Politics, Pandemics and Trumpism

Since early March 2020, the US election process has taken a backseat to the COVID-19 pandemonium and panic. My day job gave me a unique perspective on the reaction to this situation. I work in a public library, one of the few places in the US where people of every class, skin tone and origin gather. We don’t sell toilet paper but people do try to steal it from the restrooms. This panic is different from those brought on by human actors—war and terror, economic crashes, etc. The only human actors that one might try to blame are just as susceptible to the disease as the rest of us. This means the xenophobic bluster of a Donald Trump is seen as the ignorance it is by those who are not as ignorant as his bluster.

In typical “free market” fashion, Trump told us that he was working with the private sector to solve the problem. While this might be somewhat comprehensible in terms of speedy distribution, given the already existing infrastructure of corporations like Google and Walgreens, it turns out that this is not even true. Meanwhile, many residents act as if the apocalypse is upon us as they ravage grocery stores, hoarding everything from beans to the aforementioned toilet paper. The selfish American is represented by the nation’s president and his supporters, throwing common sense that demands solidarity and helpfulness into the dump.

The Democrats held primaries again on March 17th, knowing full well that turnout would be way down. This worked to the advantage of the party’s right wing, all but ensuring the selection of a candidate known for his insubstantial presence and willingness to kiss corporate butt. Barring a nominee’s death or something yet unseen in US national history– like a suspension of the election– the second Tuesday of November will be a contest between a lying fascist and a liar. Like the song says, “either way you look at it you lose.”.

The Left should end its fantasy that the electoral process in almost any capitalist country is going to put them in power at capitalism’s highest levels. Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign has regretfully proven this not once, but twice. I don’t believe he is intentionally leading people astray by running for president. I just think his particular politics allow him to believe he can win in a system setup with the intent to make sure left-leaning candidates will not win. After voting for him in the Vermont primary and donating a couple hours’ worth of pay to his campaign, I return to the position that the Left should stop organizing political campaigns and start organizing people to get into the streets and demand change. Social movements that demand reforms designed to upend the greed and misanthropy that are part and parcel of the capitalist system have as much if not more likelihood of creating long term and genuine social change than all the bourgeois elections in the world. This is the truth history teaches us.

The primary beneficiary as far as the state is concerned in this pandemic will be the police apparatus. It is testing its contingencies across the land and will use what they are learning to their advantage in the future. Just like they use every other crisis. While observing the debates over how best to deal with the economic crash precipitated by this pandemic, one thing is apparent. The financialization of capital is going to kill a fair number of us. If not now, then later. Not surprisingly, this is accepted as the cost of living in the USA. No one believes Wall Street and the banks should fail. In fact, most politicians are willing to sacrifice their constituents to make certain those institutions continue their criminal existence. As if there was not enough evidence from the past to prove my point, the Friday morning’s Washington Post (3/20/20) had a story detailing some of the squabbling over the plan to give every US citizen a check in April. According to the story, there are those who oppose the idea on philosophical grounds, while others want the checks for the poorest Americans to be considerably less than the checks for everyone else. These proposals are from members of the Republican Party. In other words, those who hate the poor. However, other GOP members support the idea of the check for all and oppose giving poorer citizens less. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, there are members who don’t want to provide checks but do want to expand unemployment insurance to many more than are eligible under the old rules. No matter what, the fact that there are relatively rich men and women acting like Ebenezer Scrooge before his nightmares proves the essence of a legislature in a land where profit is king. Some of these bums were too busy selling off stock while they told their constituents not to worry. Now they want to cut corporate taxes even more. As for the Defense Production Act that Trump invoked, it may help provide the necessary supplies if enacted, but only at a profit to the corporations enlisted. Trump and his backers have no intention of nationalizing factories to provide what the doctors and nurses need. A more likely outcome will be the transfer of public wealth to Wall Street and the banks while shoddy products are provided to hospitals across the land.

How long before the sans culottes among us undertake our historical task?

My part-time day job has me working from home now. So far, the payroll office intends on paying me and everyone else who works for my employer, the city of Burlington VT. Thousands of others are not as fortunate. In fact, at this writing, most restaurant workers, many retail workers, stagehands, and a lot of others find themselves unemployed without warning. In addition, many artists, musicians, gig workers, independent contractors and other self employed find themselves in a similar situation. The obvious answer is to give all of these people unemployment insurance at full pay. Indeed, this should be the minimum guarantee from a government whose sympathies rarely lie with the working class.

If there was ever a time to think beyond electoral politics and asking those elected for a share of the money they control, this is that time. Here in Vermont, the Labor Council has been circulating a letter that demands the unemployment insurance noted above along with free medical care include testing and treatment for the covid 19 virus, a special paid sick leave, meals for children, and a guarantee that democratic and civil liberties and rights will not be suspended. In addition, the letter restates its demand for single payer universal health care, paid sick and family leave for all workers, and free public childcare for all working parents.

This letter is a good start to a movement that needs to be national in scope and inclusive of all working people in the US, no matter what their race, gender, immigration status, sexuality, national origin, age or religious beliefs. There are obviously some politicians on every level of government who support these demands. We should welcome their support but remember every moment that it is our movement for them to join, not the other way around.

Other populations at risk must also be protected and their chance of infection reduced. Foremost among these groups are those detained in immigration camps and prisoners. All those immigrants held just because they don’t have papers should be released and provided shelter and an income. Nonviolent prisoners should also be released. The homeless should be provided shelter, medical care and food, at the least. The money can be taken from that which Wall Street thinks is theirs.

On another topic that has nothing to do with money, my daughter was talking about the challenges of relationships in a time when one isn’t supposed to have physical contact if they can help it. Love in the Time of COVID was how she phrased it. Ashes to ashes we all fall down. One story has that children’s game originating around the time of the Black Death in Europe. In the game children form a circle holding hands and go around in a circle chanting “ashes ashes we all fall down.” Then one of the children falls, taking the rest with him. Likewise, there’s the danse macabre, a tradition that also stems from the Black Death. Besides being a musical piece about the universality of death by Camille Saint-Saens, it is also an archetypal image of skeletons dancing and leading the living to their graves and whatever lies beyond this life. Its essential message is that death is for everyone: king and serf, presidential advisor and prisoner, priest and parishioner, superstar athlete and football fan. The rich and powerful can prioritize their health and well-being over the health of everyone else, but in the Time of COVID, that may not be enough. No matter what kind of dance they do.

As I look this over before I send it off, a text message from a local media organ appeared on my phone, telling its audience that the number of cases doubled overnight in Vermont. My sibling who lives in Italy—where 800 people died during that same period—wrote that she cannot leave her house except to go to a grocer’s or walk her dog. If she is just walking her dog, she must stay within a 200 meter perimeter of her dwelling. Meanwhile, mindless Oregonians and vacationers in Florida are flocking to the beaches, unconcerned about their health or anyone else’s. Whatever their chances of contracting the disease were before, it seems reasonable to assume those chances just increased. Trump’s denunciations of the stay-at-home orders encourage this behavior. Of course, with some of the best doctors in the world available to him, his concerns are considerably different than most of us. Speaking of which, I wonder how my homeless acquaintances are doing.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com