All posts by Sheila

Politics As Identity

When the pandemic really started to hit home, Trump’s poll numbers improved–causing several commenters to this blog and friends on Facebook to express both mystification and fear.

I tend to agree with Paul Ogden’s March 28th response, analyzing this “panic bump.”  Agreement has also come from Nate Silver and from Rachel Bitecofer, writing at the Niskanen Center.  They have also  noted that Trump’s “bump” is considerably smaller than those that followed previous shocks to the political system, and that all previous examples had dissipated in fairly short order.

I worry far more about a different asset Trump enjoys–one that differs from previous situations and reflects a troubling phenomenon in American politics. As Rachel Bitecofer wrote, that “formidable asset” is today’s political polarization and hyper-partisanship, which provide Trump with a reliable (arguably unmovable) base of support, and–at least so far– has prevented a truly substantial erosion in approval ratings.

Now, the parties are largely ideologically homogenous and partisanship has evolved to become a social identity, an individual’s “ride or die,” which makes the prospect of red states breaking in favor of Biden seem unlikely, especially given the salience of white racial identity in contemporary Republican politics. In an America in which partisans are willing to inflict bodily harm on each other over politics, it seems unlikely that a mere recession, even an intense one, could move them off of their preferred presidential candidate in the ways it did prior to the polarized era, when the economic-fundamentals models, like the dinosaurs once did, ruled the Earth.

A similar analysis has made by Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, in an essay comparing Trump’s “rhetorical strategy” to that described  by Eric Hoffer in 1951, in his classic book, “The True Believer.”  Hoffer argued that demagogues need “a disaffected population” composed of  people who feel they’ve lost power and status that they previously held– “that they had been displaced either religiously, economically, culturally, or politically.”

The disaffected will follow even obviously unfit leaders who promise them a return to their former privileged status.

But to cement their loyalty, the leader had to give them someone to hate. Who that was didn’t really matter: the group simply had to be blamed for all the troubles the leader’s supporters were suffering.

What is particularly chilling is the degree of devotion this strategy inspires. In an article for Salon, Chauncey DeVega interviewed a psychiatrist about Trump and his base.

Q: As in other cults, the members are in love with the leader. Trump’s followers are very damaged people. As such, whatever Trump commands them to do they will do, even if it means getting sick and dying from the coronavirus.

A: That is correct. Such a level of mass fanaticism is very disturbing, and is something that we have not seen in the United States on such a large scale. We have seen it with Jim Jones and other cults. People follow the cult leader to their doom. Of course, there was a similar type of fanaticism in Germany with Adolf Hitler. Trump’s followers really need a strong leader to make them feel safe. It could be a strong father figure, a god, anyone who is powerful enough to make them feel loved and safe.

Trump’s followers, like other cult members, also want someone who will accept their aggression and destructiveness as being good and normal. These people are devoted to Trump. That devotion is more important than anything else.

These descriptions are certainly consistent with what I have observed over the past three years. Trump’s supporters are disproportionately people who simply couldn’t abide having an African-American President, and who are terrified of being “displaced” by uppity women and detested minorities.

They will not desert him.

That means that the only way to defeat Trump and his Republican sycophants in November is to get out the vote. We cannot waste time trying to peel off damaged people from what has been accurately described as a cult. We must fight every effort at vote suppression and electoral rigging, and work like we’ve never worked before to get the majority of Americans– people who haven’t made fear and/or hatred part of their identities– to the polls.

 

The Danger Of Fundamentalism

Ah…religious belief in its infinite varieties…

Media outlets have reported the death from Coronavirus of a pastor who pooh-poohed the pandemic as “mass hysteria. The Reverend Spradlin was visiting New Orleans with his wife and family to ‘wash it from its sin and debauchery.”

Better he should have washed his hands.

Then, of course, we have corporate religiosity from the ridiculous and dependably theocratic major shareholders of Hobby Lobby. (I’ve noticed that their religious convictions always seem to be those that save them money…). According to a report from Dispatches from the Culture Wars,

It’s bad enough that Hobby Lobby is refusing to follow the CDC’s recommendations and remaining open because the wife of the owner had a vision from God; they’re now making it worse by denying paid sick leave to employees who are ill, which dramatically increases the risk of spreading the coronavirus to both employees and customers.

Hobby Lobby’s sick workers will be required to use personal paid time off and vacation pay or take an “unpaid leave of absence until further notice.”

