Two days ago, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) published an analysis which suggests, given the data from Italy and elsewhere, that there may not be any distinct, ‘as-advertised,’ peak in Covid-19 infections. Instead, FAIR’s editor Jim Naureckas writes, “It’s […] possible that the response to the coronavirus’ pronounced lethality and asymptomatic infectiousness—a drastic physical separation necessary to prevent a quickly mounting death toll—means that Covid-19 will not be a normal disease with a steep arrival curve and an equally sudden departure.” Rather, the disease will linger much longer than we’ve all been led to (and would like to) believe. Alongside this unsettling hypothesis came a study from the Harvard School of Public Health which anticipates social distancing measures lasting into 2022, barring the early discovery and distribution of a working vaccine.
Seemingly in response to these dark prognoses, anti-‘stay-at-home’ protests cropped up nationwide, perhaps most notably in Michigan, where hundreds of protesters, in cars and on foot, some bearing rifles, congregated in the state capitol to protest the perceived communism, Nazism, or general dictatorial nature of their Governor’s efforts to address public health. Here is an excellent collection of photographs from the Lansing protests, posted by Jeff Kowalsky to Getty Images.
Meanwhile, President Trump has claimed his administration is close to finalizing a plan for the partial reopening of the economy by May 1st.
All of this unfolds in tandem with the arrival of the highly-anticipated ‘TrumpBux,’ the $1200 one-time relief payments to Americans who are witnessing their economy tank while unemployment skyrockets. Payments which Trump, in another ham-handed yet probably effective political maneuver, has reportedly delayed by insisting the checks bear his name.
Part of me would like to argue that the interests of the aforementioned protesters are only superficially aligned with the President’s. Trump’s interest here is predictably self-centered, on maintaining strong economic and unemployment numbers, whereas these protesters are simply suffering, scared, their sense of security evaporating with their income. I would like to say these protesters are acting out of the same sense of hopelessness that many of us are consumed by, a sense that your government doesn’t work, or that if it does, it certainly doesn’t work for you. And while I think much of this is true, it isn’t the full story.
Before attempting to examine the ‘full story,’ however, I have to restate a few things.
1.) To quote a friend of mine, “We live in an age of pure ideology.” That is to say, objectivity is a facet of a bygone era; public issues and the rhetoric surrounding them are all but entirely disconnected from the facts of the reality beneath. I lay the vast majority of the blame for this at the feet of news media. Manufactured Consent is more real now than perhaps ever before, with a news media ecosystem dominated by some six conglomerate mega-corporations. And with the death of the Fairness Doctrine, modern media outfits are not only corporate, but also partisan operations. They not only frame and artificially limit the scope of debate, but also neglect to cover certain issues entirely, all to accommodate their respective audiences or economic interests. It’s generally plain to see which side each news corporation falls down on, but regardless of target audience, their ultimate goal is the same as any company in any industry: profit. Summarily, we do not have a free media, as we do not have a media that offers any substantive checks on political power; doing so would require corporations, media and otherwise, to check their own power.
2.) As a country, we are in uncharted waters. Politically, no president has ever been so flagrantly incompetent, criminal, and ultimately incapable of carrying out their official duties while maintaining a significant mandate in popular polling the way that Trump has. Look at Nixon’s approval ratings post-Watergate for contrast. To rehash another point we’ve all heard, everything Trump says or does is immaterial to his supporters. I hate to return to this, but it should be highlighted as it has yet to be proven wrong since the day Trump himself proclaimed he could “shoot a man on Fifth Avenue,” and not lose any support. To the modern Republican, politics is entirely a team sport, and baby, they are winning. (This is certainly true of many Democrats as well, but they aren’t in power right now.) This is directly tied to the media issues outlined above. However, we are also in uncharted waters economically. The 2008 bailout was an unprecedented exercise in trickle-down monetary policy, a trend which has only continued. Interest rates are at zero, reserve requirements are at zero, and the implicit assumption is that the Fed will print money ad infinitum to keep the system churning. Nobody knows if it will work long-term, there is no historical model.
3.) In perhaps the cruelest twist of irony yet seen in our age, the advent of the internet did not yield an unprecedented elevation in collective human intelligence in the way its idealistic forefathers anticipated. Instead, the internet simply accelerated the segmentation of audiences which cable TV began, allowing individual users to enter their relationships with media on an entirely ideological basis. Technology does not better us, but rather serves to amplify our extant traits (think Captain America serum), and as humans, confirmation bias, selection bias, retention bias, cognitive dissonance, ego defense mechanisms, etc. etc. determine much of our behavior and interaction, not only among our peers, but with information. As media consumers, we are not responsible. We interact with media not to have our biases and beliefs challenged, as one might idealistically suppose, but affirmed.
4.) Finally, America’s working class is weaker, poorer, and closer to ruin than ever before. I’ve written about this before. The median income is around $30,000, over 60% of Americans don’t have enough in savings to cover a $500 emergency, nobody has guaranteed sick leave, almost everyone’s health insurance is tied to their job, and that’s all just the tip of the iceberg. As a country, America is uniquely unprepared to deal with a Covid-19 lockdown or the economic fallout, let alone both.
