February 25, 2020

Today has been weirdly unsettled as coronavirus news broke, the stock market tottered, and Trump attacked the Supreme Court and California Democrat Adam Schiff while trying to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to cut government further.

But before I get to any of this, let me clarify something: you are hearing a lot now about the coronavirus “pandemic.” There is a HUGE difference between a pandemic and a deadly pandemic. A pandemic just means that an infectious disease has spread across the world. It does NOT mean that we’re all going to die from it (as people keep helpfully shouting on Twitter). So be smart and prepared, but don’t panic.

Today the administration acknowledged that the coronavirus is likely to spread across the nation, even as Trump surrogates tried to argue that it was contained or—as Rush Limbaugh said—just the common cold (four coronaviruses are among the viruses that cause what we call "colds," but this is a new, vastly more dangerous, strain). This turnaround revealed how woefully incompetent administration officers are. In a painful exchange between Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf (another acting secretary, rather than a permanent one), at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Wolf got the statistics for the death rates of coronavirus and influenza wrong (it appears to be around 2% for coronavirus; the death rate from influenza is about .1% annually), admitted he had no idea how many hospital beds or masks America has, and generally seemed completely over his head.

It was an interesting exchange, because Kennedy, of course, is a Trump enabler. Him lacerating this inadequate Trump appointee seemed to me simply to show his determination to demonstrate for voters his dominance over the younger man, since Kennedy is part of the cabal that supported seeding the government with these unequipped appointees in the first place.

For his part, Trump did not help. He told reporters that “We’re very close to a vaccine,” and that “we’re really down to probably ten” cases. Researchers say they are 12 to 18 months from a vaccine, forcing the White House to say that Trump was referring to an Ebola vaccine, not a coronavirus vaccine, when he spoke. The CDC has confirmed 57 cases of coronavirus in the U.S., but since the coronavirus test sent out by the CDC earlier this month turned out to be faulty, we have tested only 426 people aside from those evacuated by air from other countries. So how many cases we actually have is unclear.

Also interesting is that the administration is finally admitting we have a problem, over Trump’s objections. He appears deeply concerned that coronavirus worries will hurt the economy. Stock prices continued to slide today for the fourth day in a row, with the market taking another hit as the Dow Jones Industrial average was down 879 points. Trump’s surrogates tried to be reassuring. “We have contained this. We have contained this. I won’t say air-tight, but pretty close to air-tight,” Trump’s Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow said on CNBC. “The business side, and the economic side, I don’t think it’s going to be an economic tragedy at all … The numbers are saying the U.S. [is] holding up nicely.”

Trump is clearly most concerned about his political standing. In India today, he slashed at two Supreme Court justices he perceives to be his enemies, calling for Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to recuse themselves from any cases involving him, even as news has broken that Justice Clarence Thomas's wife has been delivering suggestions to the White House for "disloyal" employees to fire. (Remember, the Supreme Court next month will take up the question of whether or not his accountant and banks have to respond to subpoenas for Trump’s financial records, as lower courts have insisted.)

He also called for an investigation into House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) alleging without evidence that he leaked classified information about Russian interference in the 2020 election. This, too, seems like deflection, since all evidence suggests that the leaker was Devin Nunes (R-CA), who news reports based on the accounts of several people present say told Trump about the meeting.

With people distracted by news of coronavirus, administration officials are not slowing down their determination to destroy the New Deal government that we have come to rely on. Far from shying away from their destruction of the activist government as it becomes apparent to most of us that slashing funds for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and getting rid of the pandemic specialists on the National Security Council were a colossally bad idea, the administration has used the crisis to continue to downsize government. The administration wants $2.5 billion to pay for the emergency response to the coronavirus, but it only wants $1.25 billion to be newly appropriated emergency money. It wants to transfer the rest from existing programs, including $535 million from money appropriated to containing Ebola. It has also informed Congress that it intends to fund the emergency response to coronavirus by taking $37 million intended to provide heat to almost 750,000 low-income families. If it persists in this demand, it is essentially holding our safety hostage in order to achieve the goal of dismantling the New Deal government. Democrats say they want a clean emergency funding bill.

Today 70 former U.S. Senators indicated their worry about Trump’s increasing power. They wrote an open letter to the Senate noting that it has abdicated its legislative and oversight responsibilities and has given them over to the president. It is not, therefore, fulfilling its constitutional duties. The bipartisan group of senators called on their currently serving colleagues to create “a bipartisan caucus of incumbent senators who would be committed to making the Senate function as the Framers of the Constitution intended.”

So all this should sound terrifying, right? But, curiously, to me the worrying patterns that have been taking shape over the past months seem newly unsettled. None of today’s news is good: a serious disease, a sliding economy, an incompetent administration, an autocratic president. But all of these elements are creating an instability that will shake forces loose. It is times like these that throw all the cards up in the air. While it is scary to experience that chaos, it is also a time of great possibility. We can step back and let autocrats grab all the cards for themselves and consolidate their power. But we don’t have to. This sort of shock gives us the ability to catch the cards ourselves and reorder them on the table in entirely new patterns, ones that can build a different future.

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Notes:

Death rates: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/coronavirus-death-rate-trump-flu-chad-wolf-mortality-a9359406.html

Kennedy and Wolf: https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2020/02/25/coronavirus-trump-wolf-kennedy-kth-ac360-vpx.pool

Kudlow: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/02/25/white-house-struggles-contain-public-alarm-over-coronavirus-despite-panic/

Vaccine: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/02/covid-vaccine/607000/

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/25/white-house-says-trumps-vaccine-claims-about-ebola-not-coronavirus.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/25/behind-our-sluggish-response-coronavirus-an-unnecessary-battle-over-funding/

faulty kits: https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/02/25/cdc-coronavirus-test/?fbclid=IwAR2b8KHCVffYwXGDKSJ5Sz4612C_GBvyKL3ZKqiycpKV6uD4YMbSm4xVzrs&utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/25/us/politics/trump-supreme-court.html

Senate letter: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/former-us-senators-the-senate-is-failing-to-perform-its-constitutional-duties/2020/02/25/b9bdd22a-5743-11ea-9000-f3cffee23036_story.html?fbclid=IwAR14DENKr4kUFunlInEPkZOilIoCERSV1tkTHOzNTyFdifx-LFPNxydReGM&utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook

Thomas: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/us/politics/trump-purge-ginni-thomas.html

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