George Floyd, racial justice, and economic justice

By Robert Wright, Jun 28 2020

Last week the New York Times ran a piece depicting Bernie Sanders as woefully out of step with the current political moment by virtue of his tendency to see the world through the prism of economic class, not ethnic identity. Calls from the Black Lives Matter movement “to address systemic racism and police brutality,” said the Times, are resonating in a way that “Mr. Sanders’s message of economic equality did not.”

It’s true that we’re hearing very little about that favorite Sanders theme of raising taxes on high-income people and using the money to help low-income people. By and large, the George Floyd story is being seen as a story about racial injustice and not about economic injustice.

I think that’s a mistake, in two senses. 

First, it’s a tactical mistake for the left. This is a moment full of activist energy, and it’s opened up new political space; there’s a chance to push for radically increased government spending on, for example, education, housing, and health care for low-income people. Such spending disproportionately helps black people, and to pass it up because it’s technically about class, not race, would be wasteful to say the least.

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Can we make the George Floyd moment even bigger? 

By Robert Wright, Jun 28 2020

Here are some things that have grown out of the social and political ferment catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd:

1) Merriam Webster says its dictionary entry for “racism” will be amended to “make the idea of systemic or institutional racism even more explicit in the wording of the definition.”

2) The TV show COPS has been canceled, and police cars have vanished from the bestselling video game Fortnite.

3) Github, the Microsoft-owned company that runs the world’s biggest site for software developers, plans to get them to quit using the word “master” to refer to the main branch of a computer program’s code.

I’m sure things like this can do some good. Language and culture influence our attitudes more than we realize (if not always in uniform ways; in my own experience, COPS often stirred empathy for the people arrested and underscored the pointlessness of jailing them). And particular words, like “master,” can offend some people in ways others are oblivious to. 

The true Trump nightmare is finally upon us 

By Robert Wright, Jun 07 2020

As of November 9, 2016, here was the bad news: America had elected as its president an egregiously incompetent, childishly impulsive, crassly narcissistic man with authoritarian instincts. Here was the good news: it was possible to imagine these causes for concern interacting in such a way that some would neutralize others.

In particular: Maybe Trump’s incompetence, impulsiveness, and narcissism would keep him from realizing his authoritarian potential. After all, it takes skill and focus to erode civil liberties and aggrandize power while maintaining a critical mass of public support. Mussolini didn’t get to be Mussolini by throwing a public tantrum every day, filling his administration with dimwits, and engaging in zero long-term planning! 

As of five months ago—three years after inauguration day—this hopeful scenario remained more or less intact. Trump had been thuggish and cruel, and he’d weakened norms that guard liberties, but it was still hard to imagine him systematically subverting liberal democracy and ushering in an authoritarian state. 

But then the ground started to shift, and over the past ten days it’s shifted a lot. Trump’s incompetence and self-absorption, rather than short-circuit his authoritarian bent, are now energizing it.

What started the shift was the arrival in January of something the country had been spared throughout the Trump era: a new challenge of epic scale that urgently demanded presidential competence. Trump’s failure to contain the coronavirus with early and decisive intervention meant that his belated intervention would have to be dramatic but still couldn’t be conclusive. A nationwide lockdown would now “flatten the curve” but at this late date couldn’t crush it and meanwhile would create massive unemployment. America was condemned to a state of widespread economic deprivation and social dislocation with no end to the epidemic in sight. 

This atmosphere of disease and discontent fed the civil unrest of the past ten days in various ways. For starters, if it weren’t for the pandemic, George Floyd might still be alive. Before he allegedly handed a counterfeit $20 bill to the store clerk who fatefully called the police, Floyd had lost his job as a bouncer because of the lockdown.  

Goodbye, globalization?

By Robert Wright, May 16 2020

How will the coronavirus pandemic look in the rear view mirror? When, 30 years from now, high school students study for a test on early-21st-century history, what three or four Covid-19 bullet points will they memorize?

A leading candidate, to judge by the number of articles about it, is “ended a period of sustained globalization and ushered in an era of deglobalization.”

One interesting thing about this bullet point is that it represents a choice. Not all Covid bullet points do. This one, for example, seems pretty much guaranteed to be true: “accelerated the adoption of telemedicine, telecommuting, e-commerce, and other practices that save money by replacing in-person interaction with remote interaction.”

And, for that matter, certain aspects of a “deglobalization” bullet point are pretty much inevitable. There’s little doubt, for example, that the US and some other countries will make themselves less exclusively dependent on foreign suppliers—especially Chinese suppliers—for some pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.

How Trump’s “Wuhan lab” theory is backfiring

By Robert Wright, Apr 25 2020

The theory that Covid-19 came not from a Chinese “wet market” but from a Chinese laboratory now has the full support of President Trump. This hasn’t been confirmed by Trump himself, but it’s been confirmed by the next-most-official source: a Fox News chyron. During a recent episode of Tucker Carlson’s show, the chyron read, “Sources to Tucker: Intel agencies are almost certain that the virus escaped Wuhan lab.”

