President Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. assistant attorney general began going through the very partisan vetting process of a Senate committee hearing Wednesday. Kristen Clarke will become the first woman of color to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in its 46-year existence. It’s an important position, highlighted by the recent national reporting on the continuing epidemic of Black citizen deaths at the hands of our country’s law enforcement apparatus. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) has lauded the nomination, saying that “Ms. Clarke is precisely the person to restore the original spirit of the Civil Rights Division. She has dedicated her entire career to the enforcement and expansion of civil rights. Her extensive record of civil rights advocacy and enforcement, as well as her deep commitment to justice and professional integrity, makes us confident in her ability to excel as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.”
The right wing of the country, having very little to offer but fear when it comes to race and civil rights discourse, has decided that the best way to attack Kristen Clarke’s nomination is to create the impression that she “hates white people.” It’s the old reverse racism argument used by racists, while they stare into the mirror with horror and fear of retribution for their sins. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, famous for voting against all of the things he tells the electorate he secretly didn’t want to vote for, seems to have been under the impression that he had a real gotcha question and piece of evidence to unveil during the committee hearing. He didn’t. And he looked as pathetic as you might expect.
Sen. Cornyn began by passive aggressively saying, “Well maybe there’s a misprint, but I’m sure you can clear it up for me,” before bringing out evidence that when she was a young student at Harvard, she “argued that African Americans were genetically superior to ah [sic] Caucasians. is that correct?” (I left in the “ah,” because John Cornyn put it in there.) Without knowing what John Cornyn is talking about I can very confidently say that no, that is not correct. But let’s watch Ms. Clarke try not to laugh out loud while giving a serious answer to a clown of a senator.
John Cornyn grills assistant attorney general nominee Kristen Clarke about an article she wrote for her college paper, seemingly oblivious to the fact it was satire pic.twitter.com/qMG3LNg2AO
How people don’t just say “What the f!@#$ are you talking about?” all day long to people like Sen. John Cornyn is beyond me. You can read the article in question, written as a letter to The Harvard Crimson editors. Even if you are a slow reader, the “letter” takes only a couple of minutes to read. Sen. Cornyn and his staff are either too lazy (catastrophically incompetent in their laziness in this case) or they have decided to pretend it isn’t very clearly a baroquely pseudoscientific attack on the unbelievably pseudoscientific dreck written in Murray’s The Bell Curve. In fact, after reading the scientific bullet points laying out why Black people are superior to everyone according to the shiftless criteria of The Bell Curve, Clarke wrote this in her op-ed’s summation.
Attacks on Black people such as those in The Bell Curve are not unique. Black children face this abuse daily through television shows, jokes aired on the radio, textbooks with truncated history, etc. Liberal whites underestimate the damage which racism causes on the minds of Black children, and conservative whites know all too well how to enlarge that damage. No matter how rich or supportive a Black person’s home might be, by the time she is ready to take the SAT or apply to college, she has struggled far more extensively than any white person of the same social and economic background.
In the video it is clear that the hot air really evaporated from Cornyn’s sails. But later on Sen. Cornyn, forever disappointing the Founding Fathers who probably hoped for at least a particle of intelligence from elected leadership, defended his dead-end questioning on social media.
What-about? The problem with Brett Kavanaugh’s pre-professional career was that it is marked with credible accusations of multiple sexual assaults and inappropriate behavior, none of it considered “satire” by anyone, and never has anyone claimed Kavanaugh’s actions to be “satire.” This is not an apple-and-oranges comparison: It is an apples-and-alleged alcoholic sexual assaulter comparison.
Gather around, children. I want to tell you a tale, a story of a nation divided. A story about a war of values in the United States. A war where people were held in bondage, had suffered brutal consequences and degraded. They were unsure of the outcome of the war, and afraid for their lives. Their families separated. They faced oppression. This is the story of white southern families facing a war of northern aggression? Welcome to eighth-grade textbooks in Louisiana, and the story of poor Kate Stone, daughter of a family that once owned 150 slaves, but now would be deprived of family wealth the moment those slaves would be free.
There are two approved Louisiana history textbooks for the state’s 8th graders.
This is how one of them introduces the Civil War: as tough times for a poor young white woman whose family owned 120 slaves. pic.twitter.com/oR617iSkFO
While Republicans scream about critical race theory, they are trying to hide the fact they desperately want an “uncritical” race theory; A theory that refuses to look at any element of the past with any critical eye, at all. When it comes to teaching young students, the methodology takes a leap into fantasy land. From the text:
With more than 1,000 acres and 150 slaves, the family’s future seemed secure. However, in 1861, after Louisiana’s secession from the United States in January and the beginning of the Civil War in April, the lives of everyone on the stone plantation changed.
Just in case you didn’t realize it, the wealthy white plantation owner? They were the aggrieved party. Lord almighty, look at what was taken from them! Their future was secure, all until those damn Northerners!
“They were able to reclaim their planation but, due to emancipation (the freeing of the slaves), lost all of their property in slaves. The family had to face the new reality of planting and harvesting their fields with freed people who, Kate regretted, now demanded ‘high wages’.”
Wow! How terrible for Kate. I’m so glad we are seeing the Civil War from her perspective! Certainly an informative way to teach the kids how greedy the freed men suddenly became when she had to pay them. High wages, of course, are in comparison to “no wages at all,” which I’m sure Kate preferred. Never mind all of that, can more of you just feel sorry for the slave owner?
This might even be worse — the “life in antebellum Louisiana” chapter. It is literally: “Look at this cool French white guy who lifted his sense of rhythm from slaves playing in Congo Square” pic.twitter.com/Zm8fQBOXSE
“It is impossible to understand the years between 1820 and 1860 without appreciating how the state’s people shaped one another. Free and slave, native-born and immigrant, though Louisianians did not always interact peacefully, they shaped one another’s lives, fortunes and cultures.”
Look at how great it was before they elected Lincoln and went after slavery! Damn it, things were going great, we just stole their heritage, made music of it, and forced them to work for free, and it was great. It impacted everyone’s fortunes. Of course, mostly the fortunes of people who could utilize the banks and were not slaves, but still, I’m sure it trickled down to the slaves somehow, right?
Critical race theory? Conservatives, tell me again how you want to train young Americans to look uncritically at history, and then get back to me.
The emails themselves look like the stuff that normally gets routed to your spam folder: wild conspiracy theories about election fraud, absurd suggestions on strategy to overturn the already-completed and certified election, desperate entreaties from unhinged fantasists dreaming of flipping the election’s outcome. But these were not junk emails from some trolls — they were sent from the top echelons of power in the White House to the Justice Department, in a genuine effort to overturn an American election.
The newly-disclosed emails from then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and other officials to top Justice Department brass reveal yet another dangerous abuse of power to benefit Trump. This time, Trump’s advisers, in a desperate quest to lend institutional heft to their manic ravings about election fraud, tried to enlist perhaps the most powerful ally of all: the Justice Department.
Thankfully, the Justice Department declined to act upon the ravings of Trump’s advisers, to the credit of then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen (who had taken over after Barr’s departure in December 2020) and other top brass.
