A Crisis of His Own Making

In the beginning it was popular, among the so-called chattering classes — the op-ed pages, the Sunday talk shows, drive-time radio — to refer to the Covid-19 pandemic as the first crisis Trump has faced that is not of his own making. (It’s not quote true, of course: there was Maria and the devastation our citizens in Puerto Rico are still suffering, three years on. Trump didn’t create the storm, but the lasting effects were made far worse by his customary blend of indifference, insensitivity, inaction, indolence, and incompetence.) Crises in the Trump era have been, most notably, the foreign policy blunders and debacles: North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Brazil… the list goes on, and each and every one actually started with Trump.

And now, Covid-19.

The alarms were first rung at least in late December 2019 — fully seven months ago, if not more. Trump ignored them. A month went by, and further disturbing intelligence emerged — and Trump ignored it. Worse, the National Security Directorate tasked with managing a pandemic response had been disbanded and the literal book on health crisis management, a sixty-plus page manual developed by the Obama administration, had been tossed aside by people so sure of their own abilities that nobody in the history of the world could possibly teach them anything. Seven months later — when the rest of the world has returned to normal and has resumed life as usual, the United States struggles: over 1,000 dead each day (compared with perhaps a dozen in all of Europe); nearly 150,000 dead since March; the mortality rate continues its grim ascent parallel to the long handle of the hockey stick; and over 4.5 million known cases. Trump insists that we test more, and therefore have more cases. No: nor will eliminating biopsies cure cancer. That any adult would say this might be amusing; for such dissembling nonsense to spew daily from the Oval Office is terrifying.

So is this truly not a crisis of Trump’s own making? The facts suggest otherwise. The signal event — the virus’s species jump — was surely beyond anyone’s control; the reaction to that event, and how to manage its consequences, is entirely within the control of any government interested in doing its job. Trump prefers to preen and posture; rolling up his sleeves and doing actual work is far beyond his capabilities. By ignoring facts, science, and a set of written instructions left by the previous administration, Trump has exacerbated a crisis that, properly managed, might have been over by March; instead it is now a raging plague that will be with us for years to come.

Historians are forever telling us that every president campaigns on domestic issues and is soon consumed by international affairs — hot spots and flareups that the United States must address in its capacity as beacon to the world and, since 1990, sole superpower. In the age of Trump the United States no longer lights the way except in the strictly negative sense: don’t do this, more pratfall than pragmatism. It’s not that we have become the problem so much as we have lost control of the entire enterprise; and feeling now out of control we have no real idea how to correct course. Our democracy is threatened by those sworn to protect it and the American experiment in self-governance is closer to burning out than it has ever been in its 244 year history. The beacon of the world is perilously close to self-extinguishing.

Presidents, and crises, come and go. That Trump would both by his actions, and by inaction, create crisis after crisis was predictable. But the only cure, the only lasting remedy, is to look beyond Trump and acknowledge and act upon what our founders knew in their bones. As we consider the Trump Trifecta — a pandemic, record unemployment, and rampant social injustice — we might bear in mind the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel from just fifty years ago, when he joined the ranks of protesters in an earlier age of social unrest and upheaval:

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

The Prophets aren’t going to lead us out of this low ebb in our history; only the collective voices of all Americans, shouted as one on November 3, can begin to reverse the tide and begin the long road to redemption and restoration to greatness. In a free society some are guilty, but all are responsible. Trump and his enablers might be guilty; but we are all responsible to send them packing.

Respect

Respect is earned: it is not given. Which is to say, an indivdual must work to gain respect beyond whatever is granted by default, by virtue of his office. A group manager is respected insofar as she is the group manager; but she doesn’t get the respect she wants without earning it, without treating her people well, without having their backs.

What to say, then, to the man who demands respect but gives none; who is too lazy to earn it, let alone understand it. How does one respond to the man who demeans himself, his office, his nation. What rational answer is there to the foolish, aimless, and irrational mental wandering of a man so contemptuous of others, so needy of adulation, as to be utterly and completely beyond redemption.

It’s impossible to respect a man who doesn’t respect the office he holds.

The Last Refuge

Patriotism, Samuel Johnson memorably said, is the last refuge of a scoundrel: Those who would defend the indefensible invariably, inevitably wave the flag. Then they wrap themselves in it. The tactic — too often effective against a credulous public — is designed to distract from their own corrupt and corrosive activities that serve not to strengthen the republic so much as permanently ensconce themselves in power.