So, what’s the full story? Multi-faceted: there’s Trump, there’s the media, there’s economic interests, and there’s the people.
Trump is something of a constant, at least. His god-level narcissism coupled with his awe-inspiring stupidity make him an excellent candidate for any analysis utilizing Occam’s Razor or Game Theory. As such, we won’t focus on him much, other than to say it’s safe to assume he wants to make the stock market go up, at any expense, and unemployment go down, at any expense, while compulsively ignoring expert opinions throughout. He’d also like to win re-election, and likely enrich himself in the process.
The media are only slightly more complicated than Trump in this sense. As capitalist enterprises, they just need to maintain their bottom line. Whether they do that by propping Trump up or tearing him down is immaterial, they just need audiences to watch. In that sense, Trump and the media exist in synergy. He provides them with viewership and ratings, they provide him with free airtime. However, their owners are in the same class as Trump and other Wall Street elites, that is, the upper class, the plutocracy, and they (generally) would very much like people to go back to work. This brings us to economic interests. A six month quarantine might have people watching more TV, theoretically, but how long before they run out of money to pay their cable subscription, their internet bill? How many other industries will die as the consumptive abilities of all but the richest 1% disappear? Here we can see the interests of Trump, the media, and shareholders at large begin to align: The economy needs to reopen, sooner than later.
But then, of course, there are the people, upon whom all of this relies. As I remarked before, I think there is a general sense of fear, of anxiety among Americans, and I think this mostly stems from need. If economic statistics painted a picture of a desperate American working class before, then the tens of millions who lost their jobs over the past few weeks have had their desperation amplified exponentially. To be in the situation of a hairdresser, bartender, landscaper, of a ‘nonessential’ employee, and to think that these stay-at-home orders could continue for another few months? Terrifying. In this sense, I have some sympathy for the protesters in Lansing and elsewhere.
Of course, people are complex.
But for simplicity’s sake, I will say that there’s one central disconnect which is bubbling to the surface, found in a strain of American culture which is defiantly selfish, cruel, ignorant, and entitled. A strain of American culture which was on full display in Lansing, and which is realized more succinctly in takes like this. (For those who don’t want to click: a Tweet from Scott Adams, notorious dipshit and the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, reading, “Based on what we now understand about #coronavirus, it seems clear to me the consensus of opinion in the country is that losing a few hundred thousand people (or fewer if we are clever) is an acceptable price for reopening the economy. I'm in a higher risk category and agree.”) Either their ignorance and entitlement precludes them from considering the immediate downsides of pretending Covid-19 is a mere hoax, or else their selfishness and cruelty allow them to assume no guilt for those who would die if things ‘just went back to normal.’ Here I have no sympathy.
Of course, there is another group of Americans who are happily acquiescing to stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures, who are coming to understand that we are only as strong as our weakest link, and that some level of collective action is required to overcome this.
With all the players on the field, we’ve just about come full circle. Remembering Jim Naureckas’ analysis in FAIR, it appears as if the media is gearing up to tell people the peak has passed and the virus has been defeated, regardless of the underlying reality. Trump has certainly been saying so, priming Americans for such a shift in messaging. To me, this reads as a sign that the plutocracy will not stand for an adequate response to Covid-19, they will not stand for prolonged nationwide social distancing measures, stay at home orders, or the necessary blank-check spending on care for the infected and dying. All of these affect their bottom line, and profit is the solitary objective.
Ultimately, then, it seems to me that we are in an extremely precarious position. The difference in interests between the American ownership and working classes are more evident than they’ve probably ever been in the 21st century, and the corporate media consent-manufacturing apparatus might not be able to negotiate the disparity. Surely, some will be willing to accept a constructed reality which permits them to get back to work, but at any rate, it would become increasingly difficult to deny the necessity of addressing Covid-19 against the backdrop of thousands of deaths, which would bring the crisis closer and closer to individual Americans with every passing day.
Maybe consent can be manufactured nonetheless, but I tend to doubt it. If people go back to work only to watch their coworkers, relatives, friends, falling ill, placed on ventilators, some of them dying, they won’t think it’s worth it. Maybe we’d see counter-protests, of socially-distanced, masked masses, marching on capitols to demand another stay-at-home order.
But given Trump’s popular mandate in our age of ‘pure ideology,’ coupled with the general ignorance, selfishness, and cruelty of his base of support, against the backdrop of plutocratic unwillingness to budge even an inch, fascism arises as a distinct possibility. The $1200 checks bearing Trump’s name would likely only bolster his base for such a shift. Whether a legitimate 2020 election occurs or not, it seems more likely to me than ever before that the American masks of freedom and democracy could slip, and people could be told, point blank, “These deaths are necessary, fuck you, go back to work.”
Or, as we’ve all heard before, “We can’t let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”