Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Masque of the Orange Death

The red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal -- the madness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were incidents of half an hour.

But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts.

They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."

"The Masque of the Red Death," by Edgar Allen Poe.
"Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?"

"No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine."

– Donald Trump responding to a reporter on 1/22/20, the first of many times he minimized the risk of the coronavirus.
Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They're politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, 'How's President Trump doing?' They go, 'Oh, not good, not good.' They have no clue. They don't have any clue. They can't even count their votes in Iowa, they can't even count. No they can't. They can't count their votes. One of my people came up to me and said, 'Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn't work out too well. They couldn't do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they've been doing it since you got in. It's all turning, they lost, it's all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know, we did something that's been pretty amazing. We're 15 people [cases of coronavirus infection] in this massive country. And because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.

Donald Trump ridiculing concerns about the coronavirus to his supporters at a South Carolina rally, 2/28/20.
"Dr. Fauci said earlier this week that the lag in testing was in fact a failing. Do you take responsibility for that, and when can you guarantee that every single American who needs a test will be able to have a test? What's the date of that?"

"No, I don't take responsibility at all."

Donald Trump responding to a reporter, 3/13/20.

– A Donald Trump tweet on 3/22/20, one of several statements he's made in opposition to health experts and stay-at-home measures.

(I'm hardly the first or only person to make the Poe connection – it's been on several people's minds, and Driftglass has been citing the story for years.)

Trump cares much, much more about public adulation than human lives. We saw it with his inept response to devastation in Puerto Rico and lashing out at those who contradicted him, we saw it with his misstatements and then lies about Hurricane Dorian, and we've seen it throughout his entire handling of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration is doing to the United States what the Bush administration did to Iraq.

In 2018, Trump closed the U.S. "pandemic office," despite its value for precisely this type of crisis. Trump has repeatedly tried to cut the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies, although Congress has blocked his efforts. Job vacancies and inexperience throughout the Trump administration haven't helped, either. Trump's team was briefed about pandemic threats before he took office. The Trump administration received multiple warnings about a major pandemic threat since January. Yet Trump has consistently downplayed the coronavirus threat, ignoring health experts even in his own administration.

Trump has styled himself as a "wartime president" for his pandemic response, but the concocted mantle is just characteristic self-adulation with little to show for it. Trump pawned off the coronavirus task force to Vice President Mike Pence, then apparently became jealous of the attention Pence was getting. Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) but long refused to actually use it, even though the law lets the government tell private companies to produce critical supplies that are sorely in need, such as masks and respirators. Trump's opposition to using the law despite pleas to do so seemed partially based on conservative dogma but also the usual corporate influence. As of this writing, after significant criticism, Trump has finally used the DPA to order ventilator manufacturing from General Motors, which is a start, and we'll see if this trend continues. (In the meantime, Trump and his surrogates have gone after the governors for insufficient public praise; Trump has insisted, "I want them to be appreciative. We’ve done a great job.")

Trump has also insisted on calling the disease "the China virus" and protested the term is not racist, even as hate crimes against Asian-Americans increase. Other members of his administration have used the terms "Kung-flu" or "the Wuhan virus," and even scuttled a G-7 statement by insisting on their terminology.

Predictably, Trump has continued his staggering record of lying and bullshitting with harmful lies to the public about the coronavirus, many due to his habit of making up the reality he wants at the moment. His sycophants at Fox News and other conservative outlets have cheered him on despite his bad information. If that weren't enough, conservatives have also attacked Dr. Fauci, an actual expert giving good advice. Trump has even bragged about "tremendous testing" in the U.S., even though anyone with the slightest grasp of reality knows that American COVID-19 testing is still dangerously scarce, far, far below the demand, and woefully behind that of many nations. In fact, as of this writing, a Seattle NPR station "will not be airing the [Trump] briefings live due to a pattern of false or misleading information provided that cannot be fact checked in real time." Trump cannot get through a single unscripted press conference without being petty and narcissistic, even about softball questions, and recently said governors "have to treat us well." It's one of his trademark threats; anyone who doesn't suck up to him should suffer. (Update: Trump has admitted he's told Mike Pence not to call governors who aren't sufficiently "appreciative." Suck up, or your constituents, the American citizens Trump is supposed to serve, will die.)

