Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (46 page)

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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*1
During the panel discussion, Norm Pearlstine of Time Inc.—who now runs the freshly unionized
Los Angeles Times
—said he wasn’t too worried by the Internet: “I don’t think long-form journalism is much threatened,” he said.

*2
States without any legal minimum wage, or with one below the federal minimum, are Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

*3
“Because of the way the machines are changing the world,” a character in Vonnegut’s
Player Piano
says, “more and more of [people’s] old values don’t apply any more. People have no choice but to become second-rate machines themselves.”

*4
The single senator getting the most campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, by the way, has been Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who helpfully calls proposals to regulate prescription drug costs “socialist price controls.”

*5
Oh, Alaska! It denies its criminals their annual dividend checks only if they’re sentenced for a felony or incarcerated for any crime during that particular year, but as soon as they’re out of jail or prison, they’re good again. So for instance, former governor Sarah Palin’s eldest child, Track, who in 2019 finished serving time for one of his assaults, should have his dividend resumed starting in 2021 if he’s not sentenced or incarcerated again in the meantime.

*6
“In free governments the people own the land and the resources,” the superlibertarian activist Ammon Bundy said recently. Social wealth! Except he’s got it backward, as if individuals were entitled to use for free anything the society owns collectively. He and his father, Cliven Bundy, who grazes cattle on public land in Nevada but refuses to pay the rest of us for the privilege, organized the famous armed standoff with federal agents in 2014 to get their way.

*7
In addition to the Alaskan success, in small-scale trials around the world, UBIs haven’t made people work less. In the United States there would obviously need to be a serious discussion about optimal payment levels, because some people will take such a road paved with good intentions to hell. But affluent people who say they oppose UBI on principle—because it might encourage laziness or irresponsibility—should also support a 100 percent estate tax, in order to prevent lazy, irresponsible heirs.

When the original band of intellectuals and CEOs and politicians and the very rich began pursuing their dream of hijacking the U.S. political economy and dragging it back in time to the days before the New Deal, surely none of them imagined they’d wind up
here
. By which I mean either the scale and durability of their victory, or with such a front man—so deranged and unpleasant and idiotic, so brazenly racist and xenophobic and misogynistic, a businessman yet so completely incompetent as an executive. Today’s evil geniuses find him embarrassing and tiresome. All they and their predecessors ever really wanted was a system permanently guaranteeing them inordinate fortunes and power, with a clubbable Bush or Romney at the helm. Over the decades, however, as they decided again and again that their ends (money, supremacy) always justified any and all means (stoking racism and other hatreds, spreading falsehoods, rousing their rabble while also rigging the system against them), it was bound to end somewhere in this horrid vicinity. In 2016, as the current generation of Fausts made their darkest bargain yet, surely some of them smelled a whiff of sulfur or heard a demonic cackle as they signed away whatever remained of their souls.

The obeisance of the rich right and their consiglieri to Trump for the last four years has exposed more nakedly than ever their compact—everything about money, anything for money—and the events of 2020 pushed that along to an even more shameless, grotesque crescendo. In early spring, when COVID-19 had killed only dozens of Americans, Stuart Stevens, a strategist for four of the five previous GOP presidential nominees but now a fierce apostate, wrote that “those of us in the Republican Party built this moment,” because “the failures of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis can be traced directly to some of the toxic fantasies now dear to the Republican Party….
Government is bad. Establishment experts are overrated or just plain wrong. Science is suspect
.”

He could have also listed
Believe in our perfect mythical yesteryear, All hail big business
,
Short-term profits are everything, Inequality’s not so bad
,
Universal healthcare is tyranny
,
Liberty equals selfishness, Co-opt liberals,
and
Entitled to our own facts
as operating principles of the Republican Party and the right. During the first six months of 2020, all those maxims drove the responses (and the nonresponsiveness) of the Trump administration and its extended family of propagandists and allies and flying monkeys.

