There are limits to what ordinary people are willing to endure to secure their employers’ bottom line.
Chris Christie, a Trump supporter and a former New Jersey governor, pleaded with Americans on May 5 to risk disease and death by returning to work. “Everybody wants to save every life they can,” he said, but “we’ve got to let some of these folks get back to work.” Otherwise “we’re going to destroy the American way of life in these families.”
The “American way of life” is shaping up to be a battleground.
On one side is the working class. From Amazon warehouse workers to striking sanitation workers in New Orleans, there are limits to what ordinary people are willing to endure to secure their employers’ bottom line. Resistance to oppression and exploitation is a familiar experience for millions of workers in this country. And when workers have not found justice or relief in mainstream politics, they have turned to more combative ways of mobilizing to secure it.
On the other side is the Republican Party, led by the Trump administration, which has accelerated its call for states to “reopen” the economy by sending people back to work. While President Trump admits that some people will “be affected badly,” nonetheless “we have to get our country open.”
Public health experts disagree. Instead, they argue that testing rates must “double or triple” and that we need a more intense regime of “contact tracing” and isolation. This has been the established pattern in countries that managed the coronavirus with success. But without these measures, forecast models predict a sharp rise in fatalities. A conservative model that in mid-April predicted a ghastly death toll of 60,000 by August now estimates 147,000 fatalities by August. Just as the rate of infection drops in cities like New York and Detroit, new outbreaks threaten to emerge elsewhere where restrictions are being relaxed.
But if we expect tens of millions of people to stay at home for even longer, that is possible only if people have access to income, food, stable housing and reliable health care. If people cannot work, then these things will have to be provided by the federal government. It is that simple.
For Republicans, the “American way of life” as one with big government social welfare programs would be worse than the pandemic. At the core of their vision of the United States is a celebration of supposed rugged individualism and self-sufficiency where hard work is valorized and creates success. Of course, the contrapositive is also believed to be true, that when people have not been successful it is because they did not work hard enough.
Buried within this is the false notion that the U.S. is free from the hierarchies of class. Instead, Republicans and most mainstream Democrats would argue, America has fluid social mobility where a person’s fortitude determines the heights of his or her success. This powerful narrative has motivated millions to migrate to this country. But for tens of millions, this view of ‘the American way of life’ has no bearing on their lives.
Typically, the contradictions of our society are buried beneath the American flag, suffocating hubris and triumphalist claims of exceptionalism. But the pandemic has pushed all of the country’s problems to the center of American life. It has also highlighted how our political class, disproportionately wealthy and white, dithers for weeks, only to produce underwhelming “rescue” bills that, at best, do no more than barely maintain the status quo.
The median wealth of a U.S. senator was $3.2 million as of 2018, and $900,000 for a member of the House of Representatives. These elected officials voted for one-time stimulus checks of $1,200 as if that was enough to sustain workers, whose median income is $61,973 and who are now nearly two months into various mandates to shelter-in-place and not work outside their homes. As a result, a tale of two pandemics has emerged.
The crisis spotlights the vicious class divide cleaving through our society and the ways it is also permeated with racism and xenophobia. African-Americans endure disproportionate exposure to the disease, and an alarming number of videos show black people being brutalized by the police for not wearing masks or social distancing, while middle-class white people doing the same things are left in peace. In New York City, 92 percent of those arrested for violating rules regarding social distancing and 82 percent of those receiving summons for the same offense have been black or Latino.
Our society imagines itself to be impervious to the rigidities of class, but it is overwhelmed with suffering, deprivation and hunger. Food banks across the country report extraordinary demand, producing an almost shocking rebuke of the image of a country of universal abundance. According to one report, a food bank along the affluent New Jersey shore has set up a text service allowing people to discreetly pick up their food.
Elsewhere, the signs of a crisis that looks like the Great Depression are impossible to hide. In Anaheim, Calif., home to Disneyland, cars formed half-mile-long lines in two different directions, waiting to pick up free food. In San Antonio, 10,000 cars waited for hours to receive food from a food bank. Even still, Republicans balk at expanding access to food stamps while hunger is on the rise. Nearly one in five children 12 and younger don’t have enough to eat.
