Kurt Andersen on Trump & Covid-19 in “Evil Geniuses”

Preface. If you want to know all the economic and political history that got us to the right-wing extremist Trump and Republican party, there’s no more entertaining way to do so than Kurt Anderson’s latest book “Evil Geniuses”.  Better yet, his book “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” is one of the best books I’ve read.

This book has insights into Trump, health care, and covid-19 I haven’t seen elsewhere, such as how Koch and other billionaires who originated the Tea Party used the same astroturf operations to create a fake movement of angry people who refused to wear masks, which turned into millions of actual people refusing to do so and tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.  Don’t billionaires have enough money? Can’t they just let folks keep safe until a vaccine is found, and help pay for their rent and wages out of their ill-gotten billions obtained by paying low wages in the first place, rather than sharing profits with their workers? What ever happened to noblesse oblige.

I was frustrated that such a great writer and book were marred by a lack of awareness of biophysical economics, ecology, or limits to growth.  Andersen might have written a better book if he’d read “Energy and the Wealth of Nations: understanding the biophysical economy”, “Limits to Growth”, “When trucks stop running: energy and the future of transportation”, “Living within Limits”, or “Extracted: How the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet”, and “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America”.

Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Kurt Andersen. 2020. Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History. Random House.

It’s too bad your wages haven’t gone up for forty years, goes one common argument from the right and well-to-do concerning the economic condition of the American majority, and that pensions and unions and millions of good jobs disappeared, but, hey, haven’t we let you eat cake? That is, they say, in all seriousness, that income inequality isn’t as bad as it looks because some things, like milk and eggs, are actually less expensive now, and TVs are gigantic and inexpensive, and all the other stuff at the Walmarts and dollar stores is so cheap, thanks to Chinese imports.

And so even if we’re still able to buy low-quality cosmetics and toys and frozen squid cheaply, we’re now definitely paying more than we should for more essential things. As a result of looser, lavishly big-business-friendly government policies, every piece of the U.S. medical-industrial complex became much more concentrated during the 1990s and 2000s—hospitals, health insurance companies, large physicians’ groups—and prices increased as a result of the greater market power. A conservative estimate is that since 1980, government policy changes have caused Americans to spend an extra $130 billion every year for healthcare. For instance, why are prescription drug prices routinely two and three times as expensive in the United States as in other countries? A big reason is that in the 1980s and afterward, Congress and federal antitrust enforcers gave away the store to pharmaceutical companies by letting them control patents longer and set minimum prices.

The obeisance of the rich right and their consiglieri to Trump for the last four years has exposed more nakedly than ever their compact—everything about money, anything for money—and the events of 2020 pushed that along to an even more shameless, grotesque crescendo. In early spring, when COVID-19 had killed only dozens of Americans, Stuart Stevens, a strategist for four of the five previous GOP presidential nominees but now a fierce apostate, wrote that “those of us in the Republican Party built this moment,” because “the failures of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis can be traced directly to some of the toxic fantasies now dear to the Republican Party….Government is bad. Establishment experts are overrated or just plain wrong. Science is suspect.

He could have also listed Believe in our perfect mythical yesteryear, All hail big business, Short-term profits are everything, Inequality’s not so bad, Universal healthcare is tyranny, Liberty equals selfishness, Co-opt liberals, and Entitled to our own facts as operating principles of the Republican Party and the right. During the first six months of 2020, all those maxims drove the responses (and the non-responsiveness) of the Trump administration and its extended family of propagandists and allies and flying monkeys.

Almost every piece of the crises’ exacerbation by them was inevitable because each one came directly out of the right’s playbook of the last several decades.

Government is bad. A Republican administration uniquely unsuited and unready and really unwilling to deal with such a national crisis? Decades before our latest show-business president defamed his entire executive branch as a subversive Deep State, the cocreator of late Republicanism announced in 1981, a few minutes after becoming our first show-business president, that “in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” then made a shtick out of warning Americans to consider any offers of help from the government “terrifying.

Believe in our perfect mythical yesteryear. The right twisted and exploited nostalgia in the 1970s and ’80s to get its way, selling people on a restoration of old-time America with storybook depictions that omitted all the terrible parts of the past—including the epidemics we had before we built a public health system and before governments required citizens to get government-funded vaccines; the economic panics and collapses we had before government intervened to help unemployed workers; the phony miracle cures that charlatan showmen marketed to us before government put a stop to them.

Entitled to our own facts. That systematic spread of coronavirus misinformation by Trump and the right through the first pandemic winter couldn’t have happened without the creation in the late 1980s (Rush Limbaugh) and ’90s (Fox News) of big-time right-wing mass media. Their continuous erasure of distinctions between fact and opinion has always served the propaganda purposes of the political party most devoted to serving the interests of big business and investors, and during the COVID-19 crises—Reopen now—they attempted to serve those interests directly.