So if an employee doesn’t have any vacation time left and gets sick, they have to choose between going to work while sick or not being paid. Inevitably, some will choose to go to work because they need the money and that means more transmission of their illness, whether it’s the coronavirus or some other condition, to other employees and to customers. I guess that vision from God included a command to put lives in danger. But of course, they’re “pro-life.” Whatever the hell that could possibly mean.

As reprehensible as Hobby Lobby’s insistence on imposing the owners’ religious beliefs on their employees, it obviously isn’t going to do the extensive damage being facilitated by the theocratic throwbacks who support Trump. The New York Times ran an article recently about Trump’s dependence on the Religious Right as a voting bloc and the policy consequences of their extreme hostility to science.

Donald Trump rose to power with the determined assistance of a movement that denies science, bashes government and prioritized loyalty over professional expertise. In the current crisis, we are all reaping what that movement has sown.

As the article notes, hostility to science has characterized religious nationalism in the United States. Today’s “hard core” climate denial comes almost exclusively from religiously conservative Republicans.

And some leaders of the Christian nationalist movement, like those allied with the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which has denounced environmental science as a “Cult of the Green Dragon,” cast environmentalism as an alternative — and false — theology.

This anti-science “thinking” hobbles America’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

On March 15, Guillermo Maldonado, who calls himself an “apostle” and hosted Mr. Trump earlier this year at a campaign event at his Miami megachurch, urged his congregants to show up for worship services in person. “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not,” he said.

Maybe Reverend Maldonado should read up on what happened to Reverend Spradlin. So should the Reverend Rodney Howard-Browne. Howard-Brown occupies the pulpit of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida. This “pious” man mocked people concerned about the disease as “pansies” (do I detect a smidge of homophobia??) and insisted he would only shutter the doors to his packed church “when the rapture is taking place.”

As the Times noted

Religious nationalism has brought to American politics the conviction that our political differences are a battle between absolute evil and absolute good. When you’re engaged in a struggle between the “party of life” and the “party of death,” as some religious nationalists now frame our political divisions, you don’t need to worry about crafting careful policy based on expert opinion and analysis. Only a heroic leader, free from the scruples of political correctness, can save the righteous from the damned. Fealty to the cause is everything; fidelity to the facts means nothing.

There have always been people who desperately cling to “bright lines”– who see every issue as  black versus white, even as modernity ushers in ever-expanding areas of grey.

Whether adherents of fundamentalist religions, or political “true believers,” they pose  a clear and present danger to reality, and to the rest of us.

 

An Excellent Summary

My husband recently recommended that I read a lengthy article from the Atlantic by Ed Yong.  Despite the fact that I am a pretty devoted reader of that publication, and a subscriber, I’d missed it.

If you are trapped at home with nothing pressing to do (clean out the refrigerator, or knit face masks, or whatever), you should click through and read the article in its entirety. In case you don’t have the time or inclination, I am cutting and pasting paragraphs that–in my estimation–are insightful and important.

A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”…

As my colleagues Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer have reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed and distributed a faulty test in February. Independent labs created alternatives, but were mired in bureaucracy from the FDA. In a crucial month when the American caseload shot into the tens of thousands, only hundreds of people were tested. That a biomedical powerhouse like the U.S. should so thoroughly fail to create a very simple diagnostic test was, quite literally, unimaginable. “I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University, who works on legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases.

The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure….

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

The quoted paragraphs are followed by predictions of what will come next–best and worst case. Bottom line: even in the best-case scenarios, this isn’t going to be over any time soon. The “President” may think a vaccine or cure can be magically discovered and mass produced in a couple of weeks, but scientists and sane people know better.

And then there’s the aftermath…

As my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote, the economy is experiencing a shock “more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced.” About one in five people in the United States have lost working hours or jobs. Hotels are empty. Airlines are grounding flights. Restaurants and other small businesses are closing. Inequalities will widen: People with low incomes will be hardest-hit by social-distancing measures, and most likely to have the chronic health conditions that increase their risk of severe infections. Diseases have destabilized cities and societies many times over, “but it hasn’t happened in this country in a very long time, or to quite the extent that we’re seeing now,” says Elena Conis, a historian of medicine at UC Berkeley. “We’re far more urban and metropolitan. We have more people traveling great distances and living far from family and work.”