That “way of life” may also begin to look like mass homelessness. Through the first five days of April, 31 percent of tenants nationwide had failed to pay their rent. And while more people paid in May, continued payments seem unsustainable as millions fall into unemployment. Forty-three million households rent in the U.S., but there is no public rental assistance for residents who lose the ability to afford their rent. With only a few weeks left on many eviction moratoriums, there is a thin line between a place to shelter in and homelessness for tens of millions of Americans.
Many elected officials in the Republican Party have access to Covid-19 testing, quality health care and the ultimate cushion of wealth to protect them. Yet they suggest others take the “risk” of returning to work as an act of patriotism necessary to regenerate the economy. This is duplicitous and obscures the manipulation of U.S. workers.
While the recent stimulus bills doled out trillions of dollars to corporate America and the “financial sector,” the smallest allocations have provided cash, food, rent or health care for citizens. The gaps in the thin membrane of a safety net for ordinary Americans have made it impossible to do anything other than return to work.
This isn’t just malfeasance or incompetence. Part of the “American way of life” for at least some of these elected officials is keeping workers just poor enough to ensure that the “essential” work force stays shows up each day. In place of decent wages, hazard pay, robust distribution of personal protective equipment and the simplest guarantees of health and safety, these lawmakers use the threat of starvation and homelessness to keep the work force intact.
In the case of the meatpacking industry, there is not even a veil of choice, as those jobs are inexplicably labeled essential, as if life cannot go on without meat consumption. The largely immigrant and black meatpacking work force has been treated barely better than the carcasses they process. They are completely expendable. Thousands have tested positive, but the plants chug along, while employers offer the bare minimum by way of safety protections, according to workers. If there were any question about the conditions endured in meatpacking plants, consider that 145 meat inspectors have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and three have died.
The statements of the two senators from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, vociferously opposing the extension of $600 supplemental payments to unemployment insurance, offer another stark example of how workers are being compelled to return to unsafe work environments. Mr. Scott referred to the supplement as a “perverse incentive” to not work. He and Mr. Graham argued that the payments were more than some workers’ salaries, which is an indictment of the jobs and the companies, not the employees.
This is not the first time Southern politicians have complained that government aid to poor or working-class people would undermine their perverse reliance on low-wage labor. During the Great Depression, Southern leaders opposed new systems of social welfare over fear it would undermine “the civilization to which we are accustomed,” as a newspaper in Charleston, S.C., described it. The crude version came from an official in Alabama who insisted that welfare payments to African-Americans should be lower because, “Negroes just don’t want to work.” The logic was that if you could pay black men a nickel then white men would celebrate being paid a dime. Meanwhile, the prevailing wages elsewhere were significantly higher than both. This is why wages are still lower across the South than elsewhere in the country.
American progress means that Mr. Scott, an African-American senator from South Carolina, now voices these ideas. But then as now, complaints about social welfare are central to disciplining the labor force. Discipline in the U.S. has always included low and inconsistent unemployment and welfare combined with stark deprivation. Each has resulted in a hyper-productive work force with few benefits in comparison to America’s peer countries.
This is at the heart of the conflict over reopening the country or allowing people to continue to shelter-in-place to suppress the virus. But if the social distancing and closures were ever going to be successful, it would have meant providing all workers with the means to live in comfort at home while they waited out the disease. Instead, they have been offered the choice of hunger and homelessness or death and disease at work.
The governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, made this painfully clear when she announced that not only was Iowa reopening, but that furloughed workers in private or public employment who refused to work out of fear of being infected would lose current unemployment benefits. She described these workers’ choices as a “voluntary quit.”
The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services is also instructing employers to report workers who refuse to go to work because of the pandemic. Part of what’s going on is the crush of people filing for benefits means state funds are shrinking. This is exacerbated by the reluctance of the Trump administration to bail out state governments. That the U.S. government would funnel trillions to corporate America but balk at sending money to state governments also appears to be part of “the American way of life” that resembles the financial sector bailout in 2008.
This cannot all be laid at the feet of the Trump administration, though it has undeniably made life worse for millions. These are also the bitter fruits of decades of public policies that have denigrated the need for a social safety net while gambling on growth to keep the heads of U.S. workers above water just enough to ward off any real complaints or protests.
