To Fight or Flatter

“We are not amused.” Perhaps the rotund and rather severe Queen Victoria never said that. She told her granddaughter, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, that she never said any such thing. But that’s only what Princess Alice said. Who knows?

Queen Victoria should have said that even if she didn’t. That’s the perfect use of the royal we – the majestic plural (pluralis majestatis) – where the speaker is everything both singular and plural. Don’t make that speaker angry. That’s angering the whole universe of everything that’s good and right.

And of course that’s how this week ended with Donald Trump:

After days of desperate pleas from the nation’s governors, President Donald Trump took a round of steps Friday to expand the federal government’s role in helping produce critically needed supplies to fight the coronavirus pandemic even as he warned the leaders of hard-hit states not to cross him.

“I want them to be appreciative,” Trump said after the White House announced that he would be using the powers granted to him under the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to try to compel auto giant General Motors to produce ventilators.

The nation’s governors did not publicly acknowledge his awesomeness. General Motors did not publicly acknowledge his awesomeness. This was not fair:

Trump – who hours earlier had suggested the need for the devices was being overblown – rejected any criticism of the federal government’s response to a ballooning public health crisis that a month ago he predicted would be over by now.

“We have done a hell of a job,” Trump said, as he sent an ominous message to state and local leaders who have been urging the federal government to do more to help them save lives.

Trump said he had instructed Vice President Mike Pence not to call the governors of Washington or Michigan – two coronavirus hotspots – because of their public criticism. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump said.

There were reports that he had told all vendors everywhere not to sell any medical goods or services to Michigan in particular and to stop all current shipments to Michigan even if Michigan had already paid for them in full. Any vendor that did that would never see a federal contract ever again. That seems odd and unfair, and immoral and perhaps illegal, but he was in a foul mood:

Trump had been saying for more than a week that he was reluctant to use the Defense Production Act – even after he invoked it – because companies were already doing what he wanted and he didn’t need arm-twisting to make them comply.

Yet Trump continued to suggest that states’ own failures were to blame for the needed intervention. “Normally these would be bought for states, just so you understand,” he said.

In short, none of this is the federal government’s responsibility, at least as he sees it, even if others do not see that:

The president has been under growing pressure from the nation’s governors to do more to bolster supplies, despite the perceived risks of speaking out. From New York to Washington, they have pleaded with him to use the DPA to force companies to manufacture critical equipment. And they have begged for help in obtaining supplies like masks and testing agents, saying that states have been forced to compete against one another as well as the federal government on the open market, driving up prices, even as federal officials have pledged their help if states fail.

Yes, one state may offer to pay three dollars a unit for surgical masks, but the state next door may offer five dollars a unit. The manufacturers sit back and wait to see how high the bids will go, and wait for more. They’ll get rich. The nation’s governors are screaming about this, but that’s a bad tactic:

The notoriously thin-skinned Trump has not taken well to their criticism. Instead, he has lashed out at governors, continued to diminish the risk posed by the virus and insisted that the federal government was only a “backup” as he looked to avoid political costs from a pandemic that has reshaped his presidency and tested his reelection plans.

He does know this could hurt him:

In a Thursday night interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump declared that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee “should be doing more” and “shouldn’t be relying on the federal government.” He dismissed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s requests for additional ventilators to keep patients alive, saying, “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000” of the devices, which force air into the lungs of those too sick to breathe. And he said he was still weighing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s request for a disaster declaration, saying, “We’ve had a big problem with the young, a woman governor from, you know who I’m talking about, from Michigan.”

“You know,” he added from the White House, “We don’t like to see the complaints.”

He did slip into the “royal we” there, unless that wasn’t a slip at all. He was not amused. And there will be hell to pay, although Aaron Blake notes this:

The question is whether Trump is making decisions during that crisis on things that have nothing to do with the details of the actual crisis, or he’s just blowing off steam. Trump did note that Pence still called the governors, despite his direction, so it’s not clear that either Michigan or Washington have actually suffered because of their governors’ comments about Trump.

On GM, though, there is a very valid question about why it was singled out when other car companies and manufacturers haven’t yet been.

Perhaps he was just angry. Nancy LeTourneau, the psychologist and family therapist turned political analyst, offers this reminder:

One of the first articles I read about Donald Trump’s mental health issues was written by Richard Greene. He talked to several psychiatrists about the signs and symptoms related to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). One description stuck with me.

“There are only two ways to deal with someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and they are both dangerous. There is no healthy way of interacting with someone with this affliction. If you criticize them they will lash out at you and if they have a great deal of power, that can be consequential. If you compliment them it only acts to increase the delusional and grandiose reality the sufferer has created, causing him to be even more reliant on constant and endless compliments and unwavering support.”

