Earlier this year I read Edward B. Foley’s excellent history of disputed elections in America, Ballot Battles. The book is fascinating on many levels and alarming in its descriptions of the weaknesses in America’s electoral institutions. But I want to focus on one particular election featured in the book: the 1960 presidential contest between Nixon and Kennedy.
It’s now generally accepted that Chicago Democrats manipulated the vote totals in the 1960 election in an attempt to help Kennedy carry Illinois. There is also substantial evidence that Lyndon B. Johnson’s political machine in Texas manipulated the vote total in Kennedy’s favor. If Nixon was, in fact, cheated out of those two states and their electoral votes, then he was cheated out of the presidency in 1960.
Political partisans had their suspicions even at the time. After Nixon’s initial concession to Kennedy, his supporters urged him to seek recounts in both Illinois and Texas. But Nixon was convinced that there was no way for him to get a truly fair recount from Texas state officials. And at the time, the Supreme Court's policy was to avoid federal intervention in this type of dispute.
So let’s take a step back and consider this situation. Here we have a politician who is just out of reach of the White House. He has a reasonable belief that the vote totals in two key states were rigged against him, and that the recount process in one of those states would also be rigged against him. On top of everything else, this politician is Richard Nixon, a man whose name has become a shorthand for political dirty tricks. So what does he do?
He did not seek a recount in Texas. He did not denounce the vote counting process and recount process in Texas as “rigged.” He didn’t even seek a recount in Illinois, since Illinois by itself could not provide him the additional electoral votes needed to win.
Nixon later explained his reasoning for this inaction in his 1962 book, Six Crises. He worried that, “The bitterness that would be engendered by such a [recount] maneuver . . . would, in my opinion, have done incalculable and lasting damage throughout the country.” He also wrote that, “It is difficult enough to get defeated candidates in some of the newly independent countries to abide by the verdict of the electorate. If we could not continue to set a good example in this respect in the United States, I could see that there would be open-season for shooting at the validity of free elections throughout the world.”
The problems with the 1960 election and recount process are so manifest that Edward Foley concludes that “the 1960 presidential election must be viewed as a failure of American government to operate a well-functioning democracy.” The fact that this view is not widely shared should be attributed to the selfless act of a man who is otherwise (and not without cause!) pilloried for his subversion of American democratic ideals.
And that brings us back to Trump. Whereas Nixon had actual grounds to suspect vote-rigging, Trump has none. Whereas Nixon declined to challenge the election results after his supporters raised legitimate concerns, Trump is now spreading disinformation before the votes have even been counted. And whereas Nixon would not press his legitimate grievances for fear of dividing the country, Trump is using his lies to lay the groundwork for possible violence.
Nixon did more damage to the presidency and the popular image of American government than any other politician in the 20th Century. Trump hasn’t even been elected president, and yet he may have already done more damage than Nixon.
It’s worth noting one of the strongest ties between Nixon and Trump: Roger Stone. Stone is a Nixon acolyte—complete with a large tattoo of the president on his back—known for his “dirty tricks” on behalf of Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972. In his 2014 book Nixon’s Secrets, Stone forcefully argues that Kennedy stole the 1960 election:
During this primary season, Stone was one of Trump’s close advisors and henchmen (you probably remember him as the guy who threatened to send Trump supporters to the hotel rooms of RNC delegates) and he reportedly remains in close contact with Trump’s team. It would be no surprise if Stone’s deep resentment over the 1960 election is fueling the “rigged” rhetoric coming out of the Trump campaign right now.
In Time Capsule installment #142, and in a followup item in this thread, I mentioned Donald Trump’s penchant for “projection”—blaming his opponents for flaws he very obviously has himself.
Seth Knoepler, a PhD psychologist in California, writes in to give me the Official Perspective:
Since you’re evidently receiving some “completely amateur” opinions, you might as well have a more professional one.
To clinical professionals, “projection” is one of the “mechanisms of defense” which Anna Freud and others have described. These are mental maneuvers which are intended to protect the person from uncomfortable feelings that are associated with particular impulses or ideas. Each defense mechanism results in a perception of reality which has been distorted in some way.
As can be seen, for example, in “The Choice: 2016,” the recent Frontline documentary, Trump grew up in a family that was dominated by his almost unbelievably driven, perfectionistic father, a man who with both his words and his actions created a world in which you either dominated others or were hopelessly, humiliatingly dominated. In such a world, any flaw or imperfection represents a weakness which, sooner or later, will be catastrophically exploited by people who see the world as the same Darwinian struggle that you do. Someone like Trump must “defend” himself against the overwhelming feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that would accompany any acknowledgement of his human fallibility by denying that he is in any meaningful way flawed—by insisting that “he alone” out of hundreds of millions of Americans is smart, strong, and ruthless enough, and without any exploitable flaws or weaknesses.
Each defense mechanism has its own idiosyncratic characteristics. Projection has the advantage of implicitly acknowledging the reality that someone is flawed in a certain way, while at the same time protecting the person from the uncomfortable feelings that would be precipitated by acknowledging that he is, in fact, that person.
And another person with a professional perspective:
Your correspondent writes, “Since he has no understanding of anyone but himself, when he tries to attribute motive, needs or desires in others they are therefore at best something from himself that he recognizes in them, or simply a reflection of feelings he himself has.”
A different description might be:
Trump is aware that there are other views of reality than his own. The narcissistic project is to argue, charm, bully the world into accepting his view of reality, including but also going beyond his grandiose view of self. Insisting on this view leads others to mistake his aberrance for lying.
Now you know.
I agree about the excellence of PBS’s The Choice, available for streaming online. One of its messages is that each of these nominees has had a surprisingly consistent life story and affect over the decades. In the case of the GOP’s nominee, it means the man we now behold.
Although The Choice doesn’t explicitly address this point, it implicitly undercuts the idea the outbursts and excesses of Nominee Trump reflect any age-related distortions of his personality. He appears to have been this way for a long time.
In installment #142 of the Time Capsule series, I argue that “projection,” in the psychological sense, is the default explanation for anything Donald Trump says or does.