The attacks on welfare, food stamps, public housing and all of the attendant programs that could mitigate the worst aspects of this disaster continue to be bipartisan. The loud praise of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, in contrast to the poor performance of President Trump, has overshadowed protests against his $400 million cuts to hospitals in New York as the virus was raging through the city.
There will be many more examples of Democrats wielding the ax in response to unprecedented budget shortages in the coming months. With the increasing scale of the crisis — as unemployment grows to an otherworldly 36.5 million people while states run out of money and contemplate cutting Medicaid and other already meager kinds of social welfare — the vast need for government assistance will test the political class’s aversion to such intervention.
During the long and uneven recovery from the Great Recession, the warped distribution of wealth led to protests and labor organizing. The crisis unfolding today is already deeper and much more catastrophic to a wider swath of workers than anything since the 1930s. The status quo is untenable.
The South Carolina senator once put a lot of effort into cultivating an image of a reasonable, sober, sensible, moderate Republican, willing to reach out across the aisle, willing to stick up for his principles, willing to denounce Donald Trump. But today, there is no position he won’t abandon, no U-turn he won’t perform, no lie he will not tell.
Because he’s just a bully with delusions of grandeur.
International crises often lead, at least initially, to surging support for a country’s leadership. And that’s clearly happening now. Just weeks ago the nation’s leader faced public discontent so intense that his grip on power seemed at risk. Now the assassination of Qassim Suleimani has transformed the situation, generating a wave of patriotism that has greatly bolstered the people in charge.
Unfortunately, this patriotic rallying around the flag is happening not in America, where many are (with good reason) deeply suspicious of Donald Trump’s motives, but in Iran.
In other words, Trump’s latest attempt to bully another country has backfired — just like all his previous attempts.
From his first days in office, Trump has acted on the apparent belief that he could easily intimidate foreign governments — that they would quickly fold and allow themselves to be humiliated. That is, he imagined that he faced a world of Lindsey Grahams, willing to abandon all dignity at the first hint of a challenge.
But this strategy keeps failing; the regimes he threatens are strengthened rather than weakened, and Trump is the one who ends up making humiliating concessions.
Remember, for example, when Trump promised “fire and fury” unless North Korea halted its nuclear weapons program? He claimed triumph after a 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. But Kim made no real concessions, and North Korea recently announced that it might resume tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Or consider the trade war with China, which was supposed to bring the Chinese to their knees. A deal has supposedly been reached, although details remain scarce; what’s clear is that it falls far short of U.S. aims, and that Chinese officials are jubilant about their success in facing Trump down.
Why does Trump’s international strategy, which might be described as winning through intimidation, keep failing? And why does he keep pursuing it anyway?
One answer, I suspect, is that like all too many Americans, Trump has a hard time grasping the fact that other countries are real — that is, that we’re not the only country whose citizens would rather pay a heavy price, in money and even in blood, than make what they see as humiliating concessions.
Ask yourself, how would Americans have reacted if a foreign power had assassinated Dick Cheney, claiming that he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands? Don’t answer that Suleimani was worse. That’s beside the point. The point is that we don’t accept the right of foreign governments to kill our officials. Why imagine that other countries are different?
Of course, we have many people in the diplomatic corps with a deep knowledge of other nations and their motivations, who understand the limits of intimidation. But anyone with that kind of understanding has been excluded from Trump’s inner circle.
Now, it’s true that for many years America did have a special leadership position, one that sometimes involved playing a role in reshaping other countries’ political systems. But here’s where Trump’s second error comes in: He has never shown any sign of understanding why America used to be special.
Part of the explanation, of course, was raw economic and military power: America used to be just much bigger than everyone else. That is, however, no longer true. For example, by some key measures China’s economy is significantly bigger than that of the United States.
Even more important, however, was the fact that America was something more than a big country throwing its weight around. We always stood for something larger.
That doesn’t mean that we were always a force for good; America did many terrible things during its reign as global hegemon. But we clearly stood for global rule of law, for a system that imposed common rules on everyone, ourselves included. The United States may have been the dominant partner in alliances like NATO and bodies like the World Trade Organization, but we always tried to behave as no more than first among equals.
Oh, and because we were committed to enforcing rules, we were also relatively trustworthy; an alliance with America was meaningful, because we weren’t the kind of country that would betray an ally for the sake of short-term political convenience.
