socialism!

But perhaps most insidious is the decades-long propaganda campaign by conservatives to convince Americans that government itself is, at best, incompetent and, at worst, intent on destroying their freedom. From Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to the Tea Party to Donald Trump, that is the message they have ceaselessly hammered into the national consciousness, and it has stuck to the point that even progressive Democrats have had to tack rightward to adjust. The strategy of Republicans in or out of power has always been to starve federal agencies they didn’t like (which was virtually all of them that didn’t involve the military or law enforcement) of funds, thereby making it harder and harder to fulfill their functions successfully. Then along came Trump who took this to its logical extreme by appointing as heads of federal agencies people whose agenda was to subvert the very mission of the agencies they led. The purpose was to undermine confidence in government itself by insuring that it could not do the job people expected it to do. And now we see the result.

The question is what lessons the American public will draw from this growing disaster. Will 100,000 or 200,000 or 500,000 deaths convince Americans that Trump bears major responsibility for the needless magnitude of the carnage and vote him out of office? Or will they buy his message and allow him to consolidate power and become the tyrant he aspires to be? History suggests that it could go either way. In 1932 America chose Franklin Roosevelt, while Germany went for Adolf Hitler. Which country are we in 2020?

 

 

The Malign Neglect of Ron DeSantis

I-95 backup

Back-up at Florida-Georgia line after governor ordered roadblocks for incoming traffic.

As I am writing this, Florida officially has 5,472 confirmed Covid-19 cases. When the new numbers come out this afternoon, the number will be close to 6,000 or maybe higher. Miami-Dade County alone has 1,632 confirmed cases, and Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale) has 1,152. The positive hit rate for the testing that has been done is just under 10% of everyone who has been tested so far. Florida now ranks 4th in the number of cases, and is on track to surpass California in a day or so. We are the new coronavirus hot spot. 

But Governor Ron DeSantis has yet to order a state-wide shutdown of businesses and school closures or stay-at-home order. Today his big announcement was a safer-at-home advisory for the four big counties in South Florida from Palm Beach to the Keys that have ALREADY had even more stringent measures in place for more than 10 days. In other words, this is nothing but an empty gesture to make it appear that he’s doing something.

Local governments in South Florida and other big cities like Tampa and Orlando have had to make the hard–and often unpopular–decisions to close businesses and keep people at home.  The city of Miami Beach shut down hotels, bars, and restaurants week before last at the height of the Spring Break crowd. Miami-Dade and Broward also closed all beaches and parks, marinas, etc. as well as all non-essential businesses. All non-residents were ordered to leave the Keys last week, and US-1 is blocked for all non-residents.

But DeSantis still hasn’t ordered all other beaches throughout the state to close down, leaving many on the Gulf coast and northern Florida crowded with drunk college kids there to party on Spring Break–leading to shocking images shown all over the country on news media.

DeSantis’s most decisive–and stupifyingly incomprehensible–order was to proclaim that anyone arriving in Florida from the New York area would have to put themselves into quarantine for 2 weeks. Of course, this is completely unenforceable. His next move was to impose roadblocks at the state line on I-95 and I-10 on incoming traffic. This was so state troopers could issue (essentially non-enforceable) orders to people arriving from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Louisiana. The roadblocks, of course, backed up traffic for miles on these major arteries.

DeSantis’s thoroughly Trumpian logic would be that the contagion is being brought in by  outsiders, even though the state already ranks near the top in terms of active Covid-19 cases and the disease is mostly being spread by community transmission. The political motivations aren’t hard to see here. DeSantis is telling his voting base that the problem is just with those wicked people from the Northeast or in South Florida (which is regarded by most people in the rest of the state as virtually a foreign country), and that they can just go on about their business while those sources of contagion are isolated. Of course, this is utter nonsense, but South Florida votes heavily Democratic and the fact that the local economy there is being devastated by shut-downs won’t hurt DeSantis’s popularity. And he can look as if he’s taking action.

Meanwhile, several large cruise ships with Covid-19 cases aboard are stuck dead in the water because they are not allowed to dock at Florida ports. The Zaandam, owned by the Holland-America Line (a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise Lines, headquartered in Miami) now has 4 dead people on board, and roughly 20% of the 1000 passengers and crew have symptoms or have been diagnosed with Covid-19. DeSantis told Fox News on March 30 that he does not want to have the ship disembark in Florida. “We cannot afford to have people who are not even Floridians dumped into South Florida using up those valuable resources…We view this as a big big problem and we do not want to see people dumped in Southern Florida right now.” Apparently, he’s perfectly willing to have more passengers and crew die on board without medical help.

DeSantis just blocked a well-respected reporter from the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times from entry into his daily virus press conference in Tallahassee. Evidently, he didn’t like the criticism he was getting from those publications.

It’s also worth noting that DeSantis, like his predecessor now-Senator Rick Scott, has blocked the extension of Medicaid to low income Floridians under Obamacare. So if they get sick, basically they’re on their own.

It may not be too long before DeSantis’s insouciance about anti-pandemic measures outside of the big metropolitan areas starts to backfire as the virus spreads to his small-town, evangelical, and elderly base. Some churches are still holding large services even in places where gatherings have been limited to 10 or fewer. They evidently think they will be protected by the power of prayer.

But will DeSantis pay a political price for his irresponsibility? Perhaps not. When you’re in a cult, you just believe.