Projection means deflecting any criticism (or half-conscious awareness) of flaws in yourself by accusing someone else of exactly those flaws. Is Trump’s most immediately obvious trait his narcissistic and completely ungoverned temperament? (Answer: yes.) By the logic of projection, it thus makes perfect sense that he would brag that he has “the greatest temperament” and judgment, and criticize the always-under-control Hillary Clinton for hers.
How can this be? A reader offers an analysis worth considering (emphasis added):
I am writing to comment on “Drug Test,” item #142, and the idea of self-projection as the first rule of Trump analysis. Here’s my completely amateur opinion:
Trump is a man with almost zero ability to empathize or imagine other people’s motives or drives. His ego and narcissism are so oversized they warp all his opinions into reflections of himself. Since he has no understanding of anyone but himself, when he tries to attribute motive, needs, or desires in others, they are therefore at best something from himself that he recognizes in them, or simply a reflection of feelings he himself has.
In simple terms, one might say his mind is empty of any thoughts that are not self-referential. And so self-projection is simply a consequence of this vacuity.
One of the strangest things about the Trump phenomenon is that, for something so unprecedented, he’s best understood through the lens of history.
He’s also best misunderstood through that lens. One of the most common historical looks at Trump this year is comparing him to Hitler. (Here’s the most thoughtful and understated effort.) The commonness of this overreach may be the best case for bothering to be precise about what sort of character the Republican nominee is. The problem with the “Trump = Hitler” thesis, after all, is not that it is too difficult to sustain, but too easy; it fails by a long way to take a full measure of the German tyrant. But the reason the argument seems so low-hanging is that Trump has, probably half-unwittingly, turned the demagogy textbook into an instruction manual. Hitler may as well have been offering advice, for example, when he said that “the effectiveness of the truly national leader consists in preventing his people from dividing their attention, and keeping it fixed on a common enemy.” (Update on 10/25: My colleague Uri ably analyzes such Hitler comparisons.)
Some readers thought my note on Trump being an “Ur-Fascist” made a similar error, trying to shoehorn a word where it doesn’t belong. The word “fascism,” after all, recalls a specifically European past, and Trump, certainly as he conceives of himself, is American first. So one reader, Kevin, proposes a term that might be a fit better than “Ur-Fascist”:
I may be getting overly formal here, but fascism was a political movement with very definite philosophical underpinnings, most of them failing to resemble any philosophy that Trump and his followers may hold dear. One may say that Mussolini and the other fascist leaders of the 20th century often ignored them, but what actual political leaders of any movement have always kept faith with their philosopher predecessors?
Real fascisms had definite clerical and royalist associations. They attempted, with various degrees of commitment and success, to implement something like Catholic corporatism as a basis for social organization and the economy. It is no accident that actual fascisms were confined almost entirely to Catholic majority countries, most of them Iberian, Mediterranean, or Latin American. (Needless to say, this is one of the many reasons that National Socialism was not a fascist movement.)
All of these tenets, in addition to the obvious absence of any Trump squadristi, argue powerfully that Trump is no fascist—merely an American authoritarian.
It is in fact entirely misleading to turn to any foreign political model to explain Trump when there is a model in U.S. politics, of nearly two centuries' duration, that applies dead on. It is called Jacksonianism, and Trump is the Andrew Jackson of his day.
Jackson’s movement, like Trump’s, arose in reaction to perceived wrenching social and and economic changes in 1820s and 1830s America. Its adherents were the white yeomen who felt left out of the power structure, as opposed to the propertied elites who in many states had a monopoly on the franchise. The other burning issues that concerned the Jacksonians bore a distinct resemblance to those that concern Trump’s followers today—industrialization and international trade; concentration of wealth in the hands of the old Bourbon planters and the budding Northern industrialists; the control of Congress by such elite professional politicians as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C Calhoun. Add to this President John Quincy Adams, whose 1824 election in the House of Representatives over Andrew Jackson, the leader in popular vote, led to cries of a “corrupt bargain”—that is, a rigged election. Sound familiar?
And, of course, there was race. Not only did the Jacksonian multitudes fear competition from black slave labor (even though they were dead set against manumission). They were also both fearful and envious of the native population, whose land they coveted. It’s easy to imagine a Trumpian Trail of Tears, this time victimizing Latino immigrants and noncitizen Muslims rather than the Cherokee. Enforcing their expulsions would require a large militarized police force uprooting, dividing, and exiling families, all for the perceived benefit of nativist whites.
Like very many Trumpians, the Jacksonians did not fit neatly along the right-left axis as we understand it today. They were all for expanded government, as long as it benefited them and not the moneyed elites, new capitalists, and nonwhites. While claiming to eschew foreign policy interventionism, they were militaristic and better described as unilateralist than isolationist. For instance, they were gung-ho about invading and annexing adjacent territory that belonged to other nations. President James Knox Polk, who pursued the Mexican War, was a Jacksonian nonpareil.
So perhaps Orwell was more correct than you allow. “Fascist” has for nearly a century been a term of opprobrium hurled indiscriminately by certain leftists to attack any person or idea they find uncongenial. More recently, the word has been adopted by the right, with at least as much imprecision—a sure sign it has jumped the shark.
There is a bit of a contradiction here about whether Trump would or would not have thugs at his disposal, but nonetheless this is a strong case that Jacksonianism is the ism that fits better than fascism.
The age of Jackson, like today, produced a vulgar, furiously clannish outsider railing against a dynastic presidential opponent, upending the political categories that had calcified among elites in the ’90s (in this case, the 1790s). Jackson went much further than Trump’s mere quipping that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and still not lose voters; Jackson, known for dueling, killed at least one opponent, who had already shot him in the chest.
Jacksonianism did not die with its namesake, not by any means. It has been an important part of American political culture since, acting as a sort of raw animal nature that rises up when it senses attack and lashes out without regard for the sort of moral or moralizing (depending on how you see it) principles that Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the like worked so hard to codify (if not always live by). The immediate aftermath of 9/11, for example, was a moment of Jacksonian ascendancy.
