How Covid-19 resurrected Steve Bannon
When Steve Bannon got his White House pink slip in 2017, there seemed to be at least two lessons for anyone who aspires to stay in Trump’s inner circle for long. First, avoid being depicted on Time Magazine’s cover as the “great manipulator”—the true power behind Trump’s throne. Second, avoid being quoted in a bestselling book as calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.”
But, however grave Bannon’s crimes, to write him off back then—to assume he would never again be a significant force within Trumpism—would have been to underestimate his resourcefulness and determination. A pandemic is a time of opportunity as well as tragedy, and Bannon is seizing the moment. And the way he’s seizing it drives home what a pivotal moment it is—how much will hinge on the way voters and politicians respond to the coronavirus contagion.
Bannon, like many nationalists, is highly sensitive to threats from abroad, and he was sounding alarms about Covid-19 before most Americans got the picture. In late January his “War Room: Impeachment” podcast morphed into “War Room: Pandemic.” In March it started getting airtime on WABC, New York’s right-wing talk-radio powerhouse, and it’s also featured on various other talk stations across the country. A video version of the show airs nightly on the Newsmax cable TV network.
Broadcasting from “Fort Defiance” in Washington, Bannon and his crew lay out a vision of how Trump should wage the war against Covid-19 (fiercely), how Trump should talk about the war (clearly and dramatically), and how amenable the post-pandemic landscape can be to the triumph of Trumpism. That triumph, Bannon seems to believe, will be easier if Trump and other prominent Trumpists follow his rhetorical lead. And Bannon’s stream of Trump-friendly guests, from Rudy Giuliani to Nigel Farage, probably increase the chances of that happening.
Meanwhile, Bannon is getting attention beyond his base. He’s the star of the Errol Morris documentary “American Dharma,” released five months ago, and this month he created a stir on Twitter by getting respectful treatment as a guest on the well-known leftish podcast “Red Scare.”
This week President Trump expanded his arsenal for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. He went from a blame-China-not-me strategy to a blame-China-and-the-World-Health-Organization-not-me strategy.
Officials at WHO, Trump said at a press conference, are “very biased toward China”—just look at how, in the early weeks of the outbreak, they “said there’s no big deal, there’s no big problem, there’s nothing.” So Trump will be “looking into” whether to freeze US funding for WHO.
Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida is on board. A week before Trump’s press conference, he called for hearings into WHO’s performance. The World Health Organization, Scott says, “lied to us. It was intentional. People are dying because of it.” So, “as soon as Congress is back in session, there should be a hearing, along with a full investigation, to review whether American taxpayers should continue to spend millions of dollars every year to fund an organization that willfully parroted propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party.”
This is a familiar right-wing move: subject international institutions to scrutiny that, if all goes according to plan, can be used to justify cutting their funding. Then, as the script typically unfolds, global governance fans like me spring to the defense of these institutions.
In this case, though, I’m partly in sync with the right-wing move. I don’t agree with Scott that we should do the investigation ASAP (since at the moment both we and the World Health Organization are kind of, um, busy). And I’m not in favor of cutting WHO funding. I’m also not nearly as sure as Scott that WHO is guilty as charged. But the organization could have performed better in the early stages of the contagion, and there’s at least some reason to suspect that people at WHO consequentially misled us.
Before I get into the consequential misleading, let me lay out a larger reason that I think fellow global governance fans should consider getting on the investigate-WHO bandwagon.
Institutions of international governance, like institutions of national governance, are prone to a particular form of corruption: they’re inclined to serve powerful interests at the expense of their mission.
Apple and Google announced that they’re jointly developing smartphone software that will facilitate “contact tracing”—finding and notifying people who have been near someone who tests positive for Covid-19. Blogger Nicky Case offers a cartoon explanation of how smartphone contact tracing can work without sacrificing privacy—which is the way Google and Apple say their system will work. Russell Brandom of The Verge answers “the 12 biggest questions” about the approach Apple and Google are taking. Efficient contact tracing is considered critical if the US is to emerge from economic lockdown without rapid recurrence of contagion.
The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner reports that, in New York City, the five ZIP codes with the highest rates of positive Covid tests have per capita income of $27,000, while the five zip codes with the lowest rates have per capita income of $118,000. The New York Times displays data from many cities, gathered by tracking the smartphones of high-income and low-income people, to support the thesis that “staying home during coronavirus is a luxury.” In the Washington Post, Eugene Scott explains “four reasons the coronavirus is hitting black communities so hard.”
The good news from Yemen: Saudi Arabia, which in 2015 led a military intervention that has greatly worsened the conflict there, declared a coronavirus ceasefire. The bad news: the next day Yemen, a country whose health care infrastructure has been devastated by the war, reported its first coronavirus case.
Google used (anonymized) location data from smartphones to see how much activity of various kinds—going to parks, shopping at grocery and drug stores, etc.—has changed during the Covid-19 epidemic. Its Community Mobility Reports website offers downloadable summaries of the activity for lots of nations, as well as individual American states and counties in those states. In my county—and I suspect in many others—the only category in which activity has grown is “residential.”
The International Crisis Group looks at ways the pandemic could “give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones” (especially in areas featuring conflict, simmering tensions, or weak governance). One problem is a possible lack of global leadership; the US, which led the international response to the 2014 Ebola contagion, has “simultaneously mishandled its domestic response to Covid-19, failed to bring other nations together and stirred up international resentment.”
The New York Times takes a look at how Americans are spending their money amid the shutdown. TLDR: Charitable giving down, alcohol consumption up, and boom times for home improvement.