Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
April 2: Two of the first news stories I saw this morning:
- 6.6 million people filed for unemployment last week. That’s double the previous week, which was itself many times higher than any previous record; and
- The Secret Service ordered $45,000 of taxpayer dollars to be spent to rent golf carts at Trump’s golf course, which is almost certainly a precursor to another Trump golf trip.
It’s like Herbert Hoover and Nero had a baby.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Hoover lately. Or at least about his time. A great insight into his time can be found in the beginning of William Manchester’s “The Glory and the Dream,” which is a massive yet still massively readable, narrative-driven history of the United States from the Depression through Watergate.
The book begins with a crisis: The Bonus Army’s march on Washington in 1932.
Per longstanding practice in both the U.S. and, earlier, in England, soldiers who fought in wars were given a bonus of some kind of make up for their time away from work and home. The bonus for those in World War I was to be a cash payment, but one which would not be redeemable until 1945. After the Depression hit, however, times were desperate so the veterans demanded earlier payment. They did so in the form of 17,000 World War I veterans and an additional 26,000 family members marching on Washington and actually setting up a camp just across the Anacostia river from Capitol Hill that June. They would, eventually, be dispersed by General McArthur, who — ignoring President Hoover’s order to hold — ordered his troops to overrun the Bonus Army’s camp with fixed bayonets and tear gas. Two protesters were shot and killed. A woman miscarried. Another protester died due to the tear gas aggravating a preexisting condition.
Manchester begins his book with the story of the Bonus Army in order to paint a picture of what Americans simply took for granted in 1932: that the people were suffering and government did not care a lick about their welfare. Indeed, what they got was active hostility. In so doing, Manchester establishes just how rinky dink the federal government was at the time and how utterly incapable it was of addressing the crisis before it. Indeed, it was worse than that: the idea that the government could or even should do much of anything to care for its citizens in the face of crisis was a non-sequitur. The notion of the government actively helping people was simply outside of the intellectual and conceptual framework of those in power at the time. Much of the rest of Manchester’s 1,400+ page book is about how that assumption fundamentally changed after 1932 and how critical that change in assumption was to helping America become the most powerful country and the country with the highest standard of living in the world for the next half century or so.
Our current government cannot reasonably be described as small, but its indifference to the welfare of its people in the face of the current crisis is basically where Hoover and his gang were at in 1932. Sure, the government cares greatly about the military — well, sometimes — and large businesses, but the rest of us are basically the Bonus Army to them.
The president denied the existence of the looming pandemic for weeks and months, sometimes casting it as a hoax. Once that became untenable he proceeded to sow confusion and cast blame on others. At one point he explicitly and defiantly disclaimed any responsibility of his own at all. Now, as a nationwide pandemic that respects no state borders intensifies, he claims the federal government is merely a backup to state and local efforts as he casts blame on various governors he disfavors politically and lashes out at hospital officials, accusing them of complaining too much. Throughout all of this he has lied, almost constantly, about facts large and small in an effort to evade any and all responsibility.
Perhaps worst of all, he has placed his completely incompetent and overwhelmed, yet strangely arrogant, son-in-law in charge. Jared Kushner is a young man who has no qualifications for anything beyond, maybe, commercial real estate, and he has mostly failed in that pursuit. With respect to the pandemic he has been even more disastrous than Trump if that’s at all possible. Yesterday Vanity Fair reported that when New York governor Andrew Cuomo said the state would need 30,000 ventilators when the outbreak reached its peak, Kushner said, “I have all this data about I.C.U. capacity . . . I’m doing my own projections, and I’ve gotten a lot smarter about this. New York doesn’t need all the ventilators.” A government which cared about its people and which felt obligated to confront a national crisis would not trot Kushner out and pretend he’s an expert. Indeed, it would be less insulting to if Trump sent Kushner out to literally spit on all of us individually, in alphabetical order, between now and Labor Day.
It’s accurate to blame Trump and his incompetence for how bad this has gotten, but the depths to which we have fallen is not purely a function of Trump’s unsuitability for the job of president. Rather, it’s the logical end product of the political movement which has been ascendent in this country for many decades and which deposited Trump in power four years ago.
Republicans have, for over forty years, insisted that, basically, nothing was the business of the government except for war and Wall Street. They have insisted that taxes are theft, regulation is tyranny, public health is the responsibility of the private sector, and that basically everything else is the responsibility of individual states. They then took over in most states and claimed that nothing was the responsibility of states either. Then they cut funding to counties and cities and hospitals and universities and chose to favor charities that, for the most part, served their ideological ends as opposed to the needs of the public. The buck has been passed so far that no one holds it any longer. This was all by design.
Republicans, with a healthy assist from Democrats who have largely accepted Republicans’ basic premises for political reasons, have won that battle and, as a result, we now have the government they so desperately wanted for so long.
Government that, like Hoover’s in 1932, does not believe it is responsible for addressing a massive humanitarian and economic crisis that seems destined to kill thousands upon thousands of people who would not have died if there had been competent leadership. Government which seems destined to sit idly by and watch as we are thrown into a second great depression.
In less than 90 years we have come full circle. To a place where there is no glory and, in place of a dream, we are living a nightmare.