But if the major factor preventing Trump from being rightfully described as a fascist is that he is American, it begs a question: Without going all HUAC, or all Birther, how American is Trump? More than he resembles Hitler or Mussolini or Franco or even Berlusconi, Trump is of a piece with Eastern European rulers like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—an opportunistic autocrat with an animating anti-immigrant agenda.
Another reader points out that for practical purposes, we may be being too stingy, rather than too loose, with the word “fascism”:
The only elements missing from the fascist classification is efficacy. If a fascist can only be recognized after they’ve successfully attained power, it truly is a meaningless term.
Part of why Trump is shunned by his fellow members of the Western billionaire class is that he is not, like them, a plutocrat. He’s an aspiring oligarch. Moreover:
Trump demonstrates no interest in what the written Constitution says, let alone much knowledge of it.
Talking about how he would pursue trade negotiations, Trump has made clear that he sees the full faith and credit of the United States as a chip to be bargained away at the earliest opportunity.
And he interprets acts of violence against Americans as personal vindication to be used for political gain.
The word for all this is cynical, which happens to be the catchword that Eastern Europeans in Russia’s orbit use for the flavor of politics that has taken over since the pollyannaish early ’90s.
Another reader, Brian, writes in about why it makes sense to define the word “fascism” expansively in the modern day:
I think that it is easy to put too fine a point on the definition of fascism. For one thing, while it was a recognizable and fairly uniform political movement in early part of the 20th century, it was also driven by authoritarian and charismatic leaders and those leaders’ preoccupations, insecurities and bêtes noires affected its political content in the various countries.
There is also the fact that we are looking at fascism today after 80
years of study, discussion, and historical analysis, and the U.S. in
2016 is very different politically and economically from Italy or
Germany in the ’20s and ’30s.
But I would argue that if, say, Konrad Adenauer could have read
today’s U.S. press from prison after the Night of the Long Knives, or in
his house in Roendorf, he would find much of what he read about Trump chilling and all too recognizable—perhaps more in the Mussolini vein, but frightening all the same.
Just because a term has been overused—and “fascist” is no doubt pretty threadbare—does not mean the patterns in the carpet can no longer be made out.
One point that should not be so absent from this whole discussion: America matters more to the world today than even Germany did in the middle of the 20th century, specifically because it is so powerful. Just American inaction today can wreak more havoc than many countries’ worst intentional mischief.
Academics, history buffs, literary types, and other nerds could probably discuss ad infinitum what words and trends best fit Trump (and let’s! Write to us). But in truth, Trump is likely some combination: a Jacksonian with Ur-Fascist qualities, or vice versa, or something. He’s a little of this scary and a little of that scary.
James Joyce, being a tad simplistic but touching on an important idea, wrote that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Trump, meanwhile, is behind the lectern every night, singing his virulent lullabies.
In last night’s debate, the Republican nominee said, apropos military policy: “General George Patton, General Douglas MacArthur are spinning in their grave at the stupidity of what we’re doing in the Middle East.”
In most of his speeches Trump mentions those same two generals. Reader Marcus Hall assesses what the reliance on Patton and MacArthur might tell us about Trump:
It is easy to see why these two military legends are attractive to Trump:
1) Both were known as showmen and motivators. This is clearly Trump’s modus operandi as well; he is most comfortable being the showman and motivator. When he isn’t in the granted position of head of the dais, he looks, seems, and acts out of place. (For example, think back to the instance in Flint where the pastor takes the initiative to challenge him as a person.)
2) Both were known to take personal animus against rivals on their own side to extremes. Think of Patton’s constant infighting with Montgomery, and his less than amicable relationship to Bradley after Sicily.
3) Both were known for strident aggressive stances against an enemy without consideration for larger picture effects. MacArthur’s blunders with antagonizing the Chinese after Inchon, and Patton’s immediate post-war desire to go to war with the Soviets before the armed forces and the country (or its non-Russian allies) could even recover from WWII.
4) Both faced disgrace at the hands of the media and at the hands of those who were better able to handle the larger context of events (Eisenhower for Patton, and Truman for MacArthur).
5) Both had authoritarian tendencies supposedly in defense of freedom.
6) Both are seen as the epitome of the “masculine” general—the ones who take action and get the job done, rather than the kind of general who sees complexity and takes a more complicated approach (Patton v. Eisenhower and Bradley, or MacArthur v. Ridgeway).
7) Both had great strengths but fatal flaws that ended (or almost ended) their careers. Patton’s consideration of PTSD as cowardly is particularly insightful, as some of Trump’s comments seem to indicate a similar attitude.
Trump’s use of these particular generals fits in line with both his own, and his base supporters’, attitudes towards conflict, war, and masculinity. These men chose to see events in binary paradigms and reacted accordingly—hero/coward, friend/enemy, good/bad—with deliberate elimination of room for something in-between or more complex. With Trump, if something’s good, it is The Greatest. If something is bad, it is totally The Worst. His choice of dichotomy helps make issues simpler and condenses them for people who don’t want to spend a lot of time (or can’t spend a lot of time) determining complexity, or who don’t want to be bothered with complexity. It makes for great bumper stickers, but usually terrible policies, especially when it comes to larger picture actions.
I keep wishing a moderator would ask Trump “What then?” when he states his preferential policies on numerous fronts. Ally with Russia against ISIS! (What then? What if Russia does what is has so far, and really refuses to take on ISIS because they are a useful bogeyman?) Not get involved in ousting dictators about to commit atrocities! (What then? Sit back and allow the atrocities to continue?) etc. There are debates to be had and points to be made in favor of Trump’s preferred choices, but no one seems capable of following up a question to get to his next steps and plan B, C, and D in case his preferred plan doesn’t work.
MacArthur’s plan if the Chinese entered the Korean War was to go nuclear, period. It wasn’t much of a plan, although it fit MacArthur’s small picture needs of tactically dealing with an in-theater enemy. When the issue became clear that MacArthur’s plan B was so poor of an alternative, Truman removed him.
