Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Jun 23: Former national security adviser John Bolton publishes the widely leaked and shamelessly promoted The Room Where It Happened, a memoir about his time in the Trump White House which includes allegations of misconduct by the president. New York holds primary elections. 

Jun 24:  The U.S. records a record 45,557 one-day jump in coronavirus cases on Wednesday, according to an NBC News tally.*

From the Cutting Room Floor...

I woke up this morning thinking about the hope that underlies appeasement.

The outlines are widely told and retold. In 1938, Hitler demanded that Germany be allowed to annex a big chunk of neighboring Czechoslovakia, called the Sudetenland, without opposition from Germany’s old adversaries. At a conference in Munich, the British and French agreed to ignore the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia and allow Hitler’s armies to march in. He had already taken over Austria by then. The Prime Minister of Britain, Neville Chamberlain, returned to England in his bowler hat and ascot tie, waving a piece of paper, declaring that he had insured “peace in our time.” He was wrong, of course, and Hitler’s armies marched into Poland less than a year later. Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler has since become the example that we conjure when arguing that you can never negotiate with fascists and authoritarians. But the truth is that, at the time, appeasing Hitler made a lot of sense. People were traumatized by the First World War and desperate to avoid a repeat. They had second thoughts about the vindictive way they had treated Germany after WWI. They also saw Germany as a bulwark against rising communism in Europe. Most importantly, they really wanted everything to work out. They wanted to get back to their normal lives, without brinksmanship, mobilization, and the fear of what might happen tomorrow. And so, they chose to believe Hitler’s promises that he would just take the Sudetenland and then be satisfied. In the end, Hitler took advantage of their willful hope, bringing the world into chaos.

In so many ways, it feels like we are trying to manage our willful hope again, and that we are at risk of having our hope used against us. Last week, Vice President Pence proudly declared that there was not going to be a “second wave” of the virus.[1] He admitted that there were some areas that saw a rise in cases, which Pence explained by arguing that there are simply more tests being done. He blamed the media for fear mongering and then noted that national cases are dropping.[2] All of it feels like it was a pitch for willful hope, all of it done so that we would stop worrying, get back to normal life, and, in particular, feel good about attending Trump’s rally in Tulsa. This is made even clearer this week, as Pence’s claim seems inexcusably misleading.

Today is the country’s single highest new case total recorded. Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, and Virginia are all seeing huge patient influxes into their hospitals. Houston, Texas, is about to hit ICU capacity.[3] Either Pence didn’t know that this was about to happen, which is inexcusable, or he was lying, which is also inexcusable. As a whole, the country plateaued for a month. Looking back on it now, last week felt just like late February, when it was obvious that the virus was already here. And, just like late February, the administration turned to #MAGA rhetoric, to the idea that all we have to do is hope for the virus to go away and it will, instead of doing anything.

Here is what some of our leaders are doing. Scottsdale, Arizona, City Councilmember Guy Phillips gets up on stage today and begins by shouting, “I can’t breathe” twice before removing his mask, rolling his eyes as he looks skyward and then—“Insanity,” he says, twice, while shaking his head, smirking. “Freedom!” yells a man in the background. For the last month, “I can’t breathe” has echoed throughout the nation. It has meant only one thing: repeating with ferocity what George Floyd could only gasp out in desperation. Councilmember Phillips mocks the protests and dishonors Floyd, Eric Garner, and so many other Black men killed by asphyxiation over the past years. It is execrable. If I knew a curse that would allow him to feel what George Floyd felt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, I would utter it right now.

Then Phillips has the audacity to read a Benjamin Franklin quote that “someone just told” him. He misquotes Franklin, “Anyone who would give up his freedom for temporary safety deserves neither liberty nor safety.” This is a beloved out-of-context canard for modern day people who want to compromise the safety of some for the enjoyment (or to reduce the inconvenience or tax bills of) some elite.

The actual quote is from a letter written by Franklin to Governor Morris of Pennsylvania: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” [4] Franklin was justifying the “essential Liberty” of the Pennsylvania Assembly to levy a tax on everyone in the state—including on the wealthy Penn family to whom Pennsylvania was granted. I love the irony here: Franklin wanted the government to take from rich aristocrats in England and give to the poorer colonists on the western frontier. The Penn family wanted instead to give a monetary gift without setting the precedent of a noble family having to pay taxes. As far as Franklin was concerned, that gift might grant Pennsylvania and the Assembly a little “temporary safety.” But it would also mean that the Pennsylvania Assembly would be allowing the Penn family to dictate terms on “their” land in the New World.[5] In other words, those who use this context usually are going after a sentiment diametrically opposed to Franklin’s own. So much for “textual originalism.” Let’s figure out what the founders meant! originalists cry–unless what the founders meant is against one’s political interests in the present.

