Monday, June 29, 2020

An Open Letter to My Republican Friends

The election that is just over four months away is certainly the most important election in any of our lifetimes. I know that politics is a very divisive subject and that both feelings and loyalties run deep. But I would ask you to consider the reasons I give below for voting the current administration and its enablers out of office.
First, it is a matter of life and death for many Americans, and I am not engaging in hyperbole here. I am being very literal. Let’s look at a few numbers. As of Sunday, June 28, 2020, according to Worldometer, there have been 502,539 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Of those deaths, 128,211 have occurred in the United States. What that means is that the U.S., with 4.2 percent of the world’s population (328.2 million), has experienced 25.5 percent of the world’s deaths. By comparison, let’s look at a few other countries:
Germany: population, 83 million (1.1%); deaths, 9,026 (1.8%)
Canada: population, 37.6 million (0.5%); deaths, 8,516 (1.7%)
Denmark: population, 5.8 million (0.07%); deaths, 604 (0.12%)
Switzerland: population, 8.6 million (0.11%); deaths, 1,962 (0.39%)
Sweden: population, 10.2 million (0.13%); deaths, 5,280 (1.1%)
Japan: population, 126.5 million (1.6%); deaths, 971 (0.19%)
New Zealand: population, 4.9 million (0.06%); deaths, 22 (0.004%)
South Korea: population, 51.6 million (0.66%); deaths, 282 (0.06%)
Taiwan: population, 23.8 million (0.3%); deaths, 7 (0.0014%)
There are certainly countries that have intentionally underreported their deaths, likely Russia and China among them. And there are many Third World countries where reporting is probably limited due to lack of resources. But the countries listed above are probably reporting as reliably as they can, although U.S. numbers are certainly underreported. There are also other countries that are performing poorly. Brazil, for instance, with 209.5 million residents (2.7%), has reported 57,149 deaths (11.4%). I can’t help but wonder if Brazil’s rising death total has something to do with the fact that our South American neighbor has a Trump-like president who has been leading a coronavirus denial movement in Brazil. If you add the two countries’ totals together, Brazil and the United States have 6.9 percent of the world’s population but have experienced 36.9 percent of the world’s reported coronavirus deaths.
One study from Columbia University has indicated that if the U.S. had responded just two weeks earlier, we would have saved 54,000 lives. But during this time, Trump was more concerned about the stock market and how it would affect his re-election chances than about the lives of the citizens he was elected to serve. Denial and baseless happy talk were the order of the day. When he finally came around to recognizing the severity of the situation, he reluctantly called for social-distancing guidelines but did not call for the sort of testing and contact tracing that would have enabled us to shut down the virus as many more prepared nations have done. He left that up to the states, who did not have the resources to put such testing and contact tracing into effect quickly and ended up competing against each other for necessary supplies. What Trump did do was conduct daily press briefings that looked more like campaign events, at which he rambled on and on, often spouting nonsense, while the medical experts stood uncomfortably behind him and tried to keep from cringing. He finally stopped this charade when his advisors convinced him they were damaging his re-election prospects. Eventually, after his own administration had issued guidelines for reopening the economy, Trump was the head cheerleader for states to actually ignore those guidelines and open prematurely. We are now experiencing the results of this recklessness. Those states that ignored Trump are still on a downward slope in new cases and deaths. States that jumped in with both feet, as it were, such as Arizona, Texas, Florida, and South Carolina, are experiencing a massive surge in cases and hospitalizations. Arizona’s numbers, in fact, exceed Brazil’s. The experts have been telling us all along that in order to save the economy, we first have to contain the virus. Trump has tried to do it backward, and the results are looking disastrous. Essentially, his words and example have led to counterproductive behavior on the part of many Americans.
So let’s talk about masks. I’m sure some of my Republican friends could cite fringe studies showing that mask-wearing doesn’t have much of an effect one way or the other. But almost all the evidence points to the benefits of masking up. Let’s be honest. It is virtually impossible to conduct a randomized, controlled trial (RCT) on wearing face masks. And, as the Salt Lake Tribune’s excellent COVID reporter Andy Larsen pointed out, it would probably be unethical to ask a control group to not wear masks. So we have to look at other evidence, such as the case trends in states with mask directives as opposed to the trends in states without such directives. The trends, not surprisingly, go in opposite directions. Because of the mounting evidence, the medical profession is almost unanimously behind the wearing of masks. But you won’t find Trump wearing one or encouraging his rally attendees to wear them. Consequently, the wearing of masks has turned into a partisan issue. Like global warming, it never should have been.
