- Steve Neavling
At 6:41 a.m. on Tuesday, an ornery Donald Trump hopped on Twitter to hate on MSNBC's Morning Joe and beat his chest about how much Republicans love him and how that proved how well he was handling the coronavirus pandemic, how he got better ratings than Monday Night Football and The Bachelor, and, most of all, how mean journalists are to him.
"It is amazing that I became President of the United States with such a totally corrupt and dishonest Lamestream Media going after me all day, and all night," he whined, as if 50,000 Americans hadn't died in six weeks.
I will grant him this: It does, in fact, amaze me that Donald Trump became president, even three and a half years after it happened. It amazes me that someone so small holds the same title as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama — hell, as Benjamin Harrison and Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon.
It amazes me that a man who will soon rack up a body count that exceeds the whole of the Vietnam War and an unemployment rate that tops the Great Depression has the gall to boast about his news conference ratings. (For that matter, it amazes me that thumb-sucking news executives broadcast these self-serving shitshows.)
It amazes me that an imbecile who managed to bankrupt casinos will, despite evidence of his own failures, demand that governors reopen their states even if doing so endangers their citizens; if they refuse, he'll sic his lackey attorney general on them.
And it amazes me that, nearly 1,200 days into this cesspool of corruption — did you know the Trump Organization's looking for bailouts from the Trump administration? — Democrats are still so risibly feckless.
An example: Last week, the Senate passed a $484 billion package that funnels $310 billion into the exhausted Paycheck Protection Program. It also provides billions for hospitals and a federal plan for COVID-19 testing — things that, astoundingly, Democrats won as concessions.
What's not in the bill? Money to help states and cities whose budgets have been wrecked by the economic slowdown. Unlike the feds, state and local governments generally can't run deficits, so without federal help, they'll face huge tax hikes and/or sweeping service cuts that invariably harm the poor — things that turn bad economic situations into human misery.
Democrats wanted $150 billion in aid. Republicans blocked it. Democrats, who control the House of Representatives and could have forced the issue, rolled over like cowering puppies when Republicans pinky-swore that they'd take up local aid in the next relief package.
Then, as soon as the Senate passed the bill, Mitch McConnell got that old-time fiscal responsibility religion. Maybe we can't afford more relief packages, he said. Womp, womp.
It's not like Republicans hadn't telegraphed the play. Look no further than the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, that direct conduit to the Italian-suited plutocrat crowd that runs GOP fiscal policy: "But the White House and Trump administration have been holding out because, in part, they believe if Congress keeps cutting checks for state and local governments, they will be disincentivized to open up their economies," it opined on Friday.
Recall that the central tenet of the Trump presidency is the buck stops elsewhere. He gets credit for everything that goes right; someone else gets blamed for anything that goes wrong.
By pushing them to reopen now — before there's anything like the expanded testing, contact tracing, and isolation regime experts say we need — Trump can claim credit for regrowing an economy that shed 26 million jobs in a month. If governors resist and their economies founder, that's on them. If they reopen and there's an outbreak, that's on them, too.
It's not Trump's fault they weren't prepared. He told them testing was their responsibility.
That brings us to the ostensibly grassroots ReOpen movement, which, let's be real, is about as grassroots as the Tea Party was a decade ago. As with the Tea Party, the long tentacles of the libertarian svengali Koch network are present here, too, through an initiative called the Convention of States, funded by billionaire Robert Mercer and managed by a longtime Koch associate. And as with the Tea Party, the goal is to further the interests of wealthy elites by fomenting outrage and passing off organized stupidity as a populist rebellion.
It's like we haven't seen this play before.
It amazes me to see reporters mainstreaming fringe characters alongside epidemiologists and economists without contextualizing how fringe they actually are. Only 12 percent of Americans think stay-at-home orders are too restrictive; fewer than a third are worried they'll be kept in place too long. Just because a belligerent freak show offers a colorful break from the quotidian drudgery of coronavirus reporting, that doesn't mean we should pretend a molehill is a mountain.
