A Truth That’s Told With Bad Intent

That’s Isaac Newton in William Blake’s painting, one of the major villains in Blake’s philosophy. Why? Because Newton was a modeler, a proponent of Science with a capital S, the most repressive force in the modern age.

I think Blake was absolutely right.

Our narratives of COVID-19 are all lies.

They are lies of a particular sort, political narratives that have a nugget of truth within them, but are told with bad intent. They are told this way because it works. Because the nugget of truth hides a deeper, unpleasant truth. And a Big Lie.

Some are narratives of the political left. Some are narratives of the political right.

They are all narratives of betrayal, meaning that they seek to excuse or promote policies designed for institutional advantage rather than the common good.

Clockwise from Donald Trump, that’s Fox’s Sean Hannity, the CDC’s Robert Redfield, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Harvard President Larry Bacow, the White House’s Larry Kudlow, and Vox co-founder Ezra Klein. They all get their moment of shame in our magnum opus on the ubiquitous institutional betrayals here in the early days of the pandemic age – First the People.

How do you recognize a political narrative of betrayal?

It’s always based on a model.

A political narrative of betrayal is always a top-down application of social abstraction, where a behavioral model is treated as the thing unto itself, falsely elevated as the subject and object of policy, rather than relegated to the analytical toolbox where it belongs. A political narrative of betrayal will always use “model” as a noun rather than “model” as a verb. A political narrative of betrayal always BEGINS with a prescriptive model of mass behavior – a model that by the most amazing coincidence serves the institutional advantage of the narrative creator – and ENDS with a forced fit to the individual citizen.

All political narratives of betrayal start like this, with a disembodied, modeled abstraction like

  • “the American way of life” or
  • “the economy” or
  • “the market” or
  • “public health” or
  • “national security”.

An abstraction that is then defined for you in such a way as to logically require the willing abdication of your individual rights, first as an American and ultimately as a human being.

A political lie always starts by establishing a disembodied, modeled abstraction like “the economy”. From there, the political lie will then start talking about the “sacrifices” that we citizens need to make for this disembodied, modeled abstraction.

Nothing makes me angrier.

Nothing makes me angrier than a politician like Chris Christie, a man whose idea of personal sacrifice is a regular order of fries, shaking his finger at us and telling us how reopening the local Arby’s is just like fighting Nazi Germany, how OUR deaths then and now are a “necessary sacrifice” in order to  “stand up for the American way of life.”

The American Way of Life™ does not exist. It’s not a thing.

What exists is the way of life of Americans.

Start with the individual American. Start with their political rights. Start with the citizens themselvesThis is how a legitimate government acts in both words and deeds.

The government’s job – its ONE JOB – is to protect our individual rights in ways that we cannot do ourselves. That’s not an easy job. At all. There are trade-offs and gray areas, and clear-eyed/full-hearted people can disagree on how to accomplish that job. But it is the job.

Its job is NOT to create “alternative” facts like modeled seasonal flu deaths or modeled herd immunity or modeled COVID-19 deaths in nudging service to institutional goals. Its job is NOT to champion the rights of the politically-connected few and ignore the rights of the politically-unconnected many. Its job is NOT to deny the rights of any citizen in service to a politically convenient abstraction like “the American way of life” or “the economy” or “public health”.

When individual rights conflict in unavoidable ways or we are faced with an immediate and overwhelming threat to our system of individual rights, a legitimate government based on the consent of the governed may be forced to decide which citizens’ rights must be temporarily suspended. This is a legitimate government’s last resort.

Today it is our government’s first resort.

Today it is the first choice of our political leaders – White House and statehouse, Democrat and Republican – to decide which rights to prioritize and which rights to deny in service to THEIR conception of what society should look like. All wrapped up in a nugget of truth told with bad intent.

This is how an illegitimate government acts.

Like this:

Model-driven Narrative #1

Whatabout the Flu?

Dr. Sanjay “minor compared to the flu” Gupta 
Rush “it’s just the common cold, folks” Limbaugh
  • Political goal: COVID-19 threat minimization.
  • Truth nugget: The seasonal flu is a nasty (and mitigatable) disease.
  • Deep Truth nugget: We are shockingly blasé about all sorts of largely preventable deaths, and we warehouse our elderly parents in horrible places.
  • Big Lie:  This isn’t a big deal.
  • Policy prescription: Wash your hands, boys and girls!
  • Embedded model:   Laughably inaccurate models of seasonal flu deaths, designed to nudge popular adoption of annual vaccinations.

As the US death toll mounts, this narrative fades farther and farther into the background of our collective memory, but “Whatabout the Flu?” dominated the early weeks of American policy debates. And while it’s easy to find examples of this narrative from the political right, let’s not forget that CNN and Vox were beating this drum as hard as they could when Trump was shutting down some flights from China.

People don’t believe me when I tell them that we don’t actually count flu deaths, that the numbers thrown around by the Dr. Guptas and the Rush Limbaughs are taken from CDC models of pneumonia deaths. But it’s true. Basically we count pediatric flu deaths and hospitalized adult flu deaths, multiply by six, and intentionally generate an inflated flu death total. Why intentional? Because you need to be nudged into taking your annual flu vaccine.

If we compare, for instance, the number of people who died in the United States from COVID-19 in the second full week of April to the number of people who died from influenza during the worst week of the past seven flu seasons (as reported to dethe CDC), we find that the novel coronavirus killed between 9.5 and 44 times more people than seasonal flu. In other words, the coronavirus is not anything like the flu: It is much, much worse. – Scientific American (April 28, 2020)

On an apples-to-apples, counted deaths versus counted deaths basis, there is no comparison between COVID-19 and the flu. It’s pure narrative. Pure hokum. All based on a laughably inaccurate model. All geared towards the political lie of COVID-19 minimization.

Model-driven Narrative #2

Herd Immunity!

Anders “the death toll surprised us” Tegnell of Sweden 
Dan “more important things than living” Patrick of Texas
  • Political goal: Preservation of economic status quo.
  • Truth nugget: Massive unemployment is devastating.
  • Deep Truth nugget: Massive unemployment is particularly devastating to incumbent politicians.
  • Big Lie:  In the meantime, we can protect the olds and the sicks.
  • Policy prescription: Hey, you’ll probably be fine! I mean … probably.
  • Embedded model:   Laughably inaccurate models of COVID-19 infection spread and severity, designed to nudge fantasies of V-shaped recoveries in the stock market and commercial real estate prices.

Again, it’s easy to find examples of this narrative from the political right, but let’s not forget that the most prominent national example of “Herd Immunity!” policy is driven by the leftwing Social Democrats – Green Party coalition in Sweden. Again, the politicization of these narratives is not a left/right thing, it’s a power thing.

It’s a high-functioning sociopath thing.

What do I mean by sociopathy and division?

I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus prefers to kill the old rather than the young, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if older Americans are lesser Americans, as if we should think of them differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are more like “us”.

I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus prefers to kill those with “pre-existing conditions”, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if chronically ill Americans are lesser Americans, as if we should think of them differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are more like “us”.