So it is with Senate Republicans, particularly (these last weeks, at least) those on the Judiciary Committee: while Trump literally tears us apart and tries to burn down the nation, Lindsay Graham wants to hold hearings. Into Trump? AG Bill Barr’s shameless coddling of convicted felons (and Trump cronies) Roger Stone and Michael Flynn? No! The FBI! Investigate the investigators who investigated Trump! While Trump fires all the independent government watchdogs — the Inspectors General of State, Defense, Transportation, HHS, and Intelligence. And how does Charles Grassley, who built a decades-long reputation as a defender of government accountability, react? A meek letter asking the president, please, if you would be so kind as to indulge me sir, to explain, and forgive the temerity of my question.

In the last four months we have all aged four years, if we were paying attention.

Banana Republicans

“It was the greatest crime in the history of our country,” says Trump. “It’s been going on and it’s still going on and it should never happen again.” What was the crime? asked Philip Rucker of The Washington Post. “You know what it was. It’s very obvious to everyone. You can read about it in every newspaper except yours.” Well, then, what was the crime? “Next question.”

There’s so much to unpack here; there is really nothing to unpack here. Of course it’s another lie, another smokescreen, another attempt to deflect responsibility and blame, all while keeping himself in the spotlight. It’s quite a talent, one worthy of admiration if it weren’t so disgusting. There is no crime, except the one Michael Flynn admitted — twice. There is nothing “going on” either now or “for a very long time.” Nothing about it is obvious except the Hail Mary nature of the accusation.

Since conservatives (by definition) want to conserve: what’s with the wrecking ball aimed at the institutions of democracy? When the Justice Department wants to withdraw a guilty plea in its own prosecution we are become, officially, a banana republic. That sounds like a betrayal of conservative principles unless your objective is ruling and not governing.

Critical Thinking (Making Flippy Floppy)

For the last couple of weeks I’ve had a Talking Heads lyric stuck in my head:

Our president’s crazy
Did you hear what he said
Business and pleasure
Lie right to your face
Divide it in sections

Well, David Byrne could have written that yesterday — but it was 1983. “Divide it in sections” indeed: this is what has happened to the United States. We are engaged in a cold civil war; education should be the way out, but the GOP long ago declared war on public schools. The ability (and willingness) to examine facts and arguments critically before accepting them, is a crucial skill in civic life. It is the civic equivalent of the scientific method — but the GOP has declared war on science, too.

There’s also this gem of a lyric two or three lines later; the conspiracy theorists really should take it to heart:

There are no big secrets
Don’t believe what you read

Problem is, they don’t believe what they read unless it originates in their addled, paranoid echo chamber.

Petty Power Play

The French verb tutoyer has no real English counterpart. It is used to indicate the use of the familiar form of “you” — the second person singular, for which English also has had no parallel since “thee” fell out of common usage around 1800. The nearest equivalent verb might be to “first name” someone; it’s an awkward locution but we know what it means.

Trump, it turns out, knows — or, rather, intuits — exactly what tutoyer means. I doubt he could tell me what I mean when I say to him, Ne me tutoie pas, s’il te plaît, nor would he recognize the inherent disrespect. But it’s a technique he uses daily: Deborah Birx, whatever her flaws, is a medical doctor who has earned her degree and the respect that goes with it. To anyone not bred in a stable she is Dr. Birx just as Anthony Fauci is Dr. Fauci. To Trump they are Debbie and Tony, and not because he’s particularly familiar with them, nor because he socializes with them, nor because he wants to run a more informal White House.

No, it’s a power play: he first-names them to demonstrate the inherent disparity between their positions. They are mere public health officials, civil servants; he is the President of the United States and will be addressed as such. It’s a sign of contempt — everything, with Trump, is a sign of contempt, except for his fawning over dictators. There, too, he recognizes the disparity of power: theirs is absolute, his is a gift from a servile senate majority. And as such, it is time-limited.

Got that, Donnie?

Essential Workers

Driving along the Interboro – – excuse me, Jackie Robinson – – Parkway, one passes through several cemeteries. It’s a common site around here. When several of New York City’s highways were constructed in the early 20th century, they literally cut through cemeteries and many graves were relocated.

What I see now shocks me. Last weekend I counted at least a dozen mounds of fresh earth, and several more open sites ready for an interment. Funeral directors report at least triple their normal business, with many more cremations than usual due to long waits for burial. Hamlet’s gravediggers didn’t think of themselves as “essential workers” but they were. In a time of plague, it’s not just the butcher and the baker who keep us moving forward; it’s also the teamster, the apothecary, the embalmer.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that it’s the people at the bottom — the minimum-wage workers — whom we most rely upon. The stockbrokers and hedge fund managers aren’t going to help us get through this. The nurses, grocery clerks, letter carriers, and, yes, the gravediggers, are the ones we need.

