Wednesday, May 20, 2020
ORANGE BABOON TRUMP BUILDS A DICTATORSHIP.... It's the only way he can survive and avoid prison time for tax evasion
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Donald Trump has been battering away at American democracy for about four years now, first as a populist candidate warning of rigged elections and inciting his supporters to violence, and then as a president. Scholars who study democratic erosion — the process through which populist leaders hollow out previously healthy republics — have shown steady, if not increasing, concern.
Ross Douthat has been one of the most effective and articulate critics of those warnings. Douthat’s Trump is little more than a clown, who may dream of the jackboot but who has been reduced instead to ineffectually stamping his loafers. Douthat’s latest column, “Donald Trump Doesn’t Want Authority,” oversimplifies his thesis only slightly. While acknowledging that Trump’s misgoverning has had tragic effects, he reiterates his portrayal of a president too hapless to do any real damage to the democratic system.
Douthat has one point. Even a reasonably effective leader of Trump’s authoritarian bent could have exploited this crisis more effectively. The pandemic produced a worldwide upsurge in trust for leaders — in almost every state, governors have enjoyed soaring approval ratings, as have leaders across the globe, some of them inept. Only Trump’s ineptitude was so obvious, playing out in buffoonish daily briefings, that he was denied the upsurge that almost every other leader enjoyed. Even a barely competent version of Trump would now be sitting on a commanding lead.
But effective public management and effective attacks on democratic norms are different skills. Douthat undersells the very real success Trump has had in the latter area. Trump has not “suddenly discovered how to use his authority for dictatorial or democracy-defying purpose,” he asserts.
Well no, perhaps not “suddenly.” He has instead worked his way there through trial and error. But Trump’s progress after three years is undeniable.
Trump’s first success came immediately: He disabled the norms walling off presidents from private interests. Restraints that were once so strong that Jimmy Carter had to sell off his peanut farm lest any pro-peanut bias infect his decision-making have essentially disappeared altogether. The entire Republican congressional party, and much of its judicial wing, have lined up behind Trump’s claim that he doesn’t need to even disclose his financial interests, let alone cut them loose. Conservatives literally use “Emoluments Clause” as a punchline — after all, it was never enforced before, since nobody until Trump bothered violating it. Just about the only small price Trump pays any more is regular stories by David Fahrenholdt detailing the government overpaying at his properties.
He has likewise disabled congressional oversight. Where previous presidents skirmished over the boundaries and extent of Congress’s authority to probe their administrations, Trump has dismissed it wholesale. The fact that Congress has political rivalries with the executive — the very dynamic the Founders intentionally counted on to restrain overreach by any branch of government — is, for Trump, proof that competing branches have no legitimacy. “These aren’t, like, impartial people. The Democrats are trying to win 2020,” he said, by way of explaining his blanket refusal to respect any subpoena.
His apparently successful purge of inspectors general has stripped away yet another layer of accountability. It has met the usual response from the GOP: initial scolding from a couple members, followed by silence, followed by a chorus of approval. “He is certainly within his authority. He gets to hire and fire under the Constitution all people in the executive branch,” said Mitch McConnell, laying out the party line.
The problem, of course, is that the president’s formal authority is terrifyingly vast. The Saturday Night Massacre was within the president’s formal authority. So is replacing the Justice Department with pure partisan loyalists who harass his rivals and protect his allies. That is why a system of norms was built to restrain that authority in the first place.
William Barr’s reign at the Justice Department has been the most effective fulfillment of Trump’s ambitions. Trump’s impulsiveness has certainly impaired Barr’s work by making the ruse so obvious, a fact that Barr has even had to complain about loudly. It’s now forgotten, but three months ago, Barr threatened to quit if Trump wouldn’t stop tweeting out demands that the Justice Department become a weapon of vengeance.
Trump hasn’t stopped, and Barr hasn’t quit. He continues to patiently lay the predicate to criminalize all of Trump’s Deep State enemies, and to exonerate his allies. Paul Manafort has skipped to the front of the line and had his sentence reduced to “home confinement” (i.e., what most of us are doing these days anyway). The prosecutors of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn have quit after Barr undercut them, and even if Barr’s maneuvers fail, both will likely win pardons. The message sent across the bureaucracy is crystal clear.