More than anything, it amazes me that we're not calling out the ReOpen movement for what it obviously is: This isn't about the best practices for reopening schools and businesses or even defending our First Amendment right to spread infectious diseases in the name of Jesus Christ and Almighty Capitalism.
This is a political campaign. This is about getting your base pissed and turning the other guy into an enemy. This is how the game is played now.
It's no coincidence these efforts cropped up in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina, swing states with Democratic governors who are all much more popular than Donald Trump. They emerged elsewhere, too, of course: Ohio, Minnesota, Kentucky, New York, Texas. Regardless, the goal is to galvanize right-wing factions — religious fundamentalists, gun rights enthusiasts, anti-government types — with a common purpose and a common foe headed into the election.
ReOpenNC held its second weekly rally in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday. A thousand people showed up. Few had masks. Fewer bothered with social distancing.
The political overtones were unmistakable. There were Trump flags and Dan Forest T-shirts. There was lieutenant governor candidate (and homophobic conspiracy theorist) Mark Keith Robinson maskless and ungloved, shaking hands. There was Congressman Dan Bishop, who — now that Mark Meadows has become Trump's chief of staff — is vying to become the state delegation's biggest embarrassment, carrying a Constitution he said he was going to deliver to Cooper "because he's forgotten what it's about." There were posters equating social distancing with tyranny and signs denouncing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert. There were anti-vaxxers and 5G paranoids and QAnon basement-dwellers. There were proud displays of scientific and economic illiteracy. There was palpable anger.
And there were very, very few people of color.
Not coincidentally, COVID-19 has disproportionately killed African Americans both in North Carolina and across the country. Perhaps it's easy to be indifferent to consequences that predominantly fall on someone else.
Two days later, Cooper obliged Republicans' increasingly vehement demands for more details about how he envisioned reopening the state, laying out a cautious three-part plan that stretches into June (at the earliest) while extending his stay-at-home order at least a week, through May 8.
The words had barely left his mouth before the emails poured in: "One-size-fits-all policy does not work for North Carolina," the influential Civitas Institute proclaimed.
"The people of North Carolina will suffer needless health and economic harm if the State continues to treat its diverse population with a one-size-fits-all approach," the Republican commissioners of the rural Union County wrote in a letter.
"Gov. Cooper's one-size-fits-all approach for reopening is not necessary for a state as large as North Carolina," Dan Forest said in a statement.
Weird how that phrase kept popping up.
It's not a coincidence, of course. Only 16 percent of North Carolina voters think the state should relax social distancing guidelines. They're not going to make much headway with a frontal assault. Instead, they're playing into the state's rural (often white, generally Republican)-urban (diverse, Democratic) divide, to make Cooper appear unreasonable and indifferent to your needs while he protects, you know, other people.
On the surface, it makes sense that, say, Transylvania County, with just two reported coronavirus cases, or Avery County, which has none, shouldn't be bound by the same restrictions as the rest of the state. But Transylvania County borders Henderson County, which has 123 cases as of April 23, and Avery County borders Burke County, which has 74. Viruses don't know borders, and, well, cars exist.
It's true that viruses spread more easily in dense population centers, but people in small towns and rural communities still gather together in churches and restaurants. It only takes one infected person to start an outbreak, and hospitals might not be equipped to handle it.
Then there's this: "Epidemic or pandemic control in the world very much depends on the weak links," Olga Jones, a senior fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute, told Vox. "The whole system is as good as its weakest links."
Mark McClellan was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Like COVID-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, was caused by a then-novel coronavirus. Unlike COVID-19, however, it could only be transmitted by the very sick. You could easily identify the people who had it, quarantine them, then trace where they got it from. Consequently, the global outbreak, which started in February 2003, was contained by July of that year. About 8,000 people were infected, and fewer than 800 died. The U.S. had about two dozen confirmed and probable cases and no deaths.
"Here, that's not necessarily the case," says McClellan, now director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy.