I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus hits certain “hotspot” regions, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if hotspot regions are lesser regions, as if we should think of Americans who live there differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are in “our” region.

And once you stop thinking in terms of trade offs, once you stop thinking in terms of probabilities and projected mortality rates and cost/benefit analysis and this expected utility model versus that expected utility model … once you start thinking in terms of empathy and Minimax Regret … everything will change for you. – Once In A Lifetime

Model-driven Narrative #3

Flatten the Curve!

Gov. Andrew “we need 40,000 ventilators” Cuomo  
Dr. Deborah “Trump is so attentive to the data” Birx
  • Political goal: COVID-19 threat maximization.
  • Truth nugget: Lockdowns prevent a surge in cases which can overwhelm the healthcare system.
  • Deep Truth nugget: When we’ve got everyone freaked out about staying alive, there’s no end to the crazy authoritarian stuff we can get away with.
  • Big Lie:  We can get R-0 down to zero.
  • Policy prescription: You’ll find these ankle monitors to be surprisingly light and comfortable to wear!
  • Embedded model:   Laughably inaccurate models of COVID-19 deaths, malleable enough to serve the political aspirations of both the White House and their opponents.

Of the three politicized narratives, “Flatten the Curve!” has morphed the most from its original form, as its early success in convincing even Donald Trump that lockdowns were necessary to prevent a healthcare system meltdown gave both its White House missionaries and its state house missionaries free rein to use this narrative to fill a wide range of policy vacuums.

The original goals of “Flatten the Curve!” – to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases with the potential to overwhelm the healthcare system – were achieved. The flood in New York City crested … and fell. Other cities that seemed as if they might follow in NYC’s footsteps … did not. Mission accomplished! But in the grand tradition of other initially successful emergency government interventions (“Quantitative Easing!”, anyone?) “Flatten the Curve!” is well on its way to becoming a permanent government program.

Today, “Flatten the Curve!” has become the narrative rationale for a range of extraordinary executive actions – on both the left AND the right – that would make Lincoln blush. This is the narrative that will propel the Surveillance State into a permanent feature of American life. This is the narrative that will propel the final transformation of capital markets into a political utility. This is the narrative that will propel us into a war with China. If we let it.

If we let it.

Okay, Ben, how do we stop it? How do we turn this misbegotten process of political lying on its head? How do we reject top-down, model-derived policies and their narratives? How do we BEGIN with the biology of this virus and the rights of individual citizens and build a policy framework from THAT?

This virus is 2-6x more contagious/infectious than the seasonal flu (depending on environment), and 10-20x more deadly/debilitating (depending on whether or not your local healthcare system is overwhelmed). It hits men harder than women, and the old harder than the young. Those are the facts. They’ve been the facts since January when we first studied this virus. The facts have not changed.

Knowing these biological facts, what social policies would you design around THAT?

As a 56 year-old man in just ok physical condition, I figure I have a 1% chance of death or disability if I catch COVID-19 when my local healthcare system is in good shape, maybe 4% if my healthcare system is overwhelmed. Both of those odds are completely unacceptable. To me. Other 56 year-old citizens may feel differently. Other 25 year-old citizens may feel the same. Each of us has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the legitimacy of our government is predicated on preserving those rights for each of us. Liberty and justice for ALL … imagine that.

Knowing these foundational rights, what social policies would you design around THAT?

If you’ve read notes like Inception and The Long Now: Make, Protect, Teach and Things Fall Apart: Politics, you know that I am a full-hearted believer in acting from the bottom-up, in bypassing and ignoring the high-functioning sociopaths who dominate our top-down hierarchies of markets and politics. I still believe that.

But it doesn’t work with COVID-19.

The core problem with any rights-based approach to public policy is dealing with questions of competing rights. Under what circumstances could your right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness come into conflict with my right to life? Under most circumstances, neither of us is forced to compromise our rights, because we have the choice to NOT interact with each other. If my laundromat requires you to wear a mask to enter, but you think wearing a mask is an affront to your liberty, then the solution is easy: go wash your clothes somewhere else. And vice versa if I think your restaurant does a poor job of enforcing social distancing and food safety: I’ll take my business elsewhere.

Let me put this a bit more bluntly. I think that COVID-19 deniers and truthers are idiots. I think that people who minimize or otherwise ignore the clear and present danger that the biology of this virus presents to themselves and their families are fools. And there’s no perfect way to insulate their idiocy and foolishness from the rest of us. But if these idiots and fools want to take stupid risks alongside other idiots and fools, if their vision of liberty and the pursuit of happiness is to revel in some death cult, but in a way that largely allows us non-death cultists to opt out … well, I believe it is wrong for a government to stop them. Yes, there are exceptions. No, this isn’t applicable on all issues, all the time. But I believe with all my heart that if we are to take individual rights seriously, then we must take individual responsibility and agency just as seriously. Even self-destructive agency. Even in the age of COVID-19. Especially in the age of COVID-19.

There are three common and important circumstances, however, where this choice to NOT interact doesn’t exist, where the rights of yes, even idiots, to liberty and the pursuit of happiness as they understand it will inexorably come into conflict with the right to life of those who understand all too well the highly contagious and dangerous biology of this virus.

Only government can provide the necessary resources and the necessary coordination to resolve these conflicts of rights peacefully and without trampling the rights of one set of citizens or another.

You have no idea how much it pains me to say that.

It pains me because I think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that our government will do that.

Here’s how a legitimate government would deal with the three inevitable and irreconcilable conflicts of rights in the age of COVID-19:

Healthcare workers and first responders have no choice but to risk their right to life in caring for all citizens who are sick, regardless of the agency or lack thereof behind that sickness.

How does a legitimate government resolve this conflict?

By mobilizing on a war-time basis to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to ALL healthcare workers and social workers and first responders and public safety officers and anyone else who must serve the sick.

Workers who believe that their employer does not provide sufficient protection against this virus have no choice but to risk their right to life in their return to work, as unemployment insurance typically is unavailable for people who “voluntarily” quit their job.

How does a legitimate government resolve this conflict?

By providing a Federal safe harbor to unemployment claims based on COVID-19 safety concerns, AND by maintaining unemployment benefits at the current (higher) CARES Act level throughout the crisis.

All citizens who use public transit or use public facilities have no choice but to trust that their fellow citizens share a common respect for the rights of others, even if they may differ in their risk tolerance and private beliefs regarding the biology of the virus.

How does a legitimate government resolve this conflict?

By mobilizing on a war-time basis to provide ubiquitous rapid testing in and around all public spaces, starting today with symptom testing (temperature checks) and required masking to limit asymptomatic spread, and implementing over time near-instant antigen tests as they are developed.

It’s just not that hard.

But it is impossible. Politically impossible.

So what do we do?

“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”

— Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)

We do what we can. We howl our discontent. We resist. We help our neighbors. We make. We protect. We teach. We keep the small-l liberal virtues and the small-c conservative virtues alive in our hearts and our minds.

So what do we do?

For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.

Fox’s Fake News Contagion

The network spent too long spraying its viewers with false information about the coronavirus pandemic.

