Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Aug 2: Coronavirus coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx says that the crisis had entered a “new phase” in the U.S. “It’s into the rural as equal as urban areas. So everybody who lives in a rural area, you are not immune.” Birx’s comments come as the United States agrees to a $2.1 billion deal with GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur in an effort to develop, manufacture, and scale up delivery of a COVID-19 vaccine. Democrats and Republicans continue to clash over a coronavirus relief package. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows says that the Trump administration has no plan to try to delay the November election. Wildfires scorch more than 20,500 acres in Southern California

Aug 3:  Trump tweets a criticism of Birx for warning of coronavirus ‘new phase.’ He says she, “took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!” President Trump says he has the power to block mail-in voting, even through lawmakers in both parties agree that he does not have that power. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office suggests in a court filing that it is investigating President Trump and his company, The Trump Organization, for possible bank and insurance fraud. 

From the cutting room floor ...

What is it like to live in a kleptocracy? It used to be a problem of nations governed strictly by autocrats receiving bribes and syphoning tax dollars from their own populace. In this century, the internet has made kleptocracy great again through much more diffuse transnational networks comprised of politically influential financiers with access to foreign real estate and other assets funded through multinational banks, with wealth hidden in shell companies, and propped up by investor citizenship programs. In this world of global finance, the Giant Pool of Money can be laundered through not only mafia-run businesses but whole national economies.[1]

As wonderful reporting throughout the current presidency by Trump, Inc. has shown, the current White House occupant and the cabal that surrounds him is deeply woven into these transnational networks that make kleptocracy possible.[2] And they’ve used those positions to enrich themselves, their families, and their personal connections—the very behavior that decades of American legislation and norms were supposed to defend against.

All of that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. As a result, the worst economic crisis in over a decade, if not since the Great Depression, is not evenly distributed. Billionaires saw net worth jump by over $500 billion so far this pandemic while millions are out of work.[3] The CARES Act is still propping up the people on the bottom of the economic ladder, but the Trumps and their ilk have dipped their hands directly into it.[4] It’s not just the associates of the White House who are profiting. Deregulation accelerates across the board, hurting the already vulnerable.[5]

If there’s a small bright spot, it’s in the food industry. The same food processers who threw a fit when ordered to shut down in March to clean their facilities and protect their workers are making record profits. This incongruous behavior drew attention from the Antitrust Division at the DoJ, who have already indicted Jayson Penn, CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride, Roger Austin, a former Pilgrim’s vice president, Mikell Fries, president of Claxton Poultry, and Scott Brady, a vice president at Claxton (Claxton supplies Chik-Fil-A) for price-fixing going all the way back to 2008.[6] The government is going after “big beef” as well, looking at Tyson, Cargill, and JBS, who seem to be artificially keeping grocery prices high while paying bottom dollar for livestock.[7] Together, this represents intense scrutiny of an industry that’s been allowed to backslide into the practices Sinclair exposed in The Jungle a whole century ago.[8]

This is only a small pushback to the overall trend, however. Processing plants have been increasing the speed of their lines and stripping back protections.[9] Workers for Smithfield or Tyson or any of the others receive a sub-optimal wage to work exceedingly hard with no promise that they’ll ever advance or even be able to really improve their working conditions. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) may object to teaching the 1619 American History curriculum because it insists that, from its inception, this country prized profit for the few even if it meant misery for millions.[10] “Slavery” might be the wrong word for paid work in a modern meat processing plant. But it’s not hard to see that vast inequities in power and wealth suspiciously similar to the old inequities are entrenched in industries like the “protein” industry today.

In this era of “morbid capitalism,” liberty and the pursuit of happiness seems to be receding for more and more people.[11] Even life feels like it’s receding for so many poor folks, given the rising level of suicides and drug overdoses over the past two decades. Whether “kleptocracy” is the correct designation for what is happening hardly matters. It sure appears like—whether it’s meat producers colluding or pharmaceutical companies charging more for life-saving drugs that have been out of patent for decades or states offering massive tax breaks to every company that says they’ll create jobs, whether or not they actually do, or a federal pandemic response that seems not to care about its at-risk citizens—those at the top of the heap are using their positions to take and take from the rest of us.


