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Governance as Moral And Ethical Bankruptcy

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The Oxford Dictionary defines morality as “the doctrine or branch of knowledge that deals with right and wrong conduct and with duty and responsibility.”[1] The editors of that volume define ethics as “the branch of knowledge that deals with the principles of human duty or the logic of moral discourse.”[2] I have found myself musing on these twin concerns as President Donald Trump and other major Republican leaders have pressed to reopen the economy, even as the current pandemic claims 3,000 American lives per day and shows no sign of slackening in its deadly course. The United States has now lost more individuals to the COVID-19 virus than any other nation. Most health experts tracking the contagion expect it to result in more than 100,000 deaths by June 1.[3] Nevertheless, President Trump is calling on Americans and their governors to reopen their states to “get the economy moving again.” As he put it in a video released as an attempted rallying cry:

This is a big moment in our history because we are opening up our country again. People are coming out, they are starting to go around and see what's happening, they have been short of shut down as the expression goes but we are opening up our country. People want our country to open up.[4]

Public opinion polls do not support Trump’s claim concerning what “people want.”[5] In addition, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania recently released a simulation that suggested that immediate and complete reopening of businesses and ceasing social distance measures would cause, in roughly two months, 1,000,000 deaths by June 30, almost equal to the number of U.S. soldiers who died in all of the wars in our nation’s history (1,264,000).[6]

The President nonetheless argued during a television interview this past week that his call to reopen the economy—accompanied with some measure of social distancing and a recommendation that people wear face masks—was appropriate, despite the fact that it contradicted the advice of the nation’s leading epidemiologists. He contended that the benefits of his proposed action outweighed its costs:

It’s possible there will be some [deaths] because you won’t be locked into an apartment or house or whatever it is. But at the same time, we’re going to practice social distancing, we’re going to be washing hands, we’re going to be doing a lot of the things that we’ve learned to do over the last period of time. There’ll be more death, that the virus will pass, with or without a vaccine. And I think we’re doing very well on the vaccines but, with or without a vaccine, it’s going to pass, and we’re going to be back to normal.[7]

I should note that there is NO evidence the virus will go away on its own and most experts agree the chances of it spiking once more in the fall and winter are very high, especially if Americans return to work “as usual” in vast numbers, as Trump is demanding. The President’s calculus and that of many members of the Republican Party, however, seems not to have anything to do with the welfare of the broader body politic. Instead, Trump and his Party now openly argue that bringing the economy back is worth sacrificing thousands of United States citizens. In his effort to make this case, the President recently likened the nation’s citizens to soldiers and suggested that the mounting death toll likely to be associated with reopening was acceptable:

The people of our country are warriors. I’m not saying anything is perfect. Yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country opened and we have to get it open soon.[8]

President Trump’s 2016 transition team director, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, was less vague than Trump in arguing the Republican Party line that a very high level of death should be acceptable. His remarks were bone-chilling in their coldness and in their obvious obfuscation. When asked what his messaging would be to the American public if he sat in the Oval Office, he recently observed:

The message is that the American people have gone through significant death before. [He pointed to the first and second World Wars as examples of how] "we've gone through it in World War I, we’ve through it in World War II and we've survived it. We sacrificed those lives. We sent our young men during World War II over to Europe, or to the Pacific, knowing, knowing, that many of them would not come alive and we decided to make that sacrifice because what we were standing up for was the American way of life. In the very same way now, we have to stand up for the American way of life.[9]

This claim is astonishing in its dark cupidity and malevolence. Americans died in the two world wars to maintain the possibility of freedom and of a democratic way of life. Those the nation lost in those conflicts were not “sacrificed” so people could go about their daily lives without regard to the implications of their actions for the life or death of tens of thousands of their fellow citizens. More, no one is now attacking the United States militarily or depriving millions of their freedom, or killing as many in death camps.  In fact, what Christie argued in this false analogy is that capitalist consumption is more important than Americans’ lives. Both he and Trump have made the present calamity into a dichotomous choice and glibly told citizens to accept the deaths of many of their own in the name of the economy as their “way of life.”

Yet, capitalism is not the American way of life: Freedom and self-governance are. This very public and considered perversion of that fact is insulting and alarming. The nation does not need to sacrifice a share of its population to address the present health emergency. What it requires instead is a concerted common effort to address the pandemic on behalf of all and for all of its residents. The differences between Christie and Trump’s horrific vision of the nation as revealed in this stance and the country’s Constitution and Declaration of Independence are stark.