You can relax, Sean Hannity, I’m not going to sue you.

Some people are suggesting that there might be grounds for legal action against the cable network that you pretty much rule — Fox News — because you and your colleagues dished out dangerous misinformation about the virus in the early days of the crisis in the United States. Some might allege that they have lost loved ones because of what was broadcast by your news organization.

But lawsuits are a bad idea. Here’s why: I believe in Fox News’s First Amendment right as a press organization, even if some of its on-air talent did not mind being egregiously bad at their jobs when it came to giving out accurate health data.

And, more to the point, when all is said and done, my Mom will listen to her children over Fox News. One of us — my brother — is an actual doctor and knows what he is talking about. And the other is a persistent annoyance — that would be me.

I’m a huge pest, in fact. “I’m going to block your number, if you don’t stop,” my mother said to me over the phone several weeks ago from Florida, after I had texted her the umpteenth chart about the spread of coronavirus across the country. All of these graphs had scary lines that went up and to the right. And all of them flashed big honking red lights: Go home and stay there until all clear.

She ignored my texts, so I had switched to calling her to make sure she had accurate information in those critical weeks at the end of February and the beginning of March. She is in the over-80 group that is most at risk of dying from infection. I worry a lot.

But she was not concerned — and it was clear why. Her primary source of news is Fox. In those days she was telling me that the Covid-19 threat was overblown by the mainstream news media (note, her daughter is in the media). She told me that it wasn’t going to be that big a deal. She told me that it was just like the flu.

And, she added, it was more likely that the Democrats were using the virus to score political points. And, did I know, by the way, that Joe Biden was addled?

Thankfully, Mom had not gone as far as claiming the coronavirus is a plot to hurt President Trump — a theory pushed by some at Fox News heavily at first. While she has been alternately appalled and amused by the president, and often takes his side, she is not enough of a superfan to think that he is any kind of victim here.

So, she kept going out with friends to restaurants and shopping and generally living her life as it always had been. “What’s the big deal, Kara? Stop bothering me,” she said over the phone. “You’re the one who is going to get sick, if you don’t stop working so much.”

And with that she was off to another social event, with me unable to stop her since I was hundreds of miles away. That spring break kid was bad, but this was also not good.

I could not lay the blame at the feet of social media this time. No, Facebook was not my mother’s source of misinformation (in fact, the company has been trying to improve in this area). It was not the fault of Dr. Google, which has at least pushed out more good information than bad. And my mom doesn’t use Twitter.

Instead, it was Fox, the whole Fox and nothing but the Fox.

Many children of older parents have come to know this news diet as the equivalent of extreme senior sugar addiction mixed with a series of truly unpleasant and conspiracy-laden doughnuts.

You know all those awful GIFs using a Meryl Streep line from “A Cry in the Dark”: “A dingo ate my baby!”? Well, it sometimes feels like Fox News is eating my mother’s brain.

My brother, a doctor working on the front lines of the crisis in San Francisco, called the misinformation “magical thinking and wishful ignorance” that persists because none of us ever wants to believe the worst. He finds it happens a lot when it comes to dire health information. “If Mom does not want coronavirus to be true, pablum from Fox News makes it easier,” he told me. “It’s classic propaganda.”

It turns out, executives at Fox News HQ were more reasonable behind the scenes. The offices were Lysol-ed and sanitized and employees were given instructions to be safe. All while the network was doing quite the opposite: spraying viewers with far too much fake news contagion.

As The Times media columnist Ben Smith wrote recently: “Fox failed its viewers and the broader public in ways both revealing and potentially lethal. In particular, Lachlan Murdoch failed to pry its most important voices away from their embrace of the president’s early line: that the virus was not a big threat in the United States.”

That would be the chief executive of the company that owns Fox News, who took over the job from his infamous father, Rupert Murdoch. It was the patriarch who set the table at Fox, and Lachlan is just an apparently lackadaisical butler of the family business, according to Mr. Smith.

Well, not completely. Lachlan Murdoch did dump a B-team player, the Fox Business host Trish Regan, after she called the media attention given to coronavirus “another attempt to impeach the president.”

In Mr. Smith’s column, Fox’s longtime public relations honcho Irena Briganti said that the virus situation “has evolved considerably over the last few weeks.” Presumably that’s an attempt to use a get-out-of-lawsuit-free card by trying to establish that the story has shifted and so has the news organization.

Mistakes were made, pandemic version.

Given the growing number of cases and deaths in the United States, Fox stopped playing down the crisis, a move that closely tracks the rocky evolution in thinking by Mr. Trump. Fox may also seek cover from some early pronouncements from another powerful Fox host, Tucker Carlson. While Mr. Hannity spun the hoax line, Mr. Carlson was quite firmly in the taking-it-seriously camp, urging Mr. Trump to act.

But back then, Mr. Carlson was a lone prominent voice on Fox, and his more grounded views did not break through to my mother in the early days. In this, Fox failed my mother and countless others of its fans. While we can joke all we want about the “Fair and Balanced” motto, it’s a very low bar to simply give your audience decent health information.

Fox News finally got much more serious in its reporting on the coronavirus, as has Mr. Trump (the My Pillow guy aside). Convinced by experts’ new estimates that millions of Americans would be at risk for infection and hundreds of thousands at risk for dying if he prematurely reopened the country, Mr. Trump and Fox have gone into reverse.

And, to my surprise, as the pandemic has worsened, my mother started to listen to other sources of information, like her children and other news outlets. She’s been sheltering in place at home for at least two weeks and not going out — except to get food and perhaps an ice cream sundae. (“It’s my daily joy,” she said to me, and so I do not argue.)

It was when Mr. Trump and Fox News initially shifted to a story line about getting back to work — even though it was too early — that the problems with Fox really sank in for her. She now seems to realize that she bears some of the burden as a news consumer, though she remains a Fox News acolyte.

So by the time the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, was on Fox on March 23 declaring that the elderly might take a virus bullet for the young people to bolster the country’s economic future — a line that was then echoed through the network — she was having none of it.

She read up. She looked at my charts. She stopped thinking so magically. And, most of all, she decided she wanted a lot more ice cream sundaes.

“Are they crazy? That’s crazy,” she said. “I am not dying for anyone.”

She was talking to me, for sure — but she’s also talking to you, Sean.

Billionaires Want People Back to Work. Employees Aren’t So Sure

The billionaire Tom Golisano was smoking a Padron cigar on his patio in Florida on Tuesday afternoon. He was worried.

The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people,” said Golisano, founder and chairman of the payroll processor Paychex Inc. “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.”

Tom Golisano

Tom Golisano

Photographer: Robert Rosamilio/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

President Donald Trump says he doesn’t want the cure for the Covid-19 pandemic “to be worse than the problem,” and some of America’s wealthiest people and executives are echoing his rallying cry. They want to revive an economy that could face its worst quarterly drop ever — even if it means pulling back on social distancing measures that public health officials say can help stop coronavirus. These investors aren’t prizing profits over lives, they say, they’re just willing to risk some horrors to avoid others.