The most dangerous elements of Trump’s anti-democratic agenda are as-yet-unexploded ordnance, which may over time prove either terrifying or meaningless. His regular incitements to violence, goading his “tough” supporters in the military, police, and biker gangs to finally take off the gloves, have not yet produced a republic-shaking tragedy. And his embrace of Republican vote-suppression logic — he is now threatening to withhold funds from states that allow absentee voting — may, or may not, prevent a free and fair election. These actions are democratic tail risks. Like abolishing the pandemic response team, they’re quickly denounced and quickly forgotten, because they probably won’t matter in the end — unless they do matter, in which case their effect will be catastrophic.
When Douthat isn’t skipping over these behaviors, he is minimizing them as mere desperation for attention. His clever formulation presents attention as a category inherently distinct from power: “Great men and bad men alike seek attention as a means of getting power,” he writes, “but our president is interested in power only as a means of getting attention.”
Rather than calling this “attention,” it would be more accurate to say Trump is obsessed with propaganda. His larger abuses of power are designed for this end: Barr’s purpose is to let Trump depict as many as possible of his foes as criminals. Nobody is really going to get locked up in the end. They will merely suffer Hillary Clinton’s fate of death by innuendo.
Propaganda was the point of Trump’s almost-successful scheme to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation of Joe Biden. It is the point of such petty maneuvers as putting Trump’s name on economic-relief checks, or turning the military into a campaign prop, or extorting governors to give him praise that he can use in campaign ads as the price of protection for their states against the coronavirus.
Trump may have begun his presidency by merely raging impotently at critical news coverage, but over time he has figured out some useful pressure points to bring his antagonists to heel. He constantly cites CNN’s parent company when attacking its news coverage. He has punished the Washington Post’s owner by withdrawing a $10 billion Pentagon contract. He has raged against social-media companies, calling their political orientation “illegal.” (“The Radical Left is in total command & control of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google. The Administration is working to remedy this illegal situation.”)
The owners of all these firms understand perfectly well what they can do to make their antitrust and contracting problems with Trump’s government disappear. Whatever their current calculus may be on placating Trump’s demand to amplify his propaganda, it will look different should he win a second term.
It is true that Trump has frequently undercut his ambitions with his ineptitude. Shortly before the pandemic arrived in the United States, conservative economist Tyler Cowen coined a phrase to describe the future of American libertarianism. The phrase he came up with was “State-capacity Libertarianism.” He sketched out a worldview that was skeptical of redistribution, hostile to “the polarizing left,” (hence the libertarian part) but eager to expand the government’s ability to efficiently manage infrastructure, control climate change, and other public goods. He gave a nod to the influence of Trumpist libertarian Peter Thiel.
Trump has delivered in spades on the hostility to the left and to redistribution. (One suspects these are the core demands for most libertarians — certainly they are for Thiel.) The state capacity, not so much. The actual governing synthesis Trump has produced could be called “State Incapacity Authoritarianism.”
State Incapacity Authoritarianism, like its inverse, sounds a bit like an oxymoron. But in practice, the pieces fit together well enough. Its key constituents get out of it the things they want most. Trump and his cronies get looting. The business class gets lavish tax cuts and self-regulation. Republican believers get to humiliate and defy the liberals.
You can dismiss it all as lacking “authority,” and you might be right. But the truth about authoritarians is that, while they usually promise to make the trains run on time, they often fail to deliver. Making the failure not matter is the point of it.
Posted by The Mexican Invasion & Occupation at 11:20 AM
Get back to work! Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock
Most of the debate over a new coronavirus stimulus measure involves new assistance that Democrats think the country needs and that Republicans oppose on grounds that such past legislation as the $2.2 trillion Cares Act needs to be fully implemented before Congress takes further action. So it’s one party wanting to act, and another wanting to “pause” (except for the complication that Republicans really, really want a liability shield for corporations).