[1] Alexander Cooley and J. C. Sharman, “Transnational Corruption and the Globalized Individual,” Perspectives on Politics 15, no. 3 (September 2017): 732–53,; Jacob Weisberg, “The Giant Pool: A Money Laundering Explainer,” Slate Magazine, November 7, 2017,

[2] ProPublica, “Trump, Inc.,”

[3] Rachel Augustine Potter, “How Trump Uses a Crisis: Repeal Rules While Nobody Is Looking,” Washington Post, June 9, 2020,

[4] Jessica Corbett, “‘Speaking of Looting…’: Trump Admin. Refuses to Disclose Corporate Recipients of $500 Billion in Coronavirus Bailout Funds,” Common Dreams, June 11, 2020,

[5] Isabelle Chapman and Drew Kann, “For Some Environmentalists, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Is about More than Police Brutality,” CNN, June 27, 2020,

[6] Susan Heavey, Tom Polansek, and Diane Bartz, “Pilgrim’s Pride CEO Indicted over Alleged U.S. Chicken Price-Fixing,” Reuters, June 4, 2020,

[7] Jacob Bunge and Brent Kendall, “Justice Department Issues Subpoenas to Beef-Processing Giants,” Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2020,

[8] David McLaughlin, Lydia Mulvany, and Michael Hirtzer, “U.S. Meat Giants Face Biggest Attack in Century From Probe,”, June 15, 2020,

[9] Jerald Brooks and Lakesha Bailey, “Opinion | We’re Feeding America, but We’re Sacrificing Ourselves,” The New York Times, June 15, 2020, sec. Opinion,

[10] Bryan Armen Graham, “Tom Cotton Calls Slavery ‘necessary Evil’ in Attack on New York Times’ 1619 Project,” The Guardian, July 26, 2020,; Frank E. Lockwood, “Bill by Sen. Tom Cotton Targets Curriculum on Slavery,” Arkansas Online, July 26, 2020,

[11] Thuy Linh Tu and Nikhil Pal Singh, “Morbid Capitalism,” N+1, November 29, 2017,

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Contributors' Voices

Pandemic Journal –


April 17, 2020

It is my daughter’s 2nd birthday today. It’s lucky that she doesn’t have any expectations about what a birthday should be. She was delighted to find balloons and streamers in the house, to open a few presents throughout the day, and to eat cake while family sang “Happy Birthday” to her over Zoom.

The first month and a half of the pandemic, mid-March through mid-April, I spent mostly in a fugue state of anxiety and fatigue. I mourned the loss of my routine, upcoming travel, the ability to see friends and family. And daycare – daycare perhaps most of all. I’ve always known that I wanted a child, but I’ve likewise always known that I had no desire to be a stay-at-home mother. I love my daughter, but taking care of her all day, even with my husband doing his fair share, makes me feel like I’m losing some vital part of myself. I wish I felt more grateful for all the good things we have – jobs and financial security, the ability to stay home with our daughter, warm weather to play outside, technology to keep up with loved ones, and a husband and child that I love totally and completely. I keep reminding myself, but it’s hard to feel all these things as I ought. I feel myself sinking into gloom. I wish I knew how long this was all going to last.


April 21, 2020

I can’t believe Georgia and Florida are going to start opening back up already. It feels reckless and way too soon. And these anti-quarantine rallies – these are strange and scary times.


April 26, 2020

My daughter has begun playing with imaginary friends – she takes them to the park, pushes them on the swing, holds hands and walks around with them. It’s incredibly sweet and sad at the same time, as it feels like it’s partially driven by loneliness and missing other children.


May 2, 2020

I’ve started staying up late, after L___ and E___ have gone to bed, just to have a moment that’s mine, with no one to ask anything of me. I know how lucky and privileged I am, but I still feel like little pieces of me are slipping away. Will they come back, when this is over?


May 8, 2020

We need profound change in this country. And yet, almost everything I see and reads makes me terribly afraid that we’re going to continue moving in precisely the opposite direction – that Trump will be reelected, that more conservative judges will be appointed, that all the most important gains of the last hundred years will be rolled back, and the country delivered wholesale into the hands of the rich and corrupt. When I think of everything we face, all my little efforts at protesting, donating, helping seem so paltry and pointless. I have to believe that drops of water can make a flood, but it everything feels so bleak just now.

Even as taking care of my daughter all day is wearing on me, I feel deeply thankful that I have her in my life – someone who is so constantly living in the moment, who is so effortlessly joyful, who forces me to laugh and be present, and who reminds me that delight can be found in small things and simple acts, energetically performed.


May 15, 2020

Things have started to open back up here this week, and even though businesses are supposed to be practicing social distancing, judging by packed restaurant patios, they aren’t. I suppose everyone just wants to get back to normal, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I can’t believe the university thinks it’s going to be able to open up in the fall.