Besides masks and other protective gear, what hospitals need most are ventilators to help the most critical COVID-19 patients breathe. The U.S. has about 160,000 ventilators, far short of what experts think the nation will need – estimates differ, but one projection estimates America might need 960,000. The U.S. also lacks trained personnel to use the machines. Anyone's who's followed the pandemic news from credible sources knows that the lack of ventilators is a huge problem that could significantly increase the death toll in the U.S. and around the world. But despite his conceits that he is leading the pandemic response and doing a great job, Donald Trump apparently is not "anyone." His administration balked at paying for ventilators (before a partial reversal), but Trump also questioned their necessity:

In an interview Thursday night, [3/26/20], with Sean Hannity, the president played down the need for ventilators.

"I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” he said, a reference to New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appealed for federal help in obtaining them. "You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, 'Can we order 30,000 ventilators?' "

Of all the astounding Trump statements, this one may be the most shocking and infuriating. Was Trump in a coma the past three months? Has he been sleeping through every briefing or staring at himself in the mirror when medical experts have explained the situation? Is he an imbecile? Does he have dementia? He honestly thinks a hospital in a major city can treat the COVID-19 pandemic with just two ventilators, despite the statistics on COVID-19 cases and deaths? He rejects out of hand the advice of experts based on a fleeting whim – or to spite a perceived political rival – or due to the extensive medical knowledge he's obtained by pulling it out of his ass? This is deadly narcissism.

Trump simply will not acknowledge any reality he doesn't like, and he expects others to play along. On 3/17/20, Trump lied and even tried to gaslight the public, claiming, "I've always known this is a real, this is a pandemic. I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic." Likewise, his allies at Fox News pivoted 180 degrees and went from downplaying the virus like Trump to acknowledging its seriousness, as chronicled by The Washington Post:

More recently, Trump has been pushing to end stay-at-home measures, claiming the nation would suffer dire economic harm otherwise. Trump has said he'd like to end the safety measures by Easter (4/12/20), in opposition to all sound expert medical advice, apparently due to pressure from family members and doctrinaire conservatives.

So far, the stages of coronavirus response from Trump and his allies have been:

1. It's not a threat.

2. I said it was a threat all along.

3. It's only a threat to the little people. Who cares if your grandmother dies? I need to boost my slumping stock portfolio.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses severe challenges for months to come and could remain a problem for years, with a vaccine likely 12 to 18 months away and no actual cure for the contagious and sometimes deadly disease. That alone should keep us all mindful and spur those with power to try to help by all available means, and to invent new methods of aid. But the delusional incompetence of the Trump team and the 'expendable grandmother' mindset could make everything nightmarishly worse.

Texas' Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick claimed that "lots of grandparents" would be willing to die to preserve America, by which he meant the stock market. Brit Hume defended Patrick's remarks, calling them "entirely reasonable." Glenn Beck urged older Americans to go back to work and claimed, "I'd rather die than kill the country." Several billionaires have expressed similar sentiments, including Tom Golisano:

The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people. I have a very large concern that if businesses keep going along the way they're going then so many of them will have to fold. . . . You're picking the better of two evils. You have to weigh the pros and cons.

("Real" talk, from people unlikely to suffer the consequences of their callous idiocy.)

Likewise, some investment banks are pressuring medical companies to raise prices to increase their profits during this crisis. (The notion that they are killing their potential customers does not seem to have occurred to them.) Pharmaceutical companies have largely gotten their way in Congress to put profits first, mostly due to Republicans. At least one drug company has been publicly shamed into rejecting a ridiculous and potentially dangerous sweetheart deal, and perhaps public pressure can continue to spur corporations to renounce evil.

Speaking of which, congressional Republicans have continued their tradition of being cartoonishly evil, proposing a 500 million dollar slush fund to be controlled by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who could also hide the names of the companies he gave to for up to six months. (Perhaps some Trump companies or Trump allies would be included?) To add to the farce, Trump declared that "I'll be the oversight." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, ever shameless, attacked Democrats for opposing the bill while fighting against the public interest. Oh, and some members of the Republican Party (which sadly has been the party-before-country-party for decades) were likewise shameless enough to argue that some unemployment measures were too generous and could make workers too uppity. (This mindset is likely also why the Trump administration is cutting food stamps.) The Democrats did fight for and won some good measures in the two trillion dollar stimulus package under consideration, but David Dayen has described it as "robbery in progress" (and has some more details here; Digby highlights another provision open for abuse).

