Dealing in Death

Something went wrong. What was it? No one really knows, but Dana Milbank sees this:

People are dying. Businesses are failing. Workers are losing jobs. But above all we as a nation must keep in mind the terrible cost borne by President Trump.

“It cost me billions of dollars to become president,” he said at a White House briefing Sunday evening that was, ostensibly, about the coronavirus response. He felt so proud of the sacrifice he’d gladly and selflessly made that he repeated the sentiment four more times. “I will say that it cost me billions of dollars to be president and especially with all the money I could have made for the last three, four years.”

Trump had been asked whether he sold investments before the market crash, as several senators did. He responded with self-pity. “Look at my legal costs!” he went on. Calling it “very hard for rich people to run for office,” he noted that George Washington was “supposedly” rich but didn’t suffer as Trump has for his wealth. “I got elected as a rich person, but nobody complained until I came along.”

In a perverse twist on Bill Clinton’s famous phrase, the nation reels, and Trump cries out: I feel my pain.

Is this what those who voted for this man wanted? This is an embarrassment:

Previously, Trump’s narcissistic tendencies caused eye rolls, as when he told Gold Star parents about his own sacrifices, said avoiding STDs was his “personal Vietnam,” and claimed no president “has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

But it’s different now. As basic humanity demands that he minimize death and destitution… but then, this is a president who, when asked what he would “say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared,” replies: “I say that you’re a terrible reporter.”

There is no empathy inside this broken man – nor in his feeble response to this disaster.

Eugene Robinson puts that this way:

The essential problem, of course, is the president’s unshakable view that everything is always, always about him. As Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said about her father, President Theodore Roosevelt, Trump insists on being “the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.” This is a moment for selflessness, but Trump has shown no capacity to think of anything other than himself.

We are asked to stay home and avoid one another, at great economic and psychological cost, to keep the COVID-19 pandemic from overwhelming the nation’s health system. The crisis calls for shared sacrifice. Yet at Sunday’s briefing, Trump went on and on about why he will not make the commitment to sacrifice any potential bailout funds for which his hotel properties might qualify.

“You know, every time I do it, like, for instance, I committed publicly that I wouldn’t take the $450,000 salary [as president],” he said. “It’s a lot of money. Whether you’re rich or not, it’s a lot of money. And I did it. Nobody cared. Nobody – nobody said thank you. Nobody said thank you very much.”

No, they were worried about the nation and the world and their lives, and everyone was doing what they could do to help out in the current mess we’re in, and thinking how it would be nice to have a leader:

It is not too much to expect a president to show his gratitude for the sacrifices his citizens are making by doing everything he can to support them, rather than whine that the nation is not thanking him. Yet who believes, at this point, that we will ever see such moral leadership from Trump?

That question answers itself:

We are basically on our own. And, all things considered, across much of the country, we’re doing pretty well given the circumstances.

Governors, notably Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, have stepped up to exercise the kind of political leadership we need and provide calming day-to-day narration of the crisis. Medical experts – led by the ubiquitous and irreplaceable Anthony S. Fauci, whom I’d like to encase in bubble wrap to protect his health – politely correct Trump’s pseudoscience with real science.

So perhaps we’ll muddle through all this and be fine, but Josh Marshall points out the current hostage situation:

In his Fox News town hall this afternoon President Trump said he needs good treatment or favors in return if states want the federal governments assistance as hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients:

“Usually we’ll have fifty governors that will call it the same time. I think we are doing very well. But it’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well, also. They can’t say, ‘Oh, gee, we should get this, we should get that.’ We’re doing a great job – like in New York where we’re building, as I said, four hospitals, four medical centers. We’re literally building hospitals and medical centers. And then I hear that there’s a problem with ventilators. Well we sent them ventilators. And they could have had 15,000 or 16,000 – all they had to do was order them two years ago. But they decided not to do it. They can’t blame us for that.”

In short, they didn’t do their job long ago and unless they praise me now, repeatedly and often and publicly, they get nothing, and that’s not my problem, that’s theirs.

They should just do the right thing. Everyone should do the right thing. There’s a quick way out of the current crisis:

Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick (R) made the astonishing argument on Monday night that the elderly ought to be willing to die from COVID-19 for the sake of the economy.

During an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Patrick argued that social distancing measures against the coronavirus should be lifted to let Americans go back to work, even if it means older people becoming infected with the illness.

“Those of us who are 70+, we’ll take care of ourselves but don’t sacrifice the country,” Patrick said. “Don’t do that. Don’t ruin this great American Dream.”

The lieutenant governor asserted that grandparents have a “choice” to make in the face of “total collapse” in the economy.