Short-term profits are everything. For years, reckless financial operators dragged healthy enterprises into leveraged buyouts and piled on excessive debt, making billions personally but the companies weak and barely able to survive in normal times. Then when things got bad in 2020, the LBO’d companies (such as J. Crew and Neiman Marcus) started dying off even faster than others: excessive debt turned out to be a main underlying condition comorbid with the economic effects of the pandemic.

Liberty equals selfishness. The right spent decades turning brat into a synonym for ultra-conservative, forging a tantrum-based politics focused on hating sensible rules that reduce unnecessary deaths and sickness—no gun control! no mandatory vaccinations! no universal health insurance! So in the spring of 2020, of course mobs of childish adults were excited to throw self-righteous tantrums on TV about being grounded by the mean grown-ups. While also playing soldier by carrying semiautomatic rifles in public.

Inequality’s not so bad. The glaring new light of the pandemic vividly showed the results of the system we’ve built. The health risks and the economic burdens are borne disproportionately by people near the financial edge, black and brown people, people with low-paying jobs that can’t be done from home. And on the other hand, we see more clearly than ever how the lucky top tenth, the people who own more than 80 percent of all the stocks and other financial wealth, inhabit an alternate economic universe.

Universal healthcare is tyranny. A healthcare system already fractured, unfair, inefficient, confusing, and anxiety-provoking as a result of its capture by a for-profit medical-industrial complex? Check. And a system unique in the world for making its exceptionally expensive care a fringe benefit of (some) particular jobs—at a moment when tens of millions of jobs suddenly disappeared? Check.

Ten days later, in early March, a House subcommittee held a regular hearing on the CDC’s annual budget, which the administration was trying to cut, as it had tried to do every year—large cuts that the Koch organization Americans for Prosperity had recommended because, as it complained in 2018, “CDC funding has already grown significantly over the last fifteen years.” Trump’s CDC director, Robert Redfield, a conservative, testified. A right-wing Republican congressman, who like Redfield is a physician, used his question time to explain why dealing with “these kind of new viruses” requires the government to continue guaranteeing high profits to the pharmaceutical industry. “On the vaccine front,” he said, prospective laws like the bill the House had just passed to let the government negotiate Medicare drug prices downward “will destroy American innovation” in medicine. He instructed Redfield to agree with him that only “the private sector” can properly deal with COVID-19 and “these kinds of public health threats.

But then Redfield shared with the congressman his surprise and disappointment that the two big U.S. medical testing companies had not, on their own, “geared up sooner,” starting in mid-January, to handle mass testing for the coronavirus. “I anticipated that the private sector would have engaged and helped develop it” and “be fully engaged eight weeks ago” to deal properly with this new disease, said the national director of disease control.

“Here were two men wondering aloud,” the journalist Alex Pareene wrote at the time, “why reality had failed to conform to their ideology. How odd that these companies, whose only responsibility is to their shareholders, had failed to make up for the incompetence of this administration.

Monday, March 16, when the shutdown really started, the conservative Hoover Institution published a piece called “Coronavirus Perspective” recommending against any restrictions on the economy because the pandemic just wasn’t going to be a major public health problem. “In the United States, the current 67 deaths should reach about 500” in all, the Stanford think tank article projected, and in a quick follow-up article called “Coronavirus Overreaction,” the same writer completely showed his ideological cards. “Progressives think they can run everyone’s lives through central planning,” he warned, so don’t let them do it to fight the spread of this no-big-deal disease.

The writer was neither a medical professional nor an economist, but a lawyer named Richard Epstein, a blue-chip economic right-winger from the 1970s and ’80s—influential University of Chicago law professor, early Federalist Society VIP, Cato Institute scholar, editor of the Law and Economics movement’s main journal. Right away, “conservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials [were] circulating” Epstein’s inexpert pronouncements, The Washington Post reported.

Right around then, according to “a Trump confidant who speaks to the president frequently” and spoke to a Financial Times reporter about those conversations, Jared Kushner was telling his father-in-law “that testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it….That advice worked far more powerfully on him than what the scientists were saying.

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,

“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.

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.

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 super enthusiasts 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!

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.

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One Response to Kurt Andersen on Trump & Covid-19 in “Evil Geniuses”

  1. SomeoneInAsia says:

    You know, the late American scholar of economic thought Robert Heilbroner once cited during the 1970s (in his book An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect) the following excerpt from an article by a certain Distinguished Professor of political economy at London University (whom he never named):

    “Suppose that, as a result of using up all the world’s resources, human life did come to an end. So what? What is so desirable about an indefinite continuation of the human species, religious convictions apart? It may well be that nearly everybody who is already here on earth would be reluctant to die, and that everybody has an instinctive fear of death. But one must not confuse this with the notion that, in any meaningful sense, generations who are yet unborn can be said to be better off if they are born than if they are not.”

    This is the sort of thinking we find among the educated elite of the Western world. God help us all.