However, no one has bothered to figure out Trump’s plan B to even judge how good or bad it is (and Trump himself probably doesn’t even have a Plan B because he believes all his Plan A’s are The Greatest). This is one of the tells that shows more than just about anything else that he isn’t qualified to be President. Plan A’s fail all the time. Having a workable plan B, C, D, and E is the difference between an Eisenhower and a Patton, a Ridgway and a MacArthur.
In installment #137, I mentioned Jane Goodall’s prescience in foreseeing primal-dominance moves from Donald Trump if he had a chance to move around in the same debate space with Hillary Clinton. Now a sample of reader reaction. From a woman named Sarah:
You are wondering how Trump’s behavior last night played with women. I can tell you that I and every other woman I know are having a collective freakout right now. Granted, not one of us was going to vote for Trump, anyway—but that’s not the point.
Last night’s debate was a triggering event for pretty much every woman I know. That also seems to be the general reaction online amongst women I don’t know. Whether we were raped, assaulted, harassed, or in an abusive relationship, Trump last night embodied everything we have had to deal with throughout our lives. Some women wanted to jump on stage and throw themselves between the candidates to protect Hillary. Others were afraid he was going to attack her. Many wondered how she could even maintain a train of thought.
Women with young daughters are struggling with how to discuss what they saw last night with their girls. For those of us with sons, it’s a bit easier: 1) Don't be That Guy; 2) If you see That Guy in action, call out his bad behavior.
But—we, collectively, are having a difficult time shaking off what we saw last night. It was terrifying, frustrating, enraging, and depressing. Other women, perhaps, will shake it off as “all men are like that.” The fact that some women think that this is normal behavior is, in itself, deeply depressing.
I read your Trump Time Capsule #137 with interest. For what it’s worth, way back in the day I was an Anthropology major, albeit not in primates. So I know a tiny fraction more than the stereotypical man in the street.
We have a rather long history, in the United States, of electing the taller of our two candidates for President, at least when the difference is immediately visible. My thought that this is, at least somewhat, a matter of security. People who want to feel secure tend to feel so around a father figure—not all fathers, obviously, but the sort of father that Jesus had in mind when he used that analogy to describe a loving God.
But while Trump is taller than Clinton, is that dynamic in play here? Obviously it slips partly because someone looking for security is going to think Mother Figure vs Father Figure. How that part plays out depends a lot on what specific kinds of fears they are working from.
But the other factor is, would you want Trump, or anyone like him, as your father? How many women voters would feel more secure with a father who spoke of them in the terms Trump used about his daughter on that tape? I’m guessing not many.
Those dominance rituals only work if you have correctly tapped into the reasons why they work. Trump hasn't.
George Orwell said that “as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.” He’s not wrong. Since Mussolini’s original Partito Nazionale Fascista rule began in Italy in 1922, “fascist” has become an epithet that’s as easy to dismiss as it is to use.
Yet the term remains important as well as loaded, especially in an American election season when an argument has broken out over whether the Republican nominee for president meets its definition. Writing in The Atlantic in January, Gianni Riotta addressed this question, answering that Donald Trump is not a fascist. And he would know; he grew up in the rubble of the original Italian fascism, lived its recent history, and labored under personal threats from groups of lingering fascists during their moments of revival.
Here is how Riotta defines “fascist” and why he thinks it’s overwrought to use it to describe Trump:
Trump will never master the techniques laid out in 1931 by the then-fascist journalist Curzio Malaparte in his Coup D’etat: The Technique of Revolution, which detailed the clear requirements of the fascist manifesto: Seize and hold state power with a sudden attack, coordinated with cunning and force. There is no fascism without this rational, violent plan to obliterate democracy. From Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Mussolini’s speeches on the Palazzo Venezia balcony, fascists told the crowd openly what their goals were and kept a nefarious, disciplined pace to realize them. Mussolini boasted about reducing Italy’s Parliament “to a fascist barrack,” “stopping any antifascist brain from thinking,” and “creating a new Roman Empire.”
Notwithstanding some obvious shades of “make America great again” and “the experts are terrible” in Mussolini’s sloganeering, by Riotta’s definition Trump is indeed not a fascist—that is, assuming that on November 9, Trump is having one of the days when he says he’s inclined to respect the results of the democratic election, and not one of the days when he’s not.
But the debate over the definition of fascism is much richer than Riotta covered. Some readers of his piece quibbled that there are shades of fascism and that Trump sits somewhere worryingly far along:
Perhaps it’s more accurate that Trump is “fascistic” or “with fascist tendencies” (or, more ominously, “proto-fascist”).
Another reader suggested:
Though all the comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini are off base. Trump is more like Goering in attitude and temperament: pompous, full of himself, and attracted to power.
Fascist-y? Fascist-esque? Generalissimodious?
Clearly the strict binary Riotta lays out doesn’t leave room for people to invoke some of the expressive power of the F-word that Trump seems to compel some to.
How about “Ur-Fascist”?
“Ur-Fascism” is a 1995 essay by the great Italian author Umberto Eco, who was born under Mussolini’s regime in 1932. The essay takes up the challenge that Orwell laid down in 1944 when he called “fascist” nearly meaningless. Even Orwell didn’t propose to abandon the term entirely, merely to “use [it] with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.” Eco takes this seriously, and in doing so he provides the loudest response to Riotta’s definition of fascism as explicitly evoking Mussolini’s worldview:
It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.
Just because the term is mutable does not mean it’s meaningless. The starting point of Eco’s understanding is, quite unlike Riotta’s, that the modern word has a history in Italian fascism but it need not share precise features with Mussolini’s system. It’s a synecdoche—a part that stands as a symbol for the whole phenomenon of 20th century strongman authoritarianism—in which Italy’s system figures deeply but not definitively.
See if you think Eco was onto something with predictive power in the following passages from his essay. The first:
Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.
And here are Trump’s tweets from Election Day 2012, when President Obama won reelection with 332 Electoral College votes over Mitt Romney’s 206 and with a four-point margin of victory in the popular vote:
We can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!
Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.
The Trump campaign’s messaging seems to have internalized this warning as advice:
The next entry from Eco is … well:
Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.