The emailed reactions of officials within the department appropriately reflect a sense of incredulity and dismay at the efforts of Trump’s staffers to get them on board with trying to overturn a democratic election. In one internal Justice Department email, Rosen asks “Can you believe this?” and in another, a top department adviser characterized the White House’s outreach as “pure insanity.”
Just add it to the ever increasing Iist … WHY the former “Instigator-in-Chief” …
So what is critical race theory? Do you know? Does anyone? I have to admit, I didn’t know before Republicans discovered it somewhere in some Rush Limbaugh newsletter or something and decided to make it the gelded Mr. Potato Head of late spring/early summer 2021.
Two things you need to know right off the bat: Critical race theory (CRT) is the New Scary Thing that Republicans are using to distract people from the fact that the president is no longer a bloviating death yam and that the country appears to be turning a corner—finally—after enduring a year’s worth of plague-promoting from medieval thinkers. Second, they’re twisting its purpose and meaning to make political hay, as Republicans are wont to do.
Of course, it stands to reason that Republicans are distorting CRT to gain votes, because that’s basically what they do with everything.
Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.
A good example is [redlining] when, in the 1930s, government officials literally drew lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly due to the racial composition of inhabitants. Banks subsequently refused to offer mortgages to Black people in those areas.
Today, those same patterns of discrimination live on through facially race-blind policies, like single-family zoning that prevents the building of affordable housing in advantaged, majority-white neighborhoods and, thus, stymies racial desegregation efforts.
So CRT helps explain how, for instance, Black people were kept out of “better” neighborhoods and forced into segregated areas that were both separate and unequal—and how this historic discrimination still has an impact on many Black people’s life prospects. CRT also involves looking at American institutions and discovering how they historically kept racial minorities on the outside looking in.
Instead of the idiotic concept of colorblindness, CRT says that a comprehensive understanding ofany aspect of American societyrequires an appreciation of the complex and intricate consequences of systemic inequality. And, according to CRT, this approach should inform policy decisions, legislation and every other element in society.
Take something as simple as college admission, for instance. People who “don’t see color” insist that we should only use neutral, merit-based metrics such as SAT scores and grades. However, Critical Race Theory acknowledges that SAT scores are influenced by socioeconomic status, access to resources and school quality. It suggests that colleges can’t accurately judge a student’s ability to succeedunlessthey consider the effects of the racial wealth gap, redlining, and race-based school inequality. Without this kind of holistic approach, admissions assessments will always favor white people.
CRT doesn’t just say this is racist, it explains why these kinds of race-neutral assessments arebad at assessing things.
Sounds pretty reasonable, right? As a white man raised by middle-class white parents, it’s pretty easy for me to identify areas where I had a huge head start … if I’m being honest. Which is where Republicans come in, because they’re not being honest at all.
Suddenly, critical race theory is the latest big bad boogeyman coming from the “radical left.” Conservatives are scrambling to eliminate any teaching of the theory, despite the fact that such teaching isn’t a fraction as prevalent as they’re pretending it is. Even though it’s a fairly anodyne (and clearly valid) explanation for abiding socioeconomic disparities, it makes white people feel uncomfortable, and we can’t have that. So, like widespread election fraud, Republicans are pretending it’s this Awful Thing That Needs to Be Addressed.
You might think they’d at least bother to understand what critical race theory is before writing legislation to ban it. You’d be wrong.
Kyle Whitmire, an enterprising reporter for AL.com, recently contacted Rep. Chris Pringle, a Republican member of the Alabama House of Representatives, and asked him about a bill he’s promoting to ban critical race theory in the state. According to Pringle, the bill he’s been hyping in the media is simple: “All it says is you can’t teach critical race theory in K-12 or higher education in the state of Alabama.”
Okay, great. And what is critical race theory?
“It basically teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin, period,” Pringle told Whitmire.
Whitmire pressed Pringle further:
“Yeah, uh, well — I can assure you — I’ll have to read a lot more,” he said.
I began to get the feeling that Pringle didn’t know as much about critical race theory as I had hoped. Were there other examples he could give me where critical race theory was being put into practice?
“These people, when they were doing the training programs — and the government — if you didn’t buy into what they taught you a hundred percent, they sent you away to a reeducation camp,” Pringle said.
These people? Reeducation camps? Sounds pretty vague.
After insisting on a source, Whitmire waited as Pringle fished through the cab of his pickup truck for an article he’d read.
“Here’s an—it doesn’t say who it was, it just says a government that held these—these training sessions …” Pringle told Whitmire.
Ah, we’re getting closer to the source of this fragrant bullshit. Could it be coming from the bottom of Pringle’s own shoe?
“The white male executives are sent to a three-day reeducation camp, where they were told that their white male culture wasn’t their …” And this, writes Whitmire, is where Pringle trailed off.
According to Whitmire, Pringle hemmed and hawed some more before summiting the crest of Bullshit Mountain: “I introduced a very brief version of the bill to start the conversation, but it’s very difficult in this cancel society to have a frank discussion about racism in this country and this country’s history. I mean, history is being rewritten and I’m not exactly sure of the accuracy of what’s there now and what they’re trying to change it into.”
Frankly, history was rewritten a long time ago, when we allowed the powers-that-be to write it and show it to us exclusively through a white man’s lens. Is it so awful to embrace a more complete—and accurate—view?
Pringle wasn’t done. He had his talking points more or less in order—even if they were largely buoyed by brain farts and bullshit.
“This is still the greatest country that’s ever, ever been in the history of the world,” Pringle said. “And the radical left is trying to destroy that and tear us apart and divide this country based on race and class, which is exactly what they do in communist countries.”
No, that’s not what’s happening. But, hey, way to get “communist” in there, dude. I guess that’s another Big Scary Thing making a comeback now.
Ashli Babbitt didn’t comply with the orders of an officer—have we heard that before? Here, it was with actual threats of physical harm, an act of terror by those in the room and self-defense. Good enough for the radicals? Nope.
And what happens if the FBI or others did release the name of the officer? What happens? Ask Georgia Secretary of StateBrad Raffensperger, who continues to receive death threats.
Let’s be honest, the attempt to get out the name of the officer has one outcome: it will inspire someone to threaten and harm an officer who did his job in protecting people from immediate danger. So much for backing the blue.
There is only one person responsible for Ashli Babbitt’s death. That name is Ashli Babbitt.
So to recap, Donald Trump was only the third president in the last 100 years to lose reelection. He cost Republicans the House and the Senate. He cost them young people (a.k.a. “the future”) and suburbanites, and he solidified Democratic advantages among urban dwellers of all stripes. He remains among the most unpopular figures in American politics. And he’s warred not only against his party’s leadership but against his party itself, even demanding that his supporters send him money rather than sending it to the party.
And yet Republicans, for some unfathomable reason, can’t quit him.
Objectively speaking, Donald Trump is about as irrelevant as any ex-president could be. His laughably stupid attempt at a blog (what his spokesman promised would “completely redefine the game, and everybody is going to be waiting and watching to see what exactly President Trump does”) is dead less than a month after its launch. It’s dead because no one visited it. Trump measures success by one metric and one metric only: ratings. He was so much a flop that even he couldn’t pretend otherwise. The humiliation was simply too much to bear.