After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. …People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness. Asian people are suffering racist insults, fueled by a president who insists on labeling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Incidents of domestic violence and child abuse are likely to spike as people are forced to stay in unsafe homes.

The article does end with a thin ray of hope–or perhaps “challenge” is a more appropriate word. Pandemics can catalyze social change.

Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

If we are very, very fortunate, in November we will not retreat further into authoritarianism and fear; instead, we’ll recognize that all diseases aren’t physical, and all tests aren’t medical.

Our test is whether America will repudiate the virus of bigoted “America first” politics, reject kakistocracy, and pivot from isolationism to international cooperation.

 

 

How Do We Spell Corruption? T-R-U-M-P

Well, I suppose the headline really should read “Trump Administration,” since Trump has managed to assemble a group of people who are both magnificently inept and thoroughly dishonest.

It’s something every day–usually, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, buried under the propaganda and disinformation being spewed every day by the buffoon-in-chief.

NBC recently reported on a story first broken by Pro Publica.

On a Tuesday just before Halloween in 2018, a group of federal prosecutors and agents from Texas arrived in Washington. For almost two years, they’d been investigating the opioid dispensing practices of Walmart, the largest company in the world. They had amassed what they viewed as highly damning evidence only to face a major obstacle: top Trump appointees at the Department of Justice.

The opioid crisis was the most pressing public health issue facing the country before the arrival of the current pandemic. What the investigators had uncovered was proof of clearly criminal activity by Walmart–activity that played a significant part in creating and sustaining that crisis.

Opioids dispensed by Walmart pharmacies in Texas had killed customers who had overdosed. The pharmacists who dispensed those opioids had told the company they didn’t want to fill the prescriptions because they were coming from doctors who were running pill mills. They pleaded for help and guidance from Walmart’s corporate office.

Investigators had obtained records of similar cries for help from Walmart pharmacists all over the country: from Maine, North Carolina, Kansas and Washington, and other states. They reported hundreds of thousands of suspicious or inappropriate opioid prescriptions. One Walmart employee warned about a Florida doctor who had a “list of patients from Kentucky that have been visiting pharmacies in all of central Wisconsin recently.” That doctor had sent patients to Walmarts in more than 30 other states.

How did “corporate” respond? By repeatedly forbidding pharmacists from cutting off any doctor. Pharmacists were told to “evaluate each prescription on an individual basis.”  One opioid compliance manager even sent an executive an email (viewed by ProPublica, which confirmed its contents), that Walmart’s focus should be on “driving sales.”

The prosecutor investigating Walmart’s behavior prepared to indict the corporation for violating the Controlled Substances Act.  She had the support of her boss, who also believed the evidence justified what would have been an unprecedented step.(Fortune 500 companies don’t get indicted–gee, I wonder why…)

Before the Texas prosecutors could file their case, however, Walmart escalated concerns to high-ranking officials at the DOJ, who then intervened. Brown was ordered to stand down. On Aug. 31, 2018, Trump officials officially informed Walmart that the DOJ would decline to prosecute the company, according to a letter from Walmart’s lawyer that lays out the chronology of the case.

The Texas prosecutors appealed to higher-ups at DOJ, pointing out that dispensing opioids without a legitimate medical purpose is legally indistinguishable from dealing heroin.

Criminal law says if a person or entity is willfully blind or deliberately ignorant, they are as liable as if they had acted intentionally. Once Walmart’s headquarters knew its pharmacists were raising alarms about suspicious prescriptions, but the compliance department continued to allow — even push — them to fill them, well, that made the company guilty, the Texas prosecutors contended.

This wasn’t a situation where a few employees “went rogue.”  Worse, the company was a repeat offender; seven years earlier, Walmart entered into a settlement with the DEA in which it promised to improve its controls over the abuse of opioid prescriptions.

The DOJ didn’t budge, so prosecutors tried another tactic: criminal charges against individual employees. Trump officials blocked that, too. Then prosecutors tried to bring a civil case, and Trump officials blocked that.

The lengthy story at the link is detailed enough to dispel any doubts about how thoroughly this administration has corrupted the DOJ.

The news of the Walmart investigation comes at a time when the Trump administration is being assailed for legal favoritism and cronyism. Attorney General Bill Barr has inserted himself into multiple investigations of Trump friends and associates. In February, four prosecutors on the case of Roger Stone, a Trump friend and adviser, quit the case in protest after political appointees undercut their sentencing recommendation.