I am moving my 95-year-old father from rehab into assisted living this week. He fell and broke his hip four weeks ago. In preparation for this move, my wife and I took our masks and ventured out to Walmart to buy several items he would need. I was saddened and rather uneasy to see that about 70 percent of the shoppers at Walmart were not wearing masks. And this was one day after Utah set a record for new COVID-19 cases. I know there are many reasons why people do not wear masks in public, but a lot of them are political and partisan. I’ve even heard people say, “The government has no right to tell me what to do.” This is stupid on an order of magnitude I can’t even describe. I suspect these same folks would not go out and protest the government-imposed speed limit in the school zone in their neighborhood. Nor would they drive 60 miles per hour through the zone when the warning lights are flashing. But they are perfectly willing to give me a dose of the coronavirus as I do some necessary shopping at Walmart. For some, it’s just an inconvenience. I have no patience for those who, like Trump, place their own perceived needs above everyone else’s.
The pandemic, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg with this president. But it is the most visible evidence that he is monumentally unfit to occupy the White House, as a growing number of his former administration officials are testifying (or writing books about). Anyone who votes for him is voting for another four years of incompetence on a grand scale and corruption like we have never seen in an administration. After eight virtually scandal-free years of No-Drama Obama, with Trump we have seen one major scandal after another, interspersed with an endless parade of minor outrages. Whether insulting our allies, sucking up to brutal dictators, waging trade wars that have decimated U.S. farmers, locking refugees in cages, politicizing the Department of Justice, rolling back pollution regulations, filing a lawsuit that would end health-care protections for people with pre-existing conditions, illegally diverting Pentagon funds to build a needless wall that Mexico was going to pay for (LOL), asking foreign governments to help him get re-elected, profiteering off his office, or using the military to attack peaceful protesters, Donald Trump has been a disastrous president, uninterested in acquiring the knowledge he needs or trusting the experts who have that knowledge in order to make difficult decisions.
But there are other reasons for voting both Trump and his enablers out of office. First among them is to save the Republican Party, if that is even possible at this late date. I am a Democrat, but I used to be a Republican, before the party took a hard right turn and went off the cliff. Although I do not agree with many conservative principles, I do see the need for a strong conservative party based on those principles. That party started to go astray 40 years ago when Reagan became enthralled with supply-side economics, and it has gone further astray over time as it has become the alternative-facts party, the science denial party, the economic fantasy party, the cruelty party, and the not-so-subtly racist and xenophobic party.
Republicans, I want you to ask yourselves what your party’s solutions are for health care. Ask yourselves how many Germans or Swiss or Danes or Japanese or South Koreans or New Zealanders, or Italians lost their health insurance due to the pandemic. The answer, of course, is zero. But how many Americans did? One estimate is 27 million. Add this to the 28 million who already did not have health insurance and you get a pretty frightening picture about how “exceptional” America really is. And if Trump’s lawsuit succeeds, some estimate that another 30 million people with pre-existing conditions will lose their insurance. All that Republicans have to offer in return is the argument that Medicare for All would cost too much. But if every other developed country on earth can offer health care to 100 percent of its citizens, why can’t we? And they do it at half the cost of our “system” and get better results.
This leads, of course, to one of the most popular bogeyman the Republicans trot out every so often: socialism. Socialized medicine is just the first step on the path to Venezuela or Cuba! I’ve heard this countless times. Interesting, isn’t it, though, how socialized medicine did not lead to communism for Germany or Norway or Japan or Great Britain or South Korea or any of the other countries that enjoy full and less-expensive health care. In fact, my German friends consider themselves far more free in terms of acquiring needed health care than we Americans are with our employer-based, provider-network-restricted, for-profit system of carefully orchestrated care denial. But since Joe Biden will certainly be accused of caving in to the socialists in his party, let’s talk about socialism.
A story might help put this discussion in a realistic context. Back in 1984, five years before the Berlin Wall came down, my wife and I ventured into communist East Berlin one summer day. We saw people standing in lines a block long to buy produce. We purchased a very unappetizing lunch at a state-run cafeteria. We stopped at an ice cream shop on Unter den Linden and found they were out of almost everything on the menu by 4:00 in the afternoon. We tried to spend our obligatory 50 Ostmarks at the largest department store in East Berlin (each visitor was required to exchange 25 Westmarks for 25 Ostmarks at the border, even though the Ostmark had a fraction of the Westmark’s value); we failed to find anything we wanted, except a cheap noodle press and a metric measuring cup. The majority of our 50 Ostmarks we exchanged back into Westmarks when we left, but at the real exchange rate. We watched poorly built Trabants motor loudly up and down the streets of East Berlin, belching out foul fumes. Soldiers with automatic weapons were everywhere. The buildings were rundown, many of them still boasting bullet holes from the war that had ended almost 40 years before. Needless to say, we were not impressed with communism, and we were extremely happy to return to the hustle and plenty of West Berlin. We ate at a small Slavic restaurant in Neukölln that evening, and I can still remember how ecstatic I was that my salad came complete with cucumbers and tomatoes. I could never have gotten a salad like that in the East, I exclaimed.
