• A Matter of Trust

    In what would have been a shocking twist in any other administration, over the weekend, journalists began reporting that the White House was circulating talking points questioning the judgment and credibility of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  President Trump, himself, told Fox News that Fauci, who had increasingly distanced himself publicly from the pandemic characterizations and recommendations of the president, “is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes.” In an op-ed earlier this week in USA Today, White House trade official Peter Navarro questioned Fauci’s credibility, warning that he greeted the esteemed doctor’s recommendations with skepticism.  White House Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino posted an editorial cartoon on his personal Facebook page portraying Fauci as a gushing faucet whose cold water messages were drowning the economy and the country’s return to normal life.

    The attacks on Dr. Fauci aren’t a coincidence.  They are a campaign designed to discredit Fauci, one of the most well-regarded public health officials in the world because his willingness to tell the truth to the American public puts him at odds with the perceived political needs of the president.

    This isn’t the first-time this has happened.  In fact, President Trump has a long and troubling record of not just lying, but of attacking any independent source of news or information that he sees as a threat to his grip on power:

    • In August of 2018, the president attacked Google search results, alleging via Tweet that the U.S. government was receiving complaints about bias in search results on Google, Facebook, and Twitter.  Larry Kudlow, the president’s economic advisor, said subsequently that the administration would look into possible regulation of the tech giants because of that bias.
    • The president’s attacks against Robert Mueller were legion—accusing the respected former FBI Director of leading a band of “angry Democrats” involved in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
    • Prior to those broadsides, the president claimed to revoke the security clearance of former Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan whose public warnings about Russian interference in our democracy threatened the president’s preferred narrative.
    • Since the earliest days of his administration, the president has attacked journalists as “enemies of the people”  because of critical reporting about him and his administration.
    • Finally, on other issues, the president has repeatedly undermined the expert opinions of the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. military.

    The common thread that runs through all of these examples is the president’s apparent desire to undermine the credibility of any independent source of information—from Google to the CIA—that dares to offer a view different from that favored by Donald Trump, himself.

    This week, we find Dr. Fauci’s reputation under assault, and even the most-casual observer can link it easily to his willingness to tell the American public the truth about a pandemic that appears only to be intensifying all over the country—a reality the president believes hurts his political chances this fall.

    It’s against this backdrop that so many viewed with alarm the reporting in Tuesday’s New York Times about a plan to shift the collection of COVID infection data away from the CDC and transfer that function to the Department of Health and Human Services—whose assistant secretary for public affairs is long-time Republican political strategist Michael Caputo.  The administration’s explanation of the switch, detailed by the Times, is that CDC’s system was antiquated and cumbersome.  But researchers, modelers, and public health officials all over the world rely on CDC’s data which is generally regarded as credible and transparent.  The concern—whether valid or not—is that individuals at HHS—who are traditionally more political than the public health officials at CDC—would be in a position to manipulate the public’s understanding of the true extent of the pandemic to benefit the president’s political fortunes.

    Ultimately, our politics, like so many things in life, run on trust, and after 20,000 documented lies, repeated attacks on independent sources of information, as well as smears and obfuscations, many Americans simply don’t trust President Trump or his administration.  That’s not politics and that’s not bias: that’s the fruit of efforts to distort and mislead over years.

  • It’s Complicated

    I watched the president’s speeches at Mount Rushmore and on the South Lawn of the White House commemorating July 4th last weekend. They were not great speeches, if I’m honest, but they have lingered with me. In his inaugural address, the president spoke of “American carnage,” and the theme of a decaying America came through loud and clear. But I was more troubled by his open assertion that the decay is being advanced by his political opponents.

    Now let’s be honest, warning that your political opponents are “ruining the country,” is as old as politics. But there’s something new and disturbing in the way this president talks about his political rivals: they don’t just disagree about policies and politics, they are un-American, intent on teaching “our children . . . to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but . . . villains.”