It’s time for us to rethink how we value, and reward, work.

Seize Authority, Shirk Responsibility

Years ago, working full time and about midway through law school, I took a new job: more interesting work, flexible hours, and a project I could really sink my teeth into. Management gave me full responsibility for its successful completion; what they didn’t give me was any authority to shape the outcome. I had an hourlong talk about it with the area VP whose response to me was simply, “You will graduate and leave here in a year, so I don’t see any reason to make you happy.” The next day I submitted my resignation. Two years later the project failed precisely because my successor wasn’t permitted to make any critical decisions along the path. He had accountability but no authority; the results were a botched implementation and a lawsuit for wrongful termination.

Accountability and authority cannot be divorced from each other. In a well-run organization, individuals will be motivated to excel: their decisions are tested but not arbitrarily overridden by management, and failure is tolerated, up to a point, as an opportunity to learn and grow. Good managers know what they don’t know; and what they do know is that their subordinates often have better technical skills than they do — and in fact they almost always should. It’s not the CEO’s job to skillfully turn out widgets (though she should have a general knowledge of the widget-manufacturing process), it is her job to ensure that employees at every level have the resources they need to succeed and more. Put another way: line workers make widgets, managers make decisions.

The administration of Donald Trump turns this model upside down and inside out. Trump wants complete authority with no responsibility: the consequences of his actions can’t be laid at his door, and he is unaccountable for anything. At least, that is how it works in the fantasy world of Donald Trump — aided and abetted by both his lackeys in the White House and the Congressional bootlicks who put party above patriotism, career above country. In Trump’s world the Constitution of the United States grants the president not just authority but power: the power to do “whatever I want.” (This is not the language or rhetoric of democracy, and Republicans who decried previous (Democratic) presidents’ use of executive orders as “authoritarian overreach” should be seething in anger. That they are not speaks loudly of their commitment to principle and to the rule of law.) In the current crisis — incredibly enough, the first in three years not of Trump’s own making — his aversion to actual decision-making (what CEOs are paid to make) and shirking of responsibility have come into sharp focus for everyone.

In any business a Board of Directors faced with such C-level incompetence and mismanagement would fire the offending executive. Given the lack of interest, among Republican senators, to hold Trump and his administration accountable for the commission of actual crimes — bribery and extortion, not to mention Constitutionally-prohibited emoluments foreign and domestic — there is no way to hold him accountable for this. The only remedy left is for the voter-shareholders to fire both the executive and his enablers at every level of government. Incompetence and decision-avoidance are the stepsisters of grift and corruption; all four are brazen hallmarks of this administration. Corruption is always a problem in government, but in Trump and McConnell’s hands it is the governing principle.

Not everyone is cut out to be a manager, just as not everyone is equipped to be a carpenter, a sculptor, a musician, or an auto worker. People have different interests and skillsets which will intersect and interact in unique ways. Some people, it turns out, aren’t really equipped — by temperament, by skill, or by experience — to do much of anything at all. November 3, 2020 is the day we tell all of them, “You’re fired.”

The Markets and Obi Wan

The markets are tumbling again this week, apparently on Tuesday’s testimony of Drs. Fauci and Redfield before the Senate Health Committee. They warned that the coronavirus is far from contained and that a too-rapid easing of social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions will likely trigger a second wave that could be even worse than the first.

The New York Times reports:

The comments appeared to rattle the markets, driving the S&P 500 down as investors weighed the potential of a second wave of infections against Mr. Trump’s promises that the economy would bounce back once stay-at-home restrictions were lifted.

Seriously? The financial markets are skittish because someone contradicted Trump’s assurances? Trump is a raging narcissist, a pathetic little man whose bombast and lies do not (as he intends) glorify him but starkly highlight the absence of his soul, the smallness of his mind, and the pettiness of his character. Since assuming office he has lied over 18,000 times. One might reasonably begin the count with his inaugural speech, where his language, tone, and “American carnage” imagery were at odds with every measure of objective reality.

The talking heads on television and cable news outlets, especially those which aspire to be information platforms for business, always come back to one word: predictability. “Markets like stability and predictability,” they say. Meaning, the financial markets don’t much care who is in office as long as policy isn’t changed on a whim and without warning. Meaning, the financial markets might be spooked for a moment when a Democrat is elected — on the presumed fear of regulation — but these brief periods of volatility soon smooth out and the markets go on as before. Because they like predictability.