Then there’s Trump’s website. Traffic to it has plummeted 99% in the last year, from nearly 14.5 million unique visitors in April 2020 to a pitiful 161,000 last month. Whatever weird superpower Trump had, it was wholly dependent on Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms to push his crap into the darker recesses of American society. Cut off from those algorithms, Trump doesn’t have enough juice to propel himself into continued relevance.
Then there’s Trump’s recent appearance on Newsmax, which I’m sure was hyped in the usual corners of the right-wing media world. The results?
The one-hour sit-down with Steve Cortes and Jenn Pellegrino averaged just 295,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research data.
That’s less than half the eyeballs for a repeat of Food Network’s “Chopped,” which pulled in 651,000 on average in the midst of a multi-hour marathon of the cooking competition in the 9 p.m. timeslot. And it’s roughly a third of what Bravo scored for a new episode of “Real Housewives of New York.”
Ooof. Again, for someone who measures success by ratings, his losing streak continues unabated. And rather than pull himself up by his bootstraps and work to rebuild his audience, the best he and his can do is whine about being “cancelled.” Because he’d rather coast off someone else’s work and platform than actually put any effort into … anything at all! He won’t even join conservative-friendly social media platforms like Parler without demanding cash up front! If there’s anything he hates more than low ratings, it’s someone else getting ratings from his presence … without him getting a cut of the action.
Meanwhile, his allies are almost all facing Justice Department investigations (Rep. Matthew Gaetz, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, Rudy Giuliani, his own company and family, etc.), and unfortunately for them, Trump couldn’t get around to pardoning the whole mess of them.
And what do Republicans House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell do? They continue to genuflect to this impotent loser, no matter how much damage he continues to do to their party.
And thus emerges a ray of hope for Democratic chances in 2022. History says that the party of a first-term president nearly always faces catastrophic loses in Congress in his first midterm election. In the House, the average is an over 30-seat loss. In the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attack, 2002 was an exception, so exceptions do exist. Regardless, Democrats face some historical headwinds that are compounded by a reapportionment and redistricting process that favors Republicans, a Senate map that features nearly every single difficult 2020 presidential battleground—Arizona (D), Florida (R), Georgia (D), Nevada (D), North Carolina (R), Pennsylvania (R), and Wisconsin (R)—and the systematic Republican effort to make it harder for core Democratic constituencies to turn out and vote.
In a normal year, we’d be talking about how to minimize losses and what a Biden administration might do with Republican congressional majorities. But this isn’t a normal year, and Republicans are doing everything in their power to keep it that way.
The reason the incumbent party does so poorly during the midterms is because the election becomes a referendum on the new president, and he never measures up to his campaign promises. His partisans become demoralized or complacent (or both), and the other side’s partisans are revved up. Just witness the anti-Clinton hate during his years, or the rise of the Tea Party during the Obama years, or the rise of the Resistance during the Trump years. But now, do you hear anything from the right? Sure, there’s some Q and anti-vaxx stuff, but none of it is anti-Biden. In fact, Republicans are pretty much surrendering on going after Biden. Instead, they’ve pivoted to attacking—get ready for this—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and The Squad, i.e., Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley. What do they all have in common? They’re women, and they’re mostly women of color. After years of honing their racist and sexist attacks on Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, they’re at a total loss when faced with an old white guy.
But we know that attacks on Pelosi and company have failed in the past. They failed in 2018 when Democrats won a stunning wave election. And they failed in 2020 when Republican gains in marginal districts were fueled by the turnout of Trump partisans, not by any anti-Pelosi messaging. A scary president is a huge get-out-the-vote motivator in a midterm election. Republicans have already taken that off the table.
But what’s more is that by letting loser Trump call the shots and by letting him insert himself into the political debate, Republicans very well risk turning 2022 into a referendum on … Donald Trump. We already know how those go—they goose the liberal base vote without any corresponding Republican vote unless Trump is on the ballot. And he isn’t.
On top of that, throw in the right-wing’s current obsession with “cancel culture,” leading to greatest hits like “Mr. Potato Head” and “Dr. Seuss” something-something or other, and Democrats suddenly have a fighting chance of getting out of this either breaking even, or maybe even gaining seats.
Democrats couldn’t possibly face a better-case scenario: A Republican Party that can’t quit one of the most divisive and hated figures in American politics while refusing to engage on any issues that might actually win them a few new votes, rather than simply agitating the same old dying electorate already in their pocket.
It makes no political sense. It certainly doesn’t make any mathematical sense. But it’s quite clear that whatever fever has gripped this modern Republican Party, it has nothing to do with logic, electoral math, or even basic common sense.
Mitch McConnell just did it again.The Senate minority leader, whose dubious maneuvering to turn the Supreme Court to the far right still haunts liberals, just previewed a fresh scheme to bolster conservative judicial supremacy on the nation’s top bench for years to come, with widespread consequences for all three branches of government.The Republican veteran indicated Monday he would implement his self-declared rule and refuse to confirm a Supreme Court nominee picked by President Joe Biden in election year 2024 if the GOP wins the Senate next year.”I think it’s highly unlikely,” McConnell said when asked on Hugh Hewitt’s conservative radio show if Biden would get a pick. In fact, the Kentucky power player didn’t even guarantee he would allow the confirmation of a Biden nominee in 2023 either.McConnell’s foreshadowing will undoubtedly set off sirens for Democrats across Washington who hear the remarks as a reminder that the clock has already started both on moving their ambitious agenda through a narrowly divided Congress and keeping what few seats they have left on the high court.McConnell is returning to his self-coined principle — that is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution — that at a certain point of their term a President no longer has the right to seat a Supreme Court nominee. The then-Senate majority leader used this ruse to thwart President Barack Obama’s pick Merrick Garland for eight months before the election in 2016. But with a Republican, Donald Trump, in the White House in 2020, he muscled Amy Coney Barrett onto the high court eight days before the election — after hypocritically discovering an exception to his own rule that came into operation if the Senate and the White House were in hands of the same party.
A warning sign to Democrats
As his comments on Monday built on that history, McConnell sent a warning to Democrats already struggling to coalesce over passing Biden’s first-year agenda that has foundered on tough Senate math.Enter your email to sign up for CNN’s “What Matters” Newsletter.“close dialog”
.In effect, he set a timer on the moment when Democrats could lose their short window on congressional power at the 2024 election. And with the kind of cynical clarity that only an expert and ruthless political operator can muster, he underscored just how high the stakes are next year.Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley from Oregon warned that McConnell’s warning raised the specter of another theft of a Supreme Court seat.”The damage to the Court is enormous, it turns into … a partisan warfare. He has put this on steroids that is an order of magnitude that is more intense now,” Merkley said on “Cuomo Prime Time.””What can we do? Well, we can make sure that McConnell is not in the majority in ’23 and ’24 because … when he was in the majority he’s played this game before and his party rewarded him for it.”