“We all want to live. We all want to live with our grandchildren as long as we can,” he said. “But the point is our biggest gift we give to our country and our children and our grandchildren is the legacy of our country, and right now, that is at risk.”

So, old and sick and useless patriots should die so others can live well, or at least in a style to which they have become accustomed:

Patrick’s comments came as other Republicans, including President Donald Trump, push for the end of social distancing to rescue the sinking economy, even as the coronavirus continues to roil the country.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick has a few things to say about this:

He concluded with possibly the stupidest line of the evening: “As the president said, the mortality rate is so low. Do we have to shut down the country?”

Patrick is of course wrong about virtually everything in this statement. He seems incapable of understanding that we can’t conclude anything about the virus without widespread testing, which remains unavailable. The U.S. numbers we do have certainly indicate that it’s not just the elderly who fall ill and die from the coronavirus – Americans between the ages of 20 and 54 represent almost 40 percent of the people who have been hospitalized in this country. They are taking beds, ventilators, and other resources away from young people in Porsche accidents just as much as the elderly are. Doctors and nurses, working with inadequate protective gear, are also becoming infected while treating patients which means that someday Patrick’s capitalism-loving grandchildren won’t have any physicians when they injure themselves counting their stacks of money. And unless Patrick is saying that he and his other 70-year-old human sacrifices all plan to die painfully alone at home, they would all still be in hospitals infecting other budding young capitalists on their slow honorable death march to that great big stock exchange in the sky.

Dan Patrick hasn’t thought this through, but it’s worse than that:

The even deeper problem, beyond the catastrophic failure to understand epidemiology, is the increasingly lethal conviction on the part of at least some Americans that – all medical evidence to the contrary – this is a pandemic that will somehow spare the lucky folk. And that Americans are by definition just too darn lucky to become ill.

That was part of the wrongheaded thinking that allowed Donald Trump only a week ago to assure Americans that they needed to “just relax” because “it all will pass.”

It’s also part of the wrongheaded thinking that allowed Liberty University to reopen its doors after spring break, with President Jerry Falwell Jr. insisting that young people cannot catch or spread the virus: “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together,” he contends. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk, and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”

Maybe Falwell doesn’t understand that his students are all precisely the age to spread the virus and put others at risk. Maybe he can’t be bothered to realize that this will overwhelm small regional hospitals and sicken medical personnel. Perhaps Falwell believes that Liberty students are not merely immune and super-duper lucky but also on some kind of Godly VIP list. That seems to be the view of the Hobby Lobby empire as well, which carries with it the added implication that maybe Italians just didn’t pray hard enough about the coronavirus, perhaps the most vile suggestion of them all.

That’s an excuse to do nothing, of course, but there’s the larger picture:

Donald Trump has staked his whole political reputation on trying to solve immigration problems by blaming immigrants, political problems by blaming Democrats, science problems by blaming scientists, and basic factual problems by blaming journalists. Anyone who rejected such framing was disloyal and un-American and accused of “tearing us apart.” But a pandemic that can be at least blunted by action will not be touched by carving up the nation into the godly and the godless, the young and the old, Republican and Democrat, workers and those whom the economy can stand to put out to pasture. Any solution that depends on working those fault lines will not just fail to stem the oncoming crisis. It will also handily create new classes of unnecessary victims.

Well, there has to be someone to despise. Sneers make the world go ’round now, but things are getting hot. The Washington Post reports that in detail:

With President Trump saying he wants “the country opened” by Easter to salvage the U.S. economy, a fierce debate is now raging among policymakers over the necessity of shutting down vast swaths of American society to combat the novel coronavirus.

Health experts point to overwhelming evidence from around the world that closing businesses and schools and minimizing social contact are crucial to avoid exponentially mounting infections. Ending the shutdown now in America would be disastrous, many say, because the country has barely given those restrictions time to work, and because U.S. leaders have not pursued alternative strategies used in other countries to avert the potential deaths of hundreds of thousands.

But in recent days an increasing number of political conservatives have argued that the economic cost is too high. At a town hall broadcast Tuesday, Trump suggested dire consequences if at least some economic sectors aren’t restored.

“You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” Trump said. “You’re going to have all sorts of things happen; you’re going to have instability. You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far.”

Many will die. The old folks will die. But we can live with that. In fact, we’ll prosper because of that. We’ll profit (literally) from that. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one after all, or maybe not:

The stance has many worried, including some in the president’s own party. “There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the House’s highest-ranking Republican woman, wrote in a Tuesday tweet.

But the greatest alarm has come from scientists, epidemiologists and health experts who have spent the past three months studying the new coronavirus and have witnessed the destructive, contagious swath it has cut through other countries.