“You’re picking the better of two evils,” said Golisano, who wants people to go back to their offices in states that have been relatively spared by the coronavirus, but remain at home in hot spots. “You have to weigh the pros and cons.”

In New York, where hospitals are at a tipping point and getting pummeled by patients, Governor Andrew Cuomo says the economy shouldn’t be restarted “at the cost of human life” and that he’s developing a plan that “lets younger people get back to work.”

The question is when they should do it.

Trump, guided by a group of hedge fund and private equity titans, wants the country up and running again by Easter, though public health officials warn that’s too soon for a virus that’s killed more than 18,400 and infected at least 400,000 worldwide. Only companies with less than 500 employees are required to provide paid sick leave for workers out with Covid-19. Economists from Northwestern University calculated that keeping social distancing practices in place until cases decline could save 600,000 lives nationwide.

Lloyd Blankfein, who ran Goldman Sachs Group Inc. until 2018, helped kickstart the calls to get back to work on Sunday when he tweeted that “extreme measures to flatten the virus ‘curve’” were sensible “for a time” but could crush the economy: “Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.”

His longtime deputy, Gary Cohn, who left the bank to become Trump’s top economic adviser, asked if it was time “to start discussing the need for a date when the economy can turn back on.” Without clarity, businesses “will assume the worst,” he said.

Tilman Fertitta, owner of Golden Nugget casinos and Bubba Gump Shrimp, is calling on authorities to let businesses reopen at limited capacity in a couple of weeks to avoid a long economic disaster. Fertitta, who also owns the Houston Rockets and is worth $3.2 billion, said his company is “doing basically no business.” His demand goes against a school of thought that says prematurely reopening the economy could kill more people and eventually cause more economic harm.

Billionaires and other members of the elite have the luxury of social distancing while making money. The ones who want workers back in their jobs say they’re aiming to stop millions from suffering for years and falling further into debt. Officials are trying to accomplish that by restricting foreclosures and allowing Americans to defer mortgage payments.

“It’s outrageous,” said Robert Reich, who was labor secretary for President Bill Clinton and now studies public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “It is absolutely necessary to shut down the economy so that millions of people don’t die. For the privileged among us to fail to see that and to give the economy precedence over this public health emergency is morally reprehensible.”

The push to restart the economy makes a certain amount of sense to rich people, according to Reich, because they have come to expect disproportionate gains as the system’s top winners. “The one flaw in their logic this time is that the coronavirus doesn’t understand class,” he added. “The more people are infected, the more likely it is that Blankfein and other billionaires will become infected as well.”

Jim Conway was a server in an Olive Garden in Pennsylvania until it closed about two weeks ago. He’s been out of work and isn’t getting paid while his application for unemployment benefits gets processed.

“Being an older worker, I’m in no hurry to go back in the middle of an epidemic,” Conway, 63, said. “Being a server means you’re in contact with lots of different people, and puts you at bigger risk of getting infected. I’m kind of glad they closed when they did.” He wants the outbreak under control before the restaurant reopens, but worries that politicians and businesses tend to focus on their bottom line before people like him.

They’ve never really had our interests at heart,” he said. “And now would be a weird time to start.”

One of those government officials, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, said on Fox News that Americans should get back to work and let “grandparents” take care of themselves.

Dick Kovacevich, who ran Wells Fargo & Co. until 2007, wants to see healthy workers below about 55 or so to return to work late next month if the outbreak is under control. “We’ll gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know,” said Kovacevich, who was also the bank’s chairman until 2009. “Do you want to suffer more economically or take some risk that you’ll get flu-like symptoms and a flu-like experience? Do you want to take an economic risk or a health risk? You get to choose.”

Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks, wants Americans to listen to epidemiologists instead. “Ignore anything someone like me might say,” Cuban wrote in an email. “Lives are at stake.”

Is the Trump Cult a Death Cult?


This week, President Donald Trump began asserting that the United States would once again be “open for business” by Easter, on April 12. He provided no scientific or medical justification for that timeline, which Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House coronavirus task force has emphasized is “flexible.” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the president’s continuing refusal to take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously.

Reporter: You hope to have the country re-open by Easter, you said earlier you would like to see churches packed, who suggested Easter?

Donald J. Trump: I just thought it was a beautiful time. I’d love to see it come even sooner, but I just think it’d be a beautiful timeline.

[Music interlude.]

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan, coming to you from my home near Washington D.C. And very much still social distancing perhaps to President Trump’s great disappointment.

Adam Serwer: When they say they’re willing to die for the economy what they really mean is they’re willing to let you die for the economy. That’s what they mean.

MH: That’s my guest today, the brilliant chronicler of the Trump era, Atlantic writer Adam Serwer.

And yes, to be clear, Trump and his Fox News media echo chamber want to ‘reopen the economy’ by Easter and perhaps kill hundreds of thousands of people in the process. But why? Why would anyone in a position of such power defy the medical experts and risk so many innocent American lives? What goes on inside that deranged orange head of his?

On Sunday night, Fox News host Steve Hilton, who I’m embarrassed to say is a fellow British immigrant, he said this on his show:

Steve Hilton: Our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces whipping up fear over this virus, they can afford an indefinite shutdown. Working Americans can’t. They’ll be crushed by it. You know that famous phrase, “the cure is worse than the disease?” That is exactly the territory we are hurtling towards. You think it’s just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people.

MH: Hours later, Donald Trump was repeating that line “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF” in all capitals on Twitter. And like the man-child that he is, having just discovered a new rhetorical toy to play with, Trump’s been repeating it ad nauseum ever since.

DJT: I said, you know, I don’t want the cure to be worse than the problem itself. The problem being obviously the problem… We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem… It’s like this cure is worse than the problem… That’s why I talk about the cure being worse than the problem. We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.

MH: So too have his advisers. In fact, it was a perfect Fox News feedback loop – as Trump adviser Larry Kudlow, who’s been wrong about almost everything related to the US economy over the past two decades – he went on Fox and said:

Larry Kudlow: The president is right. The cure can’t be worse than the disease.

MH: By Wednesday, the president had made it clear – he wants social distancing and self quarantining and working from home, he wants it all over as soon as possible. Because he wants the US economy back up and running. Those vulnerable old people, those immuno-compromised folks, they can look after themselves. They’ll be fine. In fact, every time you think this president can’t say anything crazier on the subject of the coronavirus, he outdoes himself – here’s what he said to Fox News on Tuesday:

DJT: Easter’s a very special day for me and I see it sort of in that timeline that I’m thinking about. And I say wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches, you know the churches aren’t allowed essentially to have much of a congregation there and most of them, I watched on Sunday, online. And it was terrific, by the way, but online is never going to be like being there. So I think Easter Sunday and you’ll have packed churches all over our country. I think it would be a beautiful time and it’s just about the timeline that I think is right.

