The question of whether these arrests are appropriate has a clear answer—at least in a nation that purports to live under the rule of law.
The Trump administration has faced outrage since reports first surfaced of federal agents in unmarked vehicles picking up and detaining protesters in Portland, Oregon. Rather than backing down, though, President Trump appears to have decided to go all in: In a July 20 interview, he threatened to send “more federal law enforcement” to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, and Oakland—cities run by “liberal Democrats,” he asserted. The question of whether or not the administration has the legal authority to take such action will be fought out in legal challenges. But the question of whether or not these arrests are appropriate has a clear answer—at least in a nation that purports to live under the rule of law.
Asked on July 17 by an NPR reporter whether the reporting was true, Ken Cuccinelli, a senior Department of Homeland Security official, didn’t seem troubled by the department’s activities. Yes, he said, at least one person had been arrested in this fashion in Portland—though he wouldn’t say whether others had been as well, and if so how many. Cuccinelli added that this was how the Trump administration planned to respond to demonstrations at federal buildings and monuments elsewhere, too. “This is a posture we intend to continue not just in Portland, but in any of the facilities that we’re responsible for around the country,” he declared. And days later, he doubled down on CNN, insisting that the government had “intelligence about planned attacks on federal facilities” in Portland: “If we get the same kind of intelligence in other places … we would respond the same way.”
Reports of unidentified federal law-enforcement officials patrolling areas of Portland—and conducting arrests by scooping suspects up into vans—have generated a lot of anxiety. The Atlantic writer Anne Applebaum argued that the government’s actions amount to “performative authoritarianism.” Mary McCord, a lawyer who previously oversaw national-security issues at the Justice Department, warned The New York Times that manhandling Portland residents in this way “sends the message that these people are terrorists and need to be treated like terrorists.” And Oregon’s congressional delegation wrote a letter to the U.S. attorney general stating that the Portland arrests “are more reflective of tactics of a government led by a dictator, not from the government of our constitutional democratic republic.” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Ron Wyden, the senior senator from Oregon, both decried the arrests as unconstitutional.
There will be time to sort out the legalities of the federal government’s actions. The attorney general of Oregon has filed suit against various federal agencies and officers involved in one arrest, arguing, “Ordinarily, a person … who is confronted by anonymous men in military-type fatigues and ordered into an unmarked van can reasonably assume that he is being kidnapped and is the victim of a crime.” The American Civil Liberties Union has also sued the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service. The chairs of three House committees have requested an internal DHS investigation of the matter. Between these varied proceedings, the Trump administration will have to answer legal questions like whether it’s really okay for unidentified federal officers and agents to patrol streets, and whether an agency whose mission is to patrol the border is properly used without training for crowd control. The administration will also have to justify the propriety of the individual arrests both in any prosecutions of those detained and in any civil suits filed.
But let’s leave the legalities aside for now. Because whether the Trump administration has the technical legal authority to deploy this show of force in this particular matter does not answer the question of whether it should do so. The use of federal officers in this manner is corrosive of democratic culture, it makes for bad and ineffective law enforcement, and it’s likely physically dangerous both for the law-enforcement officers and for the protesters in question.
According to The New York Times, Homeland Security officers were deployed under the department’s authority to protect federal property—including, in this case, the Portland federal courthouse. The deployment of armed forces comes along with increased domestic intelligence operations. Yesterday, Lawfare reported that the Department of Homeland Security’s little-known intelligence arm had authorized intelligence collection on people connected to threats to monuments and statues, having designated the protection of such monuments a homeland-security mission following President Trump’s monument-protection executive order last month.
The existence of the department’s authority to protect federal property is uncontroversial. The federal government has the power to defend federal buildings and facilities from civil unrest, and a variety of federal laws protect federal property from attack and vandalism and federal officials from interference with their discharge of the government’s business.
While this authority certainly extends to the power to investigate federal crimes and arrest those suspected of them, it is not some general authority to patrol the downtowns of major cities and pick up and detain protesters merely because a federal building may be in the neighborhood.
Likewise, federal law-enforcement officers should conceal their identities only under highly specific circumstances—none of which involves crowd control at a protest or policing a public area. Officers might reasonably go undercover in an effort to infiltrate a criminal organization, for example. Federal air marshals are generally unidentified so they can blend in with passengers on commercial flights—preventing would-be hijackers from knowing which flights are patrolled. But it should be quite unthinkable for armed officers exercising coercive arrest powers in the streets of an American city to not identify themselves by name and affiliation.
