Oligarchy vs. Democracy in the Age of a Pandemic

8 mins read

In dealing with a pandemic, a democratic leader would base success on how many  lives are saved.

A would-be oligarch, on the other hand, bases success on whether he maintains power.

That is the clue to what is happening now.

Two main issues have brought us here:

#1: Trump has been systematically dismantling the federal government.

He gives “federalism” an oligarch’s twist: He doesn’t just want to transfer power to the states. He also wants to transfer power to industry.

#2: Trump’s goal since taking office has been to maintain and expand his power. 

To that end, he cynically employs basic fascist tactics.

Because he has only a few tricks in his bag, he’s using those tricks in this pandemic.

And they don’t work against a virus.

To compound the problem, the Fox-GOP is in line with both of Trump’s goals: They place his reelection needs above the health needs of the country and they want to dismantle the federal government. 

In her excellent newsletter yesterday, @HC_Richardson talked about how the GOP’s desire to dismantle the federal government has contributed to the fiasco:

The result is that the federal government is not equipped to handle a pandemic and has thus made a series of epic errors.

To take an example, there was no coordination between the administration and the US Agency for International Development, so we’ve been exporting supplies we need here. To take another, taxpayers paid millions to design low-cost ventilator for a pandemic. The company is selling versions overseas.

(For why the Trump-FOX-GOP wants to dismantle the federal government, see this post.)

The problem is further compounded by the fact that Trump appoints and hires people based on the person’s degree of loyalty to him instead of expertise. 

That’s why Jared Kushner is in charge of a global pandemic.

Instead of coordinating a central government response, Jared is tapping private industry. 

Oligarchy, or a what Hungarian scholar Bálint Magyar calls a “mafia state,” happens when government leaders also control the nation’s industries.

In Feb. Trump gambled that the virus wouldn’t be as deadly as experts predicted.

His concern was to protect the stock market (which he conflates with the economy) because he believes that a strong economy will get him elected. (He needs his donors flush with cash.)

Because Trump always believed that a strong economy would get him reelected, he has artificially inflated the bubble on the hope that he could keep the bubble intact until after Nov. 2020.

He lost his gamble. Now he’s terrified that the virus will pop the bubble.

That’s why the GOP wants us to ignore the virus and keep working: 

(In addition to being cruel, encouraging people to keep working fails to achieve the objective: Lots of dead people and an overworked health care system will crush the economy So it’s stupid as well as cruel.) (Also, see this post on the absurdity of asking people to die for the ‘economy’)

After Trump lost his gamble (and people weren’t willing to die to “save” the economy) what did he do?

He reached into his bag of tricks. 

There are not many tricks in the bag, so by this point, we’re familiar with them and can recognize them. These tricks are not effective in dealing with a pandemic. They are, however, effective in maintaining power. As Yale professor Jason Stanley said: Trump “cynically uses a set of fascist tactics to gain and maintain power.”

Trick #1 is what another Yale professor, Timothy Snyder, calls “governing by spectacle.”

Trump is a natural at drenching the population with a rapid-fire succession of news-grabbing, diverting spectacles. Governing by spectacle works this way: If nobody has a chance to focus on any single blunder, none of the blunders can sink into the public consciousness.

Goebbels explained: “The mass mind is dull and sluggish, and for ideas to take root, they must be constantly re-seeded and repeated.” That’s why “her emails” sank into the public consciousness but nobody even has time to talk about the fact that the Trump family ran a fraud charity. 

It’s easy to create spectacle when you put your unqualified son-in-law I charge.

Trick #2: Make sure Trump is painted as the victim

When people question or criticize Trump’s errors, the Trump-FOX-GOP claims that everyone is being unfair and mean to Trump.

Trick #3: Create an “us v. them” politics. (Trump is an expert at this.)

  • To create “us v. them” politics:
  • Get the fighters fighting and keep them fighting
  • Pit the blue states against the red states
  • Blame the liberal cities and states
  • Blame China
  • Blame Obama
  • Blame Sen. Schumer.

Trump told Schumer that the reason New York wasn’t better able to handle the epidemic was because Schumer wasted all that time on the impeachment “hoax,”

 The White House believed it had delivered an epic burn:

Finally, the most important trick: Undermine factuality itself.

One way to do this: Tell people not to believe experts:

Another way: unleash such a firehose of lies that people get so confused they eventually conclude that the truth is unknowable.

Here are just a few random examples from the tireless @ddale8 who spends his workday documenting Trump’s lies. Needless to say, it is a full time job.

Without facts or a shared truth, Trump cannot be held accountable for errors. Note that he is throwing out garbage on purpose, to confuse people. Confusing people in a pandemic is a terrible idea— but the tactic here is to govern by spectacle (yes, it is a tactic).

Trump’s response to COVID-19 makes sense once we understand (1) that a leader who only knows how to use fascist tactics isn’t equipped to deal with a pandemic, and (2) that a would-be oligarch will base his success on whether he maintains power, not how many lives are saved.

[View as a Twitter thread]

Originally posted on Musing About Law, Books, and Politics.
Re-posted with permission.


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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently writing an overlapping series of biographies called the Making of America. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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