MH: Let’s be clear how mad this is – the idea of not just reopening the economy so soon but having packed churches anytime soon. We are in the midst of a pandemic. Almost every other country is trying to lockdown their population, keep them from going out, keep them away from gathering in big groups. This is not a left-wing or anti Trump conspiracy. Trump’s closest allies, British prime minister Boris Johnson and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, both of them this week announced a lockdown of their respective countries. Modi is trying to prevent a billion Indians from leaving their homes over the next three weeks in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

And yet this same week, Trump is saying he wants the few and belated restrictions that some US states put in place lifted. He wants the U.S. economy to go back to ‘normal,’ whatever that is, and he also wants packed churches, despite the fact that a study by scientists and doctors at Imperial College in the UK found that if this virus was left to spread, with no restrictions in place, it would lead to around 2.2 million deaths in America by the end of the summer.

2.2 million deaths, think about that. Trump, the president hailed by white evangelicals as a saviour of Christianity, could be the president who not only kills liberals, if that’s what they want, but also decimates the churchgoing population in this country. So why do it? Why go against the advice of his own top scientists, doctors, epidemiologists, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who want to keep social distancing in place?

I have three reasons.

Number 1: corporate greed. There’s the Wall Street/big business crew who don’t want anything to get in the way of their obscene, never-ending profits and bonuses and share buybacks, certainly not a pesky little pandemic. This week you had Gary Cohn, former COO at Goldman Sachs, former Trump economic adviser saying “it’s time to start discussing the need for a date when the economy can turn back on”. His fellow former Goldman Sachs boss, Lloyd Blankfein, a Democrat, tweeted: “Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.” Yeah, it’ll be fine.

Fox News hosts weighed in too:

Ed Henry: Now, every life matters and you don’t want to minimize any of them but when the mortality rate is that low, what is the balance? What would be your advice to the president if say he’s trying to make this decision this coming weekend ahead of the expiration of the 15 days to slow the spread?

MH: “Every life matters…but -” There really shouldn’t be a but after the words “every life matters.” Remember: this is supposed to be the pro-life party! But: The market is God. What the market wants, the market gets, even if you have to make human sacrifices at the altar of that market God.

So number 1, there’s the market-driven, profit-obsessed angle.

Number 2: there’s the personal greed, there’s Trump’s own personal bottom line. This is a president who wants to make money out of the White House, not lose money from it. As investigative reporter David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post tweeted this week, six out of seven of Trump’s biggest-name, biggest-revenue-generating resorts and golf clubs are closed right now. He obviously wants them back open again, and by the way, he also refuses to say whether he’ll accept or decline federal government bailout money for his own businesses:

Reporter: Do you expect your family company to seek government assistance if it’s eligible?

DJT: I don’t know. I mean, I just don’t know what the government assistance would be for what I have, I have hotels. Everybody knew I had hotels when I got elected. They knew I was a successful person when I got elected so it’s one of those things.

MH: But, number 3, perhaps above all else, Trump wants to get re-elected and he can’t get re-elected if the economy is in the middle of a Great Depression; if unemployment, as some predict, hits 30% and growth falls by 50%. He knows he can’t. His entire re-election strategy was to point to both a booming jobs market and a booming stock market as evidence of his presidential success. So let’s be clear: this is a president who is willing to sacrifice potentially hundreds of thousands if not millions of American lives in order to get himself a second term for a presidency which by the way he never really wanted in the first place.

What’s so frustrating though is that according to the polls, 6 out of 10 Americans approve of his handling of the crisis. Approve. I want to cry. I want to scream. What is wrong with them? Now, of course, part of that is just a rallying-around-the-flag-in-a-time-of-national-crisis phenomenon, a rallying-around-of-institutions – the presidency chief among them. As economist Stephanie Kelton pointed out in this show last week. And it’ll dissipate. That aspect of it will. Lest we forget, after 9/11, George W Bush had approval ratings of above 90% but he still left office as the one of the most unpopular presidents in modern American history. Now, of course Bush is popular again because he’s NOT Trump – and because Michelle Obama and Ellen have a soft spot for him. And because he paints. But I digress.

Trump has the whole ‘patriotism in a time of crisis’ thing going for him, but he also has benefited from the fact that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, was missing in action for much of last week and and when he turned up this week, I am sorry to say, he was typically wooden, underwhelming and uninspiring, especially for the moment we’re in:

Joe Biden: President Trump and Mitch McConnell are trying to put a corporate bailout ahead of millions of families. You know, it’s families. It’s simply wrong.

MH: And Trump has benefited because the Congressional Democratic leadership has not been radical enough – yes they’ve pushed back against Senate Republican attempts to give the Trump administration a half a trillion dollar corporate slush fund. Yes, they’ve pushed back against any kind of bailout for big corporations that allows share buybacks or bonuses for bosses. Yes, they’ve demanded some extra protections and income for workers, especially in the form of a boosted unemployment insurance payment, which is good… but overall their response is still very tame, given the scale and scope of this unprecedented economic crisis, given the severity and extent of the human suffering. I mean, if you want to see how far the Democrats still really need to go, just think about what other Western countries are doing to try and prevent this turning into another Great Depression.

  • France has a put a moratorium on all rent and utility payments.
  • Italy and Spain have done the same with mortgages.
  • Denmark has promised to cover 75% of salaries for businesses that don’t lay off their employees. And in the
  • Netherlands, they’re paying up to 90% of wages for companies hit hardest by the pandemic.

Why can’t the United States do any of this? Why are we now being told that the choice, the false choice, is only between saving the economy and fighting the virus? Why in the U.S., the richest country in the history of the world, which every couple of years seems to find a trillion or so dollars down the back of a couch in order to pay for the new invasion of some poor brown country or another, why can’t the U.S. do any of this? Why aren’t Democrats calling for a much bigger role for the government, in terms of bailing out people, not just corporations? Why aren’t they calling for much bigger checks for ordinary people, delivered not just as a one-off payment, but every month, going forward, until this crisis is over as Bernie Sanders and AOC and others have called for?

You know, a week or two ago, when the coronavirus pandemic started to really to take its toll here in the U.S., I thought for a moment, maybe this is the Donald Rumsfeld “unknown unknown” that finally knocks Trump off his pedestal, the crisis that causes him to lose the forthcoming presidential election. Now, I’m not so sure.

He still, after all, has his cult behind him, and what we’ve discovered in recent days, is that it’s not just a loyal cult, it’s a death cult. It is! Listen to devout Trumpist, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, speaking on – where else – Fox News this week:

Dan Patrick: Tucker, no one reached out to me and said as a senior citizen are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren. And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in. And that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me, I have six grandchildren, that what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children.

MH: Grandpa’s gotta die for the grandkids to enjoy eating out again. Sorry. Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent who led the bureau’s investigation into Al Qaeda in the run-up to 9/11, watched that clip of Patrick and tweeted, and I quote: “I’ve dealt with suicidal cults before. I encountered people who are willing to die for their faith, ideology, race, etc. But, I never encountered anyone who is willing to die for someone else’s 401k. This is a whole new level of craziness,” he tweeted.

Indeed it is. And so to talk more about this new level of craziness to try and make sense of, and deconstruct, this weird political terrain, and to try and understand the sheer insanity of the Trump posture on the coronavirus pandemic in particular, I’m joined by perhaps the chronicler of the Trump era, the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, who is the author of such brilliant and memorable essays as “The Nationalist’s Delusion”, “White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots” and, of course, the must-read that is “The Cruelty Is the Point.”