Andrew Cuomo and Gretchen Whitmer know this now. Everyone knows this now. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is still trying to thread the needle on this, and LeTourneau cites Kathleen Ronayne and Jonathan Lamire reporting this:

Facing an unprecedented public health crisis, governors are trying to get what they need from Washington, and fast. But that means navigating the disorienting politics of dealing with Trump, an unpredictable president with a love for cable news and a penchant for retribution.

Republicans and Democrats alike are testing whether to fight or flatter, whether to back channel requests or go public, all in an attempt to get Trump’s attention and his assurances.

At stake may be access to masks, ventilators and other personal protective gear critically needed by health care workers, as well as field hospitals and federal cash. As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., put it, “I can’t afford to have a fight with the White House.”

And there’s Peter Wehner:

For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.

But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.

LeTourneau comments:

That is what happens when we have a president who is “erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy.”

We’ll never know how the coronavirus crisis might have played out under a different president because there is no parallel universe (at least that we know about) where we can watch that possibility unfold.

No, there is a parallel universe, which Maureen Dowd discusses here:

It’s no wonder that watching Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings can make some people crave Chianti and meatballs.

Besides coolly explaining the facts in this terrifying and stultifying plague season, the governor of New York evokes the feeling of a big Italian family dinner table.

And that is the intended effect.

“Call it psychological,” Governor Cuomo, phoning from Albany, tells me. “Call it feelings. Call it emotions. But this is as much a social crisis as a health crisis.”

This man is not a narcissist, he’s Italian, but it’s more than that:

Often in the past, when people called Cuomo patriarchal, it was not meant as a compliment. It was a way to describe his maniacally controlling behavior, his dark zeal to muscle past people and obstacles to get his way. The New York Times’s Adam Nagourney dubbed him the “human bulldozer,” and a former adviser once put it this way: “The governor thinks he’s a hammer. So everyone looks like a nail.”

But now, the darker the zeal, the better, if it secures you a mask or ventilator. Given the White House’s deathly delays and the president’s childish rants, America is yearning for a trustworthy parental figure – and a hammer.

The warm, fuzzy feeling for the cold, calculating pol that developed among many Democrats in the past week was summed up by Bill Maher, who told me: “I see Cuomo as the Democratic nominee this year. If we could switch Biden out for him, that’s the winner.” He added, “He’s unlikable, which I really like.”

That might be another way of saying that Andrew Cuomo doesn’t bullshit people, and that he himself has what Hemingway once said every writer, or perhaps every good man, must have – a foolproof shockproof crap detector. That would explain this:

To the surprise of many who did not associate the name “Andrew Cuomo” with the word “empathy,” the governor has become a sort of national shrink, talking us through our fear, our loss and our growing stir-craziness.

“This is going be a long day, and it’s going to be a hard day, and it’s going to be an ugly day, and it’s going to be a sad day,” he told officers from the New York National Guard on Friday, charging them to fight this “invisible” and “insidious” beast and “kick coronavirus’s ass.”

Things will not get better next Tuesday afternoon, like magic. This really is going be a long day, and it’s going to be a hard day, and it’s going to be an ugly day, and it’s going to be a sad day, or worse. Don’t tell a man standing in the rain that it’s not raining. Where did the foolish man saying that grow up anyway?

Dowd knows:

It is more than passing strange that in this horror-movie moment, with thirteen people dying on Tuesday at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and a refrigerated truck parked outside to collect the bodies, the nation’s two most prominent leaders are both Queens-scions. Both men grew up in the shadows of their fathers, the hard-working sons of European immigrants.

The Trump family is a model of bad nepotism – noblesse oblige in reverse. Such is their reputation as scammers that congressional Democrats felt the need to put a provision in the coronavirus rescue bill to try to prevent Trump-and-Kushner Inc. from carving out a treat of their own.

Cuomo-style nepotism at least has better values. Donald Trump got his start with his father discriminating against black tenants in their housing complexes; Andrew Cuomo left his job as a political enforcer for his father, Mario Cuomo, also a three-term governor of New York, and created a national program to provide housing for the homeless.

And yes, there’s that Italian family thing too:

His brother, Chris, hosts a CNN show. The 62-year-old governor goes on it to bicker and banter with his 49-year-old baby brother about everything from the women swooning over Andrew’s machismo style on Twitter – “You know that what people are saying about how you look really can’t be accurate,” Chris teased – to their relative prowess at basketball.

In his briefings, Andrew Cuomo talks about how cabin fever is causing him to get annoyed with his dog, a Northern Inuit named Captain. He talks about stopping his sisters from bringing their kids to see his 88-year-old mother, Matilda, who is “pure sugar” but vulnerable to the virus. He says his mother was a little annoyed when he named a social distancing guideline for the most vulnerable “Matilda’s Law” in her honor.

