Trump’s Sociopathic Lust for Power

Alan Zendell, August 9, 2020

Donald Trump has two outstanding skills, creating chaos and perceiving (and shamelessly exploiting) other people’s vulnerabilities. That makes it easy to get lost in the weeds of his relentless attacks. If we pay too much attention without filtering out the chaff, we’re trapped in a never-ending game of Whack A Mole. If we fail to pay attention we could wake up one day to discover the America we grew up in no longer exists. Our Constitution and values are being assailed on so many fronts simultaneously, it’s hard to know when to stand and fight.

I stepped back to clear my head for a few days. With the static gone, a pattern re-emerged, confirming what we already knew: our president doesn’t give a damn about average Americans, except inasmuch as it influences how they vote. It began when he announced his cabinet. For Secretary of Education he chose billionaire socialite and friend Betsy Devos, whose only interest in public education is replacing it with a system that prioritizes profit over quality education, as her dismal record with charter schools demonstrates.

Trump’s first Environmental Protection Administrator, Scott Pruitt redefined his agency’s role as ending activities that could prevent further deterioration of an already seriously ailing planet to enhance corporate profits. Pruitt resigned amid growing scandals around personal misuse of government funds. He was replaced by coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, who was supposed to end regulations that were allegedly killing coal mining, though even his best efforts couldn’t resuscitate an outmoded industry that has no viability in 21st century America.

Add to the list Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, whose long-time career goal was to undermine and privatize Social Security and Medicare. Both have been the subject of political gamesmanship since the passage of the Social Security Act. There’s no real evidence that the people who depend on those programs would benefit from privatization. The only people who clearly would are investors in the for-profit companies that were awarded the contracts.

Preventing a massive transfer of wealth through federal taxes that support so-called entitlements programs and increasing corporate profits are the only priorities of the Trump administration. That and the need to provide constant ego stroking for an insecure, narcissistic president who has no interest in governing.

All that was true before COVID-19 threw a serious monkey wrench into Trump’s re-election plans, which depended on sustaining a strong economy and a bull market. For seven months, there has been a virtually unanimous chorus of medical researchers and infectious disease experts warning of a pandemic that could only be halted by prudent testing, personal distancing, and masks. The chorus included our CDC and NIH, counterpart bodies in European and Asian countries, and the World Health Organization.

While no one got it exactly right for the first few months, American politics devolved into a polarized argument between two highly divergent points of view. Quarantine, isolation, and massive testing for the virus, which implied a temporary shutdown of much of our economy would save hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of American lives. But putting those lives at risk by keeping all businesses and schools operating, and denigrating the need to identify who was infected would keep the economy robust, improving Trump’s re-election chances.

Public health officials argued that that was a false choice, because keeping everything open would result in so much sickness and death that ultimately the economy would suffer far more harm than it would from a temporary shutdown. But with primaries and conventions looming, Trump’s best chance to win lay in gambling that a crash caused by re-opening could be held off until after the election.

It was Trump’s golden opportunity to demonstrate what he was made of and silence his critics, to govern and show empathy for average citizens, especially those of color. Instead, he contradicted his own COVID task force at every turn and refused to set up a central federal authority to help states manage the pandemic. When most Americans were unwilling the send their children to school with infections spreading, he threatened to bankrupt school systems that failed to re-open. And when it became clear that the only way to allow most Americans to vote safely in November was by mail, our president showed how venal he is.

Instead of assuring that the USPS had the resources it needed to process 150 million ballots, he appointed a new Postmaster General. Louis DeJoy, a wealthy Republican fundraiser, was tasked with crippling the postal system so it could be privatized. Not incidentally, that would likely create enough chaos that Americans would lose confidence in the election. Also not incidentally, DeJoy and his wife own a nearly $100 million stake in the companies best positioned to take over when the USPS fails.

Remember that pattern I mentioned? Greed, profit, and power at the cost of countless American lives, and very possibly, the integrity of our election process. Pure Donald Trump.

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Voting in a Pandemic

Alan Zendell, July 31, 2020

Americans who were fearful of Trump’s relentless attacks on the Constitution and the Rule of Law, myself among them, have waited for three-and-a-half years for the single act that would tell us how much of a danger he poses to our democracy. With ninety-five days to go until the election, he finally did it. His attempts to incarcerate immigrants and refugees, demonize nonwhite minorities, and destroy the health care of tens of millions of low and middle wage earners were cynical political actions designed as much as anything else, to discredit his predecessor, Barack Obama. They were immoral and insensitive, but they didn’t directly threaten the integrity of our democracy.

Yesterday, Trump did what every observer knew he eventually would if he was trailing in the polls. Following the script written by his fascist idols, he tweeted the idea of postponing November’s election. It’s ironic that the thing he is trying to change involves the one way in which we are most glaringly NOT a democracy – the election of a president. To me, democracy means every citizen has the right to cast the same equal vote, but the Electoral College does not treat all votes equally. The proof of that is the intensity of partisan arguements to retain or abolish it.