Stevens referred to the government’s “failures,” and objectively it did fail—to respond promptly and aggressively, to develop or execute an effective or even coherent strategy, to minimize the wholesale loss of American lives. But apart from this administration’s special incompetence and Orwellian denial of facts, while its handling of the pandemic may wind up as a
political
failure, almost every piece of the crises’ exacerbation by them was inevitable because each one came directly out of the right’s playbook of the last several decades.

  • Government is bad.
    A Republican administration uniquely unsuited and unready and really unwilling to deal with such a national crisis? Decades before our latest show-business president defamed his entire executive branch as a subversive Deep State, the cocreator of late Republicanism announced in 1981, a few minutes after becoming our first show-business president, that “in this present crisis, government is not the
    solution
    to our problem, government
    is
    the problem,” then made a shtick out of warning Americans to consider any offers of help from the government “terrifying.”
    *1

  • Believe in our perfect mythical yesteryear.
    The right twisted and exploited nostalgia in the 1970s and ’80s to get its way, selling people on a restoration of old-time America with storybook depictions that omitted all the terrible parts of the past—including the epidemics we had before we built a public health system and before governments required citizens to get government-funded vaccines; the economic panics and collapses we had before government intervened to help unemployed workers; the phony miracle cures that charlatan showmen marketed to us before government put a stop to them.

  • Establishment experts are wrong, science is suspect.
    Since the 1980s, the oil and gas and coal industries have conspired with the right to encourage Americans to disbelieve the scientific consensus on global warming, because that science created pressure to mitigate a global crisis with government interventions that could reduce those businesses’ profits. From the start in 2020, the reckless right, with the president in the lead, encouraged Americans to disbelieve virologists, epidemiologists, and other scientific experts, because trusting them would be bad for business and stock prices.

  • Entitled to our own facts.
    That systematic spread of coronavirus misinformation by Trump and the right through the first pandemic winter couldn’t have happened without the creation in the late 1980s (Rush Limbaugh) and ’90s (Fox News) of big-time right-wing mass media. Their continuous erasure of distinctions between fact and opinion has always served the propaganda purposes of the political party most devoted to serving the interests of big business and investors, and during the COVID-19 crises—
    Reopen now
    —they attempted to serve those interests directly.

  • Short-term profits are everything.
    For years, reckless financial operators dragged healthy enterprises into leveraged buyouts and piled on excessive debt, making billions personally but the companies weak and barely able to survive in normal times. Then when things got
    bad
    in 2020, the LBO’d companies (such as J. Crew and Neiman Marcus) started dying off even faster than others: excessive debt turned out to be a main underlying condition comorbid with the economic effects of the pandemic.

  • Liberty equals selfishness.
    The right spent decades turning
    brat
    into a synonym for
    ultra-conservative,
    forging a tantrum-based politics focused on hating sensible rules that reduce unnecessary deaths and sickness—no gun control! no mandatory vaccinations! no universal health insurance! So in the spring of 2020,
    of course
    mobs of childish adults were excited to throw self-righteous tantrums on TV about being
    grounded
    by the mean grown-ups. While also playing soldier by carrying semiautomatic rifles in public.

  • Inequality’s not so bad.
    The glaring new light of the pandemic vividly showed the results of the system we’ve built. The health risks and the economic burdens are borne disproportionately by people near the financial edge, black and brown people, people with low-paying jobs that can’t be done from home. And on the other hand, we see more clearly than ever how the lucky top tenth, the people who own more than 80 percent of all the stocks and other financial wealth, inhabit an alternate economic universe.

  • Universal healthcare is tyranny.
    A healthcare system already fractured, unfair, inefficient, confusing, and anxiety-provoking as a result of its capture by a for-profit medical-industrial complex?
    Check
    . And a system unique in the world for making its exceptionally expensive care a fringe benefit of (some) particular jobs—at a moment when tens of millions of jobs suddenly disappeared?
    Check
    .