Merrick Garland says he’ll enforce DOJ’s pledge against spying on journalistsIn retrospect, McConnell’s blockade of Garland in 2016 was one of the earliest gambits in what has become a consistent pattern of Republican attacks on Washington norms by the GOP.While no fan of Trump, McConnell’s goal is always the capturing or the preservation of power. His recent refusal to allow the Senate to establish an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection on January 6, shows how he is willing to appease Trump’s base to that end. But it is also the kind of behavior that has America’s allies abroad fretting at the constant erosion of US constitutional guardrails, even as Biden tours Europe warning that democracy is under siege abroad.McConnell’s invoking of his spoiler move against Garland also struck an ironic note on Monday. The former judge would have been on the bench for more than five years by now were it not for the minority leader’s action. Instead, he was selected by Biden to be attorney general, and is now faced with the task of dealing with a political storm over the Trump administration’s apparent use of the Justice Department to target an enemies list including Democratic congressman and media organizations including CNN. Those abuses were among those encouraged by the failure of McConnell’s GOP ever to rein in Trump.
Democrats wait on Breyer
In the next few days, McConnell’s Machiavellian intervention is sure to supercharge speculation among Democrats about the timing of the possible retirement of liberal Justice Stephen Breyer.If Democrats cannot replace Breyer, 82, on the Court this year or next while they have the slimmest possible margin in the Senate, they risk a 7-2 conservative majority if future elections go the GOP’s way and Breyer eventually leaves the court. That would mean decades of right-wing jurisprudence, no matter what voters want.
Senate votes to confirm key Biden judicial nominee Ketanji Brown JacksonNervousness over Breyer’s intentions was already running at high levels in Washington as the end of the current Supreme Court term approaches, the moment when some previous Justices have retired.On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, progressive Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said that she believed that given the circumstances, Breyer should make his exit. “I would probably lean towards yes,” Ocasio-Cortez told CNN’s Dana Bash.Speculating about a Supreme Court Justice’s future is a sensitive business and in questionable taste given Breyer’s age — although there is no sign he is in fragile health. In the rarified marble halls of the building hosting the nation’s top bench, such talk may also offend and backfire — one reason why many Democrats are tiptoeing around the issue in public.But it is not an exaggeration to say that the death in office of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg shortly before Trump lost the election was a disaster for liberals and fundamentally reshaped the nation. Democrats are desperate that the same thing doesn’t happen again, one reason why they hope Breyer retires while Biden still has a good chance of replacing him. It wouldn’t be a sure thing in a 50-50 Senate. But a Biden nominee ought to squeak through.
Playing the midterm long-game
Most political strategists believe McConnell’s work in holding a Supreme Court seat open in 2016 helped galvanize social conservative turnout around Trump, despite his lack of a long record of support for such causes and a checkered personal life.It is possible that this time McConnell’s goading could serve to fire up Democratic activists and stoke liberal turnout in the midterms. It’s curious however that the Supreme Court has never seemed to motivate progressives during elections in the same way it got conservatives to the polls. Maybe a conservative majority for years to come will change that.Another result of McConnell’s lightning rod comments may be to inflame Democratic angst and perhaps worsen simmering conflicts between the party’s progressives and moderates already hampering hopes for Biden’s agenda.His warning is already fueling concerns among liberals about attempts by the President to conclude a bipartisan infrastructure deal well below his initial specifications.After all, the case for doing a deal with Republicans whose leader is plotting to not just derail his presidency but is showing his hand in yet another bid to reshape the Supreme Court will be hard for liberals to take.
Renewing the filibuster debate
The Senate minority leader’s comments are also adding fresh momentum to the vocal but so far thwarted attempts by liberals to convince Democratic moderates to abolish Senate 60-vote filibuster rules that enable McConnell to use his minority to thwart Biden’s ambitious legislative plans.”Senator McConnell is single-mindedly focused on protecting the broken status quo that preserves his power and benefits his special interest allies,” said Eli Zupnick, spokesperson for Fix Our Senate, a coalition of groups seeking reform of the chamber.”This is just one more reminder that the filibuster must be eliminated as a partisan weapon Sen. McConnell can wield to continue his gridlock and obstruction.”The most fascinating thing about McConnell’s interview with Hewitt was that the longtime senator was talking as if he was the one in power, rather than Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. But in a way, he is, given the weight granted to the minority in the Senate by the filibuster.Many Democrats worry that if they don’t remove the need for a 60-vote supermajority to pass their agenda, McConnell would do so in a future GOP Senate to pass a right-wing wish list of laws on guns, abortion and tax reform if the GOP also controls the House.But he insisted that he was committed to Senate traditions.”It requires us to have a 60-vote majority to do things. That’s been the way the Senate’s been for quite a long time. President Trump wanted me to get rid of it, and I said politely, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ ” McConnell told Hewitt.Such respect for the Senate is seen by many of McConnell’s critics as conflicting with his handling of Supreme Court nominees. After all, McConnell responded to Democrats eliminating the filibuster for judicial picks by applying the exception to Supreme Court justices. That move as majority leader in 2017 paved the way for what is likely to be his most lasting legacy — a conservative Supreme Court that endures for years.For such a prize, he’ll happily endure no end of liberal condemnation.
WASHINGTON — Sen. Christopher S. Murphy concedes that political rhetoric in the nation’s capital can sometimes stray into hysteria, but when it comes to the precarious state of American democracy, he insisted he was not exaggerating the nation’s tilt toward authoritarianism.
“Democrats are always at risk of being hyperbolic,” said Murphy, D-Conn. “I don’t think there’s a risk when it comes to the current state of democratic norms.”
After the norm-shattering presidency of Donald Trump, the violence-inducing bombast over a stolen election, the pressuring of state vote counters, the Capitol riot and the flood of voter curtailment laws rapidly being enacted in Republican-run states, Washington has found itself in an anguished state.
Almost daily, Democrats warn that Republicans are pursuing racist, Jim Crow-inspired voter suppression efforts to disenfranchise tens of millions of citizens, mainly people of color, in a cynical effort to grab power. Metal detectors sit outside the House chamber to prevent lawmakers — particularly Republicans who have boasted of their intention to carry guns everywhere — from bringing weaponry to the floor. Democrats regard their Republican colleagues with suspicion, believing that some of them collaborated with the rioters on Jan. 6.
Republican lawmakers have systematically downplayed or dismissed the dangers, with some breezing over the attack on the Capitol as a largely peaceful protest, and many saying the state voting law changes are to restore “integrity” to the process, even as they give credence to Trump’s false claims of rampant fraud in the 2020 election.
They shrug off Democrats’ warnings of grave danger as the overheated language of politics as usual.
“I haven’t understood for four or five years why we are so quick to spin into a place where part of the country is sure that we no longer have the strength to move forward, as we always have in the past,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of Republican leadership, noting that the passions of Republican voters today match those of Democratic voters after Trump’s triumph. “Four years ago, there were people in the so-called resistance showing up in all of my offices every week, some of whom were chaining themselves to the door.”
For Democrats, the evidence of looming catastrophe mounts daily. Fourteen states, including politically competitive ones like Florida and Georgia, have enacted 22 laws to curtail early and mail-in ballots, limit polling places and empower partisans to police polling, then oversee the vote tally. Others are likely to follow, including Texas, with its huge share of House seats and electoral votes.