“To be a week into these restrictions and already be talking about abandoning them is irresponsible and dangerous,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Removing restrictions now would allow the virus, he said, to “spread widely, rapidly, terribly, and could kill potentially millions in the year ahead with huge social and economic impact.”

While not mentioning the president by name, Bill Gates – who co-founded Microsoft and now leads a global health foundation – rebuked Trump’s approach in a Tuesday interview with TED: “There really is no middle ground, and it’s very tough to say to people: ‘Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner. We want you to keep spending because there’s maybe a politician who thinks GDP growth is all that counts.'”

Perhaps so, but perhaps that pile of bodies over in the corner is a potent symbol of your awesome power and brutal but necessary logic, something the base will love. But nothing is simple either way:

“One of the bottom lines is that we don’t know how long social distancing measures and lockdowns can be maintained without major consequences to the economy, society, and mental health,” John Ioannidis, a medical and epidemiology expert at Stanford University, wrote in an essay last week. “Short-term and long-term consequences are entirely unknown, and billions, not just millions, of lives may be eventually at stake.”

“I am deeply concerned that the social, economic and public health consequences of this near total meltdown of normal life … will be long lasting and calamitous, possibly graver than the direct toll of the virus itself,” David L. Katz, a preventive-medicine specialist at Yale University, wrote this weekend. “The unemployment, impoverishment and despair likely to result will be public health scourges of the first order.”

Such arguments raise important points about the full impact of the current strategy, said Inglesby, the infectious-disease expert at Johns Hopkins. But those are long-term scenarios, he pointed out. “What social distancing does is buy us time to replenish supplies like masks and ventilators, deal with the immediate crisis in hospitals and come up with additional strategies.”

The question in the long run is how to balance competing economic interests and public health needs when basic questions about the pandemic – like how many Americans are infected – are unknown, said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. “If anybody tells you they have the answer to how to thread this needle, they’re lying to you.”

Trump is suggesting a shot in the dark here, and if it works it may fail anyway:

Even in a hypothetical world where the economy was valued above human life, many economists say it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to sacrifice the elderly, abruptly send everyone back to work and allow the virus to run its course. Restarting international flights, for example, wouldn’t mean consumers would buy tickets. And the shock from the spreading infections and mounting deaths would make any sense of normalcy hard to maintain.

“The best way to get control of the economy is to get through this as quickly as possible,” said Edward Kaplan, who teaches economic policy and public health at Yale University. He said that means adhering to social distancing and drastically increasing testing.

That hypothetical pile of bodies over in the corner would ruin everyone’s appetite for caviar and champagne, or that giant new tricked-out chromed-up monster truck. It might be best to just carry on and get the hard part of this over with.

But that will be hard. Oliver Darcy notes that Trump has his own television news network:

Anchors at Fox News failed to meaningfully challenge President Trump as he repeatedly misled the network’s viewers during a virtual town hall on Tuesday, effectively surrendering its airwaves to the President as he even appeared to cite a conspiratorial outlet to argue his case.

While Fox News is known as the home to such pro-Trump hosts as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, Tuesday’s town hall was held by Bill Hemmer and Harris Faulkner, two anchors the network bills as members of a supposedly fearless and hard-hitting news division.

But neither Hemmer, who is the chief breaking news anchor at Fox News and was broadcasting from the White House, nor Faulkner, who was broadcasting remotely from a studio, effectively pushed back on Trump during the two-hour event – despite obvious misinformation peddled by the President.

Trump, for instance, repeatedly compared the coronavirus to the seasonal flu. “We’ve never closed down the country for the flu,” the President said.

Hemmer, however, repeatedly failed to note that COVID-19 has a significantly higher mortality rate than the seasonal flu.

The World Health Organization has estimated the mortality rate to be 3.4%. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the United States, has estimated that it is about 2%. Fauci even previously told Fox News, “The mortality for seasonal flu is 0.1% so even if [COVID-19] goes down to 1% it’s still 10 times more fatal.”

No it isn’t. The World Health Organization says that. All the world’s scientists say that. All the epidemiologists say that. Trump says this is just the seasonal flu. Why mention those other people? And there was this:

At another point during the interview, Trump said he would “love” for the country to “open by Easter” on April 12. Instead of challenging Trump, and noting that his deadline is at odds with what many medical professionals and infectious disease experts have said, Faulkner replied, “Oh wow. Okay!”

Hemmer added, “That would be a great American resurrection.”

Just ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner. There’ll be no resurrection in that corner.

But wait. Something is happening in New York. The New York Times covers a different resurrection:

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo awoke before dawn on Tuesday, emerging after a few hours’ sleep to board a helicopter to New York City for the coronavirus briefing that has become a daily ritual for him and for the millions of people now watching.