Speaking of places with better social contracts, where governments are more trusted and permitted to be effective: as the pandemic spread, most of the countries I singled out for praise in Chapter 24, “American Exceptionalism,” quickly put strict national protocols in place, and had COVID-19 death rates running half, a third, a quarter of America’s. Then there’s South Korea, among the most populous developed countries: in late March, 100 people had died there and 100 in the United States—but two months later, only 267 South Koreans had died, making their death rate, adjusted for population,
one-sixtieth
of ours. Other developed countries also more straightforwardly and immediately addressed the massive economic consequences, without political rancor, because providing good social safety nets to try to protect everyone from economic disaster is simply what governments
do
.

A Six-Week Case Study: Evil Geniuses, Minions, Enablers

U.S. presidents (and governors and mayors) have no more important job than preventing their citizens from dying. In 2020 ours failed to save tens of thousands. But as I’ve also argued in this book, running a country (or a company or one’s own life) is a matter of making difficult trade-offs and balances, optimizing among different needs rather than pursuing one to the exclusion of everything else. How much is one life or death worth? How much are a hundred thousand or a million lives and deaths worth? Exactly how and how quickly do you reopen commerce and life? The instant politicization of the pandemic by the right was a case study of the folly of binary thinking. It was a character-testing episode for people and institutions. Priorities were starkly revealed.

In late February 2020, because stock prices began dropping, the president began paying attention to the epidemic—and insisting publicly that there was
no cause for alarm
. A big reason the market went down, he said on February 25, was that a Democratic presidential debate the night before had spooked investors, but no worries, because “after I win the election,” “the stock market is going to boom like it’s never boomed before.”

The same day the Speaker of the House said of Trump’s statements about the virus, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Entitled to our own facts.
That evening at his first virus-task-force press briefing, asked about a Centers for Disease Control official’s latest expert judgment that “it’s not a question of if but rather…when and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Trump said, “
I
don’t think it’s inevitable.” Asked if he agreed with Limbaugh and others on the right that experts were “exaggerating the threat of coronavirus to hurt you politically,” he said, “Yeah, I agree with that, I do, I think they are.” A mere “fifteen people” in America had been infected, an untrue figure he repeated a dozen times during the briefing, and “within a couple of days,” he promised, it’s “going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” The following day he made his magical thinking more explicit— “It’s going to disappear, one day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear”—and twenty-four hours after that, he held one of his big rallies, in South Carolina, where he said warnings of a viral epidemic spreading to America amounted to the Democrats’ “new hoax” to make him look bad.

Co-opt liberals.
On that same day, alas, a college classmate of mine, the superrational Harvard law professor and former Obama official Cass Sunstein, made himself a useful idiot for the president and the right. “One thing is clear,” Sunstein wrote in his
Bloomberg News
column just as Americans had definitely started dying from COVID-19, “people are more scared than they have any reason to be,” because “most people in North America and Europe do not need to worry much about the risk of contracting the disease.” And the real problem was that all that needless fear was going to result in “plummeting stock prices.”

Ten days later, in early March, a House subcommittee held a regular hearing on the CDC’s annual budget, which the administration was trying to cut, as it had tried to do every year—large cuts that the Koch organization Americans for Prosperity had recommended because, as it complained in 2018, “CDC funding has already grown significantly over the last fifteen years.” Trump’s CDC director, Robert Redfield, a conservative, testified. A right-wing Republican congressman, who like Redfield is a physician, used his question time to explain why dealing with “these kind of new viruses” requires the government to continue guaranteeing high profits to the pharmaceutical industry. “On the vaccine front,” he said, prospective laws like the bill the House had just passed to let the government negotiate Medicare drug prices downward “will destroy American innovation” in medicine. He instructed Redfield to agree with him that only “the private sector” can properly deal with COVID-19 and “these kinds of public health threats.”