The Trump DOJ has also pulled back on white-collar and corporate investigations and prosecutions. White-collar prosecutions are at a record low. Walmart itself seems to have already benefited from the Trump administration’s approach to corporate misconduct. The company was the subject of a seven-year investigation into bribery allegations in Mexico and around the globe. The Obama administration sought $600 million in fines, according to The New York Times, which broke the story, but failed to reach a resolution with the company. The Trump DOJ settled the charges for $282 million in June 2019.

It certainly pays to have low friends in high places…..

 

Speaking Of Paradigm Shift…

I’ve posted before about my theory that we (i.e. all humans) are in a period of paradigm shift–defined as a time when cultures’ previous world-views are undergoing profound change. The result of that shift is that people who see the world through previous lenses and those who have adopted new ways of understanding reality cannot communicate.

Just one example: People who see the world as it is and as it is emerging understand that humans are globally interdependent; folks wedded to an older paradigm cling tightly to nationalism, exclusion and slogans like “America First.”

Remarks made by the pastor who conducts Trump’s weekly bible study (and boy, would I like to be a fly on the wall in one of those!) are an excellent illustration of the wide gap–the abyss, really–between old and new realities.

According to the Intercept

The minister who hosts a weekly bible study session for President Trump’s Cabinet has an opinion about the origins of the coronavirus. According to Ralph Drollinger, it’s just another form of God’s wrath in response to an increasingly progressive nation.

“Relative to the coronavirus pandemic crisis, this is not God’s abandonment wrath nor His cataclysmic wrath, rather it is sowing and reaping wrath,” Drollinger wrote in a series of posts. “A biblically astute evaluation of the situation strongly suggests that America and other countries of the world are reaping what China has sown due to their leaders’ recklessness and lack of candor and transparency.”

Drollinger didn’t leave it at that; he also blamed the “religion of environmentalism” and people who express a “proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality,” and claimed that such persons have  infiltrated “high positions in our government, our educational system, our media and our entertainment industry” and “are largely responsible for God’s consequential wrath on our nation.”

Granted, Drollinger’s worldview–like that of Mike Pence–is hardly representative of today’s  American society. (Trump, as best I can tell, doesn’t have a worldview;  he has only a Trumpview.) Drollinger, Pence, DeVos and most others in the administration–along with the cult that supports them– are extreme examples of the eras when humans explained everything they didn’t understand or couldn’t control as “God’s will.”

America’s mainstream has been inching toward a very different approach, one that respects science, empirical evidence and human agency. It recognizes that there is still much that we don’t know, much that we cannot answer or control (see: pandemics), but has confidence that with additional study and information, humans will eventually be able to answer the unanswered questions and control more of our common destiny.

The current Coronavirus pandemic may speed up the shift from reflexive attribution of everything we fail to understand to this or that deity, and toward adoption of a very different cultural and intellectual framework.

I thought about that possibility when I read a New Yorker article about Estonia, of all places. Estonia is evidently coping with the pandemic admirably.

Estonia may be the nation best prepared for the consequences of the pandemic, both economically and socially. As my colleague Nathan Heller has written, its economy is bound to tech, its government is digital, and most services in the country either are or can be provided electronically—in fact, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the extent of Estonian digitization. People vote online and use digital prescriptions; a single piece of I.D. securely stores each Estonian’s personal information, including health, tax, and police records; one can even establish residency and begin paying taxes in the country digitally—effectively immigrating online. Estonians say that only three kinds of interaction with the state require a person’s physical presence: marriage, the transfer of property, and divorce. In some cases, births had to be registered in person, but this requirement has been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ninety-nine per cent of households have broadband Internet connections, and the education system is a world leader in developing and using electronic technologies. In other words, the prospect of having to work, study, and shop online may not require the sort of readjustment in Estonia as many people face elsewhere.

I don’t mean to suggest that digitizing society is a “new worldview.” it isn’t. But it is evidence of a society that accepts change and educates for it. And acceptance of and adaptation to change definitely is a very different approach to life than that adopted by people like the Reverend and other Trump supporters, characterized by resentment of change, blaming bad fortune on the  “other,” and insisting that bigotry is “God’s will.”

Transitions are always bumpy, but the sooner Americans abandon the Trumper’s paradigm, the better.