It has jumped out to me today how Trump and his GOP enablers are controlling today’s political narrative, just as they did before the 2016 election.
First up is the demand coming from the right, as well as from media outlets, to open former Vice President Joe Biden’s personal papers that have been donated to the University of Delaware to search for records that might mention Tara Reade, who has accused Biden of sexually assaulting her 27 years ago. Fox News Channel contributor Ari Fleischer has gone so far as to suggest that Biden should turn the files over to the FBI, the same FBI that is, at this moment, controlled by Trump loyalist Attorney General William Barr.
Biden has called for a thorough search of the National Archives, where such records would be stored, for any materials relating to Reade's claim. But she has now said that any complaint she made did not mention a sexual assault, and she has cancelled a scheduled appearance tomorrow on Chris Wallace’s show on the Fox News Channel. Yet the call to open the University of Delaware files, which are currently scheduled to open two years after Biden leaves public life, continues. Those demanding such action say there might be staff memos in the papers about Reade’s complaint, which contain transcripts of his speeches, records of private conversations with world leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin, daily schedules, and staff memos from his years as a Senator from 1973 to 2009.
But a senator’s papers would not include any personnel files which would mention an assault claim; personnel files are part of a completely different storage system. And it is 100% normal to close the files of elected officials (and other people, too) for a period of time before they can be examined, and archivists take that charge very seriously indeed because of the ethics involved.
The files will contain the sausage making of various political issues that can be cherrypicked to destroy careers (not just Biden’s). Of course Trump people want to expose everything Biden did as a senator. Media outlets are salivating to get into the papers for their own reasons: can you imagine the stories detailing rivalries from the thirty years Biden was in the Senate? It would rival the hay made off the stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee in 2016 which, after all, revealed nothing illegal, but embarrassed Hillary Clinton and the DNC.
The pressure on Biden to release his papers strikes me as the bad faith use of an important political conversation to score political points. It is vital to uncover the truth of what happened between Biden and Reade, but that’s not what’s going on here. Observers are demanding the release of material that has been donated in good faith for future researchers, to uncover information that we know full well would not be stored there. But it would certainly weaken Biden as a candidate.
At the same time, Trump simply refuses to show anyone anything. Once again, the media is dancing to his tune, making Biden’s reluctance to open his Senate records look nefarious while giving Trump a pass, not just on the women who have accused him of sexual assault, but on issues throughout his administration, issues that we, as citizens, deserve to know.
Where are the tax returns Trump promised to release? Where are the investigations of any of the literally dozens of accusations of rape and sexual assault made against Trump? Where is John Bolton’s book? Why is everyone who worked for Trump bound to secrecy? And key: where are the medical supplies the federal government has seized?
Please follow me here: I am not speaking of the claims of Ms. Reade, which are a separate conversation. I am talking about the use of her story to control our political narrative. The attempt to get Biden to jump through hoops Trump ignores is classic gaslighting. It keeps Biden on the defensive and makes sure he is reinforcing Trump’s narrative, thus strengthening Trump even as Biden tries to carve out his own campaign. It is precisely what the Trump campaign, abetted by the media, did in 2016.
The political conversation is also shifting to benefit the president in a second way: the now repeated warnings that the coronavirus might have a “second wave” and peak again in the fall. Here’s the thing: we never finished the first wave. Our highest daily number of deaths was… yesterday, when 2,909 Americans died. We are still very much in the heart of this first wave, but by shaping this conversation as looking ahead to concern in the future, it rhetorically accomplishes what Trump set out to do just a week ago—convince us that we have successfully lived through the worst part of the pandemic and that it is safe to reopen the economy.
Finally, the political conversation is shifting in way that undermines our nation’s deepest principle. People are actually arguing about whether it might be a good thing to kill off society’s weakest members. A member of a planning commission from the San Francisco area took to Facebook to suggest we should just let coronavirus take its course. Lots of people would die, he wrote, primarily old and sick people, but that would take the pressure off Social Security and lower health care costs. There would be more jobs and housing available. And as for homeless people, when they died it would “fix what is a significant burden on our society….”
This man was removed from office, but his sentiments are not isolated. It is impossible to overlook that the people demanding states ease restrictions are overwhelmingly white, when both African Americans and Native Americans are badly susceptible to Covid-19. In Chicago, for example, 32% of the population is African American; 67% of the dead have been black. Further south, the Navajo Nation is behind only New York and New Jersey for the highest infection rate in the US.
White supremacists are celebrating these deaths, and calling for their supporters to infect minorities with the virus. But even those who insist they simply want society to open up again are demanding policies that will disproportionately kill some Americans at higher rates than others. Some are overt about their hatreds—like the Illinois woman who carried a sign with the motto from Auschwitz and the initials of the Jewish governor—and others simply sacrifice minorities in the course of business, as Trump did when he used the Defense Production Act to keep infected meat processing plants operating, plants overwhelmingly staffed by black and brown people.
If we accept the idea that some of us matter more than others, we have given up the whole game. This country was—imperfectly, haltingly—formed on the principle that we are all created equal, and equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we are willing to admit that our founders were wrong, that we are not equal, that older Americans, Black Americans, Brown Americans, sick Americans, all matter less than healthy white Americans, we have admitted the principle that we are not all created equal, and that some of us are better than others.
This is, of course, the principle of white supremacy, but it does no favors to most white people, either. Once we have abandoned the principle of equality, any one of us is a potential sacrifice.
And then it will not matter anymore what our political narrative is, for it will be as much as our lives are worth to disagree with whatever our leaders say.
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