Trouble is, Republicans are also very interested in taking away an existing stimulus measure that many of them opposed in the first place — the enhanced unemployment insurance designed to keep low-income Americans from a disastrous drop in living standards in anticipation of a big boost in joblessness. There was a lot of fretting in the Senate that the $600-per-week federal add-on to UI benefits in the CARES Act might enable low-wage workers in poorer states to make more money on unemployment than they did in the jobs they had lost. That led to a floor revolt led by Republicans senators Ben Sasse, Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott, and Rick Scott to cap the payments at the level of past wages, which would vastly complicate what was intended to be a quick relief measure. It failed to achieve anything like the 60 votes necessary to amend the CARES Act at that point, but subsequently, Republicans troubled by all that extra money corrupting the morals of shiftless unemployment beneficiaries have been calling for “reforming” the measure.
Now it looks like the president is joining those in his party who believe the unemployment check is too damn high. According to Seung Min Kim of the Washington Post, “Trump on Tuesday privately expressed opposition to extending a weekly $600 boost in unemployment insurance for laid-off workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic,” per three sources. It’s unclear whether Trump simply wants to cap or lower payments, or let the federal UI enhancement lapse altogether.
Either way, you have to wonder why a president with no fixed philosophy of the federal government’s role in the economy would do anything to reduce stimulus efforts since a rapid recovery is generally deemed vital to his reelection. It’s not like Donald Trump is worried about deficits and debt — if he could fly Marine One around the country and personally throw big Trump-branded sacks of cash out of an open door, he probably would.
What makes the UI issue different from other forms of federal stimulus spending, however, is that it’s precisely the sort of thing Trump’s CEO buddies probably care about just as much as free-market ideologues do. High UI benefits, like high minimum-wage levels, threaten the fundamental power imbalance that serves as the silver lining for business owners during a deep recession. If they could get away with it, they might promote lower UI benefits —and minimum wages — in an emergency like this to ensure a robust buyer’s market for labor.
Trump’s own motives on this issue might be colored even more by his desire to declare the coronavirus pandemic over, and the economy in full recovery. You don’t need enhanced UI benefits if the economy is racing back towards full employment and will soon once again be the greatest economy in the history of the human race, at least in Trump’s mind. Clearly the president thinks the pandemic is a mere interruption — engineered by China and its globalist stooges — in his march toward a second term and perhaps a new carving on Mount Rushmore. At the earliest possible juncture, he’ll favor a resumption not just of normal life but of normal, pre-recession economic and labor policies.
Unfortunately, wishing the pandemic and its economic effects are over doesn’t make it so, and cutting off enhanced UI could make that happy day more remote, some economists believe:
But if “Mission Accomplished” is where Trump intends to pivot in the weeks ahead, he will have the eager support of Republicans who really do want to return to starving the federal government beast and enjoying all the deregulation the administration has quietly conducted as the hospital beds filled up.
A worker holds a flag while demonstrating during a strike outside of Allan Brothers Fruit on May 16, 2020 in Naches, Washington. Photo: Getty Images
Randy Narvaez had worked for a Denver-area King Sooper store for over 30 years by the time he died from the coronavirus. In a press release, his union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, said there are a dozen cases among his co-workers. Even if they all survive, they’ll see their pay reduced by the time they recover. King Sooper’s parent company, Kroger, ended a $2 “hero pay” bonus this week. Full-time workers will get another “thank you” payment of $400, part-timers get $200, and after that, it’s business as usual. Except it won’t be, not for Randy Narvaez and not for his co-workers, who are pleading with Kroger to extend the hourly bonus or at least shut their store down to clean it.
There’s an old conflict between employers like Kroger and workers like the UFCW’s members; it is far older, in fact, than COVID-19. A great difference in perspective, and thus of opinion, separates bosses from workers at all times. Created by capitalism and wedged open by decades of policy, this gap has fatal qualities, and they have become difficult to ignore.
The pandemic has spawned a thousand ponderous takes about the state of inequality in America. Most concede at minimum that inequality exists and can be dangerous, though some, like a recent New York Times editorial by the libertarian economist Michael Strain, have argued that it isn’t much of a problem. But the pandemic also highlights a curious trend among some in the right wing. These conservatives see value in the notion of inequality. They freely admit that there are haves and have nots, or a front row and back row, and will even speak of exploitation and pain.