The chills we felt reading Trump’s tweet were offset by sighs of relief as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy quickly summoned reporters to remind them that setting the time and manner of federal elections is delegated strictly to the Congress. An 1845 federal law states “that the electors of President and Vice President shall be appointed … on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November,” unless a state requires additional time to count its votes. An act passed by both houses of Congress is required to change that.

Whether McConnell and McCarthy were drawing a line in the sand they would not allow Trump to cross or simply bowing to the reality that the House would only consider such a change in the event of a dire emergency, both wasted no time in speaking out publicly against the President. But neither McConnell nor McCarthy addressed voter suppression tactics or Trump’s claims that mail-in voting would result in massive fraud and invalidate the election. They were also silent about Trump’s pet Postmaster General who is quietly adding regulations and procedures designed to slow mail processing to the point where we are likely to see huge delays in counting on Election Day.

Trump’s chief talent is creating chaos. Toss a grenade into the process, then walk in and re-arrange the pieces in the way most favorable to him. He’s been successful doing that in business – it’s the only way he knows how to compete. Fairness, honesty, and adherence to laws are not part of his lexicon. That’s why it’s crucial to maintain our perspective for the next three months.

We cannot react every time Trump says or does something outrageous, as he surely will on a daily basis. If we focus on one tree at a time, he’ll burn the entire forest down before we even smell smoke. We also have to be clear about what the issues really are. Rescheduling an election is not inherently bad or immoral. Parliamentary governments do it whenever they think it’s to their advantage, but that’s the point. Ours is not a parliamentary government. The framers of our constitution created a republic with a legislature whose power was theoretically equal to the executive’s.

We should also be clear about mail-in voting. Trump’s claim that it will lead to massive fraud is absurd. Absentee voting, which is identical, has existed since the Civil War. In 155 years, there has never been a serious case of voter fraud when ballots were cast by mail.

That is not to say there won’t be problems. Mail-in voting requires creating massive databases, something that almost never comes off without a hitch the first time. My own state, Maryland, had problems during this year’s primary – both my wife’s ballot and mine were lost in the ether. But their database enabled the Board of Elections to track the ballots sent to every registered voter. A week prior to the submission deadline, they emailed every “delinquent” voter. When we were notified, we drove to the Board’s offices wearing masks, picked up new ballots, filled them out, and dropped them in a collection bin outside the office.

By November, Maryland will have had nine months to gestate the process, and other states will have the benefit of our experience. Will everything go smoothly? We don’t know, but like everything else about living in a pandemic, if our election process is to survive it must adapt. In the unlikely event that there are attempts to rig the election, they will most likely come from the side that is best known for voter suppression.

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Baseball vs COVID-19 – the Virus is Winning

Alan Zendell, July 27, 2020

We all knew this would happen. Even virus deniers and conspiracy theorists, deep down at some level had to know. You can describe America’s determination to push forward with professional sports seasons as heroic, courageous, innovative, even altruistic if you imagine team owners and players are putting themselves at risk to serve some higher purpose – the morale of millions who’ve been trapped indoors with little to distract them. Or, you can view it as Donald Trump does – about money and re-opening American businesses at any cost.

As a nation, we’re like spoiled children. We want what we want and we throw tantrums if we don’t get it. Describing the experiment of going ahead with baseball in spite of COVID-19, Thomas Boswell wrote: “In this, we see Americans’ national tendency toward willful ignorance being played out on a small, crystal-clear stage…”. Is that American exceptionalism or a dangerous combination of arrogance and ignorance?

The major league baseball season is four days old, and several teams have multiple players who tested positive and will therefore have to work through the league protocol of remaining isolated on a special “injured list” until they have two lab-sanctioned negative tests separated by at least twenty-four hours. The worst case so far is the Miami Marlins, who spent their three-week training camp in Miami. Coincidence? Bad luck? Since the Marlins virtually lived in the visitors’ clubhouse in Philadelphia all week, both they and the Phillies canceled their next game – the Phillies, so they could sterilize their clubhouse, and the Marlins, because they have no idea how many more players will turn out to be infected when test results are known.

We don’t know how many games the Marlins will have to cancel – at the moment, it’s two and counting. The elephant in the room that no one is mentioning is that with a sixty game schedule, Miami might wind up canceling its entire season. Boswell thinks Major League Baseball should stop before teams are overwhelmed by community transmission. He likewise thinks both the National Football League and the NCAA should cancel their seasons.

We should give baseball the benefit of the doubt. Nice try, and all that. MLB even won praise from Anthony Fauci, who threw the first ceremonial pitch in Washington, for their carefully thought out protocols. But the Canadian government didn’t buy it. Canada, which has combated the pandemic far more successfully than the United States, had closed its border with the U. S. on March 21st. It wasn’t a big surprise when the Canadian government ruled that games could not be played in Toronto. Toronto settled on Buffalo as its home field this year. Most Americans just shrugged and moved on.