There are many instances of Trump living up to this prediction, the most unsettling being when he spoke about his health on air with fellow TV charlatan Dr. Oz, who mentioned Trump’s slightly higher than average testosterone levels to studio applause. But the moment that most seared itself into public consciousness came in a primary debate with Marco Rubio:
Next up from Eco:
Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
Trump recently said that there’s a reason for keeping Middle Eastern refugees out of the country beyond national security; it’s a “quality of life” issue, you see! This on top of proposing to create a national force big enough to deport more than 10 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States (meaning he would like to have an armed federal force at his command). That on top of suggesting that the solution for black and Hispanic Americans “living in hell” in inner-city neighborhoods is to institute a national Stop and Frisk policy, which was struck down in New York because the way it was carried out constituted a breach of black and Hispanic New Yorkers’ constitutional rights. After it ended, crime did not go up. Nobody was raped in Central Park because of it—though if someone had been, you can bet Trump would have been behind newspaper ads seeking the death penalty for five juveniles—four black and one Hispanic—who were innocent.
Here’s the last of Eco’s truly Trump-resonant elements of Ur-Fascism:
To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.
In July, Trump tweeted this since-deleted image:
Oh, and Trump had spent years accusing the first black president of engaging in a massive coverup of the fact that he had been born in Kenya and could not legitimately hold his office—in between accusing him of being a secret Muslim.
The genius of Eco’s answer to Orwell’s question—a question sadly also at hand in 2016 America—is that he grasps that it was the very contradiction and slapdashery in Italy’s authoritarianism that made its name stick to the larger idea. What the eyes of history have recognized at the core of Mussolini’s system is “… a rigid discombobulation, a structured confusion. Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.”
Nobody would argue the tenor of the campaign has improved since January, when Riotta’s essay came out. Since then, Trump has even gone as far as to question the democratic system—“the election is rigged!”—most ominously by signaling supporters to stake out polling stations in districts where he’s not likely to find much support. Trump has taken on so many of the characteristics of an Ur-Fascist, the strong case is that rather than being a hurled epithet, the label simply fits. (Disagree? Or want to make further connections between Trump and Ur-Fascism? Drop us a note.)
Umberto Eco died in February of this year. But like all the greatest authors, his writing will always feel immediate. Early on in “Ur-Fascism,” he writes:
I spent two of my early years among the SS, Fascists, Republicans, and partisans shooting at one another, and I learned how to dodge bullets. It was good exercise.
A reader in the tech business offers an uncomfortably plausible scenario on what might happen beginning November 9:
What comes after the campaign of 2016? It now appears likely that Hillary will win, that Trumpism will be soundly discredited, and that people will soon forget that the contest ever seemed close. Losing campaigns are always harmless in the rear view mirror: no one has family stories about working for Joe McCarthy or Charles Lindbergh. That’s why we need the Time Capsule.
But, after the campaign is over and the election lost, Trump faces trouble unprecedented in American history*. It’s conceivable that Trump could face civil or criminal prosecution on several fronts: federal income tax evasion, mail fraud connected with Trump University, fraud connected to his charitable foundation, espionage associated with Wikileaks, illegal lobbying associated with Russia.
(* Well, there’s Aaron Burr. Warren Harding died in office. Eugene Debs wound up in prison, but he wasn’t quite a major party candidate, his offense—if offense it was—occurred years after the campaign, and his red-scare prosecution is not something of which the country has been proud. I can’t recall another example.)
We can easily imagine that some of these matters might arrive in federal or state court in the coming years. Whatever the outcome of those cases, Trump supporters will believe that the charges are Hillary Clinton’s personal retribution. And, next time the Democrats lose the White House, they will call for matching prosecutions of the losing candidate. “Lock Her Up” may have awful echoes.
As you know, this mirrors one of the defects that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Romans didn’t want every private complaint to stop public business, so you couldn’t bring suit against officials until their terms expired. Toward the end of the Republic, this meant that anyone could expect to be sued as soon as they left office, which meant that people had to find ways to stay in office indefinitely. Losing a big election meant endless litigation, possibly ending in death or exile.
As things stand, I fear creating the expectation that every losing presidential candidate will face prosecution.
One escape hatch could be a pre-emptive pardon. I was not a fan of Ford’s pardoning Nixon, but the national interest might be stronger here than it was after Watergate. History has been kinder about another precedent, the decision not to prosecute officials of the purported Confederacy. The question then becomes, is it preferable for Clinton to pardon Trump, or for Obama?
As David Sims wrote in his piece “Alec Baldwin’s Scarier, Nastier Donald Trump,” Alec Baldwin gave us a very funny Trump, and a somewhat darker characterization than we normally see from Saturday Night Live. However, it is not the darkest or best Trump impression to emerge in this election season, and it clearly borrowed from the one that is.
Earlier this year, comic Anthony Atamanuik appeared as Trump in a number of appearances on comedy shows, often debating Bernie Sanders (as portrayed very humorously by James Adomian). While Baldwin’s had elements of Darrell Hammond’s goofy Trump, it is indeed closer to Drunk Uncle or Archie Bunker. Atamanuik, by contrast, is nonchalantly ghoulish—an uncensored peek into the dark heart of the Trump id as we fear it to be, if that were then blown up to full size and presented without any other element of Trump’s personality. Baldwin’s use of “Gina” was pioneered by Atamanuik’s Trump, who repeatedly asserted that Gina was the enemy. With Atamanuik, this is just getting started, as he will casually promise to kill everyone, repeatedly tell young women that he can buy them and even tell one she has soft skin which he could remove if he wanted.
I was blindsided by this routine when I happened to see a version of this mock debate on Comedy Central’s show At Midnight. It feels like genuinely dangerous comedy and was clearly the inspiration for SNL to go a bit beyond their glitz and goofiness in the characterization of a man who may truly be a hollowed out shell animated only by primitive drives.
Watch for yourself below. I caught the first seven minutes and it’s truly packed with talent and blunt dark humor that doesn’t feel petty. (For example, Baldwin’s Trump referring to Lester Holt as “jazz man” and “Coltrane” felt cheap and lazy, compared to Atamanuik’s inspired riff on “white power”—watch here as a standalone clip.)