But this is more than banter:

After Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, suggested that older Americans might be willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their grandchildren’s economy and President Trump buoyantly called for America to reopen as soon as Easter, Cuomo said flatly, “My mother’s not expendable.” He also tweeted: “You cannot put a value on human life. You do the right thing. That’s what Pop taught us.”

At Wednesday’s briefing, he displayed a picture of Mario Cuomo, who died in 2015, amid all the graphs on infections.

“He’s not here anymore for you,” he said, but “He’s still here for me.”

Woody Guthrie wrote that song about Trump’s father:

I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
He stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line…

Dowd notes how Cuomo remembers his own father:

He offered a quote from his dad about what government should be: “The idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings – reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race or sex or geography or political affiliation.”

The quote was obviously meant to draw an odious comparison with the Republican in the White House who seems immune to feeling others’ pain.

Dowd, however, likes those who can get things done:

I wrote admiringly about Cuomo’s LBJ-style blend of the velvet glove and the brass knuckles when he did what Barack Obama did not deign to do in 2009 and clawed back millions from the rapacious financiers scarfing up bonuses while they were taking federal bailout money; when he pushed to legalize same-sex marriage in New York in 2011; and when he rammed through a gun control bill after the Sandy Hook children were slaughtered, surpassing Obama’s efforts again.

“It took a terrible political toll on me, but it’s still the best gun law in the nation,” Cuomo says now.

And really, this guy just isn’t Trump:

It is jarring to watch officials like Governor Cuomo and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who have worked their way up through the system, gaining valuable wisdom, have to delicately deal with Donald Trump, the barbarian who crashed through the gates and who is ignorant about – and disdains – the bureaucracy he leads.

Trump is now using the ego arithmetic he once used to brag about the ratings he got on Larry King’s show or the number of TV cameras he saw at rallies to falsely claim that his administration has done more tests than anyone and that everyone who wants a test can get one. He boasts about having the best tests on earth the same way he used to brag about having the best rolls in the city in the restaurant at Trump Tower.

But there are those who are not narcissists:

The governor got heated on Tuesday about the elusive ventilators Trump kept promising. But in this crisis, Cuomo has put his own enormous ego aside to tend to the president’s, lacing his briefings with whatever praise for Trump is justified, willing to do what it takes to get what New York needs.

The subtext is on vivid display, though, when Cuomo tweets: “Facts are empowering. Even when the facts are discouraging, not knowing the facts is worse. I promise that I will continue to give New Yorkers all the facts, not selective facts.”

The governor also makes a point of praising Fauci, whose honesty has irritated a president who is intent on obscuring science with spin. Cuomo said that through their constant calls, including in the middle of the night, they have become friends and that Fauci is “so personally kind.”

And of course this keeps Trump off-balance:

Trump, who is always alert to great performances by people who look perfectly cast, is well aware of the potency of Cuomo’s briefings. He veers between acting like Cuomo is ungrateful and should “do more” and acting like they are working together very well, depending on how thankful the governor seems for the president’s efforts.

It was clear that Trump did not appreciate Cuomo pushing aggressively and publicly for the president to utilize the Defense Production Act so that New York could get 30,000 ventilators. On Thursday night Trump told Sean Hannity that he had “a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be. I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators.” But then he added, “I’m getting along very well with Governor Cuomo.”

On Friday, the governor hit back. “Well, look, I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. But I don’t operate here on opinion. I operate on facts and on data and on numbers and on projections.”

He implicitly mocked Trump’s tendency to rely on his feelings rather than data. “I hope some natural weather change happens overnight and kills the virus globally,” he said.

And then there was this:

Bizarrely, Trump tweeted Friday that the governor had simply misplaced the ventilators: “Thousands of Federal Government (delivered) Ventilators found in New York storage. N.Y. must distribute NOW!” To which Cuomo responded that the president was wrong and “grossly uninformed.”

Trump knew this wasn’t true at all, but knew that most of his base would believe it was true. Let them. This is how one wins, but Dowd argues that what matters now is the differences in how these two see the role of government and the “identity” of the country:

Cuomo thinks what defines America is its humanity and its welcome mat for the globe. Trump’s view seems to be the economy über alles, even if we have to leave some stragglers on the field.

So on the one side there’s this:

After risibly saying he never does anything rash, Trump insisted: “But the country wants to get back to work, our country was built to get back to work. We don’t have a country where they say, ‘Hey, let’s close it down for two years.'”

He seems to be following the George W. Bush playbook from Hurricane Katrina: Instead of going all in to save lives, he shrugs and says it’s the states’ responsibility: We’re at war with nature; the enemy is overwhelming us, but it’s really the local government that’s in charge, not the feds. “We’re not a shipping clerk,” Trump said, when that’s exactly what the federal government should be when nurses are on TV all day begging for face masks.