Because Republicans control the legislatures of many states where the 2020 census will force redistricting, the party is already in a strong position to erase the Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the House. Even moderate voting-law changes could bolster Republicans’ chances for the net gain of one vote they need to take back the Senate.
And in the nightmare outcome promulgated by some academics, Republicans have put themselves in a position to dictate the outcome of the 2024 presidential election if the voting is close in swing states.
“Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations,” 188 scholars said in a statement expressing concern about the erosion of democracy.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who lectured on American politics at Bowdoin College before going to the Senate, put the moment in historical context. He called American democracy “a 240-year experiment that runs against the tide of human history,” and that tide usually leads from and back to authoritarianism.
He said he feared the empowerment of state legislatures to decide election results more than the troubling curtailments of the franchise.
“This is an incredibly dangerous moment, and I don’t think it’s being sufficiently realized as such,” he said.
Republicans contend that much of this is overblown, though some concede the charges sting. Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said Democrats were playing a hateful race card to promote voting-rights legislation that is so extreme it would cement Democratic control of Congress for decades.
“I hope that damage isn’t being done,” he added, “but it is always very dangerous to falsely play the race card and let’s face it, that’s what’s being done here.”
Toomey, who voted to convict Trump at his second impeachment trial, said he understood why, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, states sharply liberalized voting rules in 2020, extending mail-in voting, allowing mailed ballots to be counted days after Election Day and setting up ballot drop boxes, curbside polls and weeks of early voting.
But he added that Democrats should understand why state election officials wanted to course correct now that the coronavirus was ebbing.
“Every state needs to strike a balance between two competing values: making it as easy as possible to cast legitimate votes, but also the other, which is equally important: having everybody confident about the authenticity of the votes,” Toomey said.
Trump’s lies about a stolen election, he added, “were more likely to resonate because you had this system that went so far the other way.”
Some other Republicans embrace the notion that they are trying to use their prerogatives as a minority party to safeguard their own power. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said the endeavor was the essence of America’s system of representative democracy, distinguishing it from direct democracy, where the majority rules and is free to trample the rights of the minority unimpeded.
“The idea of democracy and majority rule really is what goes against our history and what the country stands for,” Paul said. “The Jim Crow laws came out of democracy. That’s what you get when a majority ignores the rights of others.”
Democrats and their allies push back hard on those arguments. King said the only reason voters lacked confidence in the voting system was that Republicans — especially Trump — told them for months that it was rigged, despite all evidence to the contrary, and now continued to insist that there were abuses in the process that must be fixed.
“That’s like pleading for mercy as an orphan after you killed both your parents,” he said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in no way could some of the new state voting laws be seen as a necessary course correction. “Not being able to serve somebody water who’s waiting in line? I mean, come on,” he said. “There are elements that are in most of these proposals where you look at it and you say, ‘That violates the common-sense test.’”
Missteps by Democrats have fortified Republicans’ attempts to downplay the dangers. Some of them, including President Joe Biden, have mischaracterized Georgia’s voting law, handing Republicans ammunition to say that Democrats were willfully distorting what was happening at the state level.
The state’s 98-page voting law, passed after the narrow victories for Biden and two Democratic candidates for Senate, would make absentee voting harder and create restrictions and complications for millions of voters, many of them people of color.
But Biden falsely claimed that the law — which he labeled “un-American” and “sick” — had slapped new restrictions on early voting to bar people from voting after 5 p.m. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said the Georgia law had ended early voting on Sunday. It didn’t.
And the sweep — critics say overreach — of the Democrats’ answer to Republican voter laws, the For the People Act, has undermined Democratic claims that the fate of the republic relies on its passage. Even some Democrats are uncomfortable with the act’s breadth, including an advancement of statehood for the District of Columbia with its assurance of two more senators, almost certainly Democratic; its public financing of elections; its nullification of most voter identification laws; and its mandatory prescriptions for early and mail-in voting.
“They want to put a thumb on the scale of future elections,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Wednesday. “They want to take power away from the voters and the states, and give themselves every partisan advantage that they can.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who could conceivably be a partner in Democratic efforts to expand voting rights, called the legislation a “fundamentally unserious” bill.
Republican leaders have sought to take the current argument from the lofty heights of history to the nitty-gritty of legislation. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, pointed to the success of bipartisan efforts such as passage of a bill to combat hate crimes against Asian Americans, approval of a broad China competition measure and current talks to forge compromises on infrastructure and criminal justice as proof that Democratic catastrophizing over the state of American governance was overblown.
But Democrats are not assuaged.
“Not to diminish the importance of the work we’ve done here, but democracy itself is what we’re talking about,” said Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii. “And to point at other bills that don’t have to do with the fair administration of elections is just an attempt to distract while all these state legislatures move systematically toward disenfranchising voters who have historically leaned Democrat.”
King said he had had serious conversations with Republican colleagues about the precarious state of American democracy. Authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban and Adolf Hitler have come to power by election, and stayed in power by warping or obliterating democratic norms.
But, he acknowledged, he has yet to get serious engagement, largely because his colleagues fear the wrath of Trump and his supporters.
“I get the feeling they hope this whole thing will go away,” he said. “They make arguments, but you have the feeling their hearts aren’t in it.”
GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio on Monday appeared to criticize President Joe Biden for attending the Group of Seven and NATO summits in recent days, saying that the president should instead focus his energies on the US-Mexico border.
“While President Biden pals around with his buddies in Europe, the border crisis rages at home,” Jordan, a conservative lawmaker and staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, wrote on Twitter. This, despite Biden attending the same diplomatic summits that Trump did during his single term in office.
Biden attended the 47th G-7 summit in the English county of Cornwall this past weekend.
While at the summit, Biden joined the leaders of the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan in signing a joint communiqué that addressed topics varying from strategies to end the coronavirus pandemic to a guideline for fighting climate change and an examination of international law regarding online safety and hate speech.
Biden is now attending the NATO summit in Brussels.
Republicans, who have decried the increase in unauthorized border crossings since Biden took office, have used immigration issues as a rallying cry against the president for months.
Biden has sought to use his first trip abroad as president to reinstill confidence in the US as a global leader and ally after four chaotic years under Trump. The former president’s abrasive leadership style and tendency to aggressively challenge allies on issues such as trade and defense spending placed major strains on important partnerships. Recent polling has shown that the US’s global image has seen a boost with Biden at the helm as compared to the Trump era, particularly among European allies.
The former president’s approach to NATO at times raised concerns that he would move to withdraw the US from the historic alliance at a time of increased aggression from Russia. Trump also stirred up anxiety by suggesting the US would not come to the defense of a fellow NATO ally if it were attacked, which would mark a violation of the organization’s fundamental principle of collective defense that’s enshrined in Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty.
In a major departure from Trump and his rhetoric toward the alliance, Biden in comments to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday said that the US views Article 5 as a “sacred obligation.”
“I just want all of Europe to know that the United States is there. The United States is there,” Biden said.
“As a woman of faith, as a mother of baby Blake, as a person who meticulously prepared at some of the world’s hardest institutions, I never lied. I sourced my information, but that will never stop the press from calling you a liar.”
