Present at the Apocalypse

Imagine being a rather sedentary retired old man in his seventies with severe COPD and severe sleep apnea and mild heart issues and osteoporosis too (don’t fall over, damn it) living alone in Hollywood, quietly, but not unhappily, doing photography and writing a bit. Social Security and a small pension almost cover the bills. But the 401(k) is evaporating now as the economy collapses. Things will get tough. This seems like 1929, not 1987 or 2008, and California Governor Gavin Newsom called for the home isolation of all seniors in California as well as those with chronic conditions. That’s two of two, so there’s no going out for anything but groceries now. But that’s okay. A few days later Newsom ordered bars and restaurants and gyms and movie theaters and anything nonessential to close – immediately – so nothing is open anyway. Social distancing was a choice for more than twenty years. Now it isn’t. But that’s fine. It’s all the same.

But nothing is the same. Staying home makes photographing this particular world impossible. All there is left is watching the world end from a distance. And three days into the necessary “home isolation” it was this:

Investor Bill Ackman urged President Donald Trump and corporate America in an impassioned plea on CNBC to shut down the country for 30 days to contain the fast-spreading coronavirus, calling it the only option to rescue the economy.

“What’s scaring the American people and corporate America now is the gradual rollout,” Ackman told Scott Wapner on “Halftime Report” on Wednesday. “We need to shut it down now. … This is the only answer.”

“America will end as we know it. I’m sorry to say so, unless we take this option,” he said. Ackman added that if Trump saves the country from the coronavirus, he will get reelected in November.

Sure, but that seems unlikely:

Worldwide coronavirus cases topped 200,000 on Wednesday, while confirmed cases in the U.S. have surged to at least 6,496. The Trump administration is working on a $1 trillion stimulus package to combat the impact of the virus, including sending out checks to the American people and providing financial relief to airlines.

“The hotel industry and the restaurant industry will go bankrupt first, Boeing is on the brink, Boeing will not survive without a government bailout,” Ackman said. “Capitalism does not work in an 18-month shutdown; capitalism can work in a 30-day shutdown.”

The founder and CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management said he felt a “tsunami” was coming before anyone else raised a red flag about the outbreak.

Ackman may be right. Most small businesses, and a lot of the larger ones, will go bankrupt if this lasts much longer. And even Trump’s people say unemployment could hit twenty percent. Others say they’re too optimistic. Shut everything down for four weeks, or six weeks, or six months, or eighteen months, to save lives, and we’re back in the Stone Age, or maybe not:

In response to Ackman’s remarks on CNBC, a White House official said, “As President Trump has said, we are going to ensure that we take care of all Americans, including affected industries and small businesses, and that we emerge from this challenge stronger and with a prosperous and growing economy.”

But how are we going to ensure anything? No one knows:

Ackman predicted that hotel stocks including Hilton could “go to zero” soon if no action is taken. He is a major shareholder in Hilton.

“Every hotel is going to be shut down in the country. … If we allow this to continue the way we have allowed it to continue, every hotel company in the world is done. No business can survive a period of 18 months without revenue,” Ackman said…

Still, Ackman said he grew optimistic that world leaders including Trump will move immediately to save the global economy.

But that won’t be easy, and Robert Costa and Philip Rucker show why:

The novel coronavirus is redefining Donald Trump’s presidency eight months before he stands for reelection as he wagers that the potentially largest rescue package in U.S. history could protect the American people from the economic carnage brought by the pandemic.

Trump will be tested at the ballot box not only by his management of the public health crisis but also his ability to navigate what the president says will likely be a recession – a challenge that is reviving the decade-long debate over the use of public money to prop up private businesses.

The administration on Wednesday outlined a $1 trillion plan, which includes $500 billion in cash payments to individual Americans and $300 billion toward helping small businesses, as well as $50 billion for airlines and $150 billion for other affected sectors.

And that is public money to prop up private businesses, which now must be explained a different way:

Trump’s hastily crafted stimulus, which has won early support from most Republican lawmakers, marks a sea change on the political right. The president and many of his conservative allies rose to power on the strength of a grass-roots movement forged in opposition to the bank bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis and President Obama’s subsequent economic stimulus package.