    I’ve had a hard time processing this because there are people who see in American history nothing but brutality and violence and racism. I’m working with a local historical society on a series of small group discussions about the current state of civics, and after our last discussion I told them I worried we were focused exclusively on what’s wrong with America. In my opinion, that’s a mistake because there is so much in our founding and in our history about which we should be proud.

    The problem I had with President Trump’s speech wasn’t his desire to celebrate America’s heroes, but that he delivered such a sanitized version of American history.

    Understanding our history as a nation and as a people means acknowledging all of our contradictions, our successes and our failures, as well as our sources of pride and our sources of shame. They are, often, two sides of the same coin. The ideals Thomas Jefferson articulated in the Declaration of Independence are universal and should be celebrated. But our application of them to the humanity on these shores has been uneven for centuries and remains so today. Jefferson asserted that all men—all people—are created equal. But the nation permitted slavery for its first 76 years and legalized discrimination for nearly a century more. Jefferson and Washington, among many others, were slave owners. They owned other human beings. Women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920. Native Americans have seen their lands possessed, their rights curtailed, and their heritage appropriated.

    The president’s approach to U.S. history under-estimates the capacity of the American people to know the truth and love this country with a deep conviction borne not of ignorance or wishful thinking, but of a deep appreciation for the ideals of our founding and the sacrifice of flawed men and women over centuries who fought to make those ideals real.

    At Mount Rushmore, President Trump criticized “cancel culture”—the idea that we are going to remove from public life anyone whose history or utterances offend present sensibilities. I took note of that not because the president described it as the “very definition of totalitarianism,” (which it is not) but because another American president spoke of it recently, too. Last October, former President Barack Obama warned young people to “get over” cancel culture. “The world is messy;” he said, ”there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

    On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglas delivered his iconic Independence Day oration “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” It is one of the most important speeches in American history. In it, Douglas, a former slave from Baltimore, Maryland, captured the central contradictions inherent in the American experience. He celebrated the founders and heralded their “saving principles,” but also described the brutality and inhumanity of American slavery.

    Knowing that history, acknowledging those tensions isn’t a “left-wing cultural revolution . . . designed to overthrow the American Revolution,” as President Trump described it. It’s a full-throated celebration of America in all of her complexity.

    I love my country, not because I don’t know her faults, but because I know her ideals and I know the courage of patriots to help her live up to them.

  • The Story in the Data: Wear Your Mask!

    On Monday of this week, Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control, told the Journal of the American Medical Association that COVID-19 is not under control in the United States because “We have way too much virus across the country for that right now.”  It’s a staggering admission, but we know it’s built on real data.  Compare that to the actions of some state governments who have actually pulled data down from public websites because it paints an undesirable picture of the crisis playing out before our very eyes.

    In Florida, Rebekah Jones was a data scientist for the state department of health until early May when she claims she was fired for refusing to manipulate data that would have shown that Florida was not ready to reopen. But this wasn’t the only story of data manipulation to emerge from Florida in May.  On May 8, Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago documented a variety of ways the administration of Governor Ron Desantis was shading numbers.  Early that month, the governor’s administration moved to bar county medical examiners from releasing death data.  He also resisted calls by journalists to release data on coronavirus in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.    

    Governor Desantis wasn’t alone in shaping the data to justify reopening.

    At the end of May, the state of Texas was already nearly a month into reopening.  Governor Greg Abbott claimed he was making data-driven decisions and that the rate of positive tests  was a key factor in his decision to re-open the state.  Except the data was skewed and expert observers called it out.  The state was combining both antibody tests (which assesses whether an individual has ever been exposed to the virus) and PCR testing which tells someone whether they are currently infected.  To put this in mathematic terms—they were inflating the denominator—effectively increasing the pool of “tests” even if they weren’t all the kind of tests in question.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, the White House, too, has a problem with the data it pushed as recently as two weeks ago.  On June 16, Vice President Mike Pence published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal taking issue with the media’s portrayal of a “second wave” of the disease, claiming that the United States is better prepared now than it was last March because we have so much more testing, with low positive test rates in many states, a plateau in cases nationally, and declining death rates.  Nearly all of that was based on a selective interpretation of the data.  There is not one big fire threatening the United States—there are more than 50 wildfires, each affecting local communities differently, and each with their own potential to flare out of control.  In this case, looking at national data swapped tremendous progress in the northeast—which was hard-hit in the spring—for back sliding in the south and west, obscuring the flames that were burning even then.