But the contrast here was not between communism and capitalism. It was a contrast between communism and socialism. For Germany in the 1980s was what Republicans would consider a socialist country, and it still is today. The problem here is a naïve and simplistic view of economic systems. In reality, there is not some monolithic system called capitalism. There are actually a variety of forms we could call capitalism, although pure capitalism (where all members of society are capitalists) does not yet exist. What we have are economies that fall along a spectrum between pure capitalism and socialism. We have various aspects of socialism in America: street maintenance, police and fire protection, public education, and Social Security, to name a few. And nobody (at least nobody in their right mind) would want to privatize all these functions of civilized society and turn them over to the capitalists. Nobody, including the most rapacious and cutthroat business, wants a purely free market. Without consistent and sensible government regulations, the free market would break down in short order. So don’t fall for the right-wing fear-mongering about “Socialism!” There are instead many forms of hybrid capitalism-socialism. Germany’s particular recipe, for instance, is more socialist than ours is, and it happens to function a lot better in giving its citizens a prosperous and secure life. Germany has a strong economy with a trade surplus, but with less inequality and less debt.
Republicans are all in favor of the health insurance industry. But have they ever considered the principle upon which insurance operates? Basically, you have a large pool of people who pay monthly premiums (although often their employers pay the lion’s share). You also have a smaller number of people in any given month who require expensive medical procedures or treatments. It’s all a numbers game. Insurance companies calculate the risks based on past experience and current trends and set their rates accordingly. And they always factor in a percentage of profit as well as enough to cover all their administrative expenses. The underlying principle of so-called socialized medicine is the same. Except you have a much larger pool, and “premiums” are paid through taxes. Usually, in insurance, the larger the pool, the better. But in the case of government-run or -regulated health care, you don’t factor in any profit, and administrative costs are significantly lower. This is why other countries can offer better-quality health care to everyone in their countries at a significantly lower cost than we pay in America. Yes, there are imperfections in any system, and the Republicans always look for stories to illustrate how bad socialized medicine is. But name one developed country whose citizens would vote to replace their system with ours.
One of Trump’s main claims for re-electing him is that he created the “greatest economy” this country has ever seen. But this is simply not true. Trump rode the coattails of the Obama recovery from the Great Recession, and if you look at the numbers for Trump’s first three years and Obama’s last three, they are very comparable, except that Obama had consistently decreasing deficits, while Trump’s have consistently increased. We never did see the growth rates Trump boasted he would produce. According to Forbes magazine, GDP growth during Trump’s first three years was slightly lower than during Obama’s last three years. Other metrics show similar results. And Trump’s numbers benefit from a totally unneeded tax cut for the wealthy that added trillions to the national debt and did not increase business investment as Trump promised. Instead, they bought their own stock back. And yet for some reason, Americans overall think Trump would do better with the economy than Biden. This is perception based on baseless bragging and misinformation.
Of course, now that the economy has tanked because of the coronavirus (and America’s economy will certainly not rebound as fast as other countries that took appropriate measures to control the outbreak), Trump does not have even a relatively healthy economy to run on. He has pushed states to open prematurely, and now we are caught not in a second wave, but in an extended first wave that other countries are not experiencing. If you look at a comparison of Europe and Canada to the U.S., you can see how utterly irresponsible our response has been, especially in the red states that opened far too quickly and carelessly, including Utah. This chart produced for Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column illustrates the difference.

Trump has always placed his own interests ahead of the country’s, and this is simply more proof that it is the wrong approach. Trump is so desperate for an economic rebound to boost his re-election bid that he has failed to understand that you can’t have an economic recovery without controlling the virus first. He also does not understand that in a crisis like this, you score political points by doing the responsible thing, even if it is painful, and not by being overly and narcissistically aggressive. The polls bear this out. But is Trump capable of learning from experience? Or from evidence? No. If we put him in the White House for four more years, we are asking for a similar response to any other disaster that comes along. We can’t afford this.