Of course, this isn’t really about baseball or football. Sports is a metaphor for American business. No one wants to see our economy descend into another Great Depression, but the question must be asked: if Donald Trump weren’t in a desperate fight for re-election that depended on rocket-like recovery in the financial markets, might cooler heads have prevailed?

Trump wanted America to believe it had a simple binary choice between the economy and the health of countless citizens. That was a false choice from get-go. The majority of economists argued that if ignoring the virus to open businesses accelerated the spread, as almost every public health official predicted, the overall harm to the economy would be devastating.

The baseball experiment was necessary to awaken the country to the reality that it still hasn’t accepted the truth about COVID-19. Professional baseball players are healthy, fit, and young (27 on average.) If athletes like them, following strict rules of social distancing and avoiding all risky situations can’t make it work, how can the rest of us?

Will they succeed? We don’t know yet. Baseball has taken every reasonable precaution, although we already see big holes in its recovery plan in the event the virus continues to spread. They’re dealing with the same reality as the rest of us. Reliable COVID tests return results after multiple days, while quick turnaround tests have unacceptably high false results. Consider the case of the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

His positive test finding last Thursday was the result of a test administered two days earlier. He was immediately given three quick turnaround tests, all of which were negative, but not reliable enough to meet the league standard. Now, four days later, we still don’t know the result of the sanctioned follow-up tests.

What a mess! I don’t envy Nationals’ management or the league. But one thing seems certain. Regardless of pressure from Trump and his base, if baseball can’t make this work, American business will have no choice but to remain in partial shutdown.

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Can Baseball Save Our Sanity?

Alan Zendell, July 23, 2020

In today’s Washington Post, sports columnist Thomas Boswell wrote, “If MLB stays virus-lucky, the World Series may end a week before the election — and my head may not explode listening to two parties fight for months over the seven U.S. voters who are still undecided.” I couldn’t agree more. It wouldn’t be the first time the mindless distraction of baseball saved my sanity. 

Americans are so desperate for a diversion, even football fans are eager to watch baseball. People who have always claimed to hate baseball can’t wait for it to start, tonight. Partly, it’s a reaction to the coronavirus, a small sign that American life might return to normal one day. But as Boswell indicated, this year’s presidential campaign is going to be brutal. We may all need someplace to escape for a few hours.  

We’ve never had a president with a lust for power like Donald Trump or one who was as completely lacking in empathy. We’ve already had a taste of the kind of campaign ads he will run – dystopian views of a failed America based on blatant lies and debunked conspiracy theories, not to mention charges of a rigged election and threats to ignore the outcome if he loses.  We’re going to have to endure outrageous, violent spectacles this year provoked by a president who has frequently demonstrated that no tactic is beneath him. We’re all going to need an occasional time out.  

This season will be difficult for baseball, too, as it attempts to set a workable standard for professional sports in the time of the pandemic. With Americans mourning the loss of so many loved ones and so many jobs to the virus, baseball can provide a psychological lift that eases their passage. Millions of people will tune in just to see if it works, but there’s a hidden danger there. If baseball gets better television ratings than the president, he might write an executive order trying to shut it down. 

On the other hand, Trump might take a hint from baseball. He might decide that computer-generated crowd noise (which was less awful than I expected) could compensate for low decibel levels at his poorly attended rallies. Likewise, the cardboard cutouts of fans at Dodger Stadium (which are completely ridiculous) might spare him future embarrassments like the of two out of three empty seats in Tulsa. The idea of fake crowds fits in perfectly with his agenda. 

In addition to having empty stadia, baseball has modified itself considerably to adapt to the virus. The season will be only sixty games instead of 162. The rules of the game have changed – pitchers won’t bat and if games are tied after nine innings, each new half-inning will begin with a free runner at second base to avoid having players on the field longer than necessary. Rules of behavior have changed too – no high fives, no spitting, no hugging after big hits, tossing balls touched by multiple players out of the game, and no nose-to-nose jawboning with umpires.  

To me, the most impressive change was permitting players to choose not to play out of concern for the coronavirus without loss of pay. It’s a business model that should be applied to other people our society depends on. With the president insisting that all schools open on time and many school systems planning normal classroom instruction, wouldn’t it be nice if we found a way to do that for teachers and other school staff? We need sports to preserve our emotional well-being in a time of great stress. We need teachers to assure the survival of the next generation – keeping them alive and healthy has to be at least as important as keeping athletes healthy. 

Along those lines, we Nationals fans will miss long time star and general class act, Ryan Zimmerman, who has opted to sit out the season.  And when they open the season against the Yankees, tonight, they will be without their young superstar Juan Soto, who won the hearts of every mother in America (along with everyone else who watched him) last year. Soto tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss at least two weeks, perhaps the entire season.  