    Now, as we head into the July 4th weekend, rates of infection are surging across the United States, including in places like Florida and Texas, but also California, and Arizona.  Public health officials across the country reported more than 42,000 new cases on Wednesday of this week—alone—with records for new cases set in Georgia, Texas, Alaska, North Carolina, and Arizona.  Ominously, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned on Tuesday that the United States could be on its way to 100,000 cases per day.  The virus is not controlled.

    The reality is that this virus does not care how tired we are of living like this.  It doesn’t care that we hate wearing masks.  It doesn’t care that we want to go back to work, or over to a friend’s house, or even just down to the bar to grab a beer with our friends.  It doesn’t care that we want to hug our older parents.  The virus exists for one purpose: to reproduce, and it does that by infecting hosts who then infect others.  It will wait us out—unless we are smart.

    And smart starts with wearing a face mask.  A peer reviewed analysis of face-mask declarations in 15 states and the District of Columbia between April 8 and May 15 found that states with mandates cut the spread of the disease.  A separate analysis from the Philadelphia Inquirer  found that states with less stringent face mask policies and orders had substantially larger rates of infection. The city of Hong Kong has 7.5 million residents, but since the outbreak of the disease, they have had only 1,234 confirmed cases and only 7 deaths.  Compare that to New York City where, while things are improving now, over the last four months, 215,000 cases have led to 17,757 deaths, so far.  The biggest difference between the two cities is simple: since the outset of the pandemic, an estimated 97% of Hong Kong’s morning commuters wear face coverings. 

    In the United States, people more concerned with holding onto political power and restarting the economy than listening to the data opted to politicize mask wearing.  The tragic reality we all must confront is that lives are being lost and the economy will continue to sputter because of it.

  • The Warning They Are Shouting

    America is on the precipice of a dangerous crisis.  The warnings are being signaled to all of us in public.  If it explodes into view, it’s legacy will cut to the core of what it means to live in a republic, what it means to maintain a standing Army in our nation, and, yet, its importance is under-appreciated by most of us.  Let me explain.

    Sunday night was a dangerous and violent night in many American cities.  Peaceful protests of the murder of George Floyd gave way to physical altercations, vandalism, and looting in several cities.  Monday dawned and the president sought to assert his authority amidst the break-down of civil order. Word leaked that the president berated state governors for looking weak in the face of the protests and warning he would send U.S. troops into the streets to restore order.  Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was quoted telling the governors they had to “dominate the battlespace.” 

    On Monday evening, just before the president spoke in the White House rose garden, uniformed secret service and mounted police drove peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square across Pennsylvania Avenue.  After speaking with the press, President Trump walked across the park for a photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Secretary of Defense Mark Esper joined him, as did Attorney General William Barr, and other members of the president’s team.

    By Monday night, military helicopters were hovering low over protestors in Washington, using the down-wash of their rotors to try to disperse the crowd.  By Tuesday, reports were circulating that elements of the 82nd Airborne and the 91st Military Police Battalion were deployed at military bases in the DC area.

    The combination of the threat to turn the U.S. military against U.S. civilian protestors and the scenes from Lafayette Square sparked something among those who have had the highest authority in the U.S. military in the Trump administration and others.  It began with a Tweet just before 7 PM on Monday from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Demsey, USA.  He wrote, “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.”

    On Tuesday, Jim Miller, a former Obama-era defense official, publicly resigned from the Defense Science Board.  In his letter, he cited the oath he took to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” and Secretary Esper’s characterization of America’s streets as a “battle space.”

