The Intellectual Situation
Consequences of Deferred Maintenance
Regulation as near-mystical abstraction
Reports of the crisis’s various upsides began to circulate soon after the crisis began. The pathological obsession with silver linings—our great national pastime—manifested via coverage of decreasing air pollution (except in California and Oregon) and the strengthening bonds between homebound parents and homebound children (except when they were fraying). “As Fires Disrupt Schools, ‘the Pandemic Has Actually Helped,’” read one Times headline. Nature was healing.
But just as it failed to bring the dolphins back to Venice, the pandemic didn’t—couldn’t—deliver any clarifying revelations about our politics or civic life. Even as it transformed social arrangements so quickly that every spring day seemed to pass at the speed of a year’s worth of time-lapse photos, the pandemic was yet another reminder that the seemingly exceptional nature of the present was an illusion, or a delusion. If there were lessons to glean, they were temporal. The pandemic was a continuation, a nearly inevitable consequence of little, unremembered, repeated acts of the recent and not so recent past.
Haunted by the ever more dramatic consequences of climate change, we had spent anxious nights and days imagining some kind of crisis of this magnitude. We were right to be worried about disaster and wrong about how it would unfold. We’d learned about the progress of history from the apocalypse movies of the late ’90s—Armageddon, Deep Impact, Independence Day—megabudget knockoffs of the smaller-scale disaster movies of the 1970s. If we were going to take our cues from Hollywood at the turn of the millennium, we would have been wiser to pay attention to the cheesy CGI montages of networks that were everywhere then, in movies like Hackers and Johnny Mnemonic, crude animations of the internet that nonetheless said something true about the nature of distribution and viral spread. Instead, we remained captive to the metaphor of the big one: the singular natural disaster, the act of terrorism, the declaration of war. When the end came, buildings would fall; rubble would predominate.
Rather than a sudden act and its terrible aftermath, now things rapidly got worse, then slowly got worse, then slowly got a little better (“better” accompanied by bitter quotation marks), and then slowly or rapidly got worse again. No TV-worthy explosions ensued; the Unisphere in Corona, Queens wasn’t blown up by UFOs when the pandemic hit. (Covid’s brutal toll on that now tragically named neighborhood didn’t need an assist from science fiction.) As anyone who’d experienced civilian life in a war zone already knew, destruction and continuity could coexist, the latter gradually eroded by—but never entirely giving way to—the former.
Spring brought with it an ominous languor. If the preceding decades had produced an ever-increasing acceleration of time, suddenly the once-intuitive link between the instantaneity of capital flows and social media posts on one hand, and our individual experience of time on the other, had been ruptured. No matter how quickly the virus spread and how rapidly our networks of support crumbled, slowness was the dominant mode for those of us fortunate enough to be “nonessential,” those of us whose work lives could continue at home, who were not forced to manage and survive in unprecedentedly dangerous conditions. (The split between the homebound and the precarious was yet another bifurcation in an age of cascading inequality, one more cruel data point.) Where had the hours gone? When had we last showered? On watch against a disease whose timeline in the body is itself erratic and unpredictable, we marked the progress of days by the permanent drone of the ambulance sirens, which, along with the morgue trucks, are lodged in our minds like a smell from childhood, now synonymous with New York itself.
Having emerged outdoors, we spent the summer walking and biking around in a daze, our preferred modes of transportation now also some of the only acceptable physical and social activities on offer. We took in more and more of the built environment—and took it in more slowly—seeing all around us the plodding anti-progress of neoliberalism, the modesty of its outcomes set against the triumphalism of its claims for itself. We saw a city that acquired its definitive shape in the 1940s and ’50s, everything built since either an act of accretion or, just as likely, subtraction. There was Stuyvesant Town, and the co-ops of the Lower East Side, and the housing projects dispersed across the five boroughs—extraordinary feats of construction and accommodation weighed down by decades of mismanagement, racist disinvestment, racist policing, and privatization. There was a transit system whose expansion effectively ended just after World War II, with each subway station built in the past seventy years a seeming miracle, a victory over the shrinking age. Biking in the shadow of the long-under-construction F train, we imagined what it must have felt like for a new subway station opening to feel routine, prosaic, a marker of progress rather than a wild anomaly. But there are many parts of the world—authoritarian, democratic, neoliberal, socialist—where one doesn’t have to strain to experience this feeling, where public progress still happens as a matter of course.1
We saw anew the weak and flimsy construction projects (if one could dignify them with that term) of the past two decades: gray apartment buildings squeezed carelessly into available gaps, their thin walls damaged before anyone had moved in; undersized, privatized parks that seemed to exist at the behest of their concessioners; permanently unoccupied Manhattan condo towers that dwarfed the Empire State Building and reshaped the skyline, their units resembling rows of PO boxes, each linked to a shell company in Delaware or the Caymans; the ugly and untimely pileup of Hudson Yards, New York’s new financial center, which was even before its rapid de-occupancy a far less valuable structure than the decaying hundred-year-old railroad tracks beneath it. Two years before he condemned thousands of New Yorkers to death through mulish inaction, Andrew Cuomo wasted $30 million retiling the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown Tunnels because he preferred New York State’s colors—blue and gold—to the white tiles contractors had already ordered. There was no better metaphor for the city in this moment of retreat than an authoritarian’s useless, superficial, and expensive aesthetic intervention in a grand work of civil engineering. Like so many scandals, that move quickly faded from public consciousness; the stakes were so low, the collective sense of resignation so high.