But these right-wing populists take one obvious, true point — that lockdown measures inflict economic pain, the severity of which corresponds inversely to a person’s wealth — and journey from there into the land of the goons. Consider a recent effort from Peggy Noonan, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Unlike some fellow conservatives, Noonan allows the necessity of mask-wearing and social-distancing. But! “There is a class divide between those who are hard-line on lockdowns and those who are pushing back,” she ventured. A correct statement, though she doesn’t seem to know which side is which. In her version of class war, professional elites stand on one side of the divide, hectoring workers who just want to make rent. “The working-class people who are pushing back have had harder lives than those now determining their fate,” she continued. “They haven’t had familial or economic ease. No one sent them to Yale. They often come from considerable family dysfunction. This has left them tougher or harder, you choose the word.”
But reality doesn’t quite match up with Noonan’s imagination. Workers aren’t pushing back against lockdowns. They’ve organized protests of an entirely different variety. For weeks, they’ve rallied against elites — their bosses — who won’t clean their job sites or hand out enough masks and who take away hazard pay while they’re still dying. This isn’t left-wing sloganeering, but fact. Most Americans overwhelmingly back continued lockdown measures, even if they’ve lost major income during the pandemic. The polling is unambiguous. In April, Gallup reported that low-income adults were still more likely to fear illness from COVID-19 than financial hardship, which by then had already become acute. Later the same month, an IPSOS poll found that high-income households in 14 countries surveyed, including the U.S., were mostly likely on average to support economic reopening. The poorer a household, the less likely a respondent was to agree that states should reopen.
The financial implications of the pandemic have thus been felt most severely among people of color, according to a poll from the Associated Press and NORC — and they are not the people protesting the lockdowns. Though Noonan derided Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer for calling the protests “racist and misogynistic,” there isn’t actually much doubt that Whitmer was right. Protesters in multiple states waved Confederate flags; some carried anti-Semitic signs. White supremacists flocked to some rallies. At a protest in Whitmer’s state, a man brandished a brunette doll that hung from a noose, which seems plenty “misogynistic,” among other things.
Meanwhile, a more accurate vision of class war emerged in a new Washington Post report on a suburban enclave in Georgia. Allowed to reopen by the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, the luxury Avalon shopping center drew patrons desperate for a venti Starbucks. “I just want to feel normal, I guess,” a woman told the Post. But someone has to pay for normal, and it isn’t necessarily going to be the woman browsing her local Anthropologie. A worker, the Post added, had started her shift “with a prayer,” beseeching a God who was “bigger than corona.” The fear was as unequally distributed as the area’s wealth.
The discrepancy between the Post piece and the Noonan op-ed is partly a product of form. One work is reported; the other is opinion, which is too often a sinecure for the terminally out of touch. A few minutes of research might have salvaged Noonan’s column, but when there’s no expectation that a writer will do anything but pontificate, outlets end up with pieces that manage to be false and dull at the same time.
But Noonan’s errors still have some value. In her haste to cry revolution, she reveals how little the right understands class at all. There is a real socioeconomic divide between Yale-educated epidemiologists and blue-collar workers, but it doesn’t generate lockdown anxiety. And though small business owners are suffering, as Noonan points out, the people who work for them may feel markedly more reluctant to get back on the job. What spilled out into rallies several weeks ago isn’t class war, but culture war. Workers aren’t asking to go back to the mall. They’re fighting to live.
New analysis predicts US coronavirus deaths will triple by end of year
A peer-reviewed article in the medical journal Health Affairs predicts that the number of deaths in the United States caused by COVID-19 will increase at least three-fold by the end of the year, from 93,500 to a range of 350,000 to 1.2 million dead.
The US currently has nearly 1.6 million confirmed cases. There are 4.9 million cases internationally and more than 324,000 deaths. Countries including Brazil, Russia, India, Peru and Chile are emerging as new epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic.
The research was conducted by Anirban Basu, a professor at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy and its Stergachis Family Endowed Director of the CHOICE Institute. It was part of a broad effort to study infection and fatality rates in US counties for patients with symptoms. A survey of data collected through April 20 in 116 counties in 33 states produced an infection fatality rate between 0.6 and 2.1 percent.