Out of seven McEnany claims reviewed by PolitiFact, just three were rated as “mostly true.” The rest were listed as either “half true,” “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire.” Last year, for example, she claimed Trump “never downplayed the virus” despite audio of him admitting to doing exactly that, in those exact words.
In some pockets of the United States, if you squint hard enough, the coronavirus pandemic might feel like it’s almost over. Larry Brilliant would beg to disagree. With U.S. COVID-19 deaths soon to surpass the domestic toll from the great influenza of a century ago even as widely available vaccines have worked wonders, Brilliant, the epidemiologist who worked with the WHO to help eradicate smallpox and was the science adviser for the eerily prescient film Contagion, thinks there’s still plenty left to worry about—but also lots of good news to appreciate.
In an hour-long interview that’s been edited for length and clarity, I asked him about why he thinks it’s too late to hope for herd immunity, and what he thinks we need to be doing now in what looks to be a long fight against a Forever Virus. We also ended up talking about MERS, SARS, Ebola, the “Spanish flu,” anti-maskers, biological warfare and Yogi Berra.
Harry Siegel: Let’s start with the big question: Why is it that you think COVID-19 isn’t going away, and does that mean the U.S. is in a bubble right now, as vaccines are being widely distributed here?
Larry Brilliant: Boy, I wish we could reach herd immunity. But there’s a number of reasons why we can’t. First and foremost, a virus that infects multiple species, animals and humans, and a virus that has multiple new variants, each one having the potential to reinfect people, is sort of disqualified from being a candidate to be eradicated. Because in both cases, the denominator keeps changing, of how many people could be exposed to the disease. If you’re exposed to or get vaccinated against the disease and then a new variant comes in that can still infect you, the concept of herd immunity no longer really applies. And if animals—and we’ve got 12 different species who’ve been infected with COVID-19, usually from humans—if they can harbor it, and then infect humans, then you can’t eradicate the disease like we’ve been unable to eradicate yellow fever, because monkeys get it and they just don’t like to put their arms out to get vaccinated, and it’s really tough to get them to stand in line.
How should Americans who’ve been vaccinated and are feeling a sense of relief and maybe going inside restaurants again or sending their kids under 12 to camp for the summer be thinking about all this and their behaviors?
If they’re like me, they’ll feel grateful. After an abysmal start in 2020—where America was part of the problem, as China was part of the problem, instead of being part of the solution—we’re getting there. President Biden at the G7 announced that we will supply 500 million doses of mRNA vaccines to the rest of the world that needs it the most, and I’m very proud of that. And we should be very proud of the mRNA vaccines. When I was at Google, we used to say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and the mRNA vaccines and the speed with which they were made are, in many ways, magic. We shouldn’t forget that the scientists working on mRNA vaccines had been working on them for 10 years, and almost had an mRNA vaccine against MERS [the Middle Eastern Repository Syndrome that was first identified in 2012]. And that’s what helped us to get off of the starting line so quickly.
Just think about this: It took us well over 200 years after we had a vaccine before we could eradicate smallpox, 70 years after we had a vaccine against polio before we could have a global polio program. And by January, really, a year from the day that COVID-19 began, we already got the start of a global vaccination program. It’s astonishing, and we should feel really grateful. Those of us who’ve been vaccinated, I think many would share the feeling I had when I had my second dose, and just felt like a load was off my shoulders.
Beachgoers flock to Clearwater Beach during spring break, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, in Clearwater, Florida, U.S. March 19, 2021.REUTERS/Octavio Jones
But while feeling grateful, we shouldn’t misunderstand the situation we’re in. It’s a Dickensian moment. It’s the best of times, because we’ve got the vaccines, and it’s the worst of times, because of the people who don’t have the vaccine. You can’t help but look at the funeral pyres burning in India and Nepal and contrast that to Americans, joyfully ripping off our masks and going to the beach for a summer holiday, without understanding that it’s a tale not of two cities but of two worlds, and two lived experiences.
The body of someone who died from COVID-19 lies on a funeral pyre during a mass cremation, at a crematorium in New Delhi, India May 1, 2021.REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Could that second world, the one consumed with illness and suffering right now, return to America with the mutations? I mean, you’re writing about variants that could be more transmissible, or could be vaccine resistant, or could even be able to evade the tests we have now.
They’re already back. I mean, all the variants—the alpha, beta, gamma and delta variants—are all back in the United States. In my county, Marin County in California, when I looked a couple of weeks ago, 30 percent of all the cases here were the British variant, the B.1.1.7, and that’s the alpha variant, but we also had the beta and gamma and delta, the others that we call variants of concern.
It’s likely that if a super-variant, a variant of high consequences, as WHO calls it, emerges anywhere in the world—including, you know, in Canton, Ohio, it doesn’t have to arise from an exotic place far away—it will be everywhere. It is the nature of a new variant. What makes a new variant succeed is that it outpaces all the prior variants, all the ancestral strains, and then infects all the people we have in our community who haven’t been vaccinated. Even many, perhaps, who’ve had the disease before. What we fear the most is that kind of a variant that will infect people who’ve already been vaccinated, and that the vaccines will turn out to not be effective against it.
And we have a reason for concern: that we already have one vaccine that, when matched against one variant, becomes 90 percent ineffective. And that’s the AstraZeneca vaccine matched against the beta variant, the South African variant. In trials, its effectiveness is reduced to 10 or 20 percent. It’s perfectly effective against other variants, but just not against that one. This should be a big red light blinking for us, that one variant has rendered one vaccine ineffective. We have a reason to be concerned that it could happen again with a new variant, and that new version could in fact render all vaccines we have to date ineffective.
I don’t think that’s a very high risk—it’s not a 50 percent risk, but it’s a non-zero risk, and Harry, if I told you that there was a 5 percent risk that if you drove from wherever you are to the closest Starbucks, that you’d be killed in that car, you wouldn’t go. You’d walk! And there’s a non-zero risk that we’ll have a super-variant like that. I don’t want to exaggerate it. I don’t want it to be the thing that everybody thinks about all the time, but epidemiologists have to think about it sometimes.
So, in a war, there’s a national mobilization; with the virus, outside of the medical world, there were shutdowns. Now, as things are reopening here, and with these concerns you’re talking about looming, what can we be doing to brace for what could be coming with a variant or the next pandemic?
We should realize that if 30 percent of Americans are not vaccinated, that’s 120 million people. And that’s plenty for the virus—the ancestral virus, let alone a novel virus, let alone a super-variant—to come in and create another wave, and a large one at that. So we need to have a defensive capability, a system of cluster-busters. That’s the term I’m borrowing from the Japanese, who use it to define teams that are mobile, that have highly computerized systems to have a situational report like a battlefield commander would have or like a CEO would have, and can see where every variant is.
We can find out where every variant is. We can find asymptomatics. We need to be doing sewage sampling, environmental sampling. Columbia University does this for all of their dorms. It’s very inexpensive once it’s set up. We need this to find out which countries are infected.
