Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (47 page)

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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At that evening’s White House task force TV briefing, the president’s economic lieutenant Peter Navarro explained why they weren’t going to use the Defense Production Act to make companies manufacture scarce medical gear. “We’re seeing the greatest mobilization in the industrial base since World War II,” he claimed, but “on a purely voluntary basis—based on the leadership of this administration—we’re getting what we need without—without putting the heavy hand of government down.”
All hail big business
.

That same Sunday, a couple of hours later, the next character to pop up consequentially was Steve Hilton, a Fox News anchor. He’d been a young evil genius of the U.K. right, an Oxford-educated branding expert who worked closely with prime minister David Cameron before moving to the United States in 2012 to teach for a year at the Hoover Institution.
*3
Like Trump, he’s a wealthy, cunning, well-connected showman and opportunist who presents himself as a populist fighting for “massive revolutionary change.” “I’m rich, but I understand the frustration” of the “victims of elitist agenda,” he says, and claims that he “probably would have supported” Sanders versus Trump in 2016. Instead, he’s totally MAGA.

That night on his weekly show,
The Next Revolution,
before he brought on Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council (“Larry, I’ve always loved your energy and optimism”), Hilton raved on about the urgency of America getting back to business as usual immediately but with his own fake-angry, incoherent, disingenuous Trumpy spin. The multitrillion-dollar economic recovery programs wouldn’t actually help the common man, he said, but would amount to a “total government takeover of the economy.” Hilton said he loved business, and he bragged about businesses he’d started, but he also said it’s “our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces whipping up fear over this virus, [because] they can afford an indefinite shutdown.” And finally came the demagogic Fox News version of the message Tom Friedman delivered that morning to
Times
readers: “You know that famous phrase, ‘The cure is worse than the disease’? You think it is just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people.”

Forty-eight minutes later Goldman Sachs’s senior chairman and former CEO Lloyd Blankfein, having last tweeted more than a week earlier (about letting private industry “fix the govt’s mismanaged virus testing program”), sounded exactly the same alarm—that “crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue-and beyond. Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.”

And then, just before midnight, came a tweet from devoted Fox News viewer Donald Trump: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” he declared. The country was barely seven days into his government’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” plan, but the president had already lost patience.

The next morning he retweeted himself, including his stage wink to Wall Street that he’d be ending this shutdown nonsense soon—“AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”—and said out loud to reporters, “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.” But the stock market nevertheless ended that day another 3 percent down.

The following morning, March 24, Trump issued an even more desperate version of his Hiltonian tweet—“THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!”—and held a conference call with a group of big financial players, “alternative asset” multibillionaire investors who operate hedge funds and private equity firms. Among them were Stephen Schwarzman, the cofounder and CEO of the Blackstone Group, the world’s largest alternative asset firm. (He’s the Koch associate who’d complained that a proposal for financiers to pay income taxes at the rate paid by other affluent people was equivalent to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.) In the weeks just before that conference call about the pandemic with Trump, Schwarzman had given $10 million to the super PAC devoted to ensuring that Republicans maintained control of the Senate, and $2.5 million to the GOP House super PAC. Also on the call was the head of the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange—who, with his wife, Republican U.S. senator Kelly Loeffler, had just sold millions of dollars’ worth of stocks in two dozen sales starting the day she attended a private Senate briefing on the pandemic a month before the market started crashing.
*4
(A few weeks later he donated $1 million to the main Trump reelection super PAC.) This finance industry plenum on the conference call, according to
The
Wall Street Journal
, stressed “the need to…focus on a date” for opening up and generating more business revenue ASAP. The rest of Wall Street had apparently gotten the memo and, reassured, bid up the market 5 percent when it opened that morning.

At noon the president began his special televised live “town hall”—that is, talking to a Fox News interviewer on the White House lawn. Trump stuck to the plan hatched in the previous forty-eight hours, focusing on a date for the business resurrection. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go” in nineteen days, he announced, “by Easter.”


The stock market kept rising the rest of that week, but the zealots of the right, the Scrooges and Mr. Potters as well as the celebrity know-nothings, weren’t about to stop using the pandemic to pick fights. As the number of newly unemployed Americans reached 10 million on its way toward 30 million, a group of prominent Republican senators threatened to keep the first big economic recovery bill from passing quickly because making those millions of citizens financially whole for a few months might give the lazy “doctors [and] nurses” among them a “strong incentive…to [try to] be laid off instead of going to work.” By then, with almost 100,000 Americans COVID-19-positive and nearly 2,000 dead, Trump and his Fox News claque were no longer totally denying the reality of the health threat.
*5
But Rush Limbaugh in late March was still telling his 15 million listeners to doubt the Deep State doctors and scientists advising Trump. “We didn’t elect a president to defer to a bunch of health experts that we don’t know,” the Presidential Medal of Freedom winner said. “And how do we know they’re even health experts? Well, they wear white lab coats and they’ve been on the job for a while and they’re at the CDC and they’re at the NIH….But these are all kinds of things that I’ve been questioning.”

During the previous big economic crisis in 2009, the Kochs used their organizations FreedomWorks in Washington, and Americans for Prosperity just across the Potomac, to harness and amplify grassroots anxiety and confusion in the provinces. From those headquarters they’d executive-produced the politically useful shows of performative anger by Tea Party protesters against the Democratic-led federal government. In 2020 the pandemic provided a reboot opportunity—this time for protests against state and local governments, especially those run by Democrats, that weren’t following the maximalist line on instantly reopening business. They mobilized their militias—old Tea Partiers, gun nuts, antivaxxers, random Trumpists—for demonstrations around the country that began on Easter Monday.