    Elsewhere, others much closer to the administration sought to distance themselves from rhetoric that risked putting American troops into American streets to fight American citizens.  President Trump’s hand-picked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, USA, reminded the service chiefs and their troops that they swore an oath “to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it,” including the promise that citizens have a right to “freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.”

    Also on Tuesday, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, USN, wrote powerfully in The Atlantic that “Even admidst the carnage we are witnessing . . . American cities and towns [are] our homes and our neighborhoods. They are not ‘battle spaces’ to be dominated, and must never become so.”

    On Wednesday, June 3, Chief of the National Guard Bureau General Joseph L. Lengyel, USAF, expressed his outrage at the death of George Floyd, and the loss of others to “extrajudicial violence.”  He acknowledged America’s painful history on race and urged all citizens to do better.  Then he reminded those who serve in the uniform of this nation that they take “an oath to uphold the Constitution and everything for which it stands.”

    Finally, by the end of the day on Wednesday, we were all reading the statement from President Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis, USMC. He began by heralding the “tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values. . . as people and . . . as a nation.”  He referred to the oath he took to the U.S. Constitution 50 years ago and admitted that “never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens. . . .”  Like others, he repudiated Secretary Esper’s characterization of America’s cities as “battle space” to be dominated.

    Taken together, these statements are a stunning rebuke of President Trump and Secretary Esper from a collection of retired civilian and uniformed military leaders.  With one voice, they warn about the dangers of thinking of American citizens as insurgents to be suppressed and American cities as “battle space.”  They remind all of us that we are citizens of a republic who owe our loyalty to our Constitution and the values it enshrines, not to any individual politician.

    As inspired and as hopeful as I am that these men, who all committed their lives to service of the United States, spoke out, I am alarmed that they felt compelled to do so in such rapid succession, one after the other.  That is the crisis playing out in these passages. Seasoned American leaders who have been entrusted with the gravest of responsibilities, recognize the peril to our Constitutional form of government and to our republic—not from protesters in the streets, but from the ill-informed, ill-advised, and ill-tempered man in the White House.

  • 781 Per Day

    Grieving is a highly personal experience.  When I worked in the U.S. Senate at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had the solemn privilege of attending several funerals for fallen American service members at Arlington National Cemetery.  For all of the precision and uniformity of a military ceremony, each funeral, each graveside service, was different—reflecting the wishes of family or the fallen heroes themselves.  The one constant was that each was unbearably sad.

    In the eight years of the Iraq War (2003-2011), the United States lost 4,497 service members.  That’s about 2 deaths per day in that war alone.  In World War II, an average of 297 Americans died on each day of the war.  In America’s most deadly war, our Civil War, the rate of death for Americans on both sides of the battle was about 520 deaths per day.  But in the 128 days since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States (January 21, 2020), more than 100,000 Americans have died—that’s an average of 781 deaths each day for more than 4 months. 

    In today’s media environment, we can stare at a fixed point with surgical precision 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  Reporters will camp outside a Congressional witness’ home for days or even weeks to grab footage of the person in the limelight.  Media can bring us together to grieve for one person with reverence and poignancy, peeling back the layers of meaning in an individual’s life.  And media can help us grieve in mass casualty events—such as after Sandy Hook or Charleston or even 9/11.

    But today’s media—both broadcast and print—is ill equipped to report on the 781 lives lost each day over the last four months.  Even before local newsrooms started hemorrhaging jobs and reporters, the sheer volume of death makes that kind of hyper-local reporting impossible to do on a national scale.  There just aren’t enough reporters or column-inches.  As a result, there is no single repository of memories of those lost to COVID-19.  There is no “Faces of the Fallen” for people struck down by this virus.  There is no opportunity for us to grieve and remember, collectively, our fellow-citizens.  There are, instead, the most impersonal statistics about infections and deaths all expressed in line graphs.

    It’s here that leadership matters.