That’s what Boswell meant by “virus-lucky.” If baseball loses too many Sotos, it may turn out to be just a painful reminder of everything else we’ll be dealing with this year. On the other hand, there may be a way to turn this to our advantage. Let’s start a campaign to convince the president that if big-egoed athletes can sit out the virus, it would be best for the country if he did too. I’d even be willing to double his salary.

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(Mis)trust and Verify

Alan Zendell, July 20, 2020

You don’t hear people say it much nowadays, but there was a time, thanks to Alan Barth and Phil Graham of The Washington Post, when people referred to today’s news as the first draft of history. If you read something in one of the major dailies (The Post, NY or LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe) or you heard it from Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, or Tom Brokaw, you simply believed it. Every media outlet had an editorial board, but they usually took pains to separate news from opinion. It helped that most bylines came from respected outlets like the Associated Press, United Press, or Reuters.

Cable networks and satellite communications brought the news directly into our living rooms while it was happening. Will you ever forget Bernard Shaw hiding under a desk in Baghdad’s International Hotel when Iraqi security forces came banging on the door, or Wolf Blitzer standing on a rooftop in Israel pointing out scud missiles descending on Tel Aviv? The news had finally come of age. We were watching live what our kids would see in their history books.

Except, it hasn’t turned out that way. The proliferation of alleged news networks, the internet, social media, and blogs changed everything. What passes for news these days may have begun as facts, opinions, propaganda, or conspiracy theories before it was extruded and spun through dozens of opposing points of view. Most of us have our own pet news sources, smugly convinced that ours tell the truth.

It was Trump senior advisor Kelly Ann Conway who first publicly used the phrases “fake news” and “alternate facts,” but she was merely putting names to the brainchild of Fox News founder Roger Ailes. If you believe Gabriel Sherman’s The Loudest Voice in the Room, Ailes was responsible for changing what we used to take as news into a chaos of conflicting versions. He conceived of Fox News as alternate facts before Kelly Ann Conway ever framed it in those words. He didn’t worry about fact checking because his creation wasn’t about facts; it was about pushing a populist point of view aimed at a silent majority of people angry with the establishment.

That’s today’s journalism. Try recording thirty minutes of news from each of your favorite networks. Compare them later. If your job was to distill the truth of the day’s events from them, what would you do?

Ailes not only invented Fox News, but in a sense, he also invented the current incarnation of Donald Trump. Fox News and Trump have been perfect symbionts for most of the last five years. These days many of us select our friends based on which news network they watch, and that may be a critical issue as the election approaches.

As Trump’s lies and distortions about COVID-19 caused his poll numbers to plummet, he decided to re-focus his election campaign on a fictitious narrative of current events. He began by characterizing the Black Lives Matter movement as the work of anarchists and Marxists, supported by Attorney General Bill Barr’s nightmare fairy tale of Antifa. He extended it to Portland, Oregon last week, and today we’re told that he plans to occupy other major cities (all run by Democrats) with federal troops to create a vision of a nation desperately fighting against an underground left-wing insurrection.

It’s all fantasy, complete nonsense. But Trump understands television and the media. He knows how to turn peaceful demonstrations into riots and mayhem, stoking people’s anger and frustration and labeling them thugs and criminals. Once that happens, the first casualty is truth. No matter what you see on your favorite news source you’re only getting a narrow view, often tinged by politics or deep pocket sponsors.

Trump knows only one way to win – create confusion and then claim his truth is the only one, but you don’t have to believe it. When the virus exploded in Seattle and weeks later, BLM protestors established their autonomous zone, I called my friends there to get an unfiltered view of reality. When people were dying by the thousands in New York, when California closed down, when Florida’s mishandling of the virus made it the world’s disease epicenter, and last week in Portland, I did the same thing. What I consistently learned firsthand from people I trusted bore little resemblance to what I saw and heard on the “news.”

We’re going to be battered by craziness for the next three months. When you find your head spinning, check the facts out for yourself. If you don’t know someone in Chicago you surely know someone who does. Call them when Trump’s Storm Troopers try to occupy it to drive out the Marxists. Watch, listen, mistrust, and verify for yourself.

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Storm Troopers in Oregon

Alan Zendell, July 17, 2020

During the first week in July, federal officers from Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Marshals Service arrived in Portland, Oregon to allegedly help guard Portland’s federal courthouse against violent demonstrators. They were dressed in camo uniforms with no name tags or any indication of the federal agencies they represented. No one in either the city or state governments requested their assistance, and the State Attorney General has made it clear that they are neither needed nor wanted there.

