a blog, newsletter, and kaleidoscope notebook about politics, the media, and culture
by tom bunting, a Real Journalist

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So What Else Has Been Going On?

March 31, 2020 12:35 PM
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So What Else Has Been Going On?

The last time I wrote on Video Loss was the night of the South Carolina primaries. This is not a unique observation, but I cannot get over how different things were just three-ish weeks ago.

The Democratic Party seemed posed to give their nomination to an avowed socialist, with all the political and media reverberations that inevitability entailed; Joe Biden’s zombie campaign was shot with a burst of adrenaline, but it seemed too late and too little; and whoever emerged victorious from that fight seemed to have a tough battle ahead against an incumbent President presiding over an unequal yet superficially healthy economy. Most importantly, though, the novel coronavirus was still a specter haunting the newspaper international pages, the kind of looming threat Americans are so good at avoiding, either because they are comfortable enough to do so or busy enough to not to have the time to stress over distant mummers. Stories of lockdown in China were surprising; I think a lot of people lived in some kind of half-thinking belief that this wouldn’t come to us.

Now, just three weeks later, we live in very different circumstances. CONVID-19 is indisputably here; our urban areas are lined with shops and restaurants boarded with wood planks, with owners and workers unsure when (if?) they’ll reopen. Unemployment is spiking too fast to measure. Instead, we rely on scattered stories both in our networks and in the media. States are reporting record utilization of unemployment benefits, I know a bunch of people now out of work. It’s just enough information to panic and yet not enough to truly understand the economic scale of what’s happening.

Our fractured and deeply stupid medical system seem to be straining under the weight of illness yet haven’t crossed the line of complete implosion. But underprotected doctors and nurses are bearing the brunt of this crisis’ damage. For many Americans, the disease is already here, in our families or in ourselves or otherwise in our communities. For some, it’s horrible and deadly, for others, it’s just a bad cold. The rest of us in a weird limbo where things seem quite bad but will probably get much worse. Nothing is certain.

The speed of the breakdown has been stupefying. I drove to Las Vegas last week, to pack up the corporate housing my partner and I were living in until she got sent home. On the way down, driving though the hills of I-15, everything felt strikingly normal, except for the highway signs warning people to stay inside. I would mask up and sanitize at truck stops, as families walked past and looked at me like I was some kinda weirdo. I got to Vegas at 1am that night; the highway that runs adjacent to the strip was packed with Saturday night traffic, the billboards advertising events that I would’ve assumed were already cancelled. When we left the city two days later, the casinos were closing, everyone we saw at rest stops wore masks and kept their distance. The road was empty except for trucks and the sky was overcast and dark and I couldn’t get over how much it felt like things were changing forever.

President Trump has breezed through three years mostly free of any major domestic crisis. In his first disaster—probably the worst in a generation—he has failed precidably and spectacularly. You already know how: first he downplayed the threat the disease posed, then he dragged his feet on widespread testing, leaving most of the actual action to state and local governments. They have diligently attempted to assemble a patchwork crisis response with varying degrees of success. Yet much of the actual work has fallen on people who don’t deserve the responsibility. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Amazon staffers, grocery store employees, sanitation workers, and delivery drivers that we’ve deputized as hazard workers have done more to protect us than the President. We still are waiting to learn the full extent of Trump’s failure to act: cases are spiking exponentially across the nation each day, as we look on hopelessly, awaiting the promised flattening curve and reading dire stories about the situation in Italy and Spain.

Meanwhile, quietly, the Democratic primary is grinding towards a dismal end. Joe Biden ended up riding momentum out of South Carolina into an unprecedented consolidation of support on the eve of Super Tuesday. Pete Buttigeg, Amy Klobachar, and Beto O’Rourke all lined up behind Biden on a TV-ready super rally in Texas. We still don’t have a full picture of how this happened; reportedly Pete and Obama had a phone call in which the former President emphasized Pete’s current “leverage” to control the race. If it was anything like the internal deliberations between the Biden camp and Andrew Yang, cabinet positions were offered. The result was a stunning Super Tuesday upset, one where Biden obliterated Sanders in the South and fought him to an unexpected draw in the East. The 77-year old Vice President has continued the curb-stomping in the contests since and now leads Sanders by a near-insurmountable 300 delegates.