A similar situation to the one in Portland arose in Washington, D.C., last month, when the president deployed National Guard units and a smorgasbord of federal law-enforcement agencies, including officers from the Department of Homeland Security, during protests over the killing of George Floyd. The deployment of anonymized federal muscle in various locations in the district angered many people, and rightly so. These recent actions in Portland are more jarring still.
For better or worse, residents of D.C. are used to a significant federal law-enforcement presence in their daily lives—albeit one that’s quite open and overt. A significant area of the city is patrolled by the United States Capitol Police, for example; uniformed Secret Service officers protect embassies; the United States Park Police has jurisdiction over national parkland, which is abundant in the city. And one or more unmarked dark SUVs accompanying some official-looking car is a pretty normal affair. But even a certain baseline comfort with a heavy federal presence didn’t prepare D.C. for an invasion of little green men. How much more shocking it must be for people in Portland, who lack that general familiarity, to suddenly have unidentified officers snatching people off the street and hustling them into unmarked vehicles.
There are additional concerns. The tactical divisions of the Homeland Security Department from which the officers in Portland appear to hail—Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—are not typically deployed at protests, but charged with enforcing immigration law and guarding the U.S. border. And as an internal department memo obtained by The New York Times shows, the officers sent into Portland’s streets were not trained to handle crowds. “If this type of response is going to be the norm,” the memo cautions, “specialized training and standardized equipment should be deployed to responding agencies.”
All of which brings us to the dangers—for everyone involved—of protecting federal buildings in this particular fashion. Sending out officers untrained for demonstrations risks violence if the agents end up in situations they don’t know how to handle. Recall that some of the protests in the wake of Floyd’s death swung out of control in large part because of ill-considered police actions. This anonymized deployment risks compounding that problem. Because if, as Oregon’s attorney general hypothesizes, a protester ”confronted by anonymous men in military-type fatigues and ordered into an unmarked van” were to “reasonably assume that he is being kidnapped and is the victim of a crime,” he might plausibly resort to violence in self-defense. This may be a particular risk if the person in question happens to be suspicious of police authority in the first place. And the risk may be further heightened by the fact that various militia groups have been known to organize armed groups in defense of supposed law-enforcement interests. Ambiguity about an officer’s identity or power to make an arrest serves the interests of neither law enforcement nor protesters.
So why is the Trump administration sending into American cities officers who aren’t appropriately trained for the mission, are acting on legal authority that will require litigation to defend, and are being deployed to address a problem that the federal government could address by means far less provocative and in a fashion far less likely to escalate disorder?
The answer is unfortunately obvious. Having given up on controlling the pandemic that has now killed more than 140,000 Americans, and faced with dimming reelection prospects, Trump is doing his best to substantiate the tough-guy vision of the presidency that has always appealed to him. During earlier stages of his administration, he played out this fantasy along the southern border of the United States by deploying troops to the American Southwest and warning about “caravans” of travelers illegally entering the country. Now, as officers typically tasked with enforcing the border have been deployed into Portland, Trump’s apocalyptic warnings about the need for a brutal response to any perceived threat have also moved from the edge of the country into American cities.
The message is as simple as it is ugly: The caravan isn’t just coming north through Mexico. It is already here—in the efforts to take down statues, in the protests, in the pockets of disorder in American urban areas and in the gatherings of people exercising their First Amendment rights to object to police misconduct. The caravan, in fact, is the city. And only Trump can protect you from it—whether it is what you see when you look south or what you see when you look downtown.
Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working. Last night in Portland, as happened last month in Washington, D.C., peaceful protests only grew in response to the federal show of force. If Trump follows through on his promise to export the federal muscle to other cities, the anonymous agents may be met with more large crowds defying Trump’s efforts at vilification and coercion.
My mom always spelled out I Street as Eye Street when she addressed mail there, so it wouldn’t be confusing.
Last Saturday night, the eyes of the world were on Eye Street, where The Times’s office is located, as the street became a hellscape of American pain, going up in flames during protests fanning out from the White House.
I kept thinking about the small yellow church around the corner, known as the “Church of Presidents,” where Madison paid the rent and Lincoln sat in a pew in the back. It was just a few years ago that Barack Obama and his family sometimes attended church there. A week ago, there was a towering bonfire in front of the church and then a fire in the basement.
How could we possibly, in a brief stretch, have gone from the euphoria of our first black president to the desolation of racial strife ripping apart the country?