These anonymous, warrantless officers have been prowling the streets of Portland, harassing peaceful protestors, arresting people, and in one instance, seriously injuring an unarmed man when an unidentified federal officer fired a “nonlethal” projectile that fractured his skull. Trump portrays these actions as necessary to assist local law enforcement in controlling violent protests and protecting federal property, but the operation is politically motivated, intended to shore up his base, as he continues his divisive re-election campaign.

Portland was selected as a test case because it is a progressively governed city in a blue state that Trump is desperately trying to associate with “Marxist, anarchist” elements of the largely fantastical Antifa movement often cited by U. S. Attorney General Bill Barr. In fact, there is no evidence that local law enforcement required any assistance, and none was requested.

The decision by the Department of Homeland Security to occupy Portland is an obvious attempt to counter the Black Lives Matter movement, red meat for the far-right extremists who make up a large portion of Trump’s base. In mimicking the Fascist tactics of Hitler’s Brownshirts in the 1930’s it raises the frightening specter of a secret police force acting in violation of the Constitution. American society and its institutions are strong enough that we needn’t fear a Gestapo-like force terrorizing the country, but there are other concerns.

We live at a time when local law enforcement officials understand the need for accountability, when police forces all over the country require that body cams record all interactions with civilians. Armed, aggressive federal agents grabbing citizens off the streets without identifying either who they represent or the reasons for the arrests undermines all attempts at police reform. Such intrusion by the federal government into the peaceful affairs of private citizens is unacceptable, and in the opinion of the Oregon Attorney General, unconstitutional.

Unidentified, armed individuals in camouflage gear arresting people also raises more practical concerns. Oregon is a diverse state whose population covers the entire spectrum from far-right extremists to left-wing activists. Heavily armed militia groups, visibly indistinguishable from anonymous federal agents in camo are a common part of the Oregon landscape. If you saw a protestor seized and whisked away in an unmarked van by people who fit that description, how would you know whether you’d witnessed a lawful arrest or a kidnapping? When a sizable portion of the population is armed, the consequences could be disastrous.

Last evening, the Oregon Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against several federal agencies and ten officers named John Doe-1 through John Doe-10 (their identities are not yet known to local authorities) for “unlawful law enforcement in violation of the civil rights of Oregon citizens by seizing and detaining them without probable cause.”

Since my understanding of the Constitution is as limited as most Americans’, I was fortunate to have access to a sitting judge who is familiar with the events in Portland and a scholar in constitutional law. My first question was whether the Tenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from interfering in local law enforcement. It does not. I also asked about the Fourth Amendment which protects citizens against unlawful search and seizure or arrest without a warrant. That argument could be made in this case, but there is a stronger one.

The Oregon lawsuit is framed as a First Amendment violation of civil rights based on two ideas. First, by refusing to identify themselves, the federal agents deprived citizens of their constitutional right to face their accusers and hold them accountable for any misconduct. Second, the arrests were intended to intimidate people from engaging in lawful protests. It’s one thing to legally and peacefully protest when law enforcement respects citizens’ rights and limits the use of force with clearly defined rules of engagement. It’s quite another to protest when you can be arrested and brutalized by unknown armed assailants.

As the State was filing the lawsuit, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley announced that they will attach an amendment to the next defense appropriation to prevent a president from deploying paramilitary squads on American streets. As disturbing as the DHS decision to send federal officers to Portland is, the quick response of the Oregon Attorney General and the state’s Senators reassures us that Trump’s attempts at intimidation will ultimately fail. Unlike the fractured state of the Weimar Republic in 1932, ours is strong and vital. If it comes to that, we can depend on Chief Justice John Roberts to protect our Constitution.

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Anthony Fauci’s Truth

Alan Zendell, July 15, 2020

President Trump’s decision to undermine and discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci is as disgusting as it was predictable. After a lifetime as an immoral, dishonest businessman whose mentors were criminals and sleazy lawyers like Roy Cohn, Trump is singularly unequipped to deal with someone whose stock in trade is science, facts, and integrity.

Fauci in front of a microphone with an international audience of millions desperate for truth is one of Trump’s worst nightmares. Unlike Trump, Fauci doesn’t live for praise and adulation. Secure in his legacy, he is immune to bullying, lies, and distortions.

The only way Trump can counter Fauci’s brand of truth is by appealing to his ignorant cult of believers, and recent polling shows that group shrinking steadily. Only a quarter of Americans surveyed believe Trump over the scientists and physicians who are battling not only the worst pandemic in a century, but an unscrupulous political machine motivated by greed and lust for power.

Some of Trump’s most influential supporters are distancing themselves as the reality of his willingness to let COVID-19 deaths spiral out of control becomes impossible to ignore. Senator Lindsey Graham called out Trump’s treatment of Dr. Fauci: “I have all the respect in the world for Dr. Fauci … any effort to undermine him is not going to be productive.” And virtually the entire medical research community erupted negatively to White House Trade Advisor Peter Navarro’s Op-ed in today USA Today attacking Fauci’s record and credibility.