Trump, however, has turned his back on everything that used to make America great. Under his leadership, we’ve become nothing more than a big, self-interested bully — a bully with delusions of grandeur, who isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks. We abruptly
- abandon allies like the Kurds;
- we honor war criminals; we
- slap punitive tariffs on friendly nations like Canada for no good reason. And, of course,
- after more than 15,000 lies, nothing our leader and his minions say can be trusted.
Trump officials seem taken aback by the uniformly negative consequences of the Suleimani killing: The Iranian regime is empowered, Iraq has turned hostile and nobody has stepped up in our support. But that’s what happens when you betray all your friends and squander all your credibility.
It was a cri de cœur from Lindsey Graham, the lament of the sycophant scorned.
President Trump’s decision to abandon our Kurdish allies in Syria by leaving them undefended against a Turkish invasion was, Graham tweeted, “a disaster” and a “nightmare.”
“President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam,” he wrote pointedly of his good friend. “They are NOT tired of fighting us.” And he commented on the signal Trump’s decision sent to the world: “By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible – America is an unreliable ally and it’s just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways.“
In his cruelest cut of all, he compared Trump to Barack Obama. “No matter what President Trump is saying about his decision,” wrote Graham on Twitter, “it is EXACTLY what President Obama did in Iraq with even more disastrous consequences for our national security.”
Graham’s disappointment was palpable, but understandable, given all that he has given up to avoid this moment.
For the last several years, Graham has transformed himself from one of Trump’s fiercest critics, into one of his most reflexive defenders. Even by the cynical and shape-shifting standards of Washington, Graham’s metamorphosis has been a thing of wonder. The senator once known as John McCain’s best friend in the Senate, transformed himself into Trump’s shinebox, willing to ingratiate himself with rationalizations and praise even as Trump became increasingly erratic.
At first, it was a mere curiosity. During the 2016 campaign, Graham had called Trump a “nutjob” and a loser,” as well as a “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” He predicted that if the GOP nominated him, “we will get destroyed…….and we will deserve it.”
But as McCain faded from the scene, Graham seemed to shift his affections to the man who so publicly insulted McCain.
Graham and Trump became a thing. They played golf. They talked on the phone. And an alliance of the oddest imaginable bedfellows was born.
In moments of candor, Graham tried to explain the deal he thought he was making. When Mark Leibovich asked him earlier this year what had happened to him, Graham explained:
“Well, O.K., from my point of view, if you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this,” he said.
I asked what “this” was. “ ‘This,’ ” Graham said, “is to try to be relevant.” Politics, he explained, was the art of what works and what brings desired outcomes. “I’ve got an opportunity up here working with the president to get some really good outcomes for the country,” he told me.
Like many others in his party, staying “relevant” was central to their political calculations. Capitulating to Trump meant that Graham would become a rock star in the increasingly Trumpist party and virtually assured of re-election in South Carolina next year.
He would also have the president’s ear. And this was at the heart of Graham’s Bargain.
Graham told himself: by staying close to Trump, he could influence him and prevent horribly bad decisions. Others made the same calculation, but Graham made the uber-tradeoff, because the stakes were so high. What did it matter if he had to endure temporary embarrassments, abase himself on cable television, or even become a political punchline, if he could stop Trump from impulsive decisions regarding Russia or North Korea? Or Syria?
The world saw Graham as a craven, cringing Uriah Heep. Graham saw himself as someone who could save the world, or at least the Kurds.
Graham calculated: If he didn’t play golf with Trump and indulge his penchant for pillow talk, Trump would be putting and chatting with Rand Paul, listening to the counsels of isolationism, appeasement and international amorality. He was not simply the adult in the room; he was the adult BFF in the room, who would temper Trump’s worst instincts.
And then came Trump’s decision.
Despite Graham’s compulsive turd-polishing of the last few years, Trump didn’t even consult him before making the decision to abandon the Kurds. Graham, who had given up so much self-respect to prevent just this outcome, was not even in the room. He didn’t even get a text.
This is the thing about Faustian bargains. The price is high and the rewards turn out to be illusory. They end badly.
This week, Lindsey Graham, found that out the hard way. I wonder what they’ll talk about the next time they go golfing together.