He joins me now from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Adam, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

Adam Serwer: Thank you for having me.

MH: You wrote in the Atlantic, Adam that after the coronavirus outbreak emerged in China, the rest of the world began to regard it as a threat to public health while Trump has seen it as a public relations problem, explain what you mean by that.

AS: Well, you can see from the moment that Trump was first asked about the coronavirus publicly on CNBC in late January, he said, you know, “China’s handling it, it’s fine”. And he repeated that line of “it’s fine” even when Americans started becoming infected. He said, you know, the cases are gonna be down to zero in a couple of days, you know, we were over 500 deaths in the United States. He simply thought that this was another issue, that if he repeated whatever his, you know, whatever message that he had settled on, if he just repeated his talking points over and over, he would be able to overwhelm whatever else anybody was saying about it which is a strategy that has honestly worked for him many times before. It may even work here, who knows? Even though the bodies are starting to pile up. But what’s certainly true is that it has not solved the problem, which is that the United States is being hit by a deadly pandemic, and hospitals are being overwhelmed and people are dying.

MH: But as you say, it may even work here. That’s the big kind of political question in all of this separate to the scientific and public health question because it has worked before. And Bill Gates talked this week about, you know, a pile of bodies in the corner. Are you saying that even with that pile of bodies, God forbid in the corner as the death toll is mounting day after day, that he can still get away with it? You think that his blustering through like he did in this “Fox News townhall” this week that might work politically?

AS: I mean, I think that there is a large segment of the electorate that rationalizes, ignores or denies anything, any negative information associated with Trump that they see as incongruent with Trump as they see him. And so it’s really you know, it’s really a question of, you know, to what extent these people still have the ability to sway a national election. But the truth is also that in the absence of you know, for the most part the Democrats have been really absent from this debate over whether or not Trump has properly handled their coronavirus pandemic. And so Trump has been on TV every night and there is getting edited down into local news clips to where he sounds coherent and responsible. Despite the way he actually handled this which is by ignoring his own advisers and treaties to prepare for a serious possible outbreak here in the United States.

MH: And despite the fact that when you don’t edit him down to bite sized chunks for evening news, he’s mad and rambling.

AS: Right, he sounds rambling, he says things that aren’t true. He says things like, you know, I don’t want to let infected Americans off a cruise ship because I don’t want the number of infected to go up in the United States as though that was the main issue. But you know, to the extent that the Democrats have absented themselves from the political debate over this issue, you can see Americans who are, you know, even Democrats are starting to approve of the way that Trump is handling this, which is honestly given the way that he’s handled it, which was waiting until it became an undeniable problem to do anything about it is actually insane.

MH: So I want to talk to you about the Trump base that you rightly said rationalizes his behavior, but I also want to talk about the Democrats. But let’s just stick with the Thanos-like figure that we have running the government right now, given what you know about Trump and how he behaves, were you surprised to hear the President say what he said on Tuesday that he wanted the economy up and running again, open again in time for Easter, and, “packed churches?” Did that surprise you? Shock you?

AS: No, it doesn’t because I mean, the only thing that has ever motivated Trump is what’s good for Trump. And to the extent that the whole country doesn’t see that it’s because of a propaganda apparatus that surrounds him that has built up a cult of personality that is, you know, to some extent, impervious to outside intervention. You know, so for him to say, you know, he did not take this seriously until the stock market started crashing which threatened his political prospects. And so now, you know, he sees an economic downturn as a result of these social distancing strategies which are meant to contain a pandemic, and he’s saying, well, we need to get the economy running again no matter what it costs. The problem with that, obviously, is that when people start dying again, the economy is going to slow down anyway. So there isn’t a choice here. I mean, obviously, eventually, we have to like, eventually, when the epidemic is contained, we need to ease people back into you know, something resembling a normal life, but you can’t do that if a deadly disease is still ravaging everything. People aren’t going to go to restaurants, they’re not going to send their kids to school. They’re not gonna go out and buy cars and iPhones or whatever.

MH: Yes, you’re right. It’s stating the obvious that if hundreds of thousands of people die, which is what epidemiologists say will happen, if these restrictions are lifted the know the economy can’t continue as normal if millions of members of the workforce are dropping dead and overwhelming hospitals. Just going back to your propaganda machine point you wrote in The Atlantic about this sort of toxic symbiosis that exists between the President and his right wing media echo chamber, especially Fox News, which both amplify his false statements about the virus, but also provide him with crazy fodder to repeat you know, this line this week about the cure is can’t be worse than the disease which you just lifted from Fox. You also mentioned an Arkansas pastor who was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “In your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype.” Have we ever seen a public political party media response to a pandemic like this before, just so loaded and so, so filled with kind of partisan meaning and baggage?

AS: Well, I’m not a historian of infectious diseases, so I can’t answer that. But I can say that, you know, the behavior of Fox News has been really extraordinary here. Because what they did was when the President was downplaying the epidemic, Fox News was downplaying the epidemic. And when the President decided that he needed to sort of take charge and show everybody he was doing his job, Fox News, talked about how heroic the President was being. And now that, you know, the President is worried about his re-election, Fox News is encouraging him to think about opening up the economy again, which is, I mean, it’s not even clear to me what that entails except exposing people to potential infection.

MH: But which of them Adam is the dog and which of them is the tail?

AS: I don’t think – It’s not actually clear. I mean, I don’t think that’s actually fair because in one sense, Trump looks at Fox is a kind of like pipeline to his base. And also Fox sees Trump as an important asset for their political project. So, they sort of mutually stand each other up. Fox defends the president no matter what he does, and when they think he’s, and you can see this sometimes on Fox, when people on Fox think of President is getting himself in danger as you know, Fox News host Tucker Carlson did earlier this month, he tried to convince the president that actually the epidemic was a serious thing, and he should start taking it seriously. But until then, you know, Fox News was endangering its own audience by telling them that the coronavirus was nothing to worry about.

And what’s fascinating about that, is that Fox imagines itself as a corrective to the mainstream media, which supposedly lies to you all the time for political reasons. But what we have here is Fox which, you know, internally, they were saying we need to take precautions to worry about this epidemic, but they were broadcasting the message that there was nothing to worry about. And that’s because their role is to protect the president and make sure that conservative base sees them as infallible. It’s not to actually inform the conservative base about information that is vital to their well being. In fact, when they had the opportunity to do that what they did was endanger them by lying to them about how serious this was.

MH: So you’ve followed this presidency closely. You’ve written extensively about Trump. Do you believe his handling of this crisis is a product of ignorance, of his sheer dumbness, of his conspiratorial anti-scientific mindset? Or is he just a sociopath who knows what he’s doing could kill millions of people, but he just doesn’t care because he firmly believes his reelection is more important to the world than social distancing or saving American lives?