    In this moment, we need leaders who will lead: in our mourning; in our grieving; and ultimately, in our healing.  Leaders shouldn’t be so afraid of the virus that they ignore or gloss over the frightful human toll it has taken on on our country, on 100,000 families, on thousands of communities.  We need leaders to help us find meaning in all of this loss, to buoy our resolve for the difficult challenges that still lie ahead.  We need leaders to tell families and friends of all those who have died that this great nation mourns with you.

    At some point, we will have a conversation about the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. We’ll debate whether their actions were sufficient.  We’ll argue over whether there was more that could have been done—that should have been done. 

    But for now, I’d be content for a leader to emerge who understands that in this moment we need someone who will walk with us through the challenges of life.  Who willingly leaps into the trenches with us when the fighting is dirty and the loss weighs heavy on our souls. 

    The most searing memory I have of the funerals I attended at Arlington was for a soldier whose wife found in his death more pain than she could bear.  I recall her standing in the sunlight that day, her shoulders heaving with each sob, and hoping she knew that she wasn’t alone in her grief.  Assembled on the grass in section 60 of the cemetery that day were two U.S. Senators, several generals, chaplains, honor guards, family members, friends, and others.  We did not all know her or her husband, but we were all there to show our respect and to offer comfort, even if it was with nothing more than our presence.

    With a virus that makes in-person, collective mourning impossible, now more than ever we need leaders who can bring us together to mourn as a nation; to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, as one people; to remind us that love is real; and that, yes, we will get through this together.

  • We Will Never Surrender

    On Monday afternoon, the stock market responded to news that an experimental vaccine had successfully produced an antibody response in the first six individuals to receive it as part of a phase 1 clinical trial.  One day later, the market dropped precipitously in its closing moments on news that it was too early for this particular vaccine candidate to be declared successful.  It was a whip-saw reaction that feels particularly apt in this moment.  We’re all so eager to get back to normal that we leap at unvetted news from a corporation about a product it’s developing with the determination of a drowning person reaching for a life-saver.

    I get it.  We all want this thing to be over.  We want our lives back.  We want our jobs back.  We want to see our friends and our families.  We want the virus to just disappear.

    But as my sister likes to say, “Wanting ain’t getting.”  And hope is not a strategy.

    The closest historical analogy I’ve been able to come up with is “war weariness.”  There are countless examples throughout history when a people grew tired of the sacrifice and the hardships of continued combat.  It’s a problem for any society engaged in war, no matter how they are governed, but it’s especially dangerous in democracies where public support is essential to the legitimacy and ultimately the success of the war effort.  Once people no longer support a war, a democracy won’t long be able to fight that war. 

    That was the moment facing the British Empire eighty years ago this month, in May of 1940, after the British Army had to be evacuated from Dunkirk.  Having suffered a great defeat on the continent, British politics split between those who favored accommodation with Germany and those around Winston Churchill who believed they should fight. 

    Despite the recent Hollywood portrayal of Churchill taking inspiration from the tenacity of the British people, make no mistake it was Churchill’s leadership that steeled British resolve and steadied a nervous nation.  It was Churchill’s bombast and bravado, his precise understanding of what was at stake, and his ability to communicate determination and to find martial valor in unqualified disaster that sustained the British war effort through the war’s darkest hours.

    That is what great leaders do.  They don’t simply win elections.  They stand for things greater than themselves, greater than any one of us.  They call us together.  They inspire our confidence, and they make us believe that we can prevail in the face of great peril even at the expense of great sacrifice.

    Today we face an adversary in the form of COVID-19, and after three months, we are all tired of living this way.  We would rather go out without face masks.  We would rather be able to hug our parents or grab a beer with our friends.  We want to be able to dine in restaurants, get our hair cut, and just get back to normal.

    That spirit, that sentiment is as old as humanity and it manifests itself anytime we face grave dangers like war and disease. 

    But history teaches us that we don’t always pick the timing of our wars, and we don’t ever pick the timing of pandemics—not when they start, and certainly not when they will end. 