We’ve done that in the polio program—this is not new! In the polio program, when we found out that Syria, which was supposedly free of polio, had causative viruses in the sewage, we sequenced the viruses to find out which polio variant it was. We did this 15 or 20 years ago—this is not science fiction. We should, all over the United States, have sewage sampling now. Because this virus is going to be with us for years or decades, and the variants are likely to return, and there will be new pandemic viruses. Why not? Why not have sewage sampling everywhere, especially in the cities, and be able to do virus sequencing to know what the variant is?
And we should be using exposure notification systems. I know there was a big article in TheNew York Times a few weeks ago about how bad they are. They’re not bad, they’re wonderful. We learned from scientists at Cambridge and in the U.K. that exposure notification systems, when compared to human contact-tracing systems, found two times as many contacts for people who are exposed (four, compared to two) and found them two days earlier. Well, that’s a lifetime for an epidemiologist. Then we’ll know who to test, who to isolate, and who to vaccinate.
There’s a whole host of electronic symptom-surveillance systems, we call them syndromic-surveillance systems, and I’ll name a few of them: Outbreaks Near Me, Flu Near You, How We Feel—and GPHIN, the first of these digital disease-detection systems, which was how we found the original SARS. These are opt-in, voluntary systems where if somebody reports that they’ve got a fever or the symptoms of COVID-19, you can send them an email or text: When did you get sick? Do you know about the doctor here? Can I tell you about a vaccine there?
Adding in testing, tracing, and isolation on top of situational awareness, a good digital disease detection, a good surveillance system, we can do it differently than we did before because of the COVID stimulus package. This is all doable. We’ve done every one of these things in part. What we have to do now is put it together. And the worst part, and the hardest part, is we’ve got to put it together at a time when everyone is feeling like we’re through with this disease, we’re over it, we can go to the beach.
And then the testing that we do is so much better now. In addition to PCR testing, we’ve got rapid PCRs and viral sequencing. So a baseline of surveillance, and then containment of the outbreak. And the containment will include better isolation and just-in-time vaccination—but vaccination with a vaccine that matches the variant.
Larry Brilliant, President, Skoll Urgent Threats Fund; Philanthropic Adviser to Jeff Skoll and Google.org, speaks during “The Swine Flu Epidemic: How Serious Is the Threat?” panel at the 2009 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California April 28, 2009.REUTERS/Phil McCarten
One of the big issues last year internationally and within the United States was coordination between different governments and levels of government. In your Foreign Policy piece, you call for a single database for anonymized demographic epidemiological and sequencing data. But in New York City, where I am, the governor and the mayor can’t even agree on the most basic data, like the daily death count. And obviously some nations—China comes to mind here—have been much more secretive about their data. Is the answer here technologies or apps that route around governments, or what is the answer in a time of rising nationalism and suspicion of international or collaborative bodies?
If it’s any consolation, in every pandemic, almost every country has been secretive about whether they were infected or not. I give you as evidence the Spanish flu, which started in Kansas. You don’t call it the Kansas flu or the French flu or the British flu, even though those countries also had it, because all those countries were fighting in World War I, and they had military censorship. They were forbidden to tell other countries that their armed forces might be weakened by having a disease. But poor Spain was neutral, they had no reason to lie. So when a member of the royal family got it, they just kind of innocently did the right thing and I guess no good deed goes unpunished, so it got labeled the Spanish flu. It’s always the case that people hide diseases in a pandemic, and especially in wartime.
When SARS hit China, if it weren’t for that digital disease surveillance system, GPHIN, which by the way is a Canadian system, we never would have found it as quickly as we did—the original SARS. So what you’re describing is not new.
I think Trump took it to an entirely new level when he—the most reliable data is hospitalization data. It’s very difficult to get accurate death data, it’s very difficult to get accurate case data, especially when they’re asymptomatics. Hospitalization data is easier to get, and is more reliable, so what Trump did was he stopped letting anybody get that data. If you remember, he rerouted that data from CDC to Palantir. I can’t even imagine what was behind that story, but why did he want to do that? Recall, when that cruise ship docked in Oakland, with Americans who had COVID-19 on it, Trump said I don’t want it to touch American territory because if it docks and touches American territory, they’ll be counted against my score. I mean, what world are we living in? Don’t count, don’t find Americans who are sick from COVID-19, because it will be counted against my score?
But this is not new, and Trump is not the first person to do this. Half the reason we’re having this explosion of cases in India compared to what we had before is that India didn’t do a very good job of reporting the cases. Surprise. China under-reported cases. This is not new.
So we need to find ways to aggregate data, because we’re really in this for the long haul. I wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal about a decade ago called The Age of Pandemics, and we now live in the age of pandemics, whether we like it or not, and we need to protect ourselves. Yes, we should be celebrating that we have this amazing mRNA technology and these vaccines. But you are never going to have a vaccine on the day that a novel virus leaps out from a chimpanzee or a mink to a human. On that day, the only thing you have is early detection and rapid response and isolation. If you’re lucky, you have an antiviral if it’s a virus that’s been hanging around on a shelf from some other disease, but you’re probably not going to be lucky.
The future is going to be—animals and humans are living in each other’s territory now, in a way that we haven’t done. I just heard the other day that 60 percent of the animals that we had 40, 50 years ago are gone, because humans are eating animals, including monkeys and rodents, bushmeat. And 30 years ago in China, the number of pigs and cows that were available for food was a fraction of what it is right now. But to get there, we’ve had to cut down the rainforests and build up soy plantations, and by cutting down the forest, we’re living right next to animals.
We tried to portray this in a movie that I was science adviser on, called Contagion. And if you remember the last scene, that Steven Soderbergh put in as the genius that he is, it is exactly that, it’s cutting the forest and a bat, losing its habitat, flying to a barn and eating an apple and a pig eating the apple that the bat dropped. That’s transmission. In that case, the pig would have been the animal that we’re searching for in COVID-19, but because we live in the world in which humans and animals are getting closer and closer together—there’s actually a whole branch now called One Health, which is a kind of big deal, with scientists who are convinced that animal health, human health, and environmental health all have to be looked at as one piece. That’s important for looking at the future of disease transmission.https://www.youtube.com/embed/BwJvtbmlriA
Every year, two to five novel viruses jump from animals to humans. And these are viruses that could infect humans, and might become transmissible. Every year, we’re facing the drip, drip, drip of the risk of another pandemic. We might as well use this one to get good at it, because this risk is not going away. The last I looked, we haven’t changed our living practices to reduce the overlap between humans and animals.
Is summer travel likely to cause significant problems again this year?
Summer travel last year caused the explosion that we saw in the fall. If a third of the population, 30 percent, is not vaccinated, not wearing masks, and we’ve already got the variants in the United States—what do you think’s going to happen? Remember, what drives a virus is not how good we’ve been at vaccinating 60 percent. It’s the 120 million Americans who are not vaccinated, not wearing masks, not practicing social distancing, and who are congregating. And it only takes one little virus, and it’s everywhere, because they’re just not protected. Of those who aren’t vaccinated but had the virus, a high percentage have already lost their immunity or have waning immunity—there’s much less and much less durable immunity from getting the disease than from getting the vaccine.