That was the Tea Party that still will punish Republican heretics or even indifferent apostates, and they know it:

Scrutiny of Trump’s plan continues to grow as some Republicans express unease about its scope and leading Democrats warn against federal giveaways to corporations without accountability measures that would ensure taxpayer money does not fund stock buybacks or executive pay.

And there is some trepidation within the administration about the political risks associated with the perception that industries spend money as they wish – as well as uncertainty about how, exactly, all of the money would be spread around…

No one wants to make the heirs of the Tea Party angry, or what’s left of the Occupy Wall Street crowd. They turned into the Bernie Sanders crowd, and then into anyone who wasn’t glued to Fox News all day. Bailing out the economy is tricky, and the stakes here are as high as they get:

Trump’s ability to enact his plan and weather the turbulence could have an enormous impact on his political fate and determine whether he is remembered as this era’s Herbert Hoover, who was president at the onset of the Great Depression, or its Franklin Roosevelt, his successor who guided the nation out of economic and geopolitical turmoil.

“This is Trump’s World War II,” said Stephen Moore, a Heritage Foundation fellow and an informal Trump economic adviser. “It’s really critical to not only whether he is reelected but how he will be judged by history.”

Trump is working on that. Part of determining his place in history will hinge on how much this seems to be his fault. That’s why he is now calling this the “Chinese Virus” in all his comments and tweets and speeches. “They” did this. He did nothing. He is heroically fighting the Chinese!

That may not fly:

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) – who built a national profile, years ago, as the head of a hardline small-government advocacy group – said this crisis “is not like an ordinary recession or even a severe recession. This is more like an act of God or war footing.”

Toomey said comparing current proposed legislation with the financial industry bailout of 2008, which he opposed, is misguided because “those were caused by a bubble in real estate and financial institutions being overleveraged, all kinds of human error.”

“It’s a different thing when a lethal pathogen affects large numbers of Americans,” Toomey said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed that the Senate will not recess before reaching bipartisan agreement on the stimulus legislation. And his advice to his conservative colleagues: Rally together even if bills are fiscally problematic.

That’s because this is an end-of-the-world apocalypse, because real people are going to die, for real, although there was this:

Some of Trump’s top supporters are concerned that the rush for stimulus is mistaken and does not guarantee an economic turnaround.

Supply-side economist Arthur Laffer, whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, warned that pumping federal dollars into the economy “sounds compassionate” but would not necessarily spark the market back into action.

“I’m very worried that this government – or any government – in a panic does stupid things,” Laffer said. “They need to breathe into a brown paper bag a bit, think it through clearly. This is no time to abandon the free market with government interference.”

And then he drew another “Laffer Curve” diagram on the wall of his padded cell, but everyone had something to say:

As President Donald Trump receives backlash for comments Wednesday about the coronavirus outbreak that were widely perceived as xenophobic, his allies in Congress have risen to his defense – with one senator in particular embracing his rhetoric.

“China is to blame,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Wednesday of the virus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, “because of the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that!”

In short, those people are godless savages:

He proceeded to identify the consumption of such animals as the source of the virus, echoing a since debunked myth that the outbreak began with a woman eating bat soup. The origins of the virus remain a mystery to health officials, even as it continues to spread globally.

The senator also incorrectly cited China as the birthplace of two other previous outbreaks: Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, and the swine flu pandemic.

Cornyn must know the media will fact-check him on that, but no one reads the fact-checkers, and someone has to defend the president:

Cornyn’s statement comes just hours after the president doubled down on his use of the term “Chinese Virus,” despite public backlash against the term.

“It’s not racist at all,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “It comes from China, that’s why.”

No, it came from Fox News sixteen days earlier:

Fox News host Jesse Watters demanded a formal apology from China on Monday before pushing unproven rumors that the new coronavirus came from Chinese citizens “eating raw bats and snakes.”

With fears heightening around the virus as the death toll in the United States jumped to at least six on Monday, Watters began Monday’s broadcast of Fox News chat fest The Five by lashing out at China, which has been the epicenter of the growing pandemic.