But then Redfield shared with the congressman his surprise and disappointment that the two big U.S. medical testing companies had not, on their own, “geared up sooner,” starting in mid-January, to handle mass testing for the coronavirus. “I anticipated that the private sector would have engaged and helped develop it” and “be fully engaged eight weeks ago” to deal properly with this new disease, said the national director of disease control. “Here were two men wondering aloud,” the journalist Alex Pareene wrote at the time, “why reality had failed to conform to their ideology. How odd that these companies, whose only responsibility is to their shareholders, had failed to make up for the incompetence of this administration.”

Confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States had just begun increasing exponentially, cases quintupling and deaths tripling in a week. However, as a rule, getting America’s full attention requires show business and/or financial spectacle: starting the day after that House hearing, in one twenty-four-hour period, the NBA suspended its season, Tom Hanks announced he was sick, the president read a speech on TV, and stock prices fell 10 percent, at that time the fourth largest one-day U.S. market decline in history.

All hail big business.
The next day Trump held a coronavirus press conference in the Rose Garden to promise he absolutely had everything under control. The main event was a weird parade of ten retail and health industry CEOs he emceed, “celebrities in their own right,” naming each one—“great job…incredible work…tremendous help…tremendously talented…a great company”—like finalists in a Miss USA pageant. Mr. Walmart promised to “make portions of our parking lot available in select locations…so that people can experience the drive-thru [COVID-19 testing] experience.” The Dow Jones stock average ended the day, a Friday, 1,985 points higher, 9 percent up.

The following Monday the president finally, grudgingly announced a plan, recommending that COVID-positive and sick and particularly vulnerable Americans stay home—but just for a little while, a couple of weeks, until the end of March, calling it “15 Days to Slow the Spread.” By then governors and mayors began instituting the measures actually necessary to control the epidemic, mandatory closings and stay-at-home orders that drastically reduced commerce. With stock prices having fallen for three weeks, the investor class was already unhappy and anxious, but now they and the economic right
freaked.
Corporate revenues would take giant hits; keeping people solvent would require stupendous government spending; some big businesses could be temporarily nationalized; and stock prices would decline more—which they immediately proceeded to do, dropping that day alone by 13 percent on their way to a 20 percent decline in a week and a half.

Those next eleven days in March were a remarkable time to watch America’s evil genius squadrons scramble the jets.

On that same Monday, March 16, when the shutdown really started, the conservative Hoover Institution published a piece called “Coronavirus Perspective” recommending against
any
restrictions on the economy because the pandemic just wasn’t going to be a major public health problem. “In the United States, the current 67 deaths should reach about 500” in all, the Stanford think tank article projected, and in a quick follow-up article called “Coronavirus Overreaction,” the same writer completely showed his ideological cards. “Progressives think they can run everyone’s lives through central planning,” he warned, so don’t let them do it to fight the spread of this no-big-deal disease. The writer was neither a medical professional nor an economist, but a lawyer named Richard Epstein, a blue-chip economic right-winger from the 1970s and ’80s—influential University of Chicago law professor, early Federalist Society VIP, Cato Institute scholar, editor of the Law and Economics movement’s main journal. Right away, “conservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials [were] circulating” Epstein’s inexpert pronouncements, 
The
Washington Post
reported.
*2

Right around then, according to “a Trump confidant who speaks to the president frequently” and spoke to a
Financial Times
reporter about those conversations, Jared Kushner was telling his father-in-law “that testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it….That advice worked far more powerfully on him than what the scientists were saying.”

On Friday, March 20, Americans for Prosperity issued a hysterical press release over “the recent moves by some states to shut down all non-essential businesses,” because—ignoring the
non-essential
caveat that permitted grocery stores and pharmacies everywhere to stay open—“if businesses are shut down, where will people who are most in need get the things they need to care for themselves and others?” But then they got right to their other big fear: federal spending to help individual Americans with “wasteful…provisions that had no place in an emergency relief package.”