Now, Councilmember Phillips is using that quote to mock George Floyd’s death and to support the “freedom” of a white anti-mask league. Ben Franklin was arguing for the need to tax individuals for the public good. Phillips is arguing the exact opposite. He should be ashamed of himself.

Phillips’ actions are just the tip of the iceberg. During a city council meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, a woman tried to connect masks to the 5G network and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. She screamed that all of the council members were going to hell for their support of masks and for forcing the 6-feet social distancing mandate—because that’s exactly the amount of distance needed for the 5G surveillance network to work.

Later in the day, I watch Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer give his opening statement in front of the House Judiciary Committee. Ayer is in the middle of telling America that Attorney General Barr “poses the greatest threat in my lifetime to our rule of law and to public trust in it,” when a Texas Republican on the committee,  Louie Gohmert decides on his own that Ayer’s time has expired. The Chair of the committee, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) declares that he will allow Mr. Ayer to finish. Gohmert responds by banging as loud as he can on the table in front of him, over and over again. When Nadler tells him to stop, Gohmert blurts out, “There’s no rules about when you can make noise!” He then starts banging on everything and anything around him, all to silence Ayer.[6] It’s a moment that, were it not for the zillion other things going on today, would have brought the nation to a standstill, mouths agape.[7]

Are we starting to go mad–as a whole society, I mean? Or has this long been our illness?

Historians, philosophers, psychologists, and others scratch their heads over the willingness of certain populations to act against their own interests, cheer corrupt leaders who bilk the population for millions, welcome the collapse of organized labor, and howl against the very laws that would ensure them a living wage and access to decent medical care. I wonder if it happens at least in part because they have come to believe that by defending everyone’s rights they will somehow be limiting their own personal freedom. The American Enterprise Institute and other Koch brother organizations have long funded this way of framing the issue so that they get to expand their own empires against encroachment of government.

Meanwhile, the public good goes ignored. Today I attend a Vanderbilt University online conference on “Health Equity, Racial Disparities, and COVID.” Orthopedic surgeon and leader of the COVID response team in Nashville, Dr. Alex Jahangir, reports that, while 10% of Nashville’s population is Hispanic, 40% of the COVID cases in Nashville are Hispanic. Sixty percent of all the cases in Nashville are in two zip codes that are highly populated by families who are foreign-born. That only amplifies the other stat that is becoming a truism: of African Americans effected, 3.3% are dying. Overall, though, the case fatality rate in Nashville is around 1.5%. Another speaker offers the same observations hundreds of miles north in Kentucky, where the African Americans who make up 8% of the overall population, account for 15% of the cases and 16% of the deaths.[8]

Early in the outbreak, reports came in that the elderly and healthcare workers suffered the most from this disease and there was a great deal of concern, sometimes bordering on panic. Chinese individuals were seen as spreaders and received nasty comments online, even in-person threats. People hoarded N95 masks at hardware stores and even make their own. Now that the statistics show already vulnerable minority populations suffer most, groups of citizens, largely white, are screaming that mask wearing and social distancing are infringements upon their personal liberties.

For crying out loud. Everywhere I turn today, it feels like we’re in the broken-down version of the Fun House that you might find at the county fair. All the features are there—the distorted mirrors, the tilted floor, the spinning space that’s hard to walk on—but it’s definitely not fun. It’s grimy and smells funny. Lights are burned out where you need them. Bolts seem to be missing from important parts of the structure. And the carnies are trying to rob you at shank-point.


[1] Seth Cohen, “No Second Wave? Mike Pence’s Reckless Anti-Science Optimism,” Forbes, July 19, 2020,; Dylan Scott, “What Mike Pence Got Wrong about the New Coronavirus Spikes,” Vox, June 17, 2020,

[2] Michael R. Pence, “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave,’” The White House, June 16, 2020,

[3] “U.S. Sets Record for Daily New Cases as Virus Surges in South and West,” The New York Times, June 24, 2020, sec. World,

[4] National Archives, “Founders Online: Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor, 11 November 1755” (University of Virginia Press, 1756),

[5] Eugene Volokh, “Liberty, Safety, and Benjamin Franklin,” Washington Post, November 11, 2014,

[6] CSPAN, “Rep. Gohmert ‘Gavels’ Down Witness | C-SPAN.Org,” June 24, 2020,

[7] Joan Walsh, “Bill Barr Gets Shredded: A Threat to ‘Our Rule Of Law and to Public Trust in It,’” June 24, 2020,

[8] COVID-19 WEBINAR Presented by Chief Diversity Officers of the Southeastern Conference, June 24, 2020.

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Guardian News. Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert Repeatedly Bangs on Desk during House Hearing on Barr, 2020.

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Aldhous, Peter, Stephanie M. Lee, and Dan Vergano. “Cities With Black Lives Matter Protests Have Not Seen Spikes In COVID-19.” BuzzFeed News, June 23, 2020.
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* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.