“I would like to just ask the Chinese for a formal apology,” Watters said. “This coronavirus originated in China, and I have not heard one word from the Chinese. A simple ‘I am sorry’ would do.”

As the rest of his colleagues appeared somewhat embarrassed and tried to laugh off his rant, Watters then insisted that the virus originated from the Chinese eating diseased uncooked animals.

“Let me tell you why it happened in China,” he declared. “They have these markets where they were eating raw bats and snakes.”

“No, Jesse,” co-host Dana Perino pleaded as the other hosts could be seen face-palming.

“They are very hungry people,” Watters continued, causing more laughter. “The Chinese communist government cannot feed the people. And they are desperate, this food is uncooked, it is unsafe. And that is why scientists believe that’s where it originated from.”

No, scientists do not. He had misread a New York Times travel article on the Philippines that didn’t even mention bat soup. But it was too late. Dana Perino lost. That went viral. Those people are godless savages. Trump has his ear to the ground. He bought it. Or he found it useful. None of this is his fault. And assume there will soon be a new beyond-hip Chinese post-punk rock band out here in Los Angeles named Bat Soup. The name Duck Soup has already been taken. It does seem like the end of the world.

But that’s not so bad. Maybe it’s not the end of the world:

Thousands of people in Florida are seemingly ignoring social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus outbreak. Despite warnings from public health experts, photos and videos show beaches across the state packed with spring breakers.

On Monday, President Trump announced new national recommendations for Americans to help prevent the continued spread of COVID-19, which has killed at least 93 people in the U.S. to date. The recommendations include avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people and not eating at restaurants and bars.

Essentially, every American should be practicing social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping 6 feet away from other people.

But on Clearwater Beach in Florida, spring breakers don’t seem to be abiding by those rules. Helicopter footage and social media posts reveal thousands of people lying side by side on the beach and swimming in the ocean in groups, with no apparent concern for the pandemic.

This then is not the end of the world. It’s Spring Break, and it’s a free country:

In a news conference Tuesday morning, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ordered all bars and nightclubs to close effective at 5:00 p.m. for 30 days. He also recommended that the state’s 12 public universities require distance learning for all students through the end of the semester.

Additionally, the governor ordered restaurants to reduce their capacity by 50% and encouraged people to order takeout instead. However, he did not announce statewide closures of beaches.

“What we’re going to be doing is, simply, for the statewide floor for beaches, is applying the CDC guidance of no group on a beach more than 10 and you have to have distance apart if you’re going to be out there,” DeSantis said. “Different localities are going to make decisions about what makes sense.”

So stop scolding him, damn it! And it is a free country:

Some beachgoers don’t seem to be taking the warnings seriously.

“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying,” Brady Sluder, a spring breaker from Ohio, told Reuters. “We’re just out here having a good time. Whatever happens happens.”

And then Clearwater, Cocoa Beach, Lee County and other communities announced plans late Wednesday to close beaches due to coronavirus. What will that spring breaker from Ohio say now? Bummer…

Lili Loofbourow has a few things to say about such people:

On Saturday, conservative writer and professional provocateur David Hookstead bemoaned the COVID-19 outbreak in a tweet that went viral for how perfectly it captured a particular kind of American mentality: “Today should have been a day of college basketball games and a few cold beers. Instead, coronavirus stole it. Imagine explaining to a D-Day veteran that sports were canceled because of a virus. Imagine canceling the moon landing over a virus. What a sad state of affairs.”

Given the situation around the world, and particularly in Italy, she sees this as an odd sort of American Exceptionalism:

Our situation is different not just because the Trump administration squandered the six weeks it had to prepare while other countries were modeling more and less effective approaches to their respective epidemics, and not just because Donald Trump has taught his followers that nothing scientists or the press says is true, but because some Americans believe that defying expert recommendations isn’t just their God-given right – it’s courageous and funny and even patriotic.

Part of this is the kind of twisted masculinity that requires men to joke about and downplay their own physiological vulnerability, as if disease were feminine, inferior, or weak (and battle wounds a sign of strength). The public patient zero of the NBA’s outbreak, Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert, touched every microphone at a press conference to signal his courage and bravado, shortly before testing positive – he wasn’t afraid of a teeny tiny little virus, get it?