That same night at an online “AFP activist town hall,” the group’s president warned that the imminent federal recovery legislation to deal with the economic consequences is “gonna have lasting ramifications for our country.” When one of the AFP activists asked “how we can show others the negative effects of government-controlled socialized medicine in light of the current situation,” the second main presenter, a Mississippi lawyer and vice president of Koch’s umbrella political organization, simply said that “America really does have a really good healthcare system because historically we’ve believed in free enterprise,” so everybody should just be “reminding people of how we got to where we are with a free enterprise system.”
Plus
, the AFP president practically gasped—“I cannot imagine how we would be responding” to the pandemic “if the entire nation, every citizen in this nation, was trapped in a single-payer all-in government-run system.” The men agreed that the federal public health bureaucracies hadn’t done a good job on COVID-19,
of course,
but that the president was now cracking the whip. As for financial assistance to citizens, the lesser Koch minion said that if the federal government had “exercised fiscal discipline before now, we’d be in a position to help people more” in ways that “might include spending some money.”

The economic libertarians’ de facto pandemic czar for a while was Stephen Moore, the right-wing Zelig and early Trumpist so second-rate that in 2019 even the Republican Senate wouldn’t consent to put him on the Federal Reserve Board. On the pandemic, his inside-outside role was, like the president’s, Republicanism ad absurdum: he was responsible simultaneously for creating government policy
and
for helping to discredit and obstruct government policies. For the former, he directly advised Trump, as a member of the Economic Recovery Task Force along with his pals Larry Kudlow and Arthur Laffer. Trump held regular conference calls with those three, known in the White House as “Laffer’s guys”—according to
The
Washington Post,
“Trump takes them seriously because he sees the GOP tax law they pushed,” the 2017 giveaway to big business and the rich, “as one of his signature agenda items.”

For the outside antigovernment work, Moore collaborated with, among others, the Koch-created entity FreedomWorks; a cofounder of the Tea Party Patriots; and the head of ALEC, the influential big-business-funded organization of right-wing state legislators on whose “private enterprise advisory council” he sits with a principal Koch Companies lobbyist.

For instance, Moore appeared on the YouTube talk show of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank founded in the 1980s. Aggressive government responses to the pandemic were, he suggested,
intended
to damage the economy in order to damage Trump politically, and keeping nonessential workers at home was “so unnecessary,” because “the only ‘nonessential workers’ are people who work for the government.” This is all “gonna go down in history…as one of the great abuses of governmental power,” because “
here’s
what’s
scary
—our government spending this year” will be so large. When a viewer asked if reopening commerce too quickly might lead to a new wave of disease, he said, “Let’s pray…that we don’t have a recurrence,” although who knew, “it’s not my area of expertise.” But in an interview the same March day with
The
Washington Post,
Moore said he’d been promoting his “zip code idea” inside the administration—that is, an idiotically impractical regimen in which “you find the…zip codes that don’t have the disease, and you get those things opened up….This isn’t rocket science. They should probably have never been shut down.”


The first Sunday the shutdown was national, March 22, is particularly interesting to look at closely.

That day Moore met with a dozen CEOs and economists to plot their push to end restrictions on commerce right away, and his former employer,
The
Wall Street Journal
, reported that “the group suggested Easter Sunday as a date for an ‘economic resurrection,’ ” just three weeks away.

That same day another intelligent writer with whom I’m friendly also made himself, I’m afraid, a neoliberal useful idiot for the right by arguing blithely and prematurely for ending a public health war that had barely begun. Tom Friedman’s
New York Times
column was based mainly on an interview with a celebrity physician who specializes in nutrition, not infectious disease or epidemiology, and it was all about economics—“making sure that…we don’t destroy our economy, and as a result of that, even more lives.” Only 340 Americans had died, and we had no clue how many were infected, or the nature of COVID-19 immunities. But the doctor and Friedman agreed that everybody should “basically stay home for two weeks,” until early April, and then anyone who wasn’t symptomatic or elderly or otherwise obviously vulnerable, the untested lot of us, “should be allowed to return to work or school.” Presto, we should “ ‘reboot’ our society in two or perhaps more weeks,” Friedman wrote. “The rejuvenating effect on spirits, and the economy,” he quoted the physician predicting, “would be hard to overstate.”

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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