A new study indicates that a large proportion of COVID-19 infections — as much as 43 percent — are asymptomatic, meaning the carriers have no idea they're sick. On the other hand, if this bears out, it would seem like welcome news. The initial fatality and hospitalization rates for the disease would have been wildly overblown. COVID-19 is much less dangerous than we thought.
Not really, though.
As Andy Slavitt, the former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, explains: "The picture of a large number of asymptomatic hosts is a chilling one. One asymptomatic spreader can spread Covid-19 to 9,537 patients in 40 days. ... If 40 percent of those people have no symptoms, the impetus for them to continue to stay home is lower."
Forty percent have no symptoms, but the other 60 percent do. And for whatever reason — maybe age or underlying conditions, maybe bad luck — some of them become critically ill. Some die. Meanwhile, the 40 percent without symptoms are passing along the virus to a new generation, and the cycle repeats.
"This is a fundamental feature we need to address in doing containment from here on out," McClellan says. That's why it's "very important for people even with mild symptoms to stay home and get tested and to be able to initiate the contact tracing."
Asymptomatic transmission also underlines the need for strict monitoring and rigid enforcement of basic precautions like sanitation and hygiene, as well as ramping up testing and contact tracing. Right now, the U.S. is conducting about a million coronavirus tests a week. That's an improvement from a month ago, McClellan says, and while the U.S. is well behind where it needs to be, it's catching up.
"I think we can get there with the testing capacity that will be there in the next few weeks," McClellan says.
The White House wants to double the amount of tests per week to 2 million. Health experts say that, without a vaccine, keeping the country open will require between 4 million and 30 million tests per week. Even then, there would be logistical hurdles to overcome, including billions of dollars of lab equipment to buy and wide-scale national coordination.
The latter has never been the administration's strong suit.
These two statements are true: (1) The Great Lockdown has been devastating, and we can't wait a year for a vaccine — or even six weeks — to reopen the economy. (2) Reopening too quickly and carelessly will get people killed.
Reconciling them will require making difficult tradeoffs with life-and-death ramifications. They should be approached cautiously, with the best available information, listening to people who know what they're talking about — and not, say, a certain Very Stable Genius who thinks chugging Clorox might cure what ails you.
In Georgia, hell-for-leather Governor Brian Kemp wants almost everything up and running this week, though his state has three times as many cases and four times as many deaths as the go-it-slower North Carolina. Even Trump distanced himself from that harebrained notion.
That's not to say that Trump's been a model of dispassionate sobriety. After all, he spent last weekend egging on extremists, tweeting at them to LIBERATE their states from oppressive governors.
Trump's tweetstorm took place after a Fox News segment about an obscure Facebook event called Liberate Minnesota, which is the way this stuff works. These protests were small affairs until Fox News personalities and other Trump-friendly pundits — and then the president himself — elevated them.
Trump's defaults are politics by agitation and confident assertions utterly detached from reality, so leaning into a faux-populist revolt that imagines it can quash a pandemic by throwing a temper tantrum is pretty much par for the course. Besides, a slow-and-steady restart doesn't suit his agenda. His case for reelection was rooted in a robust economy. And come hell or high water, he needs to get things rolling again.
If need be, your life is a risk he's willing to take.
As much as it amazes me that a charlatan like Trump is president, it amazes me more — and frightens me — how simultaneously intellectually vapid and politically powerful MAGA conservatism is: a cult of personality built around an amoral grifter whose foremost skill is convincing his followers not to see what's in front of their own eyes.
But it shouldn't be surprising. Over the last decade, a wide body of research has shown that right-wing populists — Trump's base, in other words — are motivated by fear, making them susceptible to demagoguery and conspiracy theories. The people marching on state capitols — waving Gadsden flags and screaming about tyranny and denouncing scientists — are marks in Trump's con, pawns in a game they don't realize is being played.
That's not to say they don't believe that business should reopen or that the government shouldn't dictate when and for what reason they leave their homes. (Although, with a pandemic, your freedom of movement doesn't just affect you.) But that doesn't mean they're not being manipulated. And their ignorance doesn't make them less dangerous.
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