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The Signal: More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the pandemic took hold. With roughly one-quarter of the workforce officially unemployed and millions more in the informal and gig economies also having seen their work evaporate, America is facing an economic crisis unlike any other since the Great Depression.
All this economic pain—a predictable side effect of shutting down the economy to slow the spread of Covid-19—was supposed to buy enough time for the federal government to mount an effective response to the pandemic. But under this feckless, cultist federal government, that hasn’t happened. There is still no national strategy for testing, for contact tracing, or for re-creating and reimagining the parts of the economy that, for the foreseeable future at least, will have to operate in dramatically different ways from how they did prepandemic. There is still no plan to prevent successive waves of this awful disease from sweeping the country over the years to come.
As the deaths have mounted, passing 100,000 this week, Trump—almost certainly the least empathetic leader in American history—has time and again shown himself to be nothing more than a one-man Noise machine, a vuvuzela of vituperation. He spends his days not governing but rather tweeting conspiracy theories, insults, threats. What must the rest of the world think as they watch the president of the United States peddle nonsense in lieu of crafting policies intended to benefit the public?
This week Twitter finally did what it should have been doing for the past four years: It slapped a fact-check warning on one of Trump’s idiotic tweets, about mail-in voting and ballot fraud. Trump’s thin-skinned, autocratic response? His team immediately readied an executive order for him to sign that will, if it withstands the inevitable barrage of lawsuits, make it easier for the Federal Communications Commission and other government agencies to go after social media sites for alleged political bias in how they operate.
Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s hard to argue that social media platforms are anything other than profit-at-all-cost machines. They have become sites where conspiracy theories and disinformation systematically crowd out real news, where those who shout the loudest get the most attention, the haunts of trolls and threat-makers and virtual mobs. There’s certainly a rationale for arguing that Congress should study the problem and enact careful reforms, perhaps via antitrust legislation, to corral the power of the handful of huge social media companies that shape so many people’s understanding of reality.
But that’s very different from what Trump is proposing: a rushed end-run, yet again, around the legislative authority of Congress, with a vindictive executive order cloaked in hypocritical homilies on freedom of speech that he himself has never respected. His move is intended not to deal with a problem but to take revenge for a perceived personal slight.
Trump doesn’t give a fig about fairness. He is at center stage among the trolls and conspiracymongers who have made social media such an unpleasant space. He has played the medium like a maestro, manipulating his base, sowing discord, and damaging our understanding of the truth. He has used his Twitter platform to label the media “the enemy of the people” and whip up crowds to commit acts of violence against journalists they perceive as hostile to Trump’s agenda.
Trump is preparing to unleash the power of the federal government against social media sites not because he wants a vibrant arena for intellectual and philosophical discourse but because he wants a servile media—one in which, as in the former Soviet Union and in China today, only the official view gets heard.
This isn’t the mark of a man confident of his reelection prospects. It’s the action of a temperamentally dictatorial politician watching events spiral beyond his control, a Hail Mary by a corrupt and incompetent man increasingly desperate about his chances in November amid a public health and economic calamity.
That’s the Signal. Stay healthy, stay righteously angry, and above all, stay focused on the big issues. It’s becoming clearer by the day that everything is now on the line.