I was so happy the day of Obama’s inauguration because it was the first time I had seen my hometown truly integrated. Armed with a bag of croissants and a bottle of Champagne, I made my groggy houseguests get up at 4 a.m. the next day, so we could watch the new era dawn at the Lincoln Memorial.
Beyoncé’s security turned us away — the singer had performed the night before and the guards were still there — but it didn’t matter. We caught a glimpse of Abe in the pink light as the Obama family settled into their new home.
I’ve always cherished Washington’s luminous monuments. So it was excruciating this past week to see the chucklehead who has waged war on our institutions, undermined our laws and values, stoked division at every turn, blundering around defiling the monuments that symbolize the best about America.
After the country was rocked to its soul by the sight of a handcuffed black man dying while being held down by a police officer as those around begged for mercy, Trump could hardly summon a shred of empathy. His only move was to grab a can of kerosene and cry “Domination!”
Turning the American military against Americans was a scalding tableau that was a nadir even for the former military school bully. The creepy William Barr, who gets to be called “General,” had troops clear out mostly peaceful protesters so Trump could walk through Lafayette Park, preening as a fake tough guy, and pose in front of St. John’s. Ivanka went into her luxe purse to hand him his prop, a Bible, which he held up awkwardly. It’s a wonder his hand did not burst into flames.
That night, the sound of summer in Washington was a Black Hawk helicopter shadowing the protesters.
This misuse of the military and the sight of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, walking in camouflage while protesters were blasted with chemicals, at long last spurred Jim Mattis to push back. Mattis wrote to The Atlantic that he was “angry and appalled” at Trump for making “a mockery of our Constitution.” He suggested that we all just move beyond the depraved divider if we are to have any hope of uniting the country.
The brutish scene conjured Tuesday at the Lincoln Memorial, with National Guard troops in rows on the steps below the Great Emancipator, was unconscionable. Soldiers ominously stood on the hallowed ground where Marian Anderson sang in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution would not let her perform at Constitution Hall because she was black, and where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Trump tweeted Wednesday that he had done more for black Americans than any president “with the possible exception of” Lincoln.
Lincoln gave his life trying to stop a clash of civilizations, “with malice toward none,” while Trump spends his presidency ginning up a clash of civilizations, with malice toward all.
(When Kayleigh McEnany had the temerity to compare Trump to Churchill, one lawyer I know dryly noted: “We shall fight them on the golf courses; we shall fight them on Twitter; we shall fight them at Mar-a-Lago.”)
On Friday, Trump was so giddy about the surprisingly good jobs report that he mused about getting an R.V. so he and Melania could drive to New York. Cue “Green Acres.” Since even a man killed by the police should offer Pence-like praise of Dear Leader, Trump blithely observed, “Hopefully, George is looking down right now and saying, ‘This is a great thing that’s happening for our country.’”
That afternoon, as protesters in front of St. John’s danced to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” the president threw racial chum in the Potomac. He tweeted that Drew Brees “should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag. OLD GLORY is to be revered … NO KNEELING!”
He called Muriel Bowser, the poised black mayor of D.C. who wanted the federal troops out of the capital, “incompetent” and then upgraded her to “grossly incompetent.” Friday night, he retweeted someone who posted that “Barack Obama put a target on the back of every cop in this country.”
It’s sad to see the tall black fences going up around the White House, turning the “People’s House” into an outpost as dark as the psyche of the man who lives within. But Bowser offered the best troll on the First Troller when she had the words “Black Lives Matter” painted in yellow in front of the White House and St. John’s. She tweeted that she was renaming the area “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”
And that matters.
From the president to stay-at-home protesters, a mask-less face has become a stand-in for manliness.
When reporter BrieAnna Frank showed up to a Honeywell plant last week in Arizona to cover President Donald Trump’s visit, she was sure to wear a mask.
Masks were the reason the president was there: The former aerospace plant in Phoenix has pivoted to producing them in recent months amid a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
But the dozen or so people who had gathered outside the facility to cheer on the president were not there to support masks. They had their faces uncovered, Frank told Vox.
As she approached members of the crowd to interview them, the conversation quickly got heated. “They started to yell that me and the other journalists there were trying to incite fear and panic and paranoia” by wearing masks, said Frank, who works for the Arizona Republic.
One man in particular seemed to take issue with the male journalists wearing masks, she recalled. “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak,” he said, “especially for men.”
9:32 am – myself + other journalists here are being harassed for wearing masks.
One man says: “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak – especially for men.”
We’re being accused of fear-mongering, not knowing anything + being “pieces of shit.”
