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Yes, Donald, It Is Your Fault

I still remember being furious with my middle son over something (a high school test he’d blown off, as I recall); I was beginning a long “motherly” diatribe when he absolutely shut me down by saying “yes, it was my fault.”

Admitting when one is wrong isn’t just a sign of maturity–although it is certainly that. As my son had figured out, it’s also an effective counter to other people’s anger. That’s one of the many, many things our profoundly immature President doesn’t get.

In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman recently noted an exchange between a (simpering) Maria Bartiromo and Trump, in which Trump insisted that “no one” blames him for the economic havoc wreaked by the pandemic.  And of course, he has also disclaimed any and all responsibility for the spread of the virus–it was The W.H.O. or the CDC or China, or his favorite target, Obama.

Medical professionals beg to differ.

My cousin, a cardiologist, recently blogged about a recent editorial in the Lanceta well-regarded medical journal.  The editorial pinned responsibility squarely on the Trump administration for its  marginalization of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It called the extent of that marginalization dangerous for both the U.S. and the world. In the editorial, the journal pled with Americans to put a president in the White House who will understand that “public health should not be guided by partisan politics,” and enumerated the ways in which the Trump administration had weakened the agency.

As Waldman pointed out, absolving Trump of responsibility for our economic disaster requires accepting the “misleading formulation” that we must choose between saving lives or reopening the economy. In his opinion,

this depression is absolutely Trump’s fault. He made a series of disastrous decisions that led us to this point, and other countries that have had far different experiences illustrate what might have happened if we had a president who wasn’t so utterly incompetent…we lost two months when we could have been preparing for the pandemic that would inevitably arrive in the United States. Though Trump was repeatedly warned by people inside and outside his administration beginning in early January that a pandemic was on its way, he continued to dismiss the threat, praise the Chinese government for its response and insist that there was nothing to worry about.

It is now late May, and the U.S. still doesn’t have a national testing and tracing strategy to contain the pandemic. Meanwhile, Waldman points to the experience of countries fortunate enough to have competent leadership.

South Korea saw its first case of covid-19 on the same day we did, Jan. 20. But its government acted quickly with an aggressive program of testing and tracing to contain the spread. The result is that, as of this writing, we have nearly 85,000 deaths, while South Korea has just 260.

Like us, South Korea is facing economic challenges stemming from the pandemic. But its unemployment rate in April was 3.8 percent.

To take another example, Germany has been hit harder than many places by the virus. The Germans have recorded a few less than 8,000 deaths — a lot, but still only about a third as many as the United States on a per capita basis. But because Germany had a system in place in which the government covers payrolls in an emergency, its unemployment rate is only 5.8 percent, while ours heads past 20 percent.

I have a son who lives in Amsterdam. The Netherlands, like Germany, has covered payrolls, and is projecting an eventual “cataclysmic” unemployment rate of something under 9%. (The Netherlands also keeps its infrastructure in tip-top shape, but that’s a matter for a different rant.)

Waldman says our disastrous situation could have been avoided “if Trump wasn’t so shortsighted, so ignorant, so inept and so unwilling to believe what experts were telling him.”

True. And if he wasn’t a walking, incessantly-talking illustration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, or even if he was enough of an adult to acknowledge when he was wrong. But then, he’d be a different person.

A functioning adult.

“Becoming”– Versus Unbecoming

Indiana readers: If you haven’t already requested your absentee ballot for the June 2d Primary, don’t forget that you have to do so by May 21st. 

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After several people recommended “Becoming”–the Netflix documentary about Michelle Obama’s book tour– my husband and I watched it. Now, I’m recommending it too–albeit with a caveat.

If–like me–you are already pretty depressed about what Trump and his toxic base have done to this country, you might want to skip “Becoming,” because it was truly painful to be reminded that we recently had an administration headed by a thoughtful, caring, sane and competent First Couple.