AS: I think the most simplest thing to understand about Trump is he thinks that everything is about him. So he will always look out for number one. The federal government there is to do what he wants. Even the governors of states who are begging him for aid have to be nice to Mr. Trump if they want to get it. So you know, the sort of authoritarian cult of personality that has been built up around him sees the same thing. Trump is basically the nation to them. So, Trump cannot betray the nation. He can’t betray the public trust because he is all of those things. He is those things manifested. So there’s nothing that he can do that is actually selfish, whatever acts that might be selfish in another context by another chief executive, by another human being are not selfish because Trump is the country and therefore he is serving the country. So when Trump is pursuing his own self interest, no matter the human cost, even when it’s a pursuit that exposes Americans to a deadly disease because he doesn’t feel like dealing with it until the stock market crashes, he is still serving the country loyally because after all, to serve Trump loyally is to serve the country loyally. And this is a sort of very dangerous political mentality, and one that unfortunately, the country is going to be dealing with the consequences of for a very long time.

MH: And it’s not just a dangerous political reality and tendency, but also the public health aspects here are bizarre because in China which is a dictatorship, they actually used the authoritarian powers some would argue, to shut down things in a way a democracy can’t and therefore contain the infection, contain the pandemic. Here in the U.S., the authoritarianism that we have in the White House is actually hampering the response to this crisis because instead of people going out and locking down the country, the authoritarianism is manifesting itself in public health officials, scientists standing up in public and lavishing praise on Trump, because they know that’s the only way he’ll even vaguely entertain what they have to say. So you have respected members of the scientific establishment, public officials beginning each and every statement in front of a camera by praising Trump.

AS: So I want to push back on this a little bit because the Chinese government did actually suppress the understanding of the disease. They said that it wasn’t transmissible between humans, they silenced a doctor who was saying this was a very serious problem.

MH: They have a lot to answer for.

AS: And when that doctor died, there was a huge, you know, one of the biggest public outcries we’ve seen in China because of you know, he had been trying to inform the public about the deadliness of this disease. So the thing about authoritarian figures is that they will always pursue the path that they think is necessary for their political survival. And in terms of public benefit, you know, the public will only benefit as long as the interests of the authoritarian figure align with the public interest. So as long as those two things are not aligned, in other words, as long as Trump thought that he could bluster his way through the disease in the early months of this year by saying, “Oh, it’s not a big deal, it’s gonna go away,” he was doing that. And now that, you know, it’s obviously a serious problem, he’s pursuing his own self interest and you know, signing a stimulus package that’s going to, you know, try to cushion the impact of this on the economy. But he’s actually still only pursuing his own self interest in the same way that China was.

MH: Do you think and I hate to ask this question, because I’ll probably feel like a naive fool as I say the word but I’m gonna say it anyways, do you think this is the moment that the Republican party or at least some congressional Republicans dare to split with him? There’s been reporting from Politico that fear is stalking the corridors of Capitol Hill as people are getting infected. Even GOP Congresswoman Liz Cheney, daughter of the ghoulish Dick, normally loyal Trumpist was tweeting this week that now is not the time to end social distancing or reopen the economy. Now is the time to fight the pandemic. If you have Republicans, who, unlike the base, actually realize that their lives are at stake. Do you think this might be a moment they think, “You know what? We need to push back against Donald Trump. He’s risking our lives and our family’s lives”?

AS: No, I do not. And I’ll tell you why because if you look at those statements, do you notice that they exempt the president from, the criticism is implied, it’s implicit, the only thing that will break Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party and the cult of personality that surrounds him is political defeat.

MH: And we don’t know what’s going to happen. I want to come back to political defeat and whether it’s happening or not. Just in terms of the grip on the party, then just sticking with your point. There is this irony that when people like Dan Patrick, of your state of Texas and Glenn Beck even say stuff like “Well, we’re old and we’re willing to die for our economy to survive,” which has become a weird right-wing talking point this week –

AS: When they say they’re willing to die for the economy, what they really mean is they’re willing to let you die for the economy. That’s what they mean.

MH: Of course, because Glenn Beck wasn’t the guy who went to volunteer to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan even as he kind of praised all that nonsense. But when they say stuff like that, and when Trump says he wants to see packed churches in a couple of weeks time, old people and evangelicals in churches are basically the Trump base. They’re risking killing off their own base, aren’t they?

AS: I mean, look, if you’re asking me whether I think that Trump actually cares about the well being of these people, or whether Fox or whether conservative media actually cares about these people’s well being, the answer is no. But I think, you know, the issue here is that they are appealing to a sentiment that I think is actually quite widespread and that people should not dismiss which is that it is very scary to be out of work. It is very scary to wonder whether you’re going to be able to pay the rent on your apartment, get food for your family, you know whether you’re gonna be able to pay your bills, your student loans, this is very scary. This is a very scary moment. So when a used car salesman comes up to you and says we can just reopen the economy and it’s going to be fine. It is tempting to say, okay, hopefully this guy is telling the truth, hopefully he’s right because this is a very scary situation that I’m in. And what that means, to me that makes this all the more despicable because everybody knows what the danger is here to thousands, if not possibly millions of people all over the country based on some of the most pessimistic epidemiological assessments. You know, people really are scared and they really want to hear that this is going to be over soon.

MH: But here’s where I would slightly push back against you and say you’re being a little bit too generous is that the people who really are scared aren’t necessarily all of the people we’ve being hearing this week.

AS: No, I think that’s right.

MH: I think there’s a definite issue for the left. And we discussed this last week on the show with AOC and with Stephanie Kelton, which has come up with an actual solution to stop the bleeding now, a big economic plan that actually helps people. The choice is not between let people die and save the economy. You can save the economy and prevent people from dying, as European countries seem to be doing slowly.

AS: That’s exactly right. And you can’t actually save the economy by letting people die. You can’t actually save the economy that way.

MH: So coming back to the let people die, that seems to just be some kind of weird, you know, macho Trumpist, you know, push back against basically conventional science and, and the libs.

AS: There is a tremendous temptation for people on Twitter who are never going to have to put their actions to their words to act like tough guys. It happens all the time. It’s extraordinarily stupid.

MH: So on that basis, let me ask you this question: We’ve always known that Trump is in charge of a cult, or at least some of us, as you and I have pointed that out before. Do you think it’s now fair to call the Trump cult a death cult?

AS: I mean, I don’t know whether I would put that label on it. But I can say that the rationalizations that I’m seeing on social media with regards to either the death toll in New York, or the human cost of simply, you know, ending social distancing before we have the epidemic under control is absolutely sociopathic. It is cruel, it is wrong, and it’s disgusting.

MH: And it’s not just disgusting. It’s totally hypocritical because these are the same people Glenn Beck, who went crazy in 2009 over so-called death panels that were involved in Obamacare, and now we have the president of the Unites States a Republican, literally implementing the idea of death panels, saying some people need to die for the rest of us to get what we want economically. And the whole cult aspect is fascinating because the writer Ed Solomon tweeted this week, and I quote, “It’s happening. Trump is now literally killing people on Fifth Avenue.” And he was right, his followers don’t care.