— BrieAnna J. Frank (@brieannafrank) May 5, 2020
“I felt that it was a statement that people should know about,” said Frank, whose tweets about the encounter went viral. To the crowd in front of the factory, she said, “Masks clearly symbolized something beyond, ‘I am trying to protect my health.’”
They’re not alone. Trump himself declined to wear a mask while being photographed at the plant, though he claims he wore one “backstage.” Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for failing to wear a mask during a tour of the Mayo Clinic in April. And when armed protesters showed up at the Michigan statehouse on April 30 to protest stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, many were mask-free. One shouting, bare-faced man who was photographed at the rally later said he was “not at all” worried about the virus and would never wear a mask — “ever.”
Since the pandemic began, the issue of wearing masks has further exposed America’s racial and gender prejudices. Earlier on, wearing masks was associated with Asian countries and often dismissed because of racist assumptions about those countries. Then, as many cities began to require residents to wear masks, police began targeting black men for covering their faces, profiling them as criminals rather than as people trying to abide by health guidelines. And for a certain subset of mostly white, conservative men, not wearing a mask seems to have become a hallmark of manliness.
For unmasked protesters like the ones in Michigan, “There’s an assumption of a kind of invincibility that is tied to this idea of white masculinity,” Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and the author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, told Vox.
It’s not just men — Frank noticed many women among the unmasked Trump supporters gathered at the Honeywell plant. And, of course, many men are happy to follow the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cover their faces in public. Still, a narrative has emerged on the right that wearing a mask is weak and refusing to wear one is somehow strong. And that narrative could put everyone at risk.
“One thing about [being] macho is being fearless,” Melanye Price, a political science professor at Prairie View A&M University, told Vox. “But that fearlessness comes at a cost for every single person around you.”
The CDC recommends masks. Not everyone is listening.
Long before the pandemic hit, masks were common in East Asian countries, where they’re seen as a simple way to protect yourself (and others) from disease, as Refinery29’s Connie Wang wrote in March. Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, started requiring them in January. The US was much slower to recommend masks for the general public, but in early April — with confirmed coronavirus cases jumping by the day — the CDC recommended that everyone wear a cloth mask in certain public settings. Some cities, like New York and Los Angeles, began mandating the wearing of masks in certain settings as well.
Like much about the coronavirus, the impact of wearing masks on transmission isn’t entirely clear. But many experts believe that even cloth masks can offer some degree of protection for wearers — and perhaps greater protection for the people around them. The virus seems to spread “when germ-containing droplets make it into a person’s mouth, nose, or eyes,” as Vox’s German Lopez previously reported, and it’s true that “masks stop people from spreading their own droplets.” If everyone wears a mask — including those who are asymptomatic but may still be carrying the virus — it could help halt the spread of Covid-19.
Most Americans appear to be on board with the CDC’s recommendation. In a Morning Consult poll (conducted from April 7 to 9), 72 percent of respondents said they planned to start wearing a face mask in public places over the next two weeks.
Others, however, have chafed at the CDC’s advice. As people around the country protest their state’s shelter-in-place orders, many have appeared in public without masks. One example is the protesters in Michigan, which has become a hotbed of resistance to social distancing restrictions — a defiance Trump has encouraged via his tweets about “liberating” Michigan and other states. And on April 30, hundreds of protesters gathered at the state capitol in Lansing, some of them armed and many of them eschewing masks and standing close together in violation of social distancing guidelines, according to Reuters.Advertisement
One of the mask-less protesters was Brian Cash, who was photographed shouting during the event. He later told the Detroit Free Press he believes the coronavirus was “intentionally released” by the Chinese government and that the state’s stay-at-home order is useless because people still go to grocery stores and pharmacies. “So what is the point of staying at home?” he asked.
The resistance to masks has also found support within the Trump administration. Pence, the head of the federal government’s coronavirus response, said he did not wear a mask while touring the Mayo Clinic in April because he is tested for Covid-19 regularly. (He later backpedaled and said he “should have” worn one.) But a mask-less Pence attended two events in Iowa on May 8, the same day his press secretary tested positive for the virus, according to the Intercept. At one of those events, CEOs were reportedly asked to remove their masks before joining Pence onstage.
Trump, meanwhile, has consistently appeared in public without a mask. After he was photographed without one at the Honeywell plant in Arizona, he said he had worn one “backstage,” outside the view of cameras.
“But they said you didn’t need it, so, I didn’t need it,” he went on. “And by the way, if you noticed, nobody else had it on that was in the group.”