Nervous laughter spread through the press room. Now he’s publicly apologized and donated half a million dollars to an employee relief fund.

But wait, there’s more:

Then there were the public gatherings this past weekend. The governor of Oklahoma tweeted proudly about his visit to a crowded restaurant with his family while experts were recommending that people isolate as much as possible. Gov. Kevin Stitt would delete that tweet, but his spokesperson said, “The governor will continue to take his family out to dinner and to the grocery store without living in fear and encourages Oklahomans to do the same.”

How did taking steps to protect the elderly and vulnerable get equated to living in fear? So twisted are our narratives about American might that getting drunk in a giant crowd to observe St. Patrick’s Day – on a weekend morning – is currently being presented as proof of American exceptionalism and resolve. “Downtown Nashville is undefeated” was the caption a woman chose for footage she posted of a scrum of people dancing over the weekend. The implication was obvious: There is a war being waged on America, and staying home is an ignoble retreat.

And yes, that’s absurd, but it has its obvious origin:

A nation founded on revolt and manifest destiny might have some of this martial distortion deep in its character. But more recently, the “war on terror” has done a lot more to atrophy and warp the American political imagination. Virtually every kind of adversity is reflexively approached now through bizarrely inappropriate war metaphors. This mismatch between what war actually is and the “wars” we see everywhere is a strange artifact of 9/11, which introduced the concept of a mostly invisible terror to the average American, a threat that was suddenly uncircumscribed by any clear definition of nation-states or conventional combat or boundaries of any kind. Because of this inchoate and largely fear-based threat, Americans were told to reject the psychological intimidation on which terrorism depends – to refuse to “live in fear.”

The fantasy remains that Americans rose to this challenge. That we haven’t had another domestic attack of that scale is perceived as proof not just of the prowess of our unseen forces fighting abroad but also of our resilience at home. The terrorists wanted to terrorize us, and by living our lives, proud and uncowed, we didn’t let the terrorists win!

“The American people have got to go about their business,” George W. Bush told Americans in 2001. “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop. That’s their intention.”

So Americans shopped. Shopping – and by extension all public socializing and consumption, including drinking with your buddies in bars for St. Patrick’s Day – became coded as a proud form of American resistance… It isn’t principled or selective; it promiscuously imbues anything you decide you want to own or eat or drink with patriotic and even bellicose purpose.

Yes, that’s absurd, but maybe that’s all we’ve got:

Americans may subconsciously intuit that going out to spend money is a pretty degrading redefinition of patriotic courage, but because we haven’t been given permission to valorize any kind of self-sacrificing or collectivist action, there’s nowhere for that energy to go. So yes, a hum of doubt and uncertainty underpins these coronavirus declarations of American bravery. While he was self-isolating after being exposed to the infamous CPAC coronavirus carrier, Rep. Paul Gosar tweeted something pretty telling: “I’d rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus. In a way it doesn’t matter. But it kinda does.”

The subtext here should be familiar by now: It’s humiliating – emasculating, even – to be brought low by a bundle of protein and RNA.

Ah, but there is reality:

You can’t “beat” a virus. Our addiction to war metaphors can’t get us there. But American exceptionalism – like its machismo – requires that we believe, even against the testimony of experts and the evidence of our own eyes, that the “greatness” of America is eternal and invulnerable, as is the constitution of the prime American hero (Trump is the healthiest president we’ve ever had!). There’s nothing more American than insisting things are great when you know they’re not.

That may be the secret to Trump’s success, but yes, that’s absurd, but Loofbourow has a warning:

American holdouts need to take a minute to ponder who the enemy is they’re “resisting.” The virus isn’t sentient. It isn’t watching the bar-going hordes and thinking, Wow, I really misjudged these brave Americans; I’m not sure I’m up to this.

No, go the other way:

You want to show the virus who’s boss? Want to do your part for the war effort and starve the invader into submission? Deny it the use of your body. Stay home.

But that feels like the end of the world. And stay home and Bill Ackman will tell you it is indeed the end of the world. And maybe it is. Everything is closing. Everyone is alone. This is an oddly quiet apocalypse. No one expected that.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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