How worried should we be about the big discrepancy in the U.S. between vaccination in the northern and southern states, a year out from the big surge in the south?
You know, Yogi Berra said it’s very difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future. However, I am extremely worried that the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year cadence will bring about another wave this year. I look at Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi—the states that have been tepid about wearing masks, anti-vax, late to close, and early to open. That’s a formula for creating risk. And it’s true that if we don’t have any viruses anywhere in the country, those states will get the derivative benefit of the prudence of other states, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.
What countries are you concerned may be next in line to be hit hard now, or is that back in Yogi territory?
We have to worry about the parts of Africa that are densely populated. South Africa is an example of a country that became an explosive outbreak almost overnight. It had a new variant.
By the way, I’m pretty optimistic that we’re going to get a handle on this disease, that we’re going to have booster shots, and we’re going to shame or convince the world to help build vaccine manufacturing plants all over the world. America just charitably promised 500 million doses, which is a wonderful thing, but far better would be that we help build vaccine manufacturing facilities all over Africa, all over Latin America, all over Asia, where they don’t have it. That would be better.
We want to be able to manufacture them all over the world. That’s the way you deal with a global pandemic. But you mentioned earlier, because of nationalism, because of people focused on their own community, we misunderestimate this virus. We don’t understand that we’re all just meat, and it travels everywhere.
How far have we come since 1918?
H1N1, the virus that caused the great influenza, went around the world four times in one year. And you know what there was not then? Commercial airplanes. You know, you don’t want to underestimate your adversary.
I’m not sure if it’s a West Coast thing, but I know San Francisco and L.A. both closed their schools in 1918, and New York City, where the Department of Health was led by Royal Copeland, a homeopath, kept the schools open on the argument that the kids were actually safer there because they could be effectively monitored and surveilled, and otherwise you have lots of kids who are coming from tenements with bad circulation. Copeland ended up becoming a senator and fought very hard to get air conditioning into the Senate chamber which didn’t have it and apparently was unbearably hot. Forgive me, that’s random information as I’m processing here.
No, no, I’ll give you a random one back which is, you know, I worked so hard on smallpox and my colleagues, we worked very hard, and the last case of Variola major in nature was Bhola Island, October of 1975, a little girl named Rahima Banu. And when her scabs fell off and her coughs stopped, that was the end of an unbroken chain of transmission of Variola major going back to the pharaohs. And we celebrated.
Variola major was the disease that killed off the Native Americans. In New England, when you get to an old cemetery from the 1700 or 1800s, you’ll see right near it an annex that’s called Pox Acres. That’s mostly where the Indians were buried who picked up blankets from Jeffrey Amherst, after whom the city and the college are named, and who was the first bioterrorist in American history.
Back to 1975, we worked so hard and we declared smallpox eliminated, and we began the clock ticking. We weren’t going to declare it eradicated until two years would have passed after the last case. And, well, before the two-year clock had ticked, we had our last case. And our last death was in Birmingham, England, and it was a young woman who was a photographer, and her photographic studio was located above a lab, a smallpox lab, and the virus somehow got into the air conditioning system and floated up through the smallpox lab and infected her and she died.
That was the last case of smallpox, and whenever I’m asked about Wuhan, I say, if we were so careless that the last death of smallpox was a lab accident, it could be anywhere, a lab accident, we just don’t know. But that’s another air conditioning response to your anecdote. I mean, this world of diseases is so filled with stories. You know, Conquistadors probably killed one out of every two Aztecs, just huge numbers that we can’t even count, because they’ve got smallpox. We should never underestimate these diseases that we sort of lost familiarity with because modernity has given us cleanliness and hygiene and vaccines.
That said, there’s happy news. Seven years ago it took us six months to find Ebola as the cause of that novel outbreak. And on average, it took six months to find any virus with pandemic potential that spilled over from animals. Today, it takes two or three weeks. That’s huge. It gives you the appearance of more outbreaks, but it gives you time to respond to bird flu or swine flu or a coronavirus or whatever the next pandemic is going to be. We’ve already got a global program. It may be uncoordinated, it may not have leadership, we’ve got all those problems, but we do have a global program, and we have a vaccine. Lots of good news.
I remember Trump, in the midst of Ebola and before he was president, tweeting his fears about this in real time and blasting Obama. I also remember (then New Jersey Gov. Chris) Christie quarantining a returning nurse who had no symptoms at all.
Ebola is one of the diseases that I worry the least about. It’s a bloodborne disease, or it’s a disease spread by sharing vital fluids, and there’s no asymptomatics, and it kills a lot of people who get it. So if you were a virus and choosing the attributes that you wanted, smallpox would be ideal, because it spreads like wildfire and is to some extent more contagious than the original COVID-19, and it kills one out of three. COVID-19 made good choices, seeing from its perspective, trying to perpetuate its life. By having asymptomatics and a very short incubation period—it can be two to 14 days, average is six.
Just as an aside, one of my happiest days in epidemiology was in training Kate Winslet how to stand at that blackboard (in Contagion) and explain what R naught means. R naught is really critical. It’s the definition of the number of secondary cases that come from a primary case, which tells you, because this virus is going to spread at exponential speed, it tells you what’s the exponent. In the case of measles, one case gives rise to 10 to 12 others. In the case of influenza or Ebola, one case gives rise to about 1.2 or 1.3. These are laggards. Measles is the most transmissible. Smallpox was 3.5 to 4.5 and COVID-19, initially was thought to be 2 or 3. I think in retrospect, now that we know we were missing all these asymptomatics, it was originally 5 or 6. And each variant increases that. So this is a bit wonky, but the formula for herd immunity is one minus one divided by R naught. So if R naught is 10, as it is for measles, herd immunity is one minus one over 10, or 90 percent of people have got to be immunized. If R naught is two, then it’s one minus one over two or 50 percent of the population.https://www.youtube.com/embed/X-YR3UlH3aA
The theory is that what drives an epidemic is the density of susceptibles, it isn’t the number of people who are vaccinated. So if a disease transmits very slowly, it doesn’t infect very many people, then you don’t have to vaccinate that many people to stop it. But if it transmits incredibly quickly, then you have to vaccinate a huge number of people to stop it because you have to reduce the number of people who are susceptible to it.
Early on in the epidemic, when the first report out of Wuhan was that the R naught was 2 or 3, people were saying how we could get to herd immunity with only 50 or 67 percent of the population vaccinated. It was always ludicrous to think that we could do what Sweden was proposing, to just let the virus run through and infect everybody. I mean, we already have 600,000 deaths.
We’re about to pass the number of deaths that the United States had from the 1918 great influenza [the CDC says the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans; while COVID-19 has killed about 600,000]. Yes, the population has tripled from what it was then. But that doesn’t matter—there are as many grieving families with COVID-19 as there were with the great influenza. And we’re just starting with COVID-19.
What is it Churchill said? This is not the end. It’s not the beginning of the end. But it’s the end of the beginning.
Sometimes people in Washington get it plain wrong!
If conservatives support police killing citizens without justification, climate denial, fact denial, science denial, racist and misogynistic behavior, or a litany of other absurd points of view about numerous important issues, we call them out.