The blowback was so intense, the White House said: “The Peter Navarro op-ed didn’t go through normal White House clearance processes and is the opinion of Peter alone.” When the whiplash carnage continued, Trump appeared on camera to claim he has a wonderful relationship with Fauci. He even called his chief pandemic scientist “Anthony.” I imagine Trump thought that was supposed to sound friendly, but it was just an egomaniac’s way of diminishing someone he fears.

When asked about the personal attacks on him, Dr. Fauci said they were bizarre, and he didn’t know what to make of them. As always, he was calm, reasoned, and softly eloquent.

There is currently a nationwide letter writing campaign underway, ordinary people writing to Anthony Fauci to thank him for not wavering from the truth under pressure. I spoke to his public affairs office, which acknowledged that they expect to be inundated with mail. If you want to lend your voice, the address is:

Dr. Anthony Fauci c/o
NIH/NIAID Office of Communications
5601 Fishers Lane / MSC 9806
Bethesda, MD 20892-9806.

The White House’s attack on Dr. Fauci pulled the curtain back on how ineffective Trump’s bluster has become. A lifetime of lies and distortions, of public support of baseless conspiracy theories must eventually come home to roost. Sowing divisiveness and discord only works when people’s lives and livelihoods are not directly threatened by them, and there is so much chaos, the average person tunes it out.

But this is different. With the latest projections of COVID deaths approaching 250,000 by year’s end, people are afraid to visit vulnerable family members and equally afraid of sending their children back to school. That sounds bleak for Trump’s re-election, but fear not, he thinks he’s found a way around those damning numbers.

As COVID-19 data worsen, wouldn’t it be great if he could censor them and only report what is favorable to him? That’s why he announced last night that from now on, hospitals and state health departments will no longer report COVID data to the CDC, but will now report only to Trump’s people in the Department of Health and Human Services, the perfect scenario for Trump’s brand of corruption.

Until yesterday, the CDC published all the data it received on publicly accessible websites. Doctors, hospitals, researchers, the media, you, and I could all see it whenever we wanted to. DHHS has already stopped posting data on public sites. Anyone who wants to see or use it now must request it in writing and justify why they need it. Trump’s people can censor, delay, or just ignore any requests they don’t like. They could also change the data.

I speak from thirty-five years of first-hand experience at DHHS. The agency has been politically corrupt since the Nixon administration, but never more so than it is under Trump. If you don’t believe he would order troublesome data withheld or censored, recall what he did with the whistleblower complaint on Ukraine. A critical document which by federal law must be made available to Congress was hidden on a Top Secret server where only a handful of people could see it.

Can Trump get away with that with respect to COVID data? The answer is yes and no. Over the long run, he’d be caught out by audits or people like state health directors who notice that the data for their states made available by DHHS didn’t match what they submitted. But if the objective were to influence the election which is 110 days away, given Trump’s skills at hiding, delaying, and obfuscating, he could probably get away with altering the data until after election, especially if Congress recesses on August 1st as planned.

Should we be concerned? Unless the Republican Senate realizes they’re playing with deadly fire that will burn them in the end, damn right we should.

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Our Uneducated Secretary of Education

Alan Zendell, July 12, 2020

We learned two things about Secretary of Education Betsy Devos today, when she was interviewed at length by Dana Bash of CNN. One is the reason she and Ben Carson, who knows as little about public housing as Devos does about education, are the only two major Department Secretaries who have been in the president’s cabinet for his entire administration. Both are perfect sycophants, marching in lockstep to every tune he plays.  

We also learned why we hardly ever see Devos interviewed on live television – that is, interviews with real questions instead of the softballs thrown by some commentators. Devos is a disaster in such situations, as ineffective as a lead-footed tennis player trying to return a serve. She had apparently memorized a script that couldn’t have been more than two or three sentences, none of which addressed the reality of Trump’s self-serving demands to open public schools everywhere regardless of the consequences. But don’t just believe me, see for yourself. (The interview, which speaks for itself, is long but well worth watching.)

Ms. Bash was tenacious. She pressed Devos on three specific questions:

  • Does the government have a plan to implement schools opening around the country?
  • How should we interpret the president’s threat to withhold money from school systems that don’t comply with his direction, a threat which he lacks legal authority to enforce?
  • Why did Devos attack the Fairfax County, VA school system’s re-opening plan, which offered parents choices of virtual (online) and in-class instruction with staggered schedules?

No matter how many ways Bash reworded her questions, however, Devos would only say every child needed to be in school, and school systems had to comply with CDC guidelines, which the president ridiculed last week. The administration wants to force a one size fits all approach to in-classroom teaching. Devos, when asked what a school system that found it impossible to comply should do, said they’d have to find a way to adapt. The president insists that brick and mortar schools open for face-to-face instruction. But most large systems in areas with high coronavirus infection rates offered opening plans similar to Fairfax County’s – some combination of virtual instruction with limited use of classrooms for students who attend in person. Bash told Devos she couldn’t have it both ways. Devos simply repeated her mantra.