Donald Trump has soaked up an astronomical amount of free media over the past year—$2 billion worth as long ago as March and more than $31 million worth from Sean Hannity alone—but an Atlantic reader, Eric, turns our attention local. He wonders if there’s a significant contrast between national and local news when it comes to crime coverage and whether that difference is driving support for Trump:
Something came to mind a few nights ago while I was watching the presidential debates: Is Trump a product of local TV news? I was struck and saw, for the first time, how disconnected the world that Donald Trump was describing seemed from reality in America—not just on the coasts, but everywhere. It got me thinking about his comments in the past regarding minority communities, crime, and social breakdown as a whole. Those don’t reflect the America you’d read in the mainstream media, hear on public radio, or see on network news broadcasts, but they do sound vaguely like one non-partisan news source that I’m familiar with: the local TV news.
I don’t watch much local news, and neither do most people in know, so I decided to look into it a little further. What I discovered was that 57 percent of American adults often get their news through television, with 46 percent saying that’s through local TV news. Considering that local news has become, for the most part, weather, traffic, and sports (40 percent of broadcasts, according to Pew) with crime reports (17 percent) and accidents/disasters (13 percent) in between, it strikes me as understandable that Trump’s “law and order” message has some resonance. After all, if the main source of news is local TV, then nearly a third of the time not dedicated to traffic, weather, and sports is about crime in the local community. Even if crime weren’t rising, the ubiquity of its coverage would give the impression that it’s getting worse.
Then there is the long running issue with racial bias in local news coverage. The go-to study on the topic is by J.H. Lipschultz and it’s called “Race and Local Television News Crime Coverage.” In it, Lipschultz mentions how much local news can shape and reinforce our attitudes about race, but one passage really stuck out to me:
[T]he reinforcement of stereotypical assumptions about race may be driven by local TV news coverage: “... crime coverage may be reinforcing hegemony by reinforcing inscribed ideas about who commits crime (people of color), where most crimes occur (communities of color), and where crimes should not occur (White, affluent neighborhoods)”
If coverage like this is still the norm (the study is from 2003), then is it any wonder that Trump’s claims about African-Americans “shot walking down the street” sounds right to some voters?
For many, local TV crime stories are their only insight into communities of color. It’s rare that the news covers the positive things going on there—with the exception of the occasional school or park opening—because they’re crunched for airtime and it’s not what viewers want. And since minority communities are generally viewed as unsafe by whites (another product of local TV crime coverage, according to Lipschultz), most haven’t spent any time there. For the near-majority of Americans whose primary news source is local TV news, crime, murder, and black go together so often that anything negative that’s said about the state of African-American communities seems plausible.
Now perhaps I’m way off base here (and I hope I am!) and I’m making a connection that doesn’t really exist, but I was hoping to posit a theory and get your readers’ thoughts.
I am finding myself nodding along with your reader who talks through Trumpism as a product of local news coverage. In The Culture of Fear, Dr. Barry Glassner talks about how, as violent crime dropped, local news coverage of violent crime increased, creating a perception among views that crime was getting worse, not better. As local news competed for ratings in dimensions beyond the joviality of their sportsman, the accuracy of their weather, and the attractiveness or tenure of their anchorpersons, they could not advertise about their propensity to lead with what bleeds, but they could certainly make the stories with blood and fire lead ahead of the coverage of the local government or consumer complaints.
Because of the nature of televised news, being a visual medium, it excels at spot news, things that happen at a time, at a place, on the spot. It is considerably less good, especially on a nightly turnaround schedule, at covering stories that have less compelling visuals and that require deeper analysis. As such, those who get their news from their local 5 or 6 o’clock news are pumped full of fear, whether it be fear of crime or fear of weather. Those who read newspapers—a declining group—get a more detailed story, and those who read news magazines might get more perspective on more complicated stories than nightly local news can provide.
As such, I don’t really watch televised news at all. I have enough anxiety in my life without a daily half hour or hour of straight fear being pumped into my house.
I’m reminded of the 2014 film Nightcrawler, a disturbingly dark portrait of a bootstrapped cameraman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in his best performance yet) who burrows his way into the center of the local news world of L.A. by increasingly sensationalizing and ultimately orchestrating the violent episodes he records. His sociopathic stunts are bad enough, but the desperation of the deeply cynical news director (played by Rene Russo) turns into one of the most vivid critiques of the news business I’ve seen yet. It comes down to the ratings, of course, even after she fully discovers how twisted he is. My colleague Chris Orr wrote a reliably sharp review of the film, and here’s the trailer, and here’s a representative scene:
Another reader, Steve, finds that local news—at least the station he watches—engages in false equivalence and he said/she said coverage when it comes to the presidential election:
When I saw the headline of Trump being a product of local TV news, what I thought was going to follow was be something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It wasn’t. Instead it ended up hitting on a different topic ... that I've also been thinking a lot about lately. I’ll try to be brief, but I wanted to comment on both:
The first is the topic of local TV news, which is something I think gets overlooked in all the political media commentary. People watching the Sunday morning shows, or reading The Atlantic, usually have some formed opinion about the people/issues. No one watches the Sunday morning talking heads because they don’t know how they’re going to vote. They do so to reaffirm what they already believe by panel experts. (Or to get really mad at ridiculous “political opinions” getting airtime.) There was something that someone said—I don’t remember who/where—about the Matt Lauer debacle and why it mattered: most people get their political news from watered-down sources. In the big picture, the things said on Sunday mornings are much less important than than the things said on weekday mornings, tucked in-between the sports and weather.
I love my WGN Morning News in Chicago. But it’s everything from eye-rolling to stomach-churning in how much false equivalence there is every morning: there’s always a Trump controversy, and then there’s equal airtime for a Clinton controversy. Every day. And the Trump controversies are just about always something he actually said or something he actually did—lots of things that would normally disqualify someone from being president (see Trump Time Capsule).
