Trump’s Death Squads
After a brief rally-round-the-flag effect, Trump’s poll numbers have reverted back to the mean. His daily one to two hour stand up act is getting stale, yet crazier, and even a significant block of his own base understands he cannot be trusted. In the eleven battleground states critical in November, Trump trails Biden by a healthy six point margin. While some states have seen their rate of infections from the COVID-19 virus peak, it continues to rise nationally. The economy has already cratered – we are just waiting for the lagging data to tell us how badly – and there is no hope of anything approaching a V-shaped recovery before November. Republicans are so concerned about Democratic wins in November that they are starting to pretend to be worried about the debt and deficit again.
Faced with such dire circumstances, Trump has resorted to one of the favored tactics of autocrats everywhere, namely to unleash the paramilitaries. His tweets demanding that Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia be “liberated” basically amounted to inciting an insurrection. Trump made the call to arms even clearer when he added that his extremist followers must “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”, a reference to modest gun control legislation that was just passed in Virginia. Trump’s “LIBERATE” call was coordinated with astroturf conservative activist groups funded by plutocratic GOP donors like the Kochs and the Mercers who organized protests across the country.
The purpose of the protests was three-fold. First, It was a rather lame attempt to deflect blame for the Trump administration’s catastrophic failures in its response to the pandemic on to governors while making them responsible for any new failures and the ongoing economic collapse going forward. Second, though looking more like normal Trump rallies, they are ostensibly designed to protest the stay-at-home orders of governors in an attempt to pressure an early reopening of businesses that may lead to a slightly improved economy and help Trump get re-elected. At the same time, they provide cover for other red state governors to reopen well before the medical community believes it would be safe which will surely lead to untold unnecessary deaths. As Jason Patinkin notes in a tweet thread noting the similarities with the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “In that outbreak, armed militia and mistrustful populations who believed conspiracy theories in a toxic political environment disrupted public health measures. Sound familiar? Of course it does…For now, the pro-Trump militia’s disruptions to US public health efforts are far less violent than what took place in eastern DRC’s Ebola outbreak. But angry armed men in the streets usually doesn’t just end peacefully”. Third, the call to arms was just a dress rehearsal for further disruptions either on election day if Trump believes he will lose or afterward if he contests the election. And these loosely organized paramilitary groups will be further reactivated next year should Biden win the presidency.
The fact that these astroturfed protests brought out less people than the actual number of people who died from COVID-19 over the same period did not make them any less successful. The media fell for this ginned-up movement hook, line, and sinker, presenting these small groups as a Tea Party 2.0. The general public, however, seemed more reticent about taking the risk of killing themselves, with a little more than a quarter supporting Trump’s insurrection call and only 13% supporting the protests themselves.
On the other hand, the protests were successful in providing the cover that red state Republican governors needed to reopen their economies. Republican governors in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and, of course, Florida have begun to allow some non-essential businesses to reopen. There is no evidence that any of these states have the virus under control. In fact, it is probable that these states have not even reached their peak in infections and deaths. In Georgia, the governor apparently only recently realized that asymptomatic people were capable of spreading the virus. His order to reopen not only superseded local authorities but was in some instances nonsensical. Spas, hair salons, and, incredibly, massage parlors were allowed to reopen but social distancing rules still applied. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the businesses allowed to reopen rely on poorer workers and many are minority owned.
The universal consensus among medical experts is that reopening businesses at this point will result in more infections and more deaths. None of these states have even met the President’s rather flimsy standards for a phase one reopening. As one epidemiologist declared, “The math is unfortunately pretty simple. It’s not a matter of whether infections will increase but by how much”. Those new infections and deaths will occur in poorer and minority communities where social distancing is more difficult and resources are limited. In Georgia, the difference between blacks’ share of the population and COVID-19 deaths is 20%. Governor Kemp downplayed those differences by stating that “if you take Albany out of the situation right now our state is a much different place”. Albany is a predominantly black rural town with a major outbreak. In South Carolina, it’s actually worse, with the deaths-to-population-share ratio 30% higher.