The rate was centered at 1.3 percent, 13 times higher than the seasonal flu.
“COVID-19 infection is deadlier than flu—we can put that debate to rest,” said Basu in the study’s press released. He continued that the estimated number of deaths “is a staggering number, which can only be brought down with sound public health measures.” These include mass testing for the coronavirus, comprehensive contact tracing and safely isolating and caring for those infected. Such a program does not exist in the United States or the vast majority of the world’s countries.
Moreover, as Basu notes, his current estimates likely undercount the number of eventual dead from the coronavirus, because he conservatively calculated that only 20 percent of the US population will become infected by the end of the year. This assumes that physical distancing measures are maintained, which are now being ramped down at least partially in every state in the country.
As such, it is not out of the realm of possibility that, in the next seven months, 60 to 70 percent of all Americans will be infected. This is a worst-case scenario predicted by many epidemiologists, including Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Prevention at the University of Minnesota. In this scenario, between 1.2 million and 4.8 million people in the United States will die of COVID-19.
This horrific scenario is already being played out. Several states that have begun to reopen, including Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina and North Dakota, have already seen their number of new cases increase by more than 25 percent over the last two weeks. Since Texas began rolling back restrictions in April, it has seen a 55 percent increase in new cases.
And while Basu makes clear that his model will be updated as new data becomes available, this is already becoming more difficult. It was reported in Florida Today that the manager of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard, Rebekah Jones, had been fired. In the days since being let go, the dashboard has crashed multiple times and data has been removed from the site without explanation.
In a public announcement of her removal by the state’s Department of Health, Jones warned that she no longer has any control over the data, including “what data they are now restricting.” She also made clear that she was the only one maintaining the database, which likely explains the reports of the system failing.
Ben Sawyer, a professor at the University of Central Florida and director of its LabX, responded by warning that there is “the worry that the scientists within government who can access the full data are being actively censored.” His colleague Jennifer Larson commented along the same lines, stating that, “We would not accept this lack of transparency for any other natural disaster, so why are we willing to accept it here?”
Both professors reportedly contacted the Florida Department of Health to regain their previous access to the data and were rejected on the grounds that the data are “provisional” and that they will have to wait until May 2021 at the earliest.
Despite this, the office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a statement saying, “The Florida COVID-19 Dashboard was created by the Geographic Information System (GIS) team in the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection at the Florida Department of Health. Although Rebekah Jones is no longer involved, the GIS team continues to manage and update the Dashboard providing accurate and important information that is publicly accessible.”
This is not the first time that there have been questions raised about the accuracy of the coronavirus case count and death toll in the state. In the weeks leading up to the state’s reopening on May 4, there were numerous reports that at least 10 percent of those who had died from the pandemic were not being accurately counted. According to the Miami Herald, health officials in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties were asked to restrict access to reports of COVID-19-related deaths, even as these areas saw a spike in their respective new cases and fatalities.
This has become an issue nationwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking for the deaths overall in the US has been delayed since the week ending February 8. This includes both the seasonally expected deaths and the excess deaths as a result of the pandemic. The agency reports that “only 60 percent of death records are submitted … within 10 days of the date of death, and completeness varies by jurisdiction.”
While some of this backlog can be attributed to the surge in deaths caused by the pandemic, no doubt a large portion of it is due to interference by the Trump administration. Earlier this month, White House Coronavirus Task Force Response Coordinator Deborah Birx told CDC Director Robert Redfield, “There is nothing from the CDC that I can trust.” She also claimed that the organization was inflating its death counts by up to 25 percent, even as Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert warned the Senate that the “the number of deaths are likely higher.”
The CDC reporting also raises questions about when the pandemic began killing people in the United States. The first official death in the United States was on February 6, but a single death would likely not cause medical examiners across the country to delay submitting death certificates. If there has been a genuine backlog in reporting deaths since that time, it suggests that the pandemic could have been far more widespread far earlier than currently known.
Posted by The Mexican Invasion & Occupation at 11:17 AM