But the Clinton controversies are usually along the lines of: someone from the Trump camp said she was corrupt; someone from the Trump camp said there’s questions about the emails; someone from the Trump camp says she’s unfit to president. Every morning, equal airtime, unequal controversies.
While much has been said about “the media” trying too hard appear fair—being too soft on Trump and too hard on Clinton in the process—I feel like that critique has been aimed at the big media/news institutions. I know it has not trickled down to the local players, where most people get their news, and I fear that it won’t in this election.
The second thing that reader Eric hits on here is trying to claim why Trump describes African-American communities as he does, and why this perception of these communities has become such a talking point in his campaign. It’s because he’s racist and he’s speaking to racists. Black communities are dangerous and not like ours. Black people are dangerous and not like us. If only some law and order went in there to clean them up, it would make them more like us. He’s not projecting what society tells us; he’s giving his audience “the problem” they want to hear is a problem. This goes hand-in-hand with his “minority outreach” really being aimed at suburban white voters, which much has already been said about.
The people who are for Donald Trump, are for him. And almost nothing he can say or do, or that can be said or revealed about him, will undercut that support. The things that ordinarily would be considered “shocking” or “disqualifying” haven’t eroded belief among his base, and probably won’t.
But there are not enough of these people to get 270 electoral votes for Trump. There were enough to give him an initial plurality in a huge GOP field, and to keep him coming out ahead as his GOP rivals foolishly attacked one another rather than concentrating on him. But in the general election his core support has remained below winning levels in virtually all honest polls. He has so far seemed to hit a ceiling at around 40% support—sobering in itself, but not enough.
Therefore he needs new supporters—more women, more blacks and Latinos and Asians, more Muslims, more educated people, more of the young.
Therefore2, the test of everything Trump does now—the debates, the “Miss Piggy” controversy, the taxes, everything—is whether it brings him anyone new. The question is not the one we mainly hear after debates or Trump flaps: how this affects his supporters. They already support him. The question is whether what he does and says brings in anyone undecided, or new.
My guess is that is has not.
The main point is: since Trump starts with not enough votes to win, the logical test to apply, in the 36 days that remain, is whether what he does with each speech, each answer in a debate, each tweet, each flux of the news cycle, expands his base. If it doesn’t, he has lost.
Following installment #119 in the Trump Time Capsule series, which contrasted Donald Trump’s “they’re freeloaders!” complaint about NATO allies with his own “that makes me smart!” comment about not paying taxes himself, readers weigh in.
1) If this makes Trump “smart,” most people are forced to be dumb. Friend-of-the-site and Congressional veteran Mike Lofgren highlights an aspect I neglected to mention:
An important point that wasn’t emphasized is that among the vast majority of Trump’s supporters, not paying taxes isn’t even an option, regardless of how much they might want to chisel the IRS.
FICA taxes are automatically deducted, and the employer automatically files a W2. The option of setting up tax-exempt foundations, shell companies, and engaging in transfer pricing simply does not exist for these folks.
An ordinary person would resent someone who can get away with various tax dodges; maybe Trump’s supporters have such a masochistic identification with him that it doesn’t matter.
2. Only the little people pay. From a reader in California:
With his recent “That Makes Me Smart” comment at the debate, I am reminded of Leona Helmsley, famous for saying, as I’m sure you remember, “Only the little people pay taxes.” I haven’t seen anyone make the connection recently, perhaps I have missed it, but they have much in common.
I know she went to jail for a while and while refreshing my memory with Wikipedia and Google, I see that she had the same attitude towards not paying contractors and taxes as Trump does. Seems they were both friends and rivals as well. Billionaires with no empathy for the “little people” they mock and ruin. Too bad Trump is unlikely to meet the same fate Helmsley did, but it certainly would be fitting.
3. Come back, Mitt; all is forgiven. A reader points out differences between the two most recent GOP nominees:
People have pointed out similarities between how Romney explained his low tax rate at his debate (“I pay all the taxes owed. And not a penny more. I don’t think we want someone running for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”) and Trump (“That [paying zero tax] makes me smart!”).
But there’s a difference: A possible explanation for Trump's refusal to release his returns is that Trump annually cheats on his taxes and puts the burden on the IRS to investigate and sue him to get paid. It’s just one facet of his selfish personality where he derives a minor benefit from majorly inconveniencing others. Romney revealed he’d been audited at least once and was found to be in compliance... has anyone asked Trump what the results were from his past audits?
4. If he’s not paying taxes, why does he care about “takers”? A reader in Florida examines another logical paradox:
In context of the last 8 years (at least) of Republican claims about “makers and takers” and their whole Ayn Rand sensibility, doesn’t the expressed sentiment by their party leader—“I’m smart not to pay taxes”—reveal the glaring inconsistency—fraud, even—at the heart of the Republican ethos? If he’s already not paying taxes in this country—something that was also suspected of Mitt Romney (Mr. 47%)—how exactly are the so-called “takers” holding him back?
Does Trump’s statement not conflict with Trump’s tax plan, which would aim tax breaks toward the wealthy, but not so much for the “left behind middle class” he purports to represent? Isn’t he exactly like Leona Helmsley (“taxes are for the little people”)?
And yet he’s not perceived as a completely selfish elitist.
5) And while we’re talking about taxes. A reader suggests another angle:
After the debate Monday, I was thinking about Trump’s comments about forcing companies to pay a huge tax when importing from their international factories. Forget how he can actually implement that as president.
Would it apply to his own foreign investments? How is a Trump hotel in Rio or golf course in Scotland different from a Ford plant in Mexico or a TI plant in the Philippines?
I don't recall seeing this idea being explored anywhere, but after googling today, I did found this article that covers my thoughts pretty well. It’s over a year old ...
39 days and a few hours until the election; early voting starting in some places now; tax returns (of course!) not forthcoming; GOP “leadership” still standing firm behind their guy.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
How the coronavirus travels through the air has become one of the most divisive debates in this pandemic.