So, which is it, Betsy? Fairfax County superintendent Scott Braband, who is responsible for the education of 188,000 public school students, says the physical infrastructure of Fairfax schools is not capable of satisfying CDC guidelines. To do so would require construction of the equivalent of five Pentagons, more than 32 million square feet of floor space. (The Pentagon, the largest office building in the world, comprises 6.5 million square feet.)

Ignoring the fact that it would be impossible to add that much classroom space in the six weeks remaining before school is scheduled to begin, that leaves the question of how financially strapped systems would pay for it. Both the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have made it clear that they will resist providing additional federal funding to help local jurisdictions, while still repeating the toothless threat to cut funds for systems that refuse to open in a manner that satisfies the president. Not surprisingly, in today’s highly partisan environment, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said $345 billion in additional funding would be required.

Devos seemed helpless under the barrage of facts and common sense thrown at her by Bash. Rather than offer anything resembling a government plan, she tried to change the subject. Never a fan of public education, she suggested that parents should have the option of finding other schools that could comply if their local public school system cannot. Seriously, Betsy? Is this about your career-long quest to undermine publicly funded education?

When confronted with data suggesting that a fourth of all public school teachers feel immune-compromised in some way and fear they would risk severe illness or death if they are forced to return to overcrowded (by CDC standards) schools, Devos said she feels for them but they would simply have to find a way. It’s comically embarrassing to trot someone as incompetent and uninformed as Devos out in front of the national media to defend the indefensible. If the situation weren’t so despicable, I’d feel sorry for her.

But let’s not forget the real villain in this piece. To salvage his re-election campaign, Donald Trump is willing to risk the health and lives of tens of millions of people. It’s immoral and cynical, clear evidence of his lack of fitness to lead the country.

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Placing a Value on Life

Alan Zendell, July 8, 2020

Long ago and far away, as a young aerospace engineer, I was fortunate to have an older, wiser mentor. In 1966, June was incredibly hot on Long Island. Our nearly windowless building was stifling, the air so lacking in ventilation that some people slumped over their desks, unable to stay awake, and that was before the air conditioning failed. Three days later, with the outside temperature north of 95 and the A/C still nonfunctional, my mentor heard me muttering about why the company hadn’t fixed it. He led me outside into the hot smog, which was more breathable than the air in the building, and said, “You really don’t know?”

He explained that it was a game, part of the business model that allowed a modern mega-corporation to stay solvent. Back then, the U. S. Government contracted large projects like ours (the Apollo Moon missions) by awarding several billion dollars to a prime contractor that subcontracted most of the work. The drawback of that model was that to win the prime contract a company had to have a couple thousand “warm bodies” sitting around, available to hit the ground running. That caused enormous headaches for overhead conscious companies; the cost could bankrupt them.

My company, Grumman Aerospace (now part of Northrup Grumman) had a proud tradition of never having had a major layoff, even during the depths of the Depression. They preferred to manage the size of their workforce by giving employees “incentives.” Thus, the failure to repair the A/C in the midst of a blistering heat spell. If employees became uncomfortable enough, they’d quit on their own, until their numbers reached a supportable level. Grumman considered that less cynical than wholesale layoffs of thousands of professional engineers and tradespeople, but the principle was the same. Management believed the survival of the company was paramount, and everyone would benefit over the long run, even if the cost was a degree of human misery.

Over the ensuing fifty-four years, I’ve grasped the universality of that idea. Every large organization, be it a business or government entity functions that way. Fast forward to today and the ongoing struggle between people who believe we have to re-open our economy before it is irreparably harmed and those whose highest priority is minimizing deaths and long-term complications for people who contract COVID-19.

On its face, the debate is legitimate. Neither side is completely right or wrong. Even if our principal concern was reducing misery and death, we don’t know enough about the virus to know which approach will work best over time. Even if our nation’s leadership were pure of heart, selflessly motivated to find the optimum balance between normal commerce and protecting people from the virus, balancing short-term suffering and prosperity against the security of our country would be a daunting challenge. We would have to marshal all our scientific, economic, and health care resources and insulate our decision-making from politics and special interests.

We don’t know if we will ever have an effective vaccine or if contracting and recovering from the virus will make us immune. We don’t even know, either, if herd immunity, the holy grail of infectious disease specialists, can ever be achieved. If COVID-19 becomes a fact of life indefinitely, we will have to permanently adapt the way we live to survive. It’s called Natural Selection. Have you seen any dinosaurs lately?

Our biggest problem is that our president is not interested in finding an optimal solution – the greatest good for the greatest number. He keeps a heavy finger on the scale, tilting it toward business as usual. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead. I wonder if Trump realizes that motto came from a naval encounter that seriously weakened the Confederacy he so loves.