As expected, Trump mildly repudiated the Georgia governor the day after he announced the reopenings, saying “he [the governor] must do what he thinks is right. I want him to do what he thinks is right. But I disagree with him on what he’s doing…But I think [opening] spas and beauty salons and tattoo parlors and barbershops in phase one…it’s just too soon”. With this statement, Trump typically absolved himself of responsibility for the deaths to come that he himself had encouraged and, we now know, preapproved.
Beyond the unnecessary deaths, there is another sinister rationale at work for reopening businesses. The Department of Labor has confirmed that employees who refuse to come back to work at businesses that have reopened because of safety concerns will not be eligible for the additional $600 in unemployment payments under the CARES Act. In addition, state unemployment systems may begin to deny unemployment eligibility for the same reasons. This will leave workers with the macabre choice of risking their lives to work and die or losing their meager unemployment benefits. In Georgia, the state unemployment fund is already estimated to run out in 28 weeks, which explains the push to get people off the rolls, regardless of whether they live or die. In the longer run, of course, these reopened businesses will also probably be worse off as creditors such as landlords who have shown forbearance while the stay-at-home orders were in place will now be demanding those payments from businesses that are now allowed to open. But those businesses will not be reaching anywhere near their prior cash flow anytime in the near future and many will soon be forced to fold.
Workers that do return to work can expect little protection from the virus. OSHA is leaving it up to the businesses themselves to decide how to protect their workers. As the NY Times reports, “the agency said it would not enforce the record-keeping requirement for Covid cases until further notice, except when the employer could obtain clear evidence that the infection was work related, a substantially higher bar than before…Record-keeping…allows employers to figure out where their problems are and how to address them, making it particularly important when the agency is directing most employers to investigate coronavirus outbreaks on their own…[T]he agency has not issued a so-called emergency temporary standard that would instruct employers across a variety of industries to put safety protocols into effect and raise the prospect of fines for failing to do so”. In essence, most worker protection from the virus will now rely primarily on the benevolence of their employer, so I think we all know how that will work out.
Similarly, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) which oversees the 2 million person federal workforce is not providing its own guidance on how to keep the work force safe. As one Democratic Representative noted, there are “serious questions about OPM’s decision-making related to Covid-19, including unclear telework guidance; a lack of actions taken to protect federal employees; and now we learn, guidance or standards to reopen government that abdicate any leadership responsibility”. Instead, the head of OPM is blowing off congressional oversight and focusing on how to pack as many political appointees into the federal workforce as part of his belief that the 1883 Pendleton Act that mandates merit hiring is unconstitutional and that every federal job should be a patronage positions.
Besides those protesting the stay-at-home orders, there is another group of Trump-supporting armed insurrectionists. Sheriffs across the country are refusing to enforce the stay-at-home orders of their governors or local officials. These sheriffs are part of a group called the Constitutional Sheriffs, an extremist movement that considers local sheriffs the supreme law of the land. The sheriff of Snohomish County in Washington, a county with over 2,000 infections, has declared, “[T]he Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office will not be enforcing an order preventing religious freedoms or constitutional rights”. At least four sheriffs in Michigan and two in Wisconsin have made similar declarations.
The sheriffs’ position is now being supported by the US Attorney General, Bill Barr, who has said described the stay-at-home orders as remarkably close to “house arrest“. Said Barr, “These are unprecedented burdens on civil liberties right now. You know, the idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest. I’m not saying it wasn’t justified. I’m not saying in some places it might still be justified…[These orders were implemented] for the limited purpose of slowing down the spread, that is bending the curve. We didn’t adopt them as the comprehensive way of dealing with this disease”. I’m not a lawyer or a doctor but I’m not sure I see the difference between bending the curve and dealing with the virus comprehensively.
Barr also threatened that the DOJ would pursue those governors who do not follow the President’s guidance on reopening and “impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce, our common market”, while committing to “file statement[s] of interest and side with the plaintiffs” if citizens sue governors to reopen. Again, I think we can also be sure that Barr will not be pursuing those Southern governors who are now reopening businesses in conditions that don’t satisfy the President’s reopening guidance. His threat is directly aimed Democratic governors who will want to go beyond Trump’s insufficient plans.