Rulers often use a crisis as an excuse to grab power and make corrupt deals – the Trump EPA is suspending environmental laws at the behest of the American Petroleum Institute and the Trump Justice Department has asked for emergency powers that could include suspending habeas corpus. These are classic shock doctrine moves; the Republican track record does not inspire confidence and U.S. conservatives are significantly more evil than many of their international counterparts (although they almost always seem to get a pass for it).

Like Prince Prospero in Poe's story, Trump the Orange One and other conservatives in power believe that they will survive the pandemic unscathed. They've become more cavalier about expressing their true views: that other people simply matter less, and that they're happy to let other people suffer and die for their own benefit. They are too dumb, selfish, greedy and short-sighted to realize that the same fate could befall them, or that killing off their customers and fellow citizens might not be a good long-term plan. The U.S. conservative reaction to this pandemic is basically the same as their reaction to climate change – ineffective, full of denial, and focused on profit and personal gain at the expense of all the people of the world – but for COVID-19, the deadliest consequences have been accelerated, and will be hitting hard in days, weeks, and months instead of years and decades from now.

The dominant form of U.S. conservatism is essentially neo-feudalism: those born to privilege are inherently better, and can rule over the masses. If you choose the right parents or suck up to the right lord or corporation or institution, you might live pretty well or even extravagantly, but the vast majority of the populace will have far less opportunities and likely a markedly lower quality of life. The U.S. is the wealthiest nation in the world, and the richest could still remain obscenely wealthy without seeking to increase the inequities of wealth and power as conservatives and the Republican Party consistently do. Our current, messed-up system is a choice. Although decent people exist who self-identify as conservatives, it should be blatantly clear by now that the dominant strain of American conservatism is destructive and sometimes literally lethal, and these crappy citizens and corrupt governors should be voted out of office and kept far away from power. Republican voters saw Trump was unfit for office and voted for him anyway. Congressional Republicans saw he was unfit for office, corrupt and incompetent, yet refused to convict him and remove him from office when he was impeached. The Conservative policies are simply awful, and Trump is not an aberration of conservatism; he's emblematic.

If there's anything positive about the pandemic, besides heroic medical workers and acts of kindness and creativity and community, it's that more people seem to be realizing how many "rules" in the U.S. system are bullshit, "with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest." For instance, it should be clearer than ever that the U.S. needs good, universal health care, a much stronger social safety net, and a much kinder, compassionate and supportive society. Jared Bernstein has characterized conservatism as YOYO, "You're on your own," whereas liberalism is WITT, "We're in this together." The present crisis has produced some clear insights and articulations of moral principle in that vein.

Steven Klein captures the real fear of plutocrats:

Alex Cole points out a telling contrast:

(Why, it's almost as if they always argue to benefit themselves at the moment rather than from some deeper principle.)

Alexandra Petri offers the satirical "I regret that I have but one grandparent to give for my country."

Ken Tremendous considers the flaws of the conservative "let people die" proposal in terms of the trolley problem.

Scott Lynch explains "Disaster 101":

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explains some basic humanity:

I want to make a point on the president's point about the economy and public health. I understand what the president is saying, this is unsustainable that we close down the economy and we continue to spend money. There is no doubt about that, no one is going to argue about that. But if you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it's no contest. No American is going to say, 'accelerate the economy at the cost of human life.' Because no American is going to say how much a life is worth. Job one has to be save lives. That has to be the priority. . . . My mother is not expendable. And your mother is not expandable. We're not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable. We're not going to put a dollar figure on human life. . . . We are going to fight every way we can to save every life that we can. Because that's what I think it means to be an American.

Cuomo is overly optimistic or diplomatic when he says "no American" believes such monstrous things, because sadly, we've seen that some of them do, and many of those people have power and influence. But may we hold them to account, follow higher principles, and try to help one another stay safe in these trying times from the Orange Death as well as COVID-19.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

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