Our Best Stuff From the Week We Started Going Back Uphill
Bolton's book, the failing China trade deal, and more.
The news was sudden and yet totally unsurprising. Friday morning, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott announced the state would close bars and scale back on restaurant capacity, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended drinking in bars (establishments can sell alcohol to go). Both states, along with Arizona and several others, have seen a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in the last few weeks, spikes that can’t be explained away just by increased testing.
We’ve seen an increase in cases here in Ohio, too, which, while not as drastic as those states, concerns me. All along we’ve been one of the “good” states, with everyone heaping praise on Gov. Mike DeWine. (Well not everyone. Some folks took to protesting outside the home of our health director, Amy Acton.)
I’m no epidemiologist and I don’t even play one on Twitter, but I suspect there are several reasons for this. States couldn’t stay locked down forever—and it goes beyond people “selfishly” wanting haircuts or to eat out. The economic harm is real, and we’ll be paying for it as a society for years. And it’s summer! Nice weather is even more enticing after being cooped up for two months. And while there are indications that—thankfully—the protests that sprang up in response to George Floyd’s death have yet not led to widespread outbreaks as feared, I’m going to risk saying something unpopular. My hunch is that the politicians and public health officials who downplayed that risk when we couldn’t be sure, who excused protests as important enough to break protocol, sent a message to people who’d spent the previous months being told the opposite. People couldn’t be with their loved ones when they died, and couldn’t have funerals for them. Our kids had to endure woefully inadequate distance learning and businesses went under, but all of a sudden it was like the virus had a conscience? Megan McArdle put it the best at the time: Whether the protests caused a spike or not themselves, social distancing was over.
I hate that the pandemic has become as political as it has. Yes, it was Democratic governors—Andrew Cuomo and Gretchen Whitmer—whose states probably handled the initial outbreak worse than anyone. And now it’s mostly Republican governors whose states are going to have to lock back down. We can pick apart their decisions and see where ideology or political fealty came into play but at the end of the day, people—Democrats, Republicans, and people who don’t even care about politics!—are dying and our economy is suffering.
But there is one political aspect that is just baffling to me. Can we talk about masks for a second? Yes, most people are wearing masks. Even a majority of Republicans. But the most fervent anti-maskers are conservative Republicans, and for them it’s almost as much of a signifier as a MAGA hat. What frustrates me, and makes me downright indignant, is that this is honestly the stupidest fight we can be having right now. I am so old I remember when Republicans claimed to be the party of personal responsibility and being good citizens. Liberty and baseball and apple pie, yes, but also personal responsibility. So think of it this way: Wearing masks cuts down on the spread of the virus. Slowing the spread of the virus allows our economy to stay open. An open economy provides vastly more freedom than a locked down one. Masks give us more freedom than they take away.
Now, I’ll climb down from my high horse so you can enjoy our best work of the week:
The early excerpts and reviews of John Bolton’s The Room Where it Happened contained a fair number of bombshells, revelations so jarring that they would threaten the legacy of a normal president (defending China’s Uighur concentration camps, for example). But when Steve read the book, he came away more bothered by the mundane recklessness of it all. Regarding Trump’s second summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Bolton details the preparations for the trip, complete with briefings that included a propaganda video—designed to show Trump how awesome he could be by walking away, produced by his own team. Steve writes: “The entire summit—from the pre-briefs to the postmortems—was built around Trump’s obsession with how he’s depicted in the media. In a pre-summit call with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, Trump “pressed Moon to let the media know that progress was being made, since they typically tried to put a negative spin on whatever he did. The next day was consumed with responding to Trump’s frustration over a Time magazine story revealing how little attention Trump paid to his intelligence briefings.”
Good trade deals, as Scott Lincicome explains, work because they provide incentives for the parties to comply voluntarily. There are benefits and concessions; signatories comply because they want others to do the same; and there is a reputational benefit to holding up your end of the deal. Therein lies the problem with the U.S-China Phase One deal, which is key to President Trump’s political fortunates: “The United States has only one bad option to force that compliance—more tariffs on politically sensitive products (in an election year!), and the Chinese purchase commitments actually make U.S. exporters—especially those Great Patriot Farmers whom Trump needs for re-election—more dependent on the Chinese market (and, therefore, the Chinese government).”
Jonah does not use the word “idiot” lightly. No really: He spends a couple hundred words or so of his midweek members-only G-File explaining it. But when rioters start tearing down statues not of Confederate generals or presidents who owned slaves, but monuments to abolitionists, well, a shark has been jumped. But the mobs who are rioting senselessly aren’t the true target of his ire, but the politicians who are egging them on, particularly Nancy Pelosi, who claimed that congressional Republicans were ““trying to get away with murder, actually—the murder of George Floyd.” As Jonah writes, “What an amazingly stupid time this is.”
Fact Checks: Rally Attendance, Aunt Jemima, and AOC
It was a busy week on the fact checking front. Alec tackled whether the Trump campaign hired actors to inflate the attendance at his Tulsa rally, whether the woman who portrayed Aunt Jemima was a self-made millionaire, and whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that we had to keep the economy closed so that Trump would lose. But behind the scenes it was an even bigger week. The Dispatch Fact Check is joining Facebook’s fact-checking program beginning this week, having been verified by the International Fact-Checking Network. We are excited to join Facebook as it expands its efforts to fight misinformation on its platform. Now, you probably won’t notice much different. Politicians will still tell falsehoods, and people will still tweet conspiracy theories. We’ll debunk them. The only difference is that our fact checks will also be on Facebook, and when your kooky high school friend or the crazy uncle in your life share misinformation, Facebook will slap a label on it calling it fake for all to see.
And the best of the rest:
*Andrew looks back at the road map that the coronavirus task force put out to guide states’ reopening plans, and looks at all the steps that haven’t been taken, like robust contact tracing. “That leaves the individual conscientiousness of Americans themselves—masking, social distancing, and so on—as the primary measure left to inhibit COVID’s ongoing spread.”
*In Vital Interests, Thomas Joscelyn writes about the disconnect between Trump’s claim that he is ending “endless wars” and the fact that his administration has gone after more than a few important al-Qaeda figures. Why not be more vocal about fighting terrorists? Honestly, it comes down to Afghanistan and his desire to withdraw.
* Here’s a headline you don’t see everyday: “The Decline of American Democracy Is Partly My Fault.” David, in this members-only French Press, is talking about the “jursistocracy” and how courts have come to play such a role in the culture wars. David spent years fighting in court for religious liberty. But we’re not going to let him take the fall. The real culprit here is Congress.
*On the pods: The Michael Flynn case had David and Sarah getting into the weeds on legal nerdery on Advisory Opinions. The gang on The Dispatch Podcast speaks for pretty much all of us in discussing how the pandemic and politics have made for an exhausting summer. And on The Remnant, Jonah chats with regular guest Chris Stirewalt. There’s talk of Teddy Roosevelt, sausages, and there is plenty of rank punditry.
Photograph by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.