AS: I mean, look, there are doctors who are having to make horrible decisions about who’s gonna be put on a ventilator and who’s not. You know, this is scary stuff. And it’s really extraordinary for a bunch of big guys who essentially shitpost on Twitter for a living, to go out and talk about the great sacrifice they’re willing to make. They’re doing nothing, absolutely nothing. And it’s a disgrace that they think of themselves as offering something to the country, some great sacrifice while there are people working, medical workers working 12 and 14-15 hour shifts, trying to keep human beings alive and have to, you know, in an epidemic that they initially said wasn’t a big deal.

MH: I want to read you a quote from journalist Tom Kludt. On Twitter this week, he said, “We’re days away from calls for social distancing being met with a series of cry laughing emojis and conservatives gathering in large groups to trigger the libs.” He’s right, isn’t he? The Republicans, the right have successfully made a pandemic and medical advice on how to handle a pandemic into part of the culture wars.

AS: Well, look, the writer Jonathan Katz, who’s covered a lot of disasters, you know, the way he put it is that we’re not actually in the disaster yet. So despite the fact that we’ve you know, we’ve reached hundreds of deaths already, it’s actually going to get worse this week. And so, you know, I’m not going to make any predictions about what’s going to happen or to what extent this is going to become a culture war issue. But I think that, at the moment, part of the right’s reaction to this is a callous disregard for the lives of people in cities like New York, whom they consider lesser than them. You know, because it’s happening in blue areas. It’s not a big deal. Well, look, it’s a disease. It does not discriminate based on political affiliation. It’s going to come for other areas of the country, too. And it’s not going to be funny when it does. It’s going to be terrible.

MH: Yep. And Louisiana has already had to declare an emergency as it’s spreading there. We have Rand Paul testing positive and behaving irresponsibly wandering around the halls of the Senate while he was waiting for his test results. How worried are you, Adam, about the poll that came out this week showing almost 50% approval rating for Trump and 60% approval for his handling of the crisis which of course defies reality in many ways? Is that just a patriotic rallying around the flag? Because 60% approval means Democrats are saying he’s handling the crisis well.

AS: I’m not a polling expert. But what I would say is that I think it reflects two things. One is that there is a rally effect. And when you look at the polls of George W. Bush after 9/11, this is actually a pretty small rally effect, if that’s what’s happening. The other thing is, like I said earlier, the Democrats have essentially ceded the political conversation to the president. So it’s not a surprise that people who are only hearing one side of the story, you know, think that side is right.

MH: Why do you think that is? Why do you think the Democrats have ceded it?

AS: I don’t know. I mean, this is a story for someone who’s in Washington on Capitol Hill, who’s talking to these people who can explain what’s going on. I mean, I think they would probably say, “Well, look, we’re trying to save the country right now. You know, unlike Trump, we actually have to do our jobs. We can’t just go on TV every day and do nothing.”

MH: Well, they could go on TV every day, if they wanted to. They could hold a simultaneous press conference saying everything he just said is a lie.

AS: They could put someone on TV every day. You know, and who knows, maybe they will after this deal is done and after they’ve managed to secure some form of aid for the people who are going to be suffering because of this. But I think you know what you’re saying, like, I don’t want to trivialize politics. Politics is how societies make collective decisions. It is not, you know, to say that, oh, we’re not going to play politics, what you’re really saying is that you’re going to take yourself out of that process of making decisions. It’s not really an option. You know, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what the future holds. I think, you know, things are going to get worse before they get better. And I think that the president has obviously done an awful job. And that’s going to become apparent when you compare the impact of the pandemic in the United States compared to other countries, whether or not that affects his political fortunes, I have no idea. You know, I’m not going to make any predictions about that.

MH: The problem with the comparison with other countries, of course is by the time we have it, it may well be too late. And I’m glad you made the point about politics because it really drives me up the wall when people say, let’s not politicize this, it’s not a time for politics, especially when liberals and centrist say this. Because if you’re distributing hundreds of billions of taxpayer money, billions of dollars and you have to choose between whether it goes to corporations or to real people, that is a political decision, that cannot be un-politicized. And I just find it bizarre when people who should know better say this. Just before we finish, you mentioned the Democrats. We saw the return of Joe Biden this week, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, the front runner. He gave a speech from his home. He did a bunch of TV interviews, in some of which he made some good strong points about what to do next. And then some of which he failed to complete simple sentences and coughed into his hands. Do you have faith that Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump in November, especially after or in the midst of this crisis?

AS: I don’t have any political prognostications to make about Biden. I mean, look, I’ve been very critical of Joe Biden and very critical of his past record. I do think that you know, the primary showed that he has more of a political strength with sort of average Democrats than I think a lot of people in the press anticipated, whether or not that makes you happy or it makes you sad, it’s obviously true. I think the question really is, is does that strength persist in a general election with Donald Trump? And does it work to neutralize the ideal geographic distribution of his support and the electoral college? And I don’t think we know the answer.

MH: Just before you go, Adam, there was a very powerful tweet you did last week that really got to me. I shared it with friends and family of mine on WhatsApp and text. I just want to read it out to our listeners, as we end our conversation. You wrote, “Adults can’t visit their parents. Parents can’t visit their adult children. And if they could, they couldn’t even embrace each other. I don’t know how many, but some of us hugged our loved ones for the last time, and we don’t know it yet,” is what you wrote. When I read that, it really got to me because I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. And my parents, I’m in the United States, my parents, elderly parents are abroad. I have no idea when I’m next going to see them, praying that I see them soon. I’m sure many people listening to this show. What do you think people are going through? When you wrote that tweet, what were you thinking? What were you going through? What do you think people are going through right now when it comes to that very fundamental issue of human relationships?

AS: I think I think it’s just crushing. I mean, I miss my parents. My parents are old enough to be in the risk group. So you know, they were actually supposed to come visit before air travel shut down, and I didn’t get to see them. And I think you know, and I was looking on Instagram and a friend who lives in the same city as their parents, their parents came over, but they had to, they couldn’t touch each other. They had to stay far away from each other. While they were able to see each other they weren’t even able to embrace and it just made me think about, you know, the extent to which, you know, we’re all like, we cannot do this. This epidemic has deprived us of one of the simplest, like simplest human comforts that have helped sustain people in the worst times in the history of humanity, which is the embrace of our loved ones. And it is just extremely tragic and sad. And it also makes me extremely angry about how this government has handled, you know, what it saw coming way in advance long enough to prepare for it and it did not.

MH: Me too, Adam, which is why I wanted to get you on the show today. Thank you so much for taking time out. Stay safe, my friend, talk soon.

AS: Thank you for having me.

MH: Thanks, Adam.

AS: Take care.

MH: That was Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic. Check out his pieces for them, they’re always, always brilliant and insightful. Adam says that Trump and Fox don’t actually care about the people in their base who could die from this disease and from believing that it isn’t a threat and doesn’t require social distancing and other precautionary measures. The thing is – how do you get through to a cult, a death cult? And how do you stop them from endangering all the rest of us too? It’s one of the biggest questions of our time and one we’ll continue to examine and explore here on Deconstructed.

[Music interlude.]

MH: But for now, that’s our show. Stay safe and indoors, if you can.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!

See you next week.