There are so many Signals this week that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Should we pay the most attention to Trump’s telling Fox News on Saturday that the fatal shooting by a federal task force of Michael Reinoehl, the left-wing suspect in the murder of a right-wing Trump-supporting paramilitary in Portland last week, was a necessary act of “retribution”? After all, there’s no ambiguity in the word. It indicates a form of premeditated revenge; in this context, it means that Trump either ordered or condoned an extrajudicial killing. We apparently need a reminder in this savage age: Democratic leaders do not endorse revenge killings, and democracies die when death squads take over.
Or should we have as the lead the extraordinary statement by Trump’s odious henchman and convicted criminal Roger Stone that if Trump loses the election in November he should declare martial law immediately, arrest the Clintons, Mark Zuckerberg, journalists who oppose Trump, and even former defense secretary Jim Mattis on the extraordinary charge of “sedition”? Stone—who has long had Trump’s ear, and who has long been one of the thugs Trump routinely turns to for outside-the-box advice—went on to explain, presumably for the benefit of those Americans still naive enough to assume that we live in a pluralistic democracy where power is handed over peacefully rather than clung to by force of arms, that this is, after all, “war,” and that because it is war, Trump should order federal agents to seize ballots in Nevada rather than tolerate an electoral loss.
Take a deep breath and then ponder that overt embrace of fascism for a minute. Democracy, in the Stone/Trump worldview, is to be put aside the moment it becomes inconvenient and replaced with the barrel of a gun. If that doesn’t scare the daylights out of you, I don’t know what will.
Or should we put as lead the fact that nearly 5 million acres have burned so far throughout the American West since mid-August? By late last week, USA Today reported, the amount of land destroyed was almost as large as the entire state of New Jersey. By the time you read this, with strong winds forecast to blow all of this week, it will almost certainly be larger than New Jersey. And yet, continuing their obscene war on the environment, Trump’s team chose this week to appoint a climate-change denier to a top position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Or should we consider the lead story to be the ghastly recent court interventions by Trump-appointed judges against voting rights? Regarding Florida, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit put on hold the re-enfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of ex-felons that Florida’s own electorate had approved in a referendum two years ago. That is, quite simply, electoral vandalism, a vast restriction of the franchise that is hard to interpret as anything other than a judicial thumb on the scales, in a key swing state, on behalf of Trump. And in Texas, the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reaffirmed restrictions on mail-in voting even amid the pandemic.
All of these are worthy of columns in their own right. But none of them to my mind are quite as scandalous as Trump’s decision to hold an indoor, maskless—except, notably, for those in the stands directly behind Trump whose faces would appear on TV—non-socially-spaced campaign rally in Henderson, Nev., on Sunday. The event drew thousands of people and has been disingenuously justified by No. 45’s enablers on First Amendment grounds. Of course, it’s nothing of the kind, but rather a gross violation of Nevada public health rules. It also flies in the face of the CDC’s guidelines and makes a mockery of the sacrifices that tens of millions of Americans have made these past months to slow the spread of this deadly disease in the face of Trump’s incompetence and ignorance.
Let me personalize this—not because my experience is unique but because it is all too familiar at the moment. My son, a high school student, is stuck at home learning online, because his school cannot safely reopen. My daughter, a college student, is able to live on campus, but only if she is Covid-tested twice a week. Her classes are online, and the university’s lecture halls, libraries, gyms, and other facilities are shuttered. My wife and I, both of whom teach at a university, are teaching our students online because our campus cannot safely open.
I haven’t been inside a cinema, a concert hall, a theater, or a museum since March, and I had to ditch plans to fly to New York to see the US Open tennis tournament, my favorite sporting event, because flying is a public health risk and tournament officials decided it wasn’t safe to have fans in attendance. I’m not religious, but if I were, I wouldn’t have been able to attend in-person, indoor worship in my city during the spring and summer, and if I attend any such event in the fall, it will be strictly limited in size. I did watch a live broadcast from London’s Royal Opera House recently. It was a miracle of conscientious engineering that took months to plan: There was no audience, and to keep the musicians safe, the stands had been converted into a giant, socially spaced stage; the singers sang from the boxes ranged around the auditorium.
I can’t eat a meal inside a restaurant because indoor dining is currently banned—and now the smoke haze over California makes it too unpleasant to sit for long outside as well.
When I visited my daughter for the first time since she moved into her dorm, I couldn’t go inside to see her room, because that would violate safety standards. When we went to get a smoothie, a sign on the door said a maximum of five customers could enter to order at any one time. When I stop at a rest area on the freeway, everyone entering the toilets is masked, because we’re all aware that germs spread fast and furiously in closed, ill-ventilated spaces.
Yet somehow Trump and his personality-cult attendees believe they have the God-given right to ignore science, public health requirements, and the most basic safety precautions. I listened to one lady explain to CNN that the First Amendment guaranteed her right to attend an indoor event during a pandemic without a mask, and that it was entirely up to her what risks she took with her health. What she was really saying, of course, was that she had a right to risk not only infecting herself but also spreading the disease in the larger community. If elderly or immunocompromised citizens die as a result, too bad; that’s the price of this lady’s freedom. Other attendees told reporters they believed the whole pandemic was a “fake.”
The ignorance of thousands is something to behold. But what makes all of this not just peculiar but downright criminal is Trump’s outsize role in undermining his own public health team. In Henderson, Trump deliberately stoked the pandemic by encouraging thousands of his followers to do the exact opposite of what government medical experts such as Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx are urging. Which raises the question: How can Fauci and Birx rationalize sticking with this morally AWOL preener, rather than resigning out of principle? The Faustian bargain they have to make on a daily basis is beyond my comprehension.
Trump rallied his forces in Henderson not for the greater good but out of sociopathic vanity. In his worldview, the illness and death of thousands is worth it, so long as they die after stroking his ego.
America will soon cross the 200,000 Covid-deaths threshold, a stunning casualty total. It will now surely increase faster because of Trump’s campaign rally; that’s what happened after his last indoor event, in Tulsa.
This must surely rank as one of the most shameful acts of any president in US history. And that’s where the Signal meets the Noise this week. The sound of adulation as thousands of unmasked fans cheered Trump in Nevada was both a signal of moral senescence and the noise of a movement that has lost all grounding in reality. Those roars from the MAGA crowd were as devastating as the engine whine of dive-bombing Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II. They were the soundtrack to a show of needless death, ordered up to suit the needs of a depraved and desperate leader.