It has been almost eight weeks that I have been under quarantine in the state of California, and it is probably hard for all of us to remember there was a time when news was about anything else but Covid-19. Trying to remember events of six months ago has the air of an archaeological dig. Somewhere, in the cuneiform tablets of our memories, we might be able to remember that the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, was impeached in the House and acquitted in the Senate a little over three months ago. This was not even his widest and most documented scandal, but it was more concentrated than the wide-ranging Russian investigation.
These events --- the transformation of a common virus into a contagious illness that has changed everyday life across the planet, and the widest political scandal in the United States since Watergate, if not ever --- are separate events. A historian of this era will have a difficult task to focus on what to write about. And yet, I do not feel that this is an abrupt veer. While the virus is a result of natural mutation and was spread by social movement, it did not occur in a political or social vacuum. In the United States, the response to the virus could best be described as botched, and social division over basic facts of health has endangered millions of people. And this division, and all the different ways that misinformation has been spread, and all the way that normal arguments about a globe-spanning pandemic have been sabotaged, are not new.
Right now, we are seeing the minimizer's playbook again. I have been seeing the same basic techniques from the minimizer's playbook for the past several years, used to downplay the wide and obvious criminal activities of Donald Trump. I have not written on here about the investigation, except in passing, because it is too wide ranging, and has been changing too quickly for me to sum it up except as impressions. I found it both an important and interesting story, and followed it intensely on one internet news forum (SomethingAwful), before being being banned. It was there that I was introduced to the minimizer's playbook. After a brief week of unity in March 2020, I was then reintroduced to the minimizer's playbook when I heard the first Well, actually on Facebook.
Motivation for using the minimizer's playbook are various. Sometimes it is due to a political or social opinion, but often it is just the fun of twisting the truth. Glenn Greenwald, once considered generally liberal, has made it a hobby to defend Trump. Why? Because he is somewhere between a smarmy internet jackass and an evil person, probably more towards evil. Rather than trying to guess at the motivations of liars, I will just give a playthrough of the Minimizer's Playbook, with references to both Trump/Russia and Covid.
- "There are so many other things going on, why are you focusing on this one thing?" "There is widespread economic inequality in the United States, is a bunch of Washington palace politics really a big deal?" "But there are diseases of poverty all over the world, why is the media focusing on this?"
- "Stuff like this happens all the time." "Campaigns are already full of money, why is Russia running ads any different than Super Pacs doing it. "20,000 people die of the flu every year".
- "If you listen to the exact words..." "Trump didn't literally ask Russia to find Hillary's e-Mails..." "Trump didn't literally tell people to drink lysol".
- "There are some powerful interests using this." "The National Security Establishment is pushing this" "Big Pharma is pushing this"
- This one can't be encapsulated in a quote, and it is a subtle practice, but one of the tricks is, to use the fact that evidence can not establish proof, to therefore pretend that the evidence itself doesn't exist or isn't important. There was much evidence that members of the Trump campaign had contact with Russia, that didn't rise to proof, and people like Greenwald will use that backwards to erase the importance of the non-disputed evidence. (Donald Trump, Jr. got an e-Mail with a statement that the government of Russia supported Trump's campaign. This did not rise to the level of legal proof of a crime, but it is still evidence that obviously, on its face, means something.) There is some question about how the death totals of Covid-19 is calculated: we can not prove that many of the people with other conditions were killed by the disease just because it was present. Therefore, the strong evidence that Covid-19 kills people can be discounted.
- Overly narrow definitons. "No one in Trump's campaign was indicted for a crime of contact with the Russians during the campaign." "Covid-19 is normally not that dangerous to healthy young people who do not have close contact with others."
- Inability to form a median standard for what is normal. Six guilty pleas or convictions for a presidential campaign is on its face alarming, even if some of the people indicted were minor or subsidiary. A 5-10% reported death rate for an acute respiratory disorder is alarming, even if unreported asymptomatic infections might make it lower.
- This is not so much a statement, as an attitude. Minimizers will be cynical, world-weary and esoteric. This goes along with the first point above: minimizers know about all the important stuff going on, and how there is esoteric big picture stuff going on that means anything covered in a news story is part of a hysteric response that they are immune to.
There is no way to counteract these type of points. A minimizer is not arguing in good faith. Most of the time, they are not even arguing in one direction. Their strategy is to present someone with a game of whack-a-mole, popping up bad arguments one after another so that someone is exhausted in trying to refute them. The only winning move is not to play.
As the investigations into Trump and his associates were taking place, another argument was that they were not kitchen table issues. The people of the United States were prospering well enough, and if the National Security Advisor had taken a few thousand dollars to go to dinner with Vladimir Putin, that didn't hit anyone in the pocketbook. I say now that there obviously was a link: the chaos in the White House, with Trump being on his fourth National Security Advisor, fourth Chief of Staff, fourth Secretary of Homeland Security, third Secretary of Defense, second Secretary of Health and Human Services and second Secretary of State (among others) probably had something to do with being caught flat footed as the virus spread. Who the White House Chief of Staff is, is certainly a kitchen table issue now.
But more than that, the people of the United States had already decided, before Covid-19 came, that the president was not accountable or responsible. Not just Trump's cheerleaders, like Sean Hannity or Glenn Greenwald, but a big enough chunk of Americans decided that Trump's campaign manager being the type of guy who launders 75 million dollars of apparent organized crime money and being the type of guy who likes to watch his brain damaged wife get raped was no big deal. We have already abandoned consequence in favor of playing a glass bead game of lies, and there is no way to stop it now, with that fatality number moving up the six figures. The minimizer's playbook won, and it will take a while for ideas like accountability and consequence to come back.