Could you fault some of President Obama’s policy decisions? Sure. Show me the political figure with whom you agree 100%. (If there is one, you aren’t thinking, just following.) What you couldn’t fault–at least not if you’re intellectually honest–was the integrity of his approach to the office. Both he and Michelle consistently elevated the interests of the country over political partisanship. (Actually, that triggered several of the criticisms I hear about his presidency; people wanted him to “play more hardball” with Republicans, who were clearly more invested in partisanship than patriotism.)

What I found both touching and illuminating was Michelle’s response to a question about how she felt the day they left the White House after spending eight years there. Her answer: vast relief that she no longer would have every single thing she said and/or did scrutinized and criticized.

For eight years, she had tried to be perfect, to meet the onslaughts of  slander and racism by “going high.”

The documentary underscored the vast differences between the Obamas and the Trumps without ever mentioning the latter.

Both Obamas are articulate, knowledgable, and civil. From all accounts, they are truly nice people. It’s impossible to imagine either of them bullying staff members, mimicking disabled people, or calling critics offensive names. But by far the most significant difference concerns empathy.

The Obamas have it; Trump doesn’t.

Several times, the documentary focused on Michelle’s frequent sessions with young women, and her encouragement that they “tell their stories” and follow their dreams. In another example, she recounted how excited she was when the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, and how she and Sasha “snuck out” to join the celebrating throng in front of the White House (where, as many of us recall, rainbow lights played across the facade).

That celebration came just a few hours after the Obamas had returned from services for the nine African-Americans gunned down in a church during bible study in Charleston. The documentary showed footage of the part of that service where President Obama broke into an impromptu “Amazing Grace” and then left the pulpit to hug and console the survivors and family members of those who’d been killed.

It is absolutely impossible to picture Donald Trump comforting anyone. Or showing respect for others. Or speaking eloquently (or using words of more than two syllables). Or ever acting like a mensch.

The documentary reminded me of a column by a British writer, who wrote it in response to the question “Why don’t most English people like Donald Trump?” It’s been making the rounds, and you’ve probably seen it, but the first few paragraphs perfectly encapsulated the distinction this documentary highlighted.

“A few things spring to mind.

Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

The contrast between Obama and Trump is the contrast between self-aware, civilized behavior and immature boorishness. Dim as he is, Trump knows that Obama (a black man!!) is vastly superior to him-intellectually, morally, and ethically. That recognition eats away at him; it’s the reason he’s so fixated on destroying anything Obama did, even when dismantling Obama’s legacy will clearly hurt the country he took an oath to serve.

Watching the documentary about Michelle Obama–as classy and brilliant and thoughtful as her husband– was a stark reminder of what we’ve lost–and the disaster that is the boorish ignoramus now defiling the Oval Office.

It hurt.

WTF?

Sorry for the inelegant headline, but…

We’ve all gotten used to hearing about the continued shenanigans of this corrupt administration: the purge of federal employees who earned Trump’s enmity by actually doing their jobs; the continued rollback of environmental protections; the cushy contracts with friends and supporters; etc.

We’d have had to be blind to have missed the central policy imperative motivating Trump–overturning anything and everything Obama ever did, no matter how sane, helpful or appropriate. That’s why one of the first things he did when he assumed office was dismantle the pandemic preparation task force Obama had established.

We’re also well aware of the incredible ineptitude of this administration. Governors and public health officials are pleading for coherent policies, for protective gear, for straight talk–none of which they are getting.

Okay. So we know he’s corrupt, insanely jealous of the black guy who preceded him, and totally ignorant of how government (and much else) works. But what explains this? 

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall reports

Let’s talk about these seizures of PPE goods by federal authorities. There are a number of instances of this and as I noted in the post below a number of reasons why it might be happening. There are numerous cases where orders placed by states or hospitals have been canceled after they have been outbid by federal authorities or federal authorities have ordered vendors to sell to the federal government. According to Kaiser Health News, those compelled sales appear to be pursuant to an executive order President Trump signed on March 18th under authorities granted by the Defense Production Act.

But what I’m more interested in are reports of federal authorities confiscating physical shipments en route to states, local governments or regional hospital systems. The most publicized case of this came at some point in March when, according to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), a shipment of 3 million masks ordered through BJ’s Wholesale was seized by federal authorities in the Port of New York. Baker did not say which agency confiscated the goods or under what authority. That incident was what led to the widely reported and successful effort to fly goods in from China using the New England Patriots jet.