The legal system is working to increase infections and deaths in other ways, through the courts. The notorious Fifth Circuit just ruled that prison officials merely have to follow CDC guidelines in order to protect prisoners. But even if officials aren’t able to do that, there is little the court can do unless the prison officials have shown “deliberate indifference”. Said the three judge panel, “Second, even assuming that there is a substantial risk of serious harm, the Plaintiffs lack evidence of the Defendants’ subjective deliberate indifference to that risk”. Prisons, of course, are now some of the major COVID-19 epicenters, with inmates packed together and lacking basic protections like soap and masks.
The Supreme Court also got in on the act with its decision to force in-person voting in Wisconsin earlier this month. Now, there are at least 19 new infections among people who either worked or voted in the election. As the Wisconsin DHS cautions, “Since we only have data on positive cases (without a comparison group of people who were not tested or tested negative), there is no way to know with certainty if any exposures at the polls that are reported are in fact attributable to COVID-19 illness”.
Over at the Veterans Administration, Trump’s pressure to push the drug hydroxychloroquine which his gut told him was a cure has proven to be disastrous. A study showed that the drug taken with or without azithromycin provided no benefit. Only 11% of the control population died whereas 22% of those who took the combined drug cocktail and 28% of those who took hydroxychloroquine alone died. There are indications that the drug my have damaged other organs including the heart. In effect, veterans were used as guinea pigs for an unproven drug to satisfy Trump’s desperation for a vaccine that will save him in the November election.
It’s not just the VA that is offering up guinea pigs for politically-driven experiments. In an insane interview, the mayor of Las Vegas admitted she had actually offered the city as a “control group” to see how many would actually die without social distancing and prevention. Once again, it would be the poor and minority workers who staff the casinos, restaurants, and hotels that would be the ones expected to put their lives on the line. Yes, the economic pressure on the city and the state is enormous. The hospitality and gaming industries in the state account for over 37% of all Nevada’s revenue. But, even if the casinos, hotels, and restaurants reopen, the revenue will still not be there.
Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a cure already led to one death in Arizona. Relatedly, the head of the agency tasked with developing vaccines was apparently fired because, he claims, he “resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections” such as hydroxychloroquine which was “promoted by the administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit”. The plan that he was resisting apparently involved flooding pharmacies with chloroquine and letting doctors prescribe it without any oversight or monitoring. It was straight out of the opioid epidemic playbook.
There is a photo of a protester at a Nashville rally against the stay-at-home orders who is holding a sign that says “Sacrifice the Weak – Reopen TN”. “The weak” that this person wants to sacrifice are not just the old and infirm but the poor and minority workers who will have to go work in the most exposed jobs with the least protections. Dan Patrick, the Republican Lieutenant Governor of Texas, reiterated his disdain for life again this week when he said, “[T]here are more important things than living…I don’t want to die, nobody wants to die, but man we’ve got to take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running”. Of course, Patrick won’t be the one to die when the economy reopens. Rather, it will be the least among us.
A New York emergency room doctor has already seen the reality that Patrick and the protestor want to perpetuate, saying, “People hear that term ‘essential workers.’ Short-order cooks, doormen, cleaners, deli workers—that is the patient population here. Other people were at home, but my patients were still working. A few weeks ago, when they were told to socially isolate, they still had to go back to an apartment with ten other people. Now they are in our cardiac room dying”.
Patrick and the protester, just like so many of those mentioned above, are part of Trump’s version of death squads. Between now and the election, they will be continually demanding that others be literally sacrificed in order to re-elect the Dear Leader and satisfy his whims. Many of those they demand to be sacrificed will be people who not only have the least but are more likely to oppose the President. The paramilitaries will be called at regular intervals to intimidate and create chaos. As with the governor of Georgia, Trump will now and then repudiate what his death squads are doing, having ordered them to do it in the first place. As with most unstable tyrants, it is hard to know what, if any, rationale there is for his actions. But we do know that whatever Trump does is what he believes will be in his own self-interest, even if, as Joe Biden rightly suspects, it involves postponing or canceling the election.