“There’s a massive movement on the right now,” Stephen Moore claimed, “growing exponentially. People are at the boiling point. They are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties.” He insisted,
The Washington Post
reported, that “the protests have been spontaneous and organized at the local level,” although he admitted that “his group has been offering them advice and legal support.” “I’m working with a group in Wisconsin,” he told his libertarian audience on YouTube, “to shut down the capitol” with traffic, and “we have one big donor in Wisconsin, he said ‘Steve, I promise I will pay the bail and legal fees of anyone who gets arrested.’ The more civil disobedience the better, however you want to do it.” So why, according to polls, were two-thirds of Americans in favor of the national quasi-quarantine? Because, this presidential adviser and would-be Fed governor said, “the American people are sheep.”

The two Koch-created enterprises and Moore were joined by a newer organization also devoted to promoting right-wing economics, the Convention of States, funded by Robert Mercer—hedge fund billionaire, early
Breitbart News
investor, Trump’s biggest 2016 donor—and overseen by a cofounder of the Tea Party Patriots and (
such
a long game) a strategist for David Koch’s 1980 Libertarian vice-presidential campaign. In Michigan, the protests were organized and promoted by existing Republican groups, one connected to the right-wing billionaire DeVos family, and in Idaho by a group funded by a new Coors, the
son
of the counter-Establishment founder Joseph.
*6

The mission of those demonstrations, as
The Washington Post
reported, was “making opposition to stay-at-home orders—which had been in place in most states for only a couple of weeks or less—appear more widespread than is suggested by polling.” The shorthand
Astroturf
for these kinds of protests is a misnomer. Rather, they’re more like
sod:
real grass but more expensive, centrally produced and harvested, then rolled out by professionals on command to look instantly picturesque. It seemed clear, from the social media posts of nominally local groups all over the country, that talking points and specific language were being issued from headquarters. FreedomWorks’ protest brand Reopen America became the name for local protests all over the country—Reopen Wisconsin, Reopen Oregon, Reopen Nevada, Reopen Delaware, and many more. Their online national protest calendar stipulated that “these are not FreedomWorks events, but…if you’re interested in planning your own event, click here for our planning guide.” The professional right-wingers on K Street provided photo-op protest tradecraft instructions to the provincials—make sure to “include…nurses, healthcare workers, etc. as much as possible,” and to “keep [signs] homemade.” Americans for Prosperity held an online training session for would-be agitators on how to spread memes that they actually called “Best at Going Viral.”

Because the president had been unable to hold any of his MAGA rallies for weeks, then
months,
the demonstrations also served as ad hoc reelection events, keeping the superenthusiasts excited and acting out their love for the president on TV, where he could see it. At the end of the first week of protests in April, the country was still in the middle of his government’s “30 Days to Slow the Spread,” as the second phase was called, but the president said
fuck that
—in four minutes one morning, he posted tweets to rev up the cultists in three swingy states: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

In addition to that work low and outside organizing protests to make its case appear more popular and democratic, and the various operations high and inside shaping the conversation to give corporations and investors an immediate break, the economic right also started using the crisis in service of its long game. At that AFP online meeting for activists in March, the lesser Koch subordinate warned that “history shows us that what Congress does is they exploit the situation” during crises, even as his senior colleague repeatedly explained how they, the Koch network, intended to exploit this crisis themselves—for instance, by getting federal and state governments to
permanently
lift various regulatory “barriers” that had been waived temporarily for the medical industry. The Heritage Foundation, acting as if it
were
the government, created a “National Coronavirus Recovery Commission” whose “commissioners” immediately issued recommendations. Ten days after Trump took office, the evil geniuses had had him sign an executive order that cleverly sabotages federal oversight of business—it requires that two existing regulations be repealed for every proposed new one. However, the independent agencies that oversee Wall Street and energy have been exempt from the new rule, permitted to keep adding regulations as necessary; according to the National Commission, recovery from the pandemic absolutely depends on the finance and oil and gas industries also being freed from that regulatory yoke. In addition, Heritage says, the emergency requires a new “mechanism that allows for the unilateral…suspension” by the president of
any
“costly regulations” he chooses. People at the White House were also apparently keen on a proposal by two right-wing economists—one at AEI, the other at Hoover—for the government to give needy citizens more money right away, but only if they agreed to take less in Social Security benefits when they retire.

I’ve talked earlier about how
Government is bad
becomes self-fulfilling, that an unimpressive and underdelivering federal government has served the long-term political interests of the right. Trump’s incompetence on the pandemic will be a test of that dynamic. In May, at the end of “30 Days to Slow the Spread,” the president was still thinking magically, a de facto nostalgist for the days before modern medicine.
Believe in our perfect mythical yesteryear.
“Testing [people] is somewhat overrated,” he said, and “this is going to go away without a vaccine.” In other words, a reporter asked the president, Americans just had to
accept
that reopening without enough testing and contact-tracing would cause lots more deaths?

Yes. “I call these people warriors, and I’m actually calling now…the
nation,
warriors. You have to be warriors,” by which he meant, of course, be willing to be killed by COVID-19, fallen soldiers for American capitalism.

But apart from that, everything would soon be
fantastic.
“I think you’re going to have a tremendous transition….I think next year is going to be an incredible year economically….You see it with the stock market, where the stock market’s at 24,000….We’re going to have a great economy very soon, much sooner than people think, much sooner.” By June, he and a senior economic adviser were focused on an exciting new pandemic recovery measure—“a capital gains holiday” to cut rich people’s taxes on stock profits to zero.

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