Overall, Trump and his Party appear to have turned to this grotesquerie for four principal reasons. First and foremost, the President believes that his reelection may hinge on an improved economy and we are now only six months from the general election. Second, this strategy is designed to change the public narrative from the manifest corruption and incompetence of the Administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, which was characterized for far too long by efforts to blame Democrats, the “lamestream media” and the Chinese for the virus and by arguments it would soon go away on its own. Third, and perhaps most perversely, Trump and Republican leaders seem set on persuading Americans that de facto sentencing thousands to die is necessary in the name of their “freedom,” defined, quite literally, as a license to kill in the name of consumption. Finally, setting policy choices up as a false opposition between public health and the economy protects the ideological foundation of the Party, which cannot admit that any other course is available, although of course many are, as Europe’s governments have shown in recent months.

All of this has created what the Irish scholar Fintan O’Toole, writing recently in The New York Review of Books, has dubbed a “cognitive double bind” for GOP and Trump supporters:

Trump’s wild zigzagging has destroyed, for his followers, the possibility of a single, coherent, rational narrative of the pandemic: it is a dark conspiracy and nothing much to be worried about; it demands wartime restrictions on freedom and such restrictions are totalitarian and un-American; we all have to act but we don’t need to do anything; you should wear a mask but I won’t. He has generated for those who believe in him the cognitive double bind that abusive parents generate for their children when they convey contradictory and irreconcilable messages about how to win their parents’ approval.[10]

This scenario leads Republican Party adherents to search for some way to make sense of this monstrous nonsense. So, as has occurred often historically, Trump supporters have also turned to scapegoats to “explain” the fears and concerns they are confronting. Not coincidentally, the President and the GOP have offered up minorities and immigrants and refugees as takers and culprits for their followers’ perceived woes. To these arguments the Party has lately added the claim that a share of Americans—disproportionately the old, the poor and the chronically ill—must simply be sacrificed to preserve an ostensibly dear “way of life” of unfettered consumption.

By any conception of which I am aware, and quite apart from the fact that they rest on lies, Trump and his party’s claims to sacrifice Americans to commerce are both unethical and immoral. They embrace no virtue, no principle and no regard for the American people as a community, even as they work to polarize that population so poisonously and thoroughly that some among them have apparently come to believe that their country stands not for freedom and human and civil rights, but for the untrammeled pursuit of fleeting preferences, goods and power. There is no duty or principle here, only the naked pursuit and expression of wealth and power, even at the expense of the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. This scenario would be unfathomable, were it not in fact occurring as I write. Smallness and satrapy are now the order of the day among GOP leaders, led by one who envisions himself as an autocrat and demands sycophancy. It remains to be seen how the broader body politic will ultimately react to this ongoing moral and ethical travesty.

Notes

[1] Brown, Lesley. Ed. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “Morality,” London: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 1827

[2] Brown, Lesley. Ed. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “Ethics,” London: Oxford University Press, 1993, p.856.

[3] Baker, Peter, “Trump’s New Coronavirus Message: Time to Move on to the Economic Recovery,” The New York Times, May 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-recovery.html, Accessed May 6, 2020. 

[4] The Economic Times, “US Opening Again, rebuilding the greatest economy: Donald Trump,” May 8, 2020, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/white-house-valet-tests-positive-for-coronavirus-president-trump-retested/videoshow/75614746.cms, Accessed May 8, 2020. 

[5] Baker, Peter, “Trump’s New Coronavirus Message.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-recovery.html, Accessed May 6, 2020. 

[6] The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, “Coronavirus Policy Response Simulator: Health and Economic Effects of State Reopenings,” May 1, 2020, https://budgetmodel.wharton.upenn.edu/issues/2020/5/1/coronavirus-reopening-simulator, Accessed May 6, 2020. 

[7] Wilkie, Christina. “Trump says ‘there’ll be more death’ from coronavirus, but reopening is worth it,” CNBC Politics, May 5, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/05/trump-acknowledges-some-coronavirus-deaths-will-result-from-reopening.html, Accessed May 5, 2020.

[8] Megerian, Chris. “Trump calls Americans ‘warriors’ in fight to open the economy,” The Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-05-06/trump-americans-warriors-fight-to-open-economy,  Accessed May 6, 2020.

[9] Kelly, Caroline. “Chris Christie pushes to reopen country despite dire Covid-19 projections: ‘There are going to be deaths.’” CNN Politics, May 5, 2020, Accessed May 7, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/04/politics/chris-christie-coronavirus-deaths-reopening/index.html.

[10] O’Toole, Fintan. “Vector in Chief,” The New York Review of Books, May 14, 2020, p.22.

Publication Date

May 11, 2020

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