To his credit, Trump doesn’t get off on appropriating French theory, so he has focused his rhetorical energy on all-American deregulation.Tweet
At the same time, like its crumbling subway system (whose future is as bleak now as it was in the 1970s, if not more so), the city as a whole was suffering from deferred maintenance. Then again, so was the country. We biked over bridges that looked like they were about to crumble; gathered on roofs of buildings completed before our parents or their parents were born; and above all marched down streets fortified and co-opted by the violent agents of the state, funded to the hilt while the rest of the city begged for resources. We moved out of our office and drove back and forth to our storage space outside Newark, marveling yet again at North Jersey’s rust and disrepair, its sprawl the tragedy to Learning from Las Vegas’s farce—or maybe the other way around, a postindustrial terrain so enduring that it somehow seemed to date back to the preindustrial era. The only new addition to the horizon line was the brand-new American Dream mall in East Rutherford, the second largest in the country, a dead white whale beached in the Meadowlands.
Meanwhile, where the pandemic brought to the surface the scope and reach of our national corrosion, the uprisings of the summer reaffirmed—to those who hadn’t already come up against its bullets, its tear gas, its batons, its bail bonds, its asset seizure, its courtrooms, its prisons, its cops, its prison guards—the structural integrity of the American police state. Americans could lose their jobs, lose their homes, lose their healthcare (if they had it), and lose their lives en masse, but they would not lose their apparently inalienable right to be watched, harassed, assaulted, and assassinated—by cops, by right-wing paramilitaries, or by “sovereign citizens.” (Was there a difference?) The rows of proudly unmasked cops looming across American cities initially registered as impunity—agents of the state refusing to adhere to their own guidelines—but in effect they were symbols of a regime that believes itself too big to fail.
Appearing at CPAC 2017 shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Steve Bannon sat next to then–chief of staff Reince Priebus and announced the Trump Administration’s new national policy, the “deconstruction of the administrative state”:
If you look at these cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction. The way the progressive left runs, is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just going to put in some sort of regulation in an agency. That’s all going to be deconstructed.
As with Karl Rove’s great line about the Bush Administration’s ability to “create our own reality,” the most memorable encapsulation of the Trump Administration’s ambition may also end up coming from an overhyped presidential adviser. Now an insipid talking head along with Ari Fleischer, David Frum, and that entire Bush-era gaggle of prosecution-escaping, blank-faced war criminals, Rove was onto something back in 2004, and so was Bannon in 2017. (One hopes that Bannon will meet a different fate now that he’s under indictment for his We Build the Wall Ponzi scheme. Perhaps he should have read Mark Wigley’s The Architecture of Deconstruction? “The fracturing of the ground is equally, in Derrida’s hands, a fracturing of the walls.”) If you could transform the bureaucracy into an army of suicide bombers, each civil servant committed to self- and institutional destruction, you would be left with no pesky enforcement mechanisms and, thus, no enforcement.
To his credit, Trump doesn’t get off on appropriating French theory, so he has focused his rhetorical energy on all-American deregulation—adjacent but not at all identical to Bannon’s deconstruction. Deconstruction meant systematically replacing any competent administrators at government agencies with flunkies and losers whose main goal was to stall, obstruct, and dump memos in the trash. Deregulation aims—rhetorically, at least—to dismantle the very policies and procedures such agencies oversee. Trump has returned to the topic of deregulation again and again, always with great fervor. “Regulations, ohhhh boy,” he said in 2017, with Dangerfieldian mock-exhaustion. “It’s a lot of regulations.” This summer, standing outside the White House in front of two pickup trucks—a blue one weighed down by mock-anvils, the red one free of regulatory baggage—Trump was emphatic: “We must never return to the days of soul-crushing regulation that ravaged our cities, devastated our workers, drained our vitality—and right out of our people—and thoroughly crippled our nation’s prized competitive edge.” Drained our vitality—and right out of our people! This is regulation as near-mystical abstraction, elevated to the status of a mantra, like “trade deals” or, more recently, “law and order.”