Aides tested positive for the virus days later, and staffers have since been asked to wear masks on White House grounds, according to the Washington Post. Trump, however, is still unlikely to wear a mask himself, aides say.
For Trump, not wearing a mask may be a way to project masculinity
The Trump administration’s behavior around masks has gendered overtones. For Trump and Pence, not wearing a mask may be a way to project a macho image, Metzl said, playing into “tropes of indestructibility.”
“Appearing to play it safe contradicts a core principle of masculinity: show no weakness,” wrote social sciences professor Peter Glick at Scientific American. “Defying experts’ warnings about personal danger signals ‘I’m a tough guy, bring it on.’”
Trump’s messaging has also helped promote the idea that ignoring the risks of coronavirus is the tough or strong thing to do. Despite warnings from public health experts about the dangers of reopening the country too early, he said at the Honeywell plant that “the people of our country should think of themselves as warriors” because “our country has to open.”
Such militaristic, tough-guy messaging, along with Trump’s refusal to wear a mask, may encourage ordinary people — especially men — to minimize the risk of coronavirus for the sake of appearing manly.
While the refusal to wear masks isn’t an exclusively male phenomenon — a Michigan woman was arrested last month after police said she attacked a grocery store employee who told her to leave because she wasn’t wearing a mask — there is some evidence that men may view mask recommendations with more skepticism than women. In the April Morning Consult poll, 76 percent of women said they planned to wear a face mask in public over the next two weeks, compared with 67 percent of men.
Though Trump’s narrative around the virus may be reinforcing gender stereotypes, the issue of masks is revealing Americans’ racial biases as well. While white men have been able to appear in public without masks — and with guns — as part of a protest, black men have been targeted by police, both for wearing and for not wearing masks. In Philadelphia, officers were caught on video forcibly removing a black man from a bus for not covering his face, just one day after the city began requiring it, Fabiola Cineas reported for Vox in April. And a police officer in Miami handcuffed and arrested Armen Henderson, a black doctor who tests homeless people for Covid-19, as he loaded equipment into a van in front of his home — while wearing a mask.
Black Americans often have to engage in “social signaling” to make white people feel comfortable in public spaces, said Price, the political science professor. “You say good morning first, you smile first,” she said. “None of that can be done with masks.”
White people often already perceive black people as dangerous or not belonging in public places, Price said. “But a black body with a mask is something that somehow expresses even more danger.”
Meanwhile, for white protesters like those in Michigan, not wearing a mask may signal a kind of immunity from danger — or at least a perceived immunity. As white Americans, they’re unlikely to encounter the same kind of police brutality that black people face when they engage in protest. “Imagine 10 black men and rifles walking up to any state capitol in the United States,” Price said. “They would be shot before they ever made it up the steps.”
But congregating in crowds without masks is also a statement of perceived immunity from the virus, Metzl said. The unmasked protesters seemed to be sending the message that “nothing’s going to happen to me because of my whiteness,” he explained. “If you thought you were really going to get the coronavirus, you wouldn’t act like that.”
The fact that black and Latinx Americans in many communities are disproportionately likely to become infected and die of Covid-19 may be influencing such attitudes. “I think for a lot of the country, people feel like this is something that’s happening to someone else,” Metzl said.
But people who refuse to wear masks may be putting others, not just themselves, at risk
Obviously, the feeling of invincibility that leads protesters to avoid masks could backfire if they get sick. Pence and Trump may also find themselves rethinking their stance in the coming days since White House officials tested positive — Pence himself is reportedly keeping his distance from Trump and other staffers to avoid potentially exposing them.
But the especially disturbing thing about refusing to wear a mask is that, while it may seem like an expression of toughness, it actually increases the risk to others more than yourself, Metzl said. While some may feel that not wearing a mask expresses their own invincibility, “You could also think about this in terms of all the other people you’re putting at risk by not wearing a mask,” he added — your family, friends, colleagues, the rest of society. The failure to wear one is “symbolic of a kind of loss of a bigger common sense of responsibility to each other.”
Remedying that loss is not going to be as simple as sending the message that “tough guys wear masks,” Metzl said. (Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri has suggested a tagline for a potential “Masks For Him” line of accessories: “We put the ‘mask’ in ‘toxic maskulinity.’”) Rather, the country has to look at what the current mask debate says about racism and other prejudices. “What we need is a much more concerted effort to address the bigger issues that are represented by masks,” Metzl said.
For the Arizona Republic’s Frank, the confrontation over masks outside the Honeywell plant is part of a wider narrative around the virus. She recalled another incident in which a female reporter was accosted, this time by a woman, for wearing a mask. “I do think that what happened to all of us out there in the field on Tuesday is indicative of a larger issue” with how masks are viewed in the US, Frank said.