Another case happened just yesterday when the top county official in Somerset County, New Jersey, Freeholder Director Shanel Robinson, announced that a shipment of 35,000 masks had been confiscated by federal officials. According to this report in the Franklin Reporter and Advocate, “As of early in the afternoon of April 3, Robinson said that the county was told the surgical face masks would be delivered that day, but that the federal government had taken the N-95 masks.

Evidently, there have been a number of other, similar incidents reported, including what Marshall says is a “reliable report of a major non-governmental entity in the western United States having a major shipment seized by federal authorities at an airport in California.”

This is inexplicable–and just nuts. (Hence the “headline” of this post.) Every time Trump holds one of his briefing-cum-political-rallies,  he insists that the states are responsible for getting their own supplies and should only appeal to the federal government in emergencies. Why, then, would federal authorities be seizing shipments that states, local governments and major medical organizations have managed to locate and purchase?

As Marshall says,

In any case, we need to know more. States have been asking the federal government to take over the process of provisioning the country with these critical PPE goods. That at least would avoid states being forced to bid up prices by bidding against each other. After having FEMA swoop in and purchase ventilators that Colorado was in the process of buying, Gov. Jared Polis (D) said: “Either be in or out. [Either let] us know what we’re going to get and when we’re going to get them or stay out and let us buy them.” But these seizures of shipments are at best causing confusion for desperate states and hospitals. And they seem so haphazard that they are raising legitimate questions about whether they are being allocated to states in a preferential or politicized fashion.

If this was part of a legitimate FEMA effort to allocate supplies more equitably, the narcissist-in-chief would undoubtedly have bragged about it. So I repeat: WTF is going on?

 

Gameplaying While Americans Were Dying

I rarely refer to Mitch McConnell without adding the entirely appropriate descriptor “most evil man in America.” There are probably people even more reprehensible, but so long as McConnell holds his current position in the Senate, he has an unequalled ability to indulge his consistently despicable instincts–to use that position to corrupt government institutions in service of money and power with no regard for the collateral effects on American lives.

By himself, the lunatic buffoon in the White House would be unable to inflict the widespread damage that McConnell aids and abets.

The New York Times, along with numerous other publications, has been reporting on Congressional efforts that preceded the critical emergency legislation intended to avert at least some of the  consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic.  A bill has finally passed, but the path to its enactment tells us everything we need to know about Mitch McConnell and today’s Republicans.

Speaking of that path…Once the nation’s businesses were mostly shut down, the Democratic House passed a bailout bill almost immediately, and sent it to the Senate–which delayed consideration because Mitch had given the Senate the weekend off..

According to several media outlets, when McConnell and the GOP did draft a bill, it contained no guaranteed aid to state governments, despite the fact that economists tell us that state aid is one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus, and among other things, it allowed corporations to continue laying off and firing people while they were taking bailout dollars. That isn’t just patently unfair– it would be likely to cause unemployment to rise, although a major purpose of a bailout is to prevent precisely that.

Paul Krugman noted that the GOP’s bill also denied “aid to many nonprofit institutions like nursing homes and group homes for the disabled.”

McConnell’s  bill did virtually nothing  to safeguard November’s election. It gave wealthier Americans more relief than poorer ones. It would have bailed out corporations without  requiring that money they received be used to pay workers, and without prohibiting its use for stock buy-backs.

Worst of all–the “cherry” on the top of McConnell’s corrupt sundae–the bill included a $425 billion fund for businesses that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin could “do basically whatever he’d like with,” as Amanda Fischer of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth explained. The bill established the fund with no oversight provisions. Not only would the $425 billion essentially be a slush fund for a thoroughly corrupt administration, the bill would have allowed Mnuchin to delay reporting distributions for six months.