For all of Trump’s bluster, the mania for deregulation as catchall nihilistic panacea to the nation’s woes has been a long-term priority for Republicans and, occasionally though less manically, Democrats. Indeed, the administrative state has encountered few unmakers better than Trump’s Republican predecessors. The long list of Bush Administration officials now working for Trump suggests that no one drains the swamp quite as well as the swamp creatures.2
The pandemic seemed to call for depiction that was either frantic and outrageous or dry and bureaucratic.Tweet
But no matter where one starts the clock—Jimmy Carter’s Airline Deregulation and Motor Carrier Acts, the repeal of Glass-Steagall; the Telecommunications Act of 1996; or maybe the recruitment and allocation of so-called “beachhead teams” to staff the federal bureaucracy as of Trump’s inauguration, each team member an insouciant Bartleby, abetting the Koch brothers and other right wing stakeholders—what the deregulatory and deconstructive impulse share is a distinctly temporal quality, instilling the slow seep of future degradation even as immediate consequences are typically nonexistent. Killing long days by walking across New York’s many structurally deficient bridges, it occurred to us that this is how Covid has felt, too, even if deregulation is only one of a litany of factors that led to the US’s inability to respond to the pandemic in a responsible or even minimally humane way. The creep of emergency that attended the pandemic’s arrival in February and March—and the halting, dreadful recognition that its sped-down time would persist for weeks, then months, then years longer than we’d ever imagined—has as its echo the relative imperceptibility of deregulation’s extended-release effects. To live during the crisis is to search in vain for origins and usable pasts, even as the long-term trajectories of the here and now remain obscure.
Perhaps for that reason, the first book we picked up after the quarantine announced itself was twenty years old. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation was published three days before Bill Clinton left office and nearly five years to the day after he declared that “the era of big government is over.” In 2001 the book was celebrated as a triumph of muckraking and polemic, a modern analogue to The Jungle. Rereading it now, what struck us most wasn’t the boldness and the outrage, but rather Schlosser’s mournful reserve, his carefully modulated rage and heartbreak at the despoiling of the landscape and its people at the hands of the neoliberal state. “The extraordinary growth of the [fast food] industry,” Schlosser writes in his introduction,
took place during a period when the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage declined by about 40 percent, when sophisticated mass-marketing techniques were for the first time directed at small children, and when federal agencies created to protect workers and consumers too often behaved like branch offices of the companies that were supposed to be regulated. . . . Far from being inevitable, America’s fast food industry in its present form is the logical outcome of certain political and economic choices.
Fast Food Nation was about much more than the gutting of OSHA or the increasingly punishing working conditions for industrial and service workers across the country. Schlosser depicted the United States as a country whose people were becoming sicker and poorer, who were getting injured and killed on the job, and who represented little more than a footnote in a war all but the biggest corporations were winning. What would a Fast Food Nation of Covid-19 look like? Would it be another “serious, well-reported and supple [work] in which [the author] has command of multiple moving parts,” as Dwight Garner recently described the New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s oeuvre, and with it the entire genre of American narrative nonfiction, one of the nation’s last great exports? Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk, which came out in 2018 and covers the Trump transition from the vantage point of America’s selfless civil servants at the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce, points to the limits of the usual narrative approach. Eerie in its depiction of a bureaucracy vulnerable to deconstruction, The Fifth Risk now suffers from its prescience: it was ominous about what Republican interference would bring, but its subdued style is no match for the explosiveness of our new reality. The pandemic seemed to call for depiction that was either frantic and outrageous or dry and bureaucratic. Maybe one day Virginie Despentes will write an appropriately unhinged Covid novel, or Tsai Ming-liang will direct a Covid epic, twenty-minute single takes the most appropriate way to account for the glacial ravages of pandemic time.
At the risk of tautology, or blinding obviousness, no text could ever be as frantic and outrageous as the collected speechifying, tweeting, and perorating of Donald Trump. Everything that came out of the President’s mouth throughout the pandemic was so cartoonish in its hostility to empathy or equanimity or leadership that we struggled to distribute blame for the crisis in a proportional way, and as the presidential campaign stumbled into fall, the struggle became harder and harder. The widespread notion of Trump as a master of four-dimensional chess—strategically deploying his various outrages to suppress attention to the “real story”—never made sense. A tractor trailer with its brake lines cut isn’t thinking tactically when it careens onto a crowded sidewalk. Still, Trump’s personal sociopathy has obfuscated America’s wider sociopathy. This tendency also works to Trump’s advantage, since it casts a cloud over everyone and everything responsible for handling the pandemic, including, paradoxically, the office of the President itself.