But for her, wearing a mask is about one thing: public health. Frank lives with her mother, a nurse who treats Covid-19 patients. “I try to be really careful,” she told the people gathered outside the plant. “I try to protect myself and those around me.”
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.
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.
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.
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The embrace of a more fluid form of masculinity shows that many Chinese are frustrated with the traditional ideas pushed by the establishment.
Mr. Cai belongs to the tribe of “little fresh meat,” a nickname, coined by fans, for young, delicate-featured, makeup-clad male entertainers. These well-groomed celebrities star in blockbuster movies, and advertise for cosmetic brands and top music charts. Their rise has been one of the biggest cultural trends of the past decade. Their image — antithetical to the patriarchal and stoic qualities traditionally associated with Chinese men — is changing the face of masculinity in China.
Innocent as they may seem, the little fresh meat have powerful critics. The state news agency Xinhua denounces what it calls “niangpao,” or “sissy pants,” culture as “pathological” and said in an editorial last September that its popularity is eroding social order. The Beijing newspaper’s decision to include Mr. Cai in its profiles apparently prompted the Communist Youth League to release its own list of young icons: patriotic athletes and scientists, whom it called the “true embodiment” of the spirit of Communist youth.
The government attacks on this evolving idea of masculinity have triggered a strong counter-backlash from fans of the celebrities. And in online essays and posts, defenders of the young men make clear that their preference is more than a youthful countercultural fad. At its heart, the embrace of a more modern, less rigid form of masculinity represents frustration with traditional ideas of manhood.
“The ridiculous condemnation of ‘sissy pants’ men shows the gender ideology of a patriarchal society that equates toughness with men and fragility with women,” a journalist who goes by the name Wusi wrote in an online essay in September, voicing a widely shared opinion.
The official push of traditional masculinity — including reinvented school curriculums and the sponsorship of boys-only clubs — is motivated in part by worries that the decades-long one-child policy produced a generation of timid and self-centered male youth ill equipped to fulfill their social responsibilities.
And in the context of China’s increasing power, the establishment’s preoccupation with promoting old-fashioned, Hollywood-style manliness also has a political message. Just as patriotic intellectuals a century ago argued that national strength derives from the virile energy of the youth, present-day Chinese nationalists see their ambitions take the shape of a macho willingness to fight for righteous causes.
This vision is on display in the 2017 action thriller “Wolf Warrior 2.” The movie, featuring a former People’s Liberation Army soldier caught in an African civil war, showed him putting the lives of local civilians above his own while single-handedly beating American-led mercenaries. The goal of the story, said Wu Jing, its director and lead actor, in media interviews, is to “inspire men to be real men.” The movie went on to become China’s top-grossing film in history.
There is little question about who in real life is meant to best personify the masculine chauvinism characterizing the official line today: Take a stroll down a city street or switch on the television at news hour — and you are greeted by the face of President Xi Jinping with a perennial look of self-assurance and determination.
WASHINGTON — In the middle of his crowded dinner in Buenos Aires with President Xi Jinping of China, President Trump leaned across the table, pointed to Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative whose skepticism of China runs deep, and declared, “That’s my negotiator!”
He then turned to Peter Navarro, his even more hawkish trade adviser, adding, “And that’s my tough guy!” according to aides with knowledge of the exchange.
Now, with talks between China and the United States set to begin this week in Beijing, Mr. Lighthizer, aided by Mr. Navarro, faces the assignment of a lifetime: redefining the trade relationship between the world’s two largest economies by Mr. Trump’s March 2 deadline to reach an agreement.
And he must do it in a way that tilts the balance of power toward the United States. His approach will have significant ramifications for American companies, workers and consumers whose fortunes, whether Mr. Trump likes it or not, are increasingly tied to China.
First, however, Mr. Lighthizer will need to keep a mercurial president from wavering in the face of queasy financial markets, which have suffered their steepest annual decline since 2008. Despite his declaration that trade wars are “easy to win” and his recent boast that he is a “Tariff Man,” Mr. Trump is increasingly eager to reach a deal that will help calm the markets, which he views as a political electrocardiogram of his presidency.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly told his advisers that Mr. Xi is someone with whom he can cut a big deal, according to people who have spoken with the president. On Saturday, Mr. Trump called Mr. Xi to discuss the status of talks, tweeting afterward that good progress was being made. “Deal is moving along very well,” Mr. Trump said.