I haven’t mentioned the Black Lives Matter protests, and I will not go into any detail on this topic other than to say that here also Trump is so wildly out of tune with what this country needs that he is simply showing his true colors, which lean racist and authoritarian. I would ask Republicans to consider this question: Which party attracts white supremacists and why? The answer is not pleasant, but it needs to be thoroughly examined and remedied.
Another question Republicans need to ask themselves is why their party is so involved in both extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression, particularly suppressing the votes of people of color. Since the conservative-leaning Supreme Court disemboweled the Voting Right Act of 1965 under the specious excuse that it’s no longer needed, several Republican-led states have done everything they can to keep minorities from voting. As Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts puts it, “With the Act out of the way, Republicans have unleashed an explosion of measures—purges, shutdown of early voting, attacks on absentee ballots, closure of polling places—all putatively to fight voter fraud. But in fixing a problem that doesn’t exist, the GOP, not accidentally, created one that is very real, making voting an endurance test for people of color. African Americans now wait longer to vote, have fewer places to do so and face more obstacles along the way than they have in 55 years.” Pitts continues, “Kentucky was never covered by the Act, but perhaps should have been based on its recent primary. The state closed almost all of its nearly 3,700 polling places, leaving voters with just 170, supposedly because of the coronavirus pandemic. Louisville, a city of 620,000 people, nearly one in four of them black, had just one polling place.” (See Pitts’s column here.) If a political party is secure in the relevance, appeal, and correctness of its message and policies, it would broadcast these widely and trust that their appeal would convince voters to embrace them. But if a party has to resort to voter suppression to win elections, it says worlds about its policies and its message.
As I mentioned up front, the 2020 election is the most important in any of our lives. You can be as partisan and tribal as you want and try to somehow persuade yourself that Trump is the “lesser of two evils,” but on almost any metric, this is absurd. If you value human decency, moral character, honesty, modesty, or compassion, Biden comes out way ahead. If you care about the earth and are concerned about global warming and pollution, you simply cannot vote for Trump. If you want a health-care system that includes all Americans and costs less than what we currently endure, you cannot vote Republican. If you want sensible gun laws (the kind the GOP supported until recent years), you have to vote for Biden (and no, “they” are not coming to take your guns awaythat’s another piece of convenient propaganda). If you value the Constitution, you cannot vote for Trump, who has undermined and attacked it almost unceasingly, probing here and there for ways to turn our system of balanced power into an autocratic system that satisfies his dictatorial instincts. With a compliant Senate, the firing of five inspector generals, and the politicizing of the Department of Justice, Trump has shown exactly how to undermine the Constitution. He wraps himself in the flag, but he is the most anti-American president imaginable. We cannot afford to embrace unaccountable power for four more years.
Another bit of propaganda you’ll hear from right-wing sources is that Joe Biden is old and mentally incapacitated in some way. They’ll play clips of him making some gaffe or garbling a sentence. Joe has always been a gaffe machine and has never been all that glib. But do the honest thing and look up a video of him giving a speech or granting an interview or participating in a townhall. You’ll find that he’s perfectly capable of stringing together lots of coherent sentences, something that Trump has trouble with. He understands the issues and can speak intelligently on them.
A recent survey offered some unsurprising information. Republicans, it found, largely trust only one news source: Fox News, which has a long track record of producing disinformation. Democrats, by contrast, generally trust five or six news sources. If you are getting your information solely from Fox News and right-wing radio and blogs, stop it. The Germans in the 1930s were deceived by the Goebbels propaganda machine. They had no choice, unless they, like the young Latter-day Saint Helmuth Hübener, surreptitiously listened to BBC broadcasts. But we have a choice today. Please choose to follow numerous unbiased or minimally biased news sources. Get enough information that you can see the truth.
And please consider that it is not enough to just not vote for Trump or his enablers. His defeat must be so convincing that the Republican Party will be forced to disavow everything he is and has done to undermine conservatism. In other words, you must vote Democrat. Perhaps it will be only this once. That is fine. But simply not voting for anyone, or writing in Ann Romney, is insufficient. In this case, silence is complicity. You owe it to the future of your country and your party to send this demagogue packing. Don’t be just another of his enablers. Don’t be on the wrong side of history, because history is not going to be kind to Donald Trump and his supporters.
I’ll close with the words of conservative columnist David Brooks: “I know a lot of people aren’t excited about him, but I thank God that Joe Biden is going to be nominated by the Democratic Party. He came to public life when it wasn’t about performing your zeal, it was about crafting coalitions and legislating. He exudes a spirit that is about empathy and friendship not animosity and canceling.”