Updated at 10:06 a.m. ET on April 3, 2020.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are now overthinking things they never used to think about at all. Can you go outside? What if you’re walking downwind of another person? What if you’re stuck waiting at a crosswalk and someone is there? What if you’re going for a run, and another runner is heading toward you, and the sidewalk is narrow? Suddenly, daily mundanities seem to demand strategy.
Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside. Many state guidelines are ambiguous, and medical advice can muddy matters further. When the writer Deborah Copaken came down with COVID-19 symptoms, her doctor chided her for riding her bike through New York City a week earlier. Going outside in the city wasn’t safe, the physician implied, with “viral load everywhere.”
More young people in the South seem to be dying from COVID-19. Why?
In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has gone from a novel, distant threat to an enemy besieging cities and towns across the world. The burden of COVID-19 and the economic upheaval wrought by the measures to contain it feel epochal. Humanity now has a common foe, and we will grow increasingly familiar with its face.
Yet plenty of this virus’s aspects remain unknown. The developing wisdom—earned the hard way in Wuhan, Washington, and Italy—has been that older people and sicker people are substantially more likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19 than their younger, healthier counterparts. Older people are much more likely than young people to have lung disease, kidney disease, hypertension, or heart disease, and those conditions are more likely to transform a coronavirus infection into something nastier. But what happens when these assumptions don’t hold up, and the young people battling the pandemic share the same risks?
Widespread social-distancing measures have produced some jarring effects across land, air, and sea.
From inside her living room in London, Paula Koelemeijer can feel the world around her growing quieter.
Koelemeijer, a seismologist, has a miniature seismometer sitting on a concrete slab at the base of her first-floor fireplace. The apparatus, though smaller than a box of tissues, can sense all kinds of movement, from the rattle of trains on the tracks near Koelemeijer’s home to the waves of earthquakes rolling in from afar. Since the United Kingdom announced stricter social-distancing rules last month, telling residents not to leave their home except for essential reasons, the seismometer has registered a sharp decrease in the vibrations produced by human activity.
With fewer trains, buses, and people pounding the pavement, the usual hum of public life has vanished, and so has its dependable rhythms: Before the spread of COVID-19 shut down the city, Koelemeijer could plot the seismometer’s data and see the train schedule reflected in the spikes, down to the minute. Now, with fewer trains running, the spikes seem to come at random.
This year’s projected headline numbers look dire for the president.
For Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, many numbers matter: the number of Americans who get sick and perish from the coronavirus. The number of months before the economy begins to reopen and rebound. The number of Americans who lose their health insurance and home after losing their job. For political scientists, one number is of particular interest, and it currently stands at –18.3.
That is an estimate of how fast the economy is collapsing in the second quarter, an annualized rate derived by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. It is a measure of how much less the American economy is producing as businesses close and joblessness swells and the pandemic kills. And it is one of the strongest predictors of whether an incumbent is likely to win reelection: An additional percentage point of GDP growth translates roughly into an additionalpercentage point of the vote share. Americans are seeing their economy evaporate at the fastest pace in modern history, and that foretells a Democratic landslide in the fall.
China warned Italy. Italy warned us. We didn’t listen. Now the onus is on the rest of America to listen to New York.
In the emergency-department waiting room, 150 people worry about a fever. Some just want a test, others badly need medical treatment. Those not at the brink of death have to wait six, eight, 10 hours before they can see a doctor. Those admitted to the hospital might wait a full day for a bed.
I am an emergency-medicine doctor who practices in both Manhattan and Queens; at the moment, I’m in Queens. Normally, I love coming to work here, even though in the best of times, my co-residents and I take care of one of New York City’s most vulnerable, underinsured patient populations. Many have underlying illnesses and a language barrier, and lack primary care.
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
Updated at 4:40 ET on March 30, 2020.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored. (It may also turn out to be the case that people who are immune to the disease can still pass it on under certain circumstances.)*
The Trump administration has just released the model for the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in America. We can expect a lot of back-and-forth about whether its mortality estimates are too high or low. And its wide range of possible outcomes is certainly confusing: What’s the right number? The answer is both difficult and simple. Here’s the difficult part: There is no right answer. But here’s the simple part: Right answers are not what epidemiological models are for.
Epidemiologists routinely turn to models to predict the progression of an infectious disease. Fighting public suspicion of these models is as old as modern epidemiology, which traces its origins back to John Snow’s famous cholera maps in 1854. Those maps proved, for the first time, that London’s terrible affliction was spreading through crystal-clear fresh water that came out of pumps, not the city’s foul-smelling air. Many people didn’t believe Snow, because they lived in a world without a clear understanding of germ theory and only the most rudimentary microscopes.
Viktor Orbán is the prime minister of Hungary. He has been in power since 2010. During that time, he has underinvested in hospitals. Instead, public money has gone to pet projects, many of them related to the sports he enjoys. In his home village, Felcsút, the government built an elaborate soccer stadium with a heated field and 3,814 seats—which, as The New York Times noted, is twice the number of people who live in the village. Meanwhile, the nearby county hospital’s emergency ward has long struggled to cope with even an ordinary number of patients. On one evening in October, a visiting Times reporter found two harried doctors on call at midnight, and 30 people waiting for treatment.
He’s never seen a disease quite like COVID-19, nor has he ever worked for a president quite like Trump.
When Anthony Fauci returned my call the other day, he was standing outside the West Wing, on his way to a meeting of the coronavirus task force. He didn’t have much time to talk; he had 20 more phone calls to make, he told me. Getting a chair at the task-force meetings isn’t guaranteed. Even in the White House Situation Room, officials practice social distancing.
When Vice President Mike Pence arrives at the sessions, he checks to see whether people are squeezed too close together, putting one another at risk of infection. If they are, he “essentially kicks people out of the room, saying, ‘Hey, go to another room and tune in by teleconference,’” Fauci told me.
Many Americans seem to want Fauci to be in the room where decisions are being made. His candor has made him an instant icon. During White House press briefings, social-media users dissect his second-by-second facial expressions for clues as to what he’s thinking when President Donald Trump takes questions. Alarm spread among TV viewers when he missed a briefing the other day, giving rise to the hash tag #WheresFauci.