As Paul Krugman wrote, in a column titled “Adding Insult to Illness,”

If you want a quick summary of the state of play over fiscal stimulus legislation, here it is: Republicans insist that we should fight a plague with trickle-down economics and crony capitalism. Democrats, for some reason, don’t agree, and think we should focus on directly helping Americans in need.

Krugman had particularly harsh words for the Mnuchin “slush fund.”  As he noted, it would be difficult to justify giving that much unrestricted money to any administration. Krugman found it “almost inconceivable” that anyone would propose giving the demonstrably corrupt Trump administration the authority to help its friends and punish those it considers enemies.

Remember, we’ve had more than three years to watch this administration in action. We’ve seen Trump refuse to disclose anything about his financial interests, amid abundant evidence that he is profiting at the public’s expense. Trump’s trade war has been notable for the way in which favored companies somehow manage to get tariff exemptions while others are denied. And as you read this, Trump is refusing to use his authority to require production of essential medical gear.

So it would be totally out of character for this administration to allocate huge sums fairly and in the public interest.

Cronyism aside, there’s also the issue of competence. Why would you give vast discretionary power to a team that utterly botched the response to the coronavirus because Trump didn’t want to hear bad news? Why would you place economic recovery efforts in the hands of people who were assuring us just weeks ago that the virus was contained and the economy was “holding up nicely”?

Only someone a thoroughly evil as McConnell could look into the cameras with a straight face and complain that– by refusing to go along with this travesty–the Democrats were delaying relief to struggling Americans.

 

Can The Arts Save Us?

Indianapolis, like many cities, has experienced an explosion of arts over the past ten to fifteen years: theater companies, art galleries, dance venues…all have proliferated. Even more significantly, the quality of those venues has dramatically improved.

Last weekend, my husband and I had tickets to two plays and a cabaret performance. (It was an unusually busy weekend for folks in our age cohort.) The cabaret performance was wonderful (Indianapolis has one of the very few Broadway-caliber cabaret theaters in the U.S.) but I really want to focus on the two plays we were privileged to see, because that experience illustrated why theater, especially, contributes to a culture of inclusion.

In times like these, when Americans are so divided, theatrical performance becomes particularly important, because it is through stories that we advance human understanding and self-awareness. (It was recognition of the importance of stories and how they are told that led to the establishment of Summit Performance, a new, woman-centered theater company in Indianapolis that endeavors to tell universal stories through a female lens.)

Last weekend, we saw two truly riveting performances: The Agitators and The Cake.

The Agitators, at the Phoenix Theatre, explored the long and often-fraught friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas–a friendship of which I had been totally unaware. It may be comforting to believe that representatives of different marginalized groups fighting for equal rights will do so in solidarity, but of course, reality is much more nuanced. The play–superbly acted–probed uncomfortable questions about uneven progress toward equality and our inescapably parochial perspectives–questions that we tend to gloss over.

The Cake, at the Fonseca Theater, defied my expectations. Part of the Fonseca’s stated mission is to be a forum for “pressing conversations.” The Cake was described as a play about a same-sex wedding and a bakery, so I expected a theatrical presentation of the legal challenges that have been in the news–the baker who refuses to lend his craft to an event he considers inconsistent with his religious beliefs, and the clash between civil rights and claims of religious liberty.

What I saw, instead, was a deeply affecting story about good people who were–inescapably– products of their upbringing, and how they reacted when forced to respond to a changing world, especially when people they dearly love are part of that change. No legal arguments, just people trying to reconcile their own contending beliefs.

Both performances reminded me that the arts are important, not just as outlets for human creativity and communication, but as necessary “threads” that very different people use to stitch together a social fabric. Plays, movies, well-done television presentations and the like allow us to travel to places we otherwise wouldn’t visit –some geographic, but others interior and highly personal–and to understand the issues that divide us in new and more nuanced ways.

In the program notes accompanying The Cake, Brian Fonseca quoted a patron saying “We sit together in the dark to know how to love each other in the light.”  I don’t think it is accidental that so many artists–actors, painters, dancers, whatever–are among the more compassionate and accepting people I know.

Readers of this blog who are in Indianapolis or surrounding areas really should try to see both of these productions.