    And if our fight, in this moment, lacks a Churchill to guide us through dark days or replace our war weariness with resolve, then we can write our own history in the countless acts of individual Americans led by science and compassion to wear masks, to social distance, and to look out for the most vulnerable among us.

  • Living with Neurological Disease with Lisa Genova

    Rebroadcast Dates: May 18-24, 2020

    Air Dates: July 8-14, 2019

    An estimated 5.6 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s today. Another 100,000 are living with ALS—or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lisa Genova is a brain scientist whose best-selling novels describe not what it’s like to die from these diseases, but what it means to live with them. 

    Dr. Genova is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who broke into the public’s consciousness with her novel, Still Alice. Likened to Oliver Sacks and Michael Crichton, her fiction combines her mastery of brain science and her insights into the human condition. Her other novels include Left Neglected, Love Anthony, Inside the O’Briens, and, most recently, Every Note Played.

    In 2015, the Pell Center honored Genova with the Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square. She’s a scientist and a story-teller who sees the power of storytelling to harness empathy that can change the world.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • As Much as We Want it to Be, The Pandemic Isn’t Over

    Everyone wants the pandemic to be over.  I feel it in my own life.  Tempers are frayed.  More than anything, I think we need a chance to blow off some steam.

    When I lived in Washington, DC, I had a tight group of friends.  We had our haunts—places that we would go back to again and again.  One of those places was Ireland’s Four Provinces—or “4Ps,” as everyone called it, up on Connecticut Avenue.  I had a dear friend who lived in that neighborhood and we would walk up there for beers or live music.  Over the years, we came to love—it’s not too strong a word—the Sean Fleming Band—three guys and their guitars who would lead the bar in every song you knew—and if you didn’t know a song, you faked it and you’d know it next month when the band came back around.  They played everything from IRA ballads—it was an Irish bar—to a mash-up of popular hits, to Shel Silverstein’s “Unicorn Song.”  There was frequent step-dancing in the aisles and often people would wind up on stage singing with the band.  The beer would flow and the laughs were easy on those nights.

    After my old boss John Kerry lost in 2004, I was pretty depressed for the rest of November and most of December.  Then my friends dragged me up to see Sean Fleming at the 4Ps.  I sat there nursing a beer, trying my best not to be a downer, but I’m sure I wasn’t very convincing.  Then somewhere in the second set a woman sitting at the table behind me hopped up and began doing an interpretive dance on her chair to the band’s rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”  When I turned to see what was going on behind me, I laughed for the first time in months, the pallor lifted, I breathed easy, and I found myself back among the living.

    I’d love to have a night like that tonight.

    But where I live, the virus is still near its peak.  In a city of about 50,000, we’re still seeing dozens of new cases every day.  More than 1000 residents have been infected and 36 have died.  Nationally, the numbers seem to be growing.  Where a few weeks ago we were talking about 40,000 or 50,000 dead, we’re now past 70,000 and the White House’s Coronavirus advisor Dr. Birx said over the weekend that the internal numbers at the White House have consistently projected a range of between 100,000 to 240,000 killed by the virus in the United States.

    So it shocked me earlier this week to hear that the White House was considering wrapping up the Coronavirus task-force.  When the White House announced the formation of the group on January 29, 2020, the press secretary said in a statement the task force would “monitor, contain, and mitigate the spread of the virus.” Yet at every turn, the U.S. response has faltered.  Because our testing was so poorly organized, we never had enough testing available—and we still don’t—to do the kind of disease surveillance that has worked in other countries.  Because we were unaware of the spread of the virus in vast communities, we were not able to contain it.  And while thousands of front-line healthcare workers have done everything in their power to mitigate the impact of this virus, governors and public health officials have had to go to extraordinary lengths to get the resources they need to protect those doctors and nurses and techs on the frontlines.

