March 8, 2020
As a political historian, I am accustomed to seeing a lot of political news, even political news that riles other people up, as run-of-the-mill, not worth noticing. I often think of it as the mixture that comes out of cement truck: lots of gray muck flowing fast, but while there are individual granules, there is nothing that stands out. Nothing that stands out, that is, until something does, like a child’s bright plastic dump truck in that mix, or a live cod leaping out of the mud.
In July 2016, in the midst of an angry nomination season, I sat up and took notice of the story that Russia was interfering in that year’s election. In September 2019, the story that the chair of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff had written an angry letter to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire telling him to turn over the whistleblower’s complaint as the law required—that is, a story about a leading congressman charging a member of the executive branch with breaking the law-- made me sit up and take such notice that I began these Letters From an American.
Today, there was a tweet that has had me on edge all day. Dan Scavino, Trump’s director of social media, tweeted an image of Trump playing a violin, with the meme: “My next piece is called… nothing can stop what’s coming.” That meme—nothing can stop what’s coming-- is common among the QAnon crowd. And then Trump retweeted it with the comment, “Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me!”
The image clearly depicted Trump as the murderous Roman emperor Nero, fiddling while Rome burned.
What the [expletive]?
It’s entirely likely that Trump did not understand the reference, and it’s even possible that Scavino didn’t. But whoever made the meme did. Did they mean that Trump would fiddle while the coronavirus burned? News on the coronavirus front has been bad all day, with Italy quarantining millions of people and the U.S. State Department warning older people not to take cruises. The U.S. death toll rose to 21 today and the total number of cases is over 530. Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Arizona Representative Paul Gosar are in self-quarantine after shaking hands with someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, last weekend.
As I wondered, I listened tonight to Leslie Stahl’s interview on 60 Minutes with Russia expert Fiona Hill, who served on Trump’s National Security Council and testified in the impeachment hearings about the Trump administration’s plot to get Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Joe and his son Hunter Biden. In her testimony before Congress, Hill warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin was attacking our elections. Tonight, she reiterated that Putin was deliberately pitting the extremes of American society against the great middle to tear us apart and destroy democracy. When asked to speculate on why the Russians are backing both Trump and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, she said, “What the Russians are looking for is the two candidates who are kind of the polar opposites… So that it exacerbates… the polarization in the country.”
But Hill didn’t say much new that would shed light on the weird meme. And then a friend in Ukraine alerted me to the night’s news.
Oil prices have been dropping as the coronavirus has weakened economies and slowed demand. On Friday, OPEC—the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries—which includes Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, met in Austria and proposed to cut oil production to stabilize prices. Russia, a major oil producer in its own right, told them to pound sand. On Saturday, in retaliation, Saudi Arabia cut its prices by $6-$7 a barrel, and is threatening to increase production by as much as 2 million barrels a day.
This oil war, sparked by Putin, will yank the bottom out of the U.S. oil industry, which is heavily in debt with loans that must be repaid in the next two to four years. As prices fall and credit tightens, many companies will not be able to repay those loans.
Tonight, international oil prices fell more than 30% and U.S. stock futures tumbled. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is expected to drop tomorrow by as much as 1200 points on opening. Asian markets are plunging tonight in anticipation.
The White House has no strategy for stabilizing the economy, and the Trump loyalists in the administration are both unwilling to cross him and jealous of their turf. They will be unable to mount a coherent strategy to counter this oil war.
Maybe “nothing can stop what’s coming” referred to the economic news. It looks as if Putin is deliberately sparking an economic crash that will create chaos before our election. If the oil war continues past the very short term—that is, if Russia and the Saudis are not just playing chicken—our summer and fall will be very messy indeed.
In any case, this oil war is a bright child’s toy in the gray sludge; a cod leaping from a river of cement.