But this event would be different. The outbreak was moving faster than he had expected, with the number of confirmed cases doubling every three days, and he decided he needed to show people – including the White House – how desperate the situation had become.

“You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators?” the governor said, referring to a recent federal government shipment to New York.

“What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000?” he said later. “You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.”

The governor repeatedly assailed the federal response as slow, inefficient and inadequate, far more aggressively than he had before.

A forgotten man and a minor figure was suddenly making waves:

His briefings – articulate, consistent and often tinged with empathy – have become must-see television. On Tuesday, his address was carried live on all four networks in New York and a raft of cable news stations, including CNN, MSNBC and even Fox News.

In a sign of the way Mr. Cuomo has become the face of the Democratic Party in this moment, his address even pre-empted an appearance by former Vice President Joseph Biden on ABC’s “The View” in New York.

Mr. Cuomo’s handling of the crisis has fostered a nationwide following; Mr. Biden called Mr. Cuomo’s briefings a “lesson in leadership,” and others have described them as communal therapy sessions. The same blunt and sometimes paternalistic traits that have long rubbed his critics raw have morphed into a source of comfort.

And this is what people seem to need:

Mr. Cuomo’s daily addresses have stood in stark contrast to the sometimes contradictory pronouncements coming from Washington.

Mr. Cuomo’s briefings have been filled with facts, directives and sobering trends: On Tuesday, the governor disclosed that the number of positive cases in New York had risen past 25,000, and that the state now projects it will need up to 140,000 hospital beds to house virus patients.

There were also signs that Washington was listening: after Mr. Cuomo spoke on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence said 2,000 ventilators were being sent to New York, with a promise of 2,000 more on Wednesday.

He shamed Pence into action and did this too:

He disparaged a remark by Texas’s lieutenant governor that older residents might not mind dying to save the economy.

“My mother’s not expendable,” Mr. Cuomo said, adding, “We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable. And we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.”

And of course Trump has few options now:

Mr. Trump took issue on Tuesday with the governor’s comments about not receiving enough ventilators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We are working very, very hard for the people of New York,” the president said. “We are working a lot with him. Then I watch him on this show complaining.”

While the president seemed displeased with Mr. Cuomo’s broadside on Tuesday, he had previously made it clear that he preferred the governor’s approach to that of City Hall. “I’m dealing with the governor,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “The governor agrees with me, and I agree with him.”

Even on Tuesday, before the president criticized Mr. Cuomo for “complaining,” he acknowledged that he had just seen the governor’s briefing. “I watched Governor Cuomo and he was very nice,” Mr. Trump said.

That’s fear, and Kathleen Parker adds this:

Not since 9/11 has the importance of eloquence been so apparent.

For the past several days, Americans have heard two public officials’ very different ways of speaking and learned why fluency and persuasion are so critical in times of crisis. This is true not only of content but also of bearing: How do the words and poses chosen by our leaders inform morale as we hunker down in our homes?

On one screen Monday, President Trump spoke at length about himself (and at times about the coronavirus). More than once, he wandered off script, at one point talking about how many billions of dollars he could have made had he not become president. But, he added, he was glad he had because he’s now a wartime president and, presumably, one was to infer, the country needs him.

How are people supposed to feel when they hear this?

They might feel queasy, and then they saw this:

On another screen, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo updated New Yorkers and the nation about the virus in his state. Unlike Trump’s self-indulgent soliloquies, Cuomo’s statements were straightforward, honest, factual and, despite the dire statistics, refreshingly reassuring. He understands that adults can absorb information and respond appropriately.

Trump has done some good things, such as closing down traffic from China and speeding up the approval of experimental drugs, but there’s more he could and should do. Only on Tuesday did reports emerge that the administration would formally implement the Defense Production Act to secure production of masks and test kits. This is such an easy call, but Trump dillydallied. He equivocated. He scared people.

Something went wrong. What was it? No one really knows, but this might be it:

We like to say that some people are just “born leaders,” but we all know, instinctively, that the best leaders are not so much born as made, made in unexpected moments they didn’t choose and could not have foreseen. President George W. Bush’s most eloquent moment consisted of eleven words. “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!” he shouted through a bullhorn to first responders as they dug through the debris of the World Trade Center. In those few words, Bush connected the world to America and made America’s loss the loss of the wider world.

Cuomo’s moment has arrived. As he wrapped up Tuesday morning, his throat seemed to tighten as he expressed his love for New York and said: “At the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day… love wins, always, and it will win again through this virus.”

Give that man a bullhorn.


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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