    I’m left to conclude that President Trump wants a political win in November more than he wants to defeat this virus and that the only way he can achieve that is to declare victory and come home.  We’ve seen some of this already in his Fox News townhall from the Lincoln Memorial, in his remarks from the briefing room podium every day, and in his interview with ABC News earlier this week.  In Vietnam, some talked about securing “a decent interval” after which the United States could withdraw.  But we can’t withdraw from this virus—as much as we want to—so governors are telling their states to learn how to operate with coronavirus in their midst, at least until we have a safe and effective vaccine.

    But the great arbiter of truth in this campaign may turn out to be a single strand of RNA—the coronavirus itself.  The White House’s own internal numbers predict that 3,000 Americans will be dying each day by about June 1.  That’s a loss of life equivalent to one 9/11 each day.  This isn’t a time to be wrapping up the work of the coronavirus task force: it’s a time to double down.

    I’ve already told myself that when the bars are open and the music is playing again, I’m going to track down the Sean Fleming Band—the 4Ps closed years ago—and see them again.  Just imagining that night makes me smile.  Until then, we all have to live in the real world, listen to the science, and not let our desire for normalcy and carefree days—whether we are private citizens or candidates for president—prolong the pandemic.


  • Globalization: Not Dead Yet

    Every fall I teach a course on the history of globalization.  It is the highlight of my year and it gives me a seemingly endless supply of grist for understanding.  So when I read an article from The Los Angeles Times that claimed the Coronavirus may threaten globalization, it set my wheels turning because it speaks to a popular misunderstanding of what globalization actually is.

    More than a century before Christ, Rome and Han China were the two wealthiest empires of the ancient world—and the most commercially active.  Not surprisingly, there is substantial evidence of that their merchants traded with one another.  Along the old Silk Road, merchants from the West brought glassware, statuettes, and slaves trained as jugglers and acrobats which they traded for silk, exotic fruits, rare birds, ostrich eggs, gem stones, gold, silver, spices and perfumes from China. 

    This trade continued for centuries.  So when Marco Polo left Venice in 1271 with his uncle and father to try to reach China, they knew there was money to be made—lots of money.  At the time, Europe was an economic backwater.  The bulk of the world’s wealth existed in Asia.  When you read The Travels of Marco Polo—the book he published upon his return to Venice, it’s not just a travelogue.  It’s like the old J.C. Penny catalogue—an accounting of all the things you can trade between Venice and China. 

    Within several decades, the bubonic plague cut-short the enthusiasm for trade with China that Marco Polo inspired with his stories of great wealth.  When the plague arrived in the middle of the 14th century, it is estimated to have killed up to one-third of the population in both Europe and Asia—that’s as many as 120 million lives in Asia, alone.  Mass death shook the existing world order.  Death was everywhere, then famine.  Weak governments collapsed.  Trade shrank considerably.  The pursuit of wealth from distant trade would have to wait.

    It took decades, but eventually trade along the old Silk Road resumed.  But when it did, the Chinese were no longer interested in European pottery.  They would only trade for gold and silver.  By the end of the 15th century, changes in ship design (we could sail INTO the wind) and the advent of navigational instruments made trade by ship with Asia viable.  That set off a scramble to find a shorter route to China as well as the gold and silver demanded by the Chinese in order to trade with them.

    When Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, it was the culmination of an impulse to trade—to seek the most efficient route of getting to China.  But as the enormity of the discovery of the New World came into focus, European conquerors soon began the largest transfer of wealth in human history.  In the 50 years after Columbus’ arrival in Hispaniola, European powers shipped more gold and silver from the Americas to Europe than had existed in all of Europe previously.  And with that, the wealth of the world shifted west—a progression that marched onward until the 1990s, when it began moving back towards China.

    I have no doubt that there will be changes and disruptions to the way we trade and the frequency with which we travel—at least temporarily—as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Global supply chains are already stressed and there is logical concern over reliance on foreign manufacturers for critical supplies like personal protective equipment.  But if this brief history teaches us anything, it’s that the impulse to trade with others is a characteristic of humanity.  Even in the face of the bubonic plague, which was orders-of magnitude worse than Coronavirus, people still dreamed of riches to be made from trading over vast distances.  Pandemic might disrupt the particular mechanisms of trade, but it won’t disrupt the impulse to trade.