The truth is, the financial sector really shouldn’t like deregulation: it’s the anything-goes, anything-can-happen, nobody-is-accountable temperament of the Wild West that roils markets; its unpredictable nature is by definition unknowable and its consequences unforeseeable, opaque to even the best crystal ball. If we learned anything from the 2008 financial sector meltdown, it was (or should have been) that deregulation begets instability, and that even the best computer models are as clear as mud when it comes to really predicting the future. It’s looking more and more like we didn’t learn that lesson, or any other; just as the 2008 crisis echoed the 1986-1995 S&L debacle. The echoes of history reach all the way back, and after each recovery we take two steps forward and then, when things stabilize, at least one deregulatory step backwards.

Trump wallows in unpredictability; he boasts about it; he sows chaos wherever he goes. It is his briar patch. Burnout is a well-known consequence of working in the White House pressure cooker but Trump’s administration churns personnel at an alarming rate. (Insert joke here about the ten-day period of employment known as a Scaramucci. Oh, you were there a month? Three whole Scaramuccis?)

Financial markets aren’t the only institutions that appreciate stability. Diplomacy might be an art, but it requires some level of predictable behavior and rationality: it’s difficult to negotiate if you have absolutely no idea how the person across the table will respond. (Trump believes this is his strength, that being unpredictable is the art of the deal. To the rest of us it’s a sign of serious mental illness and instability.)

The markets like stability; they want order; they crave predictability. Trump is a known, compulsive, congenital liar whose only objective is to stroke his self-image. To that end he will say anything. With his reelection prospects (already slim, as I discuss here) in tatters he makes assurances nobody should believe about the pandemic being past while Dr. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells the Senate and the nation that the virus will be with us for some time yet. Indeed he has been telling us all along that a resurgence in the fall is likely.

All of which brings me, finally, to Obi Wan Kenobi, whose Jedi wisdom might be the most appropriate answer to anyone taking action of any kind on the strength of Trump’s promises and reassurances. Who is more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him? And if you’re invested in those markets: caveat emptor.

Human Sacrifice

Recently a well-known TV personality suggested that reopening schools could be among the first steps towards getting back to normal soon. This is “attractive,” he said, because the fatality rate “is only 2-3 percent.” I find this reasoning baffling, perhaps because I’m able to view it in concrete terms instead of as a vague abstraction: throw in a few numbers and the words “percent” or “per capita” and viewers apparently will assume you are a Very Learned Person who knows more than they do. Very well. I have questions for Dr. Oz:

  • Do you understand that “percent” means “out of every one-hundred” and that you are suggesting that rate is an acceptable sacrifice?
  • Please stand in a room with 100 children and point out the three you believe are expendable.
  • In actual numbers, the United States has something over 28 million children age 5-11. Three percent of that is 840,000. (The total number of minors — victims under 18 — would therefore be about 2.1 million lost to covid-19.) Discuss.
  • Please explain how this kind of literal human sacrifice is qualitatively different from tossing a virgin into a volcano for better weather.

Speaking only for myself: the volcano has the better of this argument: one virgin, versus 2 million children. But Dr. Oz believes it’s an acceptable level of loss. And for Donald Trump it’s a small price to pay for a booming stock market. One hopes the children — like the virgin — will appreciate their role in the history of their people.

Leaving the children to their fate, I’d like to address the adults who are clamoring to “reopen” in the name of “liberty!” Which of your friends and relatives will you sacrifice? It doesn’t need to be for the sake of your stock portfolio; whom are you willing to snuff so you can go back to work? As a strictly moral proposition, I suggest that anyone unwilling to say exactly which specific people — including which among his friends and relatives — are expendable in the pursuit of economic gain, has no business making the “reopen now” argument. (And if you are so willing, you have absolutely no moral authority. Get thee behind me, Sociopath.)

These are large numbers of real people, not just “small” percentages. Compare to the seasonal flu which claims about 0.1% — one-tenth of one percent of those who contract it — every year. Dr. Oz calls a mortality rate thirty times that “attractive.” Let’s think of a better word.  “Mass infanticide” is perhaps too emotionally freighted, but it works for me.

Call it what you will, I challenge the champions of “Liberty!” and “Freedom!” to provide a rational argument. What we’ve heard so far — whining about wanting to get a haircut — isn’t terribly compelling. If you need a haircut, order a clipper from Amazon and let your son or daughter get to work. Isn’t that small inconvenience worth the lives of two million children?