In sheerly factual terms, Trump could turn out to be on solid ground. The fringe version of this theory—that the virus came from a bioweapons lab, and may have been genetically engineered—continues to be widely dismissed, but credible people think the virus could have escaped from a less nefarious Wuhan lab, one that studies coronaviruses with an eye to preventing epidemics.

I can see why Trump thinks that publicizing even this watered down version of the lab origin story is a political winner. Though it lacks the cinematic flair of the bioweapon theory, it seems (at first glance, anyway) to corroborate the idea that the Chinese government was engaged in a cover up during the contagion’s crucial early stages. So it reinforces Trump’s blame-the-perfidious-Chinese-communists-not-the-incompetent-American-president narrative—without Trump having to be the one who blames the perfidious Chinese.

But if I were Trump I’d hope that the lab origin story doesn’t pan out. On close examination it turns out to reinforce the blame-the-incompetent-American-president message. In 2018, we now know, the Trump administration had an opportunity to help tighten security at the Wuhan lab that is at the center of the story and failed to do so. 

Killing COVID-19 without killing the economy

By Robert Wright, Mar 22 2020

Our situation would seem to be this: the price of fighting COVID-19—the price of the massive social distancing the U.S. and other countries are now deploying against it—is almost certainly a recession and possibly a global depression. And global depressions have, among other downsides, something in common with COVID-19: they kill people. 

In the New York Times, David L. Katz, a physician, argues that there’s a way out of this dilemma—a way to avert economic collapse without paying a massive toll in death and suffering.  

The basic idea is to apply social distancing more selectively but more intensively: identify the most vulnerable (older people, plus younger people with such conditions as diabetes), and strengthen the rules that protect them from infection, while relaxing the rules for the less vulnerable, and thus allowing them to participate in the economy. 

In this scenario, the contagion would continue, but it would continue within corridors that would keep the death rate low—that is, corridors occupied by relatively young and healthy people. The typical experience of people infected would range from feeling no symptoms at all to having something like a bad case of the flu. And after infection they would presumably be immune, at least for a while. Eventually America would achieve “herd immunity”: a high enough percentage of the population would be immune so that the virus would quit spreading.  

Most people, including me, find “herd immunity” scenarios a bit chilling, as they entail unflinching resignation to a certain level of death, however low, within a certain part of the population. And that just seems less humane than trying to save everyone, even if that effort is doomed to fall well short of its goal. But before dismissing Katz’s idea, you should read his op-ed, because he notes downsides of the current approach (including lethal ones) that go beyond flirting with economic apocalypse. 

Mike Bloomberg and the oligarchy question

By Robert Wright, Feb 15 2020

This was the week that Mike Bloomberg finally got some respect. After which he got massive disrespect.

First the respect: 

Bloomberg had always been dismissed as a long-shot for the Democratic presidential nomination. He did, after all, have somewhat eccentric credentials for that honor—such as having delivered a speech at the 2004 Republican convention endorsing George W. Bush. But when “frontrunner” Joe Biden finished the Iowa caucuses at the rear of the pack, moderate Democrats started looking for a new Biden, and by the end of this week the betting was on Bloomberg.

I mean that literally. In the betting markets, Bloomberg’s chances of getting the nomination rose from 18 percent on the eve of Iowa to 35 percent by the end of this week. That put him way ahead of the nearest moderate—Buttigieg at 12 percent—and not far behind the market favorite, Bernie Sanders at 39.

And if you’re not the kind to put much faith in betting markets: Bloomberg’s national polling numbers have risen from 2 percent three months ago to 8 percent two weeks ago to 14 percent this week—all without his appearing in a single debate. Apparently spending $350 million on ads (9 times what Sanders has spent) can move the needle. 

And there’s more where that came from. If Bloomberg could somehow find a way to spend another $350 million every week between now and the end of the primaries in June—which is basically impossible, but just suppose—he’d be reduced to the status of man with only $54 billion to his name. If Tom Steyer, the other billionaire in the Democratic race, spent money at that rate, he’d be penniless by the end of March.

Worst week ever?

By Robert Wright, Feb 08 2020

What could be more painful, for the committed Trump opponent, than watching Trump march into last Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast and hold up a copy of USA Today with the word Acquitted plastered across its front page, above its story about his impeachment? 

No, the answer isn’t watching him hold up a copy of the Washington Post with the headline Trump Acquitted (which he also did). The answer is watching him do both of these things in the same week that (1) his Gallup approval rating reached its all-time high; (2) the Iowa caucuses turned into a display of Democratic incompetence that he seized on with malicious glee, while journalists reported that the Iowa fiasco had intensified Democratic infighting; (3) he delivered a State of the Union address that, in addition to setting a new standard for SOTU cheesiness, successfully employed his patented formula for political survival: simultaneously enraging his detractors and energizing his supporters; (4) he previewed, in his opening SOTU segment, a formidable reelection stump speech, flaunting a series of mainly accurate boasts about the health of the economy; (5) various pundits deemed this “the most politically successful week of the Trump presidency” or said that for the first time since Trump’s inauguration, they believed he will probably be reelected.  