And on the other side this:

Unlike Trump, who tries to blame Obama when he’s the one who diluted the pandemic response force, and literally says, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Cuomo regularly says “Blame me” if anything goes wrong.

And that runs in the family:

When I covered Gov. Mario Cuomo, he expressed his disdain for a political Darwinism that was overshadowing the nation’s religious principles.

Once, in an interview in his office in 1991, he got down a copy of Teilhard de Chardin from the bookcase and gave it to me, wanting to make sure I absorbed the lessons of the Jesuit scientist and theologian who wrote: “Accept the burgeoning plant of humanity, and tend it, since without your sun, it will disperse itself wildly and die away.”

He worried that government had strayed too far away from Franklin Roosevelt, another governor of New York who felt a strong economy and compassion for the poor went hand in hand. He worried that America was spending “more money for bombs, less for babies,” as he said in the sonorous baritone that his son inherited. “More help for the rich, more poor than ever.”

And then there’s his son:

He talks about character so much that he can sound like a televangelist at times.

“You can tell the strong from the weak, the selfish from the gracious,” he tells me. “I mean, these nurses who are willing to go take blood at these drive-through centers? What courageous, beautiful people. I have other people who won’t show up for work. I have legislators who say, ‘Well, we’re not coming to the capital.'”

Before the governor gets back to his horrific night shift and a dawn wake-up call, I ask him how this Armageddon, which we know will last for months and months, will affect our identity.

“We’ll have a different country – better or worse, I don’t know,” Cuomo says. “It will have a different personality. It will be more fearful. Less trusting. But maybe there will be a greater need for intimacy.”

It’s hard to imagine Trump thinking about such things, so we have this:

Now Andrew Cuomo is trying to wrest the lifesaving materials he needs from another privileged, pampered guy in the White House who never worries about his worthiness.

But that privileged, pampered guy in the White House is not amused by any of this. He says “we” are not amused. But there’s “we the people” too, and far too many of them are not amused by any of this now. The “royal we” was never going to be useful in America. “We the people” will do just fine.

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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1 Response to To Fight or Flatter

  1. Rick says:

    First, we need to remember this as how president Donald Trump brought the nation together during one of its darkest hours:

    Trump said he had instructed Vice President Mike Pence not to call the governors of Washington or Michigan – two coronavirus hotspots – because of their public criticism. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump said.

    Close your eyes and imagine Abraham Lincoln, about to comfort the mother of a union soldier who died at Gettysburg, but after being told that she didn’t vote for him in the last election, he cancels the meeting. “Hey, you know, if they don’t treat you right…”

    I think history will remember Trump for stuff like this. What do you remember about James K. Polk? How about Martin Van Buren? Nothing? Exactly!

    But Trump? There you go! I’m pretty sure he’ll be remembered as the W.C. Fields of presidents, a clueless and self-centered dork who stumbles around with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of his shoe, striking out resentfully at anyone who sees him for what he is.

    I wonder if, during the 2016 elections, Trump had promised everyone that, should someday the country be hit by a huge pandemic, all the states will be on their own and shouldn’t count on the federal government for help or even coordination, I wonder, would that have hurt his chances, or would that have helped him?

    After all, if he’s the president, what the hell is he even president “of”?

    If national disasters are to be dealt with by all the individual states, then what’s the point of us being “one nation, indivisible”? He doesn’t even know what his job is!

    Or am I just being a “liberal”, thinking everybody shares my own liberal assumptions of a nation that looks out for all of itself, not just the parts that voted for whatever bean-dip-for-brains president happens to be in power at the time?

    I view Andrew Cuomo’s fireside chats as the liberal Democrats, demonstrating to the conservative Republicans — Donald Trump, in particular, of course — how it’s supposed to be done. But of course, what’s missing in all this is Cuomo spelling it out that way.

    Apparently he doesn’t want to rudely blurt out, “Ya see, Donald? This is the way OUR side does this! Leaders are supposed to do the RIGHT THING, not act like some Banana-Republic dictator who won’t do anything for anybody unless they give him the proper respect!”

    Trump’s worst shortcoming is that he doesn’t seem to get the fact that he just doesn’t get it, much less does he get the degree to which he doesn’t get it. He’s the most destructive kind of weak leader in that he spends most every waking hour doing little but trying to prove on Twitter how much stronger he is than everyone else.

    I keep thinking that, while I was growing up, watching all those Hollywood movies, always rooting for the good guy, Trump must have been rooting for the villain. Who does that?

    It’s an updated version of that famous old “Problem of Evil” question from philosophy 101:

    If God is all-benevolent and all-knowing and all-powerful, then how the hell did he ever let this Donald Trump goofball become president?


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