June 4, 2020

My mother-in-law has flown in to help with L__ – hooray!  Life already feels better and more hopeful – probably because I’ve gotten to catch up on sleep.


June 9, 2020

We’ve been to several protests for George Floyd and Black Lives Matter – all very well attended. I hope that these protests translate into a more lasting and sustainable movement for change, here and across the country. Trump deserves to be jailed for his response, the would-be dictator.

Small changes are happening at the university, at least. Confederate monuments were removed overnight, and there are calls to finally rename the buildings on campus that are named after notorious white supremacists. It’s about damn time.


July 5, 2020

L___ has gone back to daycare, and I feel really conflicted about it. There’s no question that it was the right choice from a mental and emotional health standpoint, but there’s a very real chance that there will be an outbreak. Toddlers do not social distance, and who knows what the other families are doing.

There’s a story making the rounds that college students here have been throwing “COVID parties,” deliberately trying to get sick and betting on the results. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s definitely true that our students are not taking this seriously, and I don’t see why that would change by the fall. I know that university officials (and city officials) are terrified that if we don’t open back up, enrollments will plummet, and that the university and the entire town will be plunged into an economic crisis. But to open up, even with lots of restrictions and precautions, still feels like a recipe for disaster.


July 28, 2020

Got tested for COVID today, as part of the university’s reopening protocol. Both tested negative. Felt awful, like they were attempting to remove my brain through my nose. But a real bright side was that we had some friends over for a socially distant hang out, as we’ve done several times this summer, but this time we hugged everyone who’d been tested. It felt wonderful and strange. I wonder, when this is all over, will we just go back to interacting the way we used to? Or will it feel somehow dangerous and inappropriate? Will L__ be able to go up to children on the playground to play, or will these months of us preventing her change the way she approaches other kids?


August 3, 2020

The past few months feel like a blur. I’ve given up wondering when this will all be over, when we’ll be able to live our lives the way we used to. I’m just trying to focus on the days and weeks immediately before me, and to focus on what I can control and influence. I’m trying not to worry too much about the university reopening, even though I’m expecting a massive spike, and for us to be online-only by Labor Day.

I went to a small, student-led BLM protest on Sunday. I felt proud that these students were continuing to force people here to think about racial violence and oppression, when so clearly most just want to forget it and move on.

I feel terribly afraid for our democracy. Trump recently tweeted that voting by mail is fraudulent and that this election should be postponed. He doesn’t have the power to do that, obviously, and I don’t think even other Republicans would support it, though I keep waiting to see what line he can cross that would lose him the support of Congressional Republicans. He’s certainly been given enough rope to hang himself.

I’ve never seriously considered the idea that a sitting president would entirely subvert democracy before. I mean, other presidents have certainly employed dirty tricks, perverting and corrupting democracy. But I’ve never really believed that a sitting president would be willing to seize autocratic control if he could. I’m pleased that everyone can vote by mail here, but I’m not going to. I just don’t trust that my vote will be counted unless I can actually see it fed into the machine. And this is the most important election of my lifetime.

So I guess I am still worrying about the future, and things I can’t control. But I’m going to try to keep finding joy too, and the fire to keep fighting for the things that matter.

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Trevor Noah breaks down Chris Wallace’s interview with Trump. Noah, Trevor. Trump’s Brutal Interview with Chris Wallace. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Comedy Central, 2020.
Axios National Political Correspondent Jonathan Swan speaks with President Donald Trump about multiple topics including the coronavirus crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement, the November election, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Peltz, Perri, and Matthew O’Neill. AXIOS on HBO: President Trump Exclusive Interview, 2020.
Cramer, Meg, and Katherine Sullivan. “The Trump Campaign’s Legal Strategy Includes Suing a Tiny TV Station in Northern Wisconsin.” ProPublica, July 23, 2020.

*If the pdf thumbnails are not appearing, please reload the page.

Blair, Gwenda. “How Norman Vincent Peale Taught Donald Trump to Worship Himself.” POLITICO Magazine, October 6, 2015.
Chidambaram, Priya, and MaryBeth Musumeci. “Key Questions About Nursing Home Regulation and Oversight in the Wake of COVID-19.” KFF (blog), August 3, 2020.
Lind, Michael. “This Is What the Future of American Politics Looks Like.” POLITICO Magazine, May 22, 2016.
Additional Links

* 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.