But cheer up! For two reasons:

1) This too shall pass.

2) The great thing about bad things is that once you figure out why they happened, you can (in principle) make them less likely to happen in the future. 

Consider the decision to impeach. Now, I’m not here to declare that decision a mistake in every sense of the term. There is value in recording for posterity the fact that many Americans, and their political representatives, find Trump sufficiently horrible to warrant the ultimate indictment. If, decades from now, archaeologists are sifting through the ruins of American civilization, I’d like them to find evidence that its collapse didn’t catch us totally unawares; we knew an ominous presidency when we saw one.  

But if you ask whether impeachment was a mistake in sheerly tactical terms, I think the answer is yes. Between the first day of the House’s public impeachment hearings and the end of this week, Trump’s “underwater rating”—the gap between his disapproval and approval ratings—shrank by four points. This could be a coincidence, but it’s certainly the opposite of the hoped-for effect. The tactical argument for impeachment had been that it would damage Trump politically, even if it didn’t lead to conviction.

Glenn Greenwald has his reasons

By Robert Wright, Jan 25 2020

This week’s version of “Suleimani had blood on his hands but the US shouldn’t have killed him” was “Glenn Greenwald annoys me but Brazil shouldn’t prosecute him.”

On Tuesday Brazilian prosecutors filed charges against Greenwald in connection with a series of Intercept articles he co-authored that, perhaps not coincidentally, suggested corrupt behavior on the part of the prosecutors’ boss, Brazilian Minister of Justice Sergio Moro. Also perhaps not coincidentally, these Intercept articles cast doubt on the legitimacy of the presidency of Moro’s boss, the famously authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro. 

Greenwald—who lives in Brazil and is choosing to stay there and face possible imprisonment, even though he could legally leave the country—immediately became the recipient of some very ambivalent support on Twitter. For example:

“Glenn’s been awful on US politics for years. But these charges are almost certainly bullshit.”
—Josh Marshall, founder and editor of TPM

“I disagree with Greenwald about basically everything and he has been relentlessly unpleasant to people I work with. Which is why I feel it’s important to say that this is a profoundly concerning assault on press freedom.”
—Quinta Jurecic, managing editor of Lawfare

And my personal favorite:
“I think Glenn Greenwald is a bad faith doorknob and I have nary a morsel of respect for him, but the cyber crime charges should give every journalist pause.”
—Imani Gandy (better known as @AngryBlackLady) of Rewire News 

I of course share these concerns about freedom of the press—all the more so because it’s easy to imagine Trump using Bolsonaro as a role model. But I’ll refrain from joining in the ritual denunciation of Greenwald, and instead point out one irony that may have evaded the awareness of some denouncers:

Tom Cotton, soldier in Bill Kristol’s proxy war against evil

By Robert Wright, Jan 18 2020

Among the things I dislike about each fresh burst of American warmaking is seeing its cheerleaders bask in the spotlight. Consider Senator Tom Cotton, who has been unsettlingly visible since the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani. 

Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, is a protégé of famous neoconservative Bill Kristol, who played a big role in getting the US to invade Iraq and has since championed various other forms of American belligerence, many of them aimed at Iran. Cotton got elected to the Senate with the help of a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, subsequently hired Kristol’s son Joseph as his legislative director, and has in various other ways settled into a cozy symbiosis with Kristol’s network. The Washington Free Beacon—whose founding editor is Matthew Continetti, Kristol’s son-in-law—highlights Cotton’s exploits so regularly that any given page of its Tom Cotton archives (say, this year’s July-September page) will feature an array of headlines that speak to the vast range of the senator’s expertise. (August 26: “Cotton: Greenland Purchase Would Secure ‘Vital Strategic Interests’.”)    

You may, like me, find Cotton hard to take, but there’s virtue in persevering and paying attention to his recent doings. They nicely illustrate some key components of America’s war-starting and war-sustaining machinery—the powerfully primitive worldview that drives it, the dubious logic employed to justify it, and the sleazy tactics that are sometimes used to silence its critics. 

Exhibits A and B, from the past 10 days: (1) A New York Times op-ed Cotton wrote, defending the killing of Suleimani; (2) a letter that he and two other senators sent to Trump’s attorney general, requesting an investigation into a group that criticized the killing of Suleimani.

1. Cotton’s New York Times op-ed. This piece is notable for, among other things, employing a rhetorical device that has impeded human understanding since the dawn of civilization. You might call it the “falsely implied comparison.”  

In the course of casting various Democrats’ reactions to the assassination in a negative light, Cotton wrote in the Times that “Senator Bernie Sanders likened America’s killing of a terrorist on the battlefield to Vladimir Putin’s assassination of Russian political dissidents.”