There’s a brain-warping cynicism to the entire “Joementum” project. The Obama-Democrat professional class and voter base spent an entire year doubting Biden’s ability to compete in a general election. Watching them suddenly unify behind him is jarring to someone who’s been paying attention long enough to remember Pete Buttigieg “winning” Iowa. Of course, most voters don’t pay attention, and that’s the entire point of the We Like Joe Now strategy: poll after poll shows that Democratic voters prize an ability to defeat Trump above all else. If there’s a manufactured consensus that Joe’s the best shot, that’s the ballgame. And now we have a nominee that exit polls consistently show is out of lockstep with the average Democratic voter.

It bears stating plainly: Joe Biden is a bad candidate and uniquely unsuited for this moment. The Obama administration did a good job with the Ebola outbreak in 2014; this is not Ebola. The emerging stimulus battle only underlines how much of a failure the bailout in 2009 was. All of the disfunction and cruelty of our healthcare, economic, welfare, and labor systems have been laid bare; as thousands of Americans risk infection daily to provide bare nessecities and thousands more are crowded in prisons anxious awaiting the inevitable outbreak. Most of these untenable structures can be directly traced to Joe Biden.

For all of Biden’s talk of the importance of leadership and taking the fight to Trump, he’s done neither in this unprecedented crisis. Since last Tuesday’s primary wins, Biden disappeared from public view, emerging briefly to call some reporters. Yes, he’s following the rules of social distancing, but a frontrunner campaign should be able to get a livestream setup. Biden’s team spent the weekend installing cameras in the candidate’s rec-room, the culmination of which was an awkward speech Monday morning, where Biden slurred through a condemnation of Trump in front of a podium and a green-screened bookshelf. It was bizarre, unsuited for the moment, and ultimately an afterthought in another grim media cycle.

Trying to parse what Biden has said outlines just how futile his attempts at leadership have been. The “BIDEN PLAN TO COMBAT CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) AND PREPARE FOR FUTURE GLOBAL HEALTH THREATS” includes a number of smart responses, sensible policies, and coherent federal-state organizing. Yet none of it is really actionable because Biden has no power, probably won’t have power during the worst of this crisis, and isn’t out in public enough to sell any of his ideas. This is true of a lot of coronavirus relief policy, but the whole plan also just has a “through the looking glass” feel to it. Biden says that coronavirus patients shouldn’t have to pay for their own treatment, which is fair because it’s not like they choose to have coronavirus.

But...uh...why should cancer patients pay for their treatment? Why should diabetics die over an inability to pay for insulin? There’s an incoherence to the morality of moderate policy making, and it really comes out when they are backed into a corner.

In other words, this should be Bernie Sanders’ moment. Yet the once soaring Senator has nosedived in the last few weeks. The question of whether the Sanders campaign is even mathematically viable hangs over everything Bernie does, and he’s done a lot recently. He’s been putting out detailed plans on combatting coronavirus, using his unmatched digital team to produce online rallies and speeches, hosting fireside chats, introducing legislation to give every American $2,000 a month for the duration of the crisis, and actively and coherently assailing Trump’s response. But none of this really matters because, of course, Sanders is impossibly behind in the race. He’d need to win by massive margins in the remaining states, and who even knows when those elections will be held.

Where does this leave us? I’ve been confined to a house for just over a week now. I’m lucky to be comfortable and with family, but I’m starting to get stir crazy, especially when I think about how long this will still go on.

It seems like everyone is feeling this kind of cabin fever, or at least all the people with the pliverage of feeling cabin fever are. As the economic fallout eclipses description, the newest hairbrained scheme from Planet Trump is the partial restart of the economy, i.e. forcing people back to work and hoping they don’t get sick. It’s a plan based on no understanding of science or economics, but that’s where we are. Meanwhile, a massive stimulus bill is blowing through Congress with dizzying speed, chock full of corporate giveaways and goodies buried in its interminable thousand words of legalise. Everyone has a fever now, even if you don’t really yet, and they’re starting to get a little delirious.

When will this end? Probably not for months, although I suspect the ramifications both economically and socially will be felt for years, a generation-defining event on par with a world war. This is a pause in normal life completely unprecedented in modern American society. The scale of death that will follow in the weeks and months to come will be a national tragedy without any comparison. Everyone will know someone fucked over by the recession born out of CONVID. Everyone will know someone who dies from CONVID.

As for Video Loss, I truly don’t know. I am sequestered at home for the time being. Writing this unleashed most of the bent up demons from the last three weeks. I hope that I can continue writing and chronicling this bizarre moment in the days and weeks that follow.

What else is there to do?