The administration has tried to force China to change its ways with stiff tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese products, restrictions on Chinese investment in the United States and threats of additional levies on another $267 billion worth of goods. China has responded with its own tit-for-tat tariffs on American goods. But over a steak dinner during the Group of 20 summit meeting in Argentina, Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump agreed to a 90-day truce and to work toward an agreement that Mr. Trump said could lead to “one of the largest deals ever made.”
Mr. Lighthizer — whose top deputy will meet with Chinese officials this week ahead of more high-level talks in February — has played down any differences with Mr. Trump and views his role as ultimately executing the directive of his boss. But the trade representative, who declined to be interviewed, has told friends and associates that he is intent on preventing the president from being talked into accepting “empty promises” like temporary increases in soybean or beef purchases.
Mr. Lighthizer, 71, is pushing for substantive changes, such as forcing China to end its practice of requiring American companies to hand over valuable technology as a condition of doing business there. But after 40 years of dealing with China and watching it dangle promises that do not materialize, Mr. Lighthizer remains deeply skeptical of Beijing and has warned Mr. Trump that the United States may need to exert more pressure through additional tariffs in order to win true concessions.
When Mr. Lighthizer senses that anyone — even Mr. Trump — might be going a little soft on China, he opens a paper-clipped manila folder he totes around and brandishes a single-page, easy-reading chart that lists decades of failed trade negotiations with Beijing, according to administration officials.
“Bob’s attitude toward China is very simple. He wants them to surrender,” said William A. Reinsch, a former federal trade official who met him three decades ago when Mr. Lighthizer was a young aide for former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. “His negotiating strategy is simple too. He basically gives them a list of things he wants them to do and says, ‘Fix it now.’”
Mr. Trump’s selection of Mr. Lighthizer last month to lead the talks initially spooked markets, which viewed the China skeptic’s appointment as an ominous sign. It also annoyed Chinese officials, who had been talking with the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, a more moderate voice on trade and the primary point of contact for Liu He, China’s top trade negotiator. Mr. Mnuchin has urged the president to avoid a protracted trade war, even if that entails reaching an interim agreement that leaves some issues unresolved.
Mr. Mnuchin, who attended the G-20 dinner, helped Mr. Trump craft an upbeat assessment declaring the Buenos Aires meeting “highly successful” in the presidential limousine back to the airport, according to a senior administration official.
The disparate views among Mr. Trump’s top trade advisers have prompted sparring — both publicly and behind the scenes.
During an Oval Office meeting with the trade team the fall of 2017, Mr. Lighthizer accused Mr. Mnuchin and Gary D. Cohn, the former National Economic Council director, of bad-mouthing him to free-trade Republican senators.
The argument grew so heated that the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, quickly pulled the combatants into the nearby Roosevelt Room and away from the president, where the argument raged on for a few more minutes, according to two witnesses.
Emily Davis, a spokeswoman for the United States trade representative, disputed the account.
Mr. Lighthizer has since worked to increase his own face time with Mr. Trump. He has joked to colleagues that he has more influence with Mr. Trump during winter months because he is able to hitch a ride on Air Force One during the president’s flights down to Mar-a-Lago, which is several miles from Mr. Lighthizer’s own $2.3 million waterfront condo in Palm Beach, Fla.
He used that access to argue to Mr. Trump that the United States has never had more leverage to extract structural reforms on intellectual property, forced transfer of technology from American companies and cybercrime. But while Mr. Trump has jumped at the chance to claim victory in changing China’s ways, experts say that what Mr. Lighthizer is demanding would require significant shifts in how Beijing’s central government and its manufacturing sector coordinate their activities, and that might simply not be possible in the short term.
“Good luck with that,” Mr. Scissors said.
Those who know Mr. Lighthizer say he will try to force concessions through a combination of pressure tactics, like tariffs, and public condemnation. Mr. Lighthizer — who described his own negotiating style as “knowing where the leverage is” during a 1984 interview — typically presents few specific demands during initial talks while publicly bashing efforts by the other side.
He used that approach during recent talks with Canada and Mexico to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, criticizing foreign counterparts as intransigent and characterizing complaints by American businesses as pure greed.
Mr. Lighthizer’s unsparing view of China comes, in part, from his childhood in Ashtabula, Ohio, an industrial and shipping town on the Great Lakes hit by the offshoring of steel and chemical production. For much of his career, Mr. Lighthizer was a lonely protectionist voice in a Republican Party dominated by free traders, alternating between jobs in government and a lucrative private law career representing large American corporations like United States Steel in trade cases against China.