    Globalization is a process by which the experience of everyday life—marked by the spread of goods and ideas—becomes standardized around the world.  It may change in the details, but globalization is here to stay.

  • Russian Disinformation in the Age of Coronavirus

    Just because there’s a global pandemic doesn’t mean that the great game of international politics takes a break.  In fact, just like the rest of society, international powers are adapting to—and in some cases exploiting—the Coronavirus.  The two most aggressive players are Russia and China, and while they have different international objectives, they are both aggressively pursuing their goals. 

    In Russia’s case, the government of President Vladimir Putin continues to use disinformation to create a wedge between members of NATO, the EU, and in America’s trans-Atlantic relationships.  His ultimate goal is to weaken organizations that exclude Russia, and undermine the political cohesion of Russia’s Western rivals in order to achieve a freer hand at home and internationally. 

    This last point is important: a lot of Russia’s online influence campaigns have played both sides of issues in the United States, whether its immigration, gay-rights, or vaccines.  Russian leaders don’t care if Americans chose any particular policy outcome; they want to watch us tear ourselves apart.  They are chaos agents, seeking to undermine America’s political cohesion by amplifying divisive messages.  They did this in social media posts celebrating parents who “crossed a border” so their children could “cross a stage”—meaning graduate from an American high school.  To some, such posts look like a welcome pro-immigration post.  To many others, it looks like a celebration of law-breaking.  That dichotomy, that cognitive dissonance, that binary choice is exactly what the Russians seek to exploit and even amplify.  They did so during the Ebola crisis, they continue to do so around vaccines.  They will certainly do so in the midst of this pandemic.

    Russia also uses the fear associated with new diseases to attack the goodness of the United States.  Consider the case of HIV/AIDS.  In 1983, three Soviet intelligence officers placed a story in a small, English language newspaper in India alleging that the virus that causes AIDS was engineered in the United States to target blacks and the homosexual community.  This was an analog era.  A story placed anywhere would take time before it went global.  By 1987, however, the story had been published in 80 countries and in 30 languages with real consequences for U.S. policy, especially when the country moved to try to stem the spread of the virus in sub-Saharan Africa.  But that lie also made it into American minds, too.  A study from the University of Oregon found that as late as 2005, 20% of African-Americans believed HIV was created in a government lab.

    Russian disinformation around the H1N1 flu—the so-called “Swine Flu” in 2009 and Ebola in 2013-2014 also alleged the viruses in those outbreaks originated in U.S. government labs. 

    Finally, we need to remember that the Coronavirus is taking place in an election year.  In October of 2019—long before any of us were talking about quarantines and novel viruses, the FBI and DHS warned that Russian influence campaigns in 2020 would be focused on voter-suppression—similar to some of their tactics in 2016.  It’s not hard to imagine a fall disinformation campaign intended to target certain groups of Americans to keep them from voting in key districts or states.  We may have seen a fore-taste of that already.  On March 15, 2020—just a month ago, rumors began swirling about a nation-wide lockdown soon to be announced by the president.  The rumors were groundless, but they inspired the National Security Council to put out a Tweet that night forcefully denying the rumor.  What was insidious about this was that the rumor wasn’t just spread on social media platforms, but also via text messages on our phones.  We’ve seen similar disinformation campaigns on so-called peer-to-peer platforms in other parts of the world, but not in the United States. 

    Disinformation spreads the same way a virus spreads—from person to person, contact to contact, social-media-account to social-media-account, hence the phrase “going viral.”  All of us can help control the spread of disinformation by being discerning users of social media.  Don’t retweet, share, or send anything that seems sensational; that isn’t from a credible source; or that seems like a massive scoop from some no-name-outlet. 

    We’ve heard a lot of late that our individual and collective behavior is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19.  The same is true of disinformation.