Don’t be fooled. Trump, ignorant as he may be about science and epidemiology, understands full well what he is doing. Holding massive rallies, refusing to acknowledge the need for masks and distancing, and playing down the value of testing are all part of a cynical calculation. Opening the country completely, even if that resulted in millions of deaths and ultimately crashed our economy is a risk he is willing to take because he knows it’s his only hope to be re-elected. If you don’t believe that, there’s an oft-sold bridge in Brooklyn you might want to bid on.

Trump is a gambler. Like any habitual risk-taker, he understands that with unlimited resources, a gambler could repeatedly double down on his bets, and eventually, he’d roll a seven. Since one aspect of Trump’s mental illness is an exaggerated view of his own wealth and power, he ignores the mathematical certainty that in the real world, the one the rest of us inhabit, he’s more likely to crash and burn. Like all the other times he suffered that fate in business, when it happens, he’ll just walk away and let everyone else pick up the pieces.

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Celebrating Our Independence

Alan Zendell, July 5, 2020

The Fourth of July is usually a time when we allow ourselves to beat our breasts and reassert how wonderful it is to be an American. I’ve always done that, for one day, at least, ignoring problems and challenges, enjoying the sights and sounds of shooting things up into the sky and exploding them with marching bands playing patriotic music in the background.

When I was a kid in the years after World War 2, I was more struck by the similarity between the massive fireworks and the aerial bombardments that killed millions in the previous decade. Fortunately, I eventually succumbed to the American fantasy that all was well, so my own breast could swell with pride and I could enjoy the spectacle. Usually, our leaders helped feed that one-day delusion with inspirational speeches promising unity and better times to come.

Not this year. When Donald Trump formally launched his Culture War at Mount Rushmore, he shattered that temporary bubble before it even had a chance to glow. Instead, he fired the first clear, unvarnished salvo in the battle for White Supremacy. His tactics were those of the Fascists after whom he models himself, but his message fell flat on most Americans.

By selecting Mount Rushmore as his Fort Sumter, Trump pulled the scab off the long-festering wound of genocide, the near-extermination of the culture and civilization of our indigenous peoples. Specifically, he reminded us that Mount Rushmore was a holy place of the Lakota Nation that was stolen from them by our government, and that the massive sculpting project was more of a marketing ploy to prop up the ailing pre-Depression economy of South Dakota than a monument honoring four of our most revered presidents.

And in attempting to characterize the Black Lives Matter movement as a gang of violent anarchist, Marxist mobs, he simply reminded most of us of our other original sin – slavery. And perhaps worse, how a century-and-a-half after that issue tore our country apart in the Civil War, the remnants of that confederate mentality still don’t believe our founding phrase, “All Men are Created Equal” does not mean only white men, and in fact, does not even mean only men. It means all human beings regardless of gender, race, color, religious belief, or sexual orientation.

In stoking delusional fears of Marxist-inspired insurrections, our president also reminded us of a third dark stain on our national identity, the McCarthyism of the 1950’s. And in throwing around words like treason and indoctrination of our children, he again raised the specter of the Nazi Storm Troopers and the Hitler Youth. All of this struck me as I watched the Fourth of July celebration in Washington last night (on television.) Superimposed on the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic from which our president is desperately trying to distract our attention, it suddenly it all seemed hollow. What in Hell were we celebrating?

Trump’s Culture War is a cynically contrived re-election strategy, designed to re-energize the base that elected him in 2016. It’s a classic Hail Mary pass with the clock running out. The frightening thing is that Hail Marys are sometimes successful. That’s what Trump is counting on, but not this time, Donald. You were elected by a once-in-a-lifetime coalition of angry people and Hillary-haters who drank your populist Kool Aid, but that coalition no longer exists.

The Trump base can now be seen to consist of two very different groups. There’s the hard core cult of Alt-Righters, gun extremists, pro-life activists, and people who simply hate government. Then there’s the other group who were angered by the arrogance and incompetence of the former Democratic Party establishment and influenced by nearly thirty years of relentless right-wing hate radio. That second group is now expressing buyer’s remorse. All Trump has left is his loyal cult, which may be as large as one third of the electorate.

Trump hopes his message of hate and divisiveness will resonate yet again, and that fear lurks in the minds of all of us. But there is a new Monmouth University poll which captured a snapshot of the sentiments of likely voters after Trump’s rallies in Tulsa and Phoenix – you remember, the ones at which he thumbed his nose at his own government’s policies combating COVID-19. The same ones that drew far fewer people than Trump hoped for.

The Monmouth poll shows Biden ahead of Trump nationally by 53-41%, exactly the same margin shown by previous polls throughout the month of June. Tulsa and Phoenix didn’t move the needle at all. Memo to the president: except your core group of cultists, no one’s listening.

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