Mr. Lighthizer found his way into Mr. Trump’s orbit through his work in the steel industry, where he gained prominence by filing lawsuits accusing Japan and China of dumping metals into the United States, in violation of trade laws. In 2011, Mr. Lighthizer caught Mr. Trump’s eye with an opinion piece in The Washington Times, in which he defended Mr. Trump’s approach to China as consistent with conservative ideology and compared the future president to Republican icons like Ronald Reagan.
Taciturn in public and self-deprecating in private, Mr. Lighthizer sees himself as a serious player on the world stage: Two recent guests to Mr. Lighthizer’s Georgetown townhouse were greeted by the stern visage of their host staring down at them from an oil portrait on the wall.
The trade adviser is guarded around Mr. Trump, often waiting until the end of meetings to make his points and quietly nudging the president away from actions he views as counterproductive, current and former officials said. That was the case in mid-2017 when he cautioned the president against withdrawing unilaterally from the World Trade Organization, adding for emphasis, “And I hate the W.T.O. as much as anybody.”
He does not always get his way. In the wake of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada this fall, Mr. Lighthizer urged Mr. Trump to consider easing steel and aluminum tariffs on those countries and replacing them with less burdensome quotas. Mr. Trump rejected his plan, according to negotiators from all three countries.
A poker-faced Mr. Lighthizer broke the news to his Mexican and Canadian counterparts by declaring the proposal was inoperative, one of the officials said.
The president also ignored Mr. Lighthizer’s advice in early December when he announced that he intended to begin the six-month process of withdrawing the United States from Nafta in order to pressure House Democrats into passing the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
That threat undermined months of quiet negotiations between Mr. Lighthizer, labor groups and Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California to try to win their support for the new trade deal. Mr. Trump has yet to follow through on his threat, and Mr. Lighthizer continues trying to work with Democrats to get the new trade deal approved.
“Bob is trying to provide stability and focus in a completely chaotic environment,” Mr. Brown said. “I can’t speak for Bob, but I am certain he is frustrated. How could you not be frustrated as the U.S. trade representative for a president who knows what his gut thinks but hasn’t put much of his brains into trade?”
The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insightsIn 2014, Donald Trump sued to have his name taken off a pair of Atlantic City casinos he built three decades earlier that had gone bankrupt.
“It’s really indicative of how we all know he thinks so in-the-moment and so off-the-cuff that it winds up being dangerous,” said Jack O’Donnell, former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, one of the properties from which Trump removed his name.
.. “The whole idea of once things are going wrong, he takes no ownership — that’s just Trump,” O’Donnell added. “He does not own anything that goes wrong. The problem is, he’ll blame anybody. Obviously, it’s the Democrats in this situation.”
.. He alternated between insisting that Mexico would pay for the wall through a convoluted, and false, interpretation of a new trade deal and suggesting that the U.S. military and other agencies would find money in their existing budgets to build the barrier if lawmakers failed to deliver — despite restrictions on federal agencies reprogramming funding.
.. And the president even began rebranding “the wall,” parrying Democratic denunciations of a concrete monolith at the U.S.-Mexico border by announcing that his administration would build “artistically designed steel slats.” That quickly prompted widespread derision.
.. He even appeared to be conspiring with prominent conservative talk show hosts to help guide him. Rush Limbaugh boasted that Trump had “gotten word to me” that he would shut down the government if he failed to win the wall funding.
By Friday, a desperate Trump had seized on the “nuclear option” proposed by congressional border hawks to discard the Senate’s long-standing filibuster rules and approve with a majority vote a House-passed spending plan that included the $5 billion.
.. Aides announced that he had indefinitely postponed his winter vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort in south Florida, which was scheduled to begin Friday evening.
.. In the case of his casinos, Trump had divested himself of control of the properties five years before he sued the new owners, having retained a 10 percent stake for the continued use of his moniker.
In his lawsuit to remove his name, Trump asserted that the properties, which twice under his management had faced bankruptcy, had fallen into disrepair and tarnished a Trump brand that “has become synonymous with the highest levels of quality, luxury, prestige and success.”
.. To O’Donnell, the episode was “classic Trump.” The president, he said, had taken ownership of the shutdown in the televised showdown with Schumer and Pelosi to demonstrate his toughness to his base — without a plan to deal with the aftermath.
“That’s really what this was: ‘I’m a tough guy. Don’t think I can’t handle the heat,’ ” O’Donnell said. “The fact is, he can’t handle it.”