In his relentless demonization of Anthony Fauci and other public health professionals, his and his Administration’s unprecedented commitment to self-dealing and corruption as a central organizing principle, and the chaotic retributive energy he brought to any interaction with any government official unfortunate enough to be anyone other than his son-in-law, Trump single-handedly made a horrible situation worse. “We have it totally under control,” Trump said on January 22. On February 26: “When you have fifteen people, and the fifteen within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” February 28: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” March 6: “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.” April 16: “When it’s all done, it’s going to be, I think, a very beautiful picture.” May 8: “This is going to go away without a vaccine.” May 11: “We have met the moment and we have prevailed.” June 18: “The numbers are starting to get very good.” June 25: “Coronavirus deaths are way down. Mortality rate is one of the lowest in the World.” July 19: “They have the sniffles.” July 27: “America will develop a vaccine very soon, and we will defeat the virus. We will have it delivered in record time.” August 3: “They are dying. That’s true. And you—it is what it is.” Each of these quotes and the hundreds like them were edited and distributed and retweeted and shared and posted, the damage of the sum far outweighing the shock value or inhumanity of the individual parts. Our era’s most rotten corporate actors, Fox News and Facebook, amplified and disseminated all this violent and life-threatening content.
And still, it’s a mistake to over-personalize the crisis. With no end to the pandemic or the nonresponse in sight, our minds wander to the prospect of a grand inquisition of the current Administration—not just Trump and Kushner and Ivanka but Scott Atlas and Larry Kudlow and their various enablers, from Mitch McConnell to Lindsey Graham to Amy Coney Barrett. At once we’re chastened by the ludicrous corniness of that image, by its desire for a kind of divine assignment of individual fault and blame, when the blame is so general. Still, as we wait for more plausible second drafts of history, it’s useful to keep certain data points front of mind. Like how, soon after becoming Trump’s second national security adviser in 2018, John Bolton eliminated the National Security Council’s directorate for global health and security and biodefense, leaving the country’s core pandemic response team disbanded, and its head, characterized by Reuters as “the top White House official in the NSC for leading US response against a pandemic” out of the Administration. In the years since Trump took office, the CDC’s presence in China shrank from forty-seven people to fourteen. The USDA transferred the manager of an animal disease monitoring program out of China. In 2019, the Trump Administration closed the National Vaccine Program Office and ended a USAID early warning program for potential pandemics. According to the Guardian, the program “had identified more than 160 different coronaviruses that had the potential to develop into pandemics, including a virus that is considered the closest known relative to Covid-19.” As the Institute for Public Integrity put it in a report, “the rash of harmful deregulation that has broken out since the start of the Trump Administration has been, in many ways, a likely harbinger of the US outbreak of Covid-19.”
The arc of time bends toward vindictive amnesia.Tweet
What sticks in the mind—not so much because of its centrality but because of its perversity—is the Administration’s reluctance to invoke the Defense Production Act despite having invoked it numerous times before, in less consequential circumstances (including in 2017, to “rectify a shortfall in the space industrial base”). This nonresponse was a good shorthand for the way, in Trump’s America, the choice between action and inaction is determined not by costs and benefits or even political calculation, but only by which of the two options is more punitive to political opponents or undesirable populations. The sad dance with the Defense Production Act exacerbated massive shortages of masks, ventilators, and PPE. “Try getting it yourselves,” Trump told governors in March, and with the blessing of Republicans in the House and Senate, price-gouging became our national Covid policy—the neo-Confederate mantra of “states’ rights” stretched to its insane apotheosis. According to Vanity Fair, Jared Kushner scrapped a rogue scheme for a national testing plan he’d been working on with a college roommate and a Morgan Stanley banker buddy because “a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically” since “the virus had hit blue states hardest.” In mid-September, as the US approached two hundred thousand deaths from the virus, Trump underscored this point by claiming “Democrat-run states are the ones that are doing badly” and “if you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at.”
It’s true that states and counties have been slashing their public health budgets since long before Donald Trump was anything other than a reality TV star, but “taking the blue states out” still leaves places like Florida. One of the nation’s most fertile sites for Republican experimentation in anti-governance, Florida cut its public health spending by 41 percent since 2010. “Even before the pandemic hit,” reported the Associated Press,
that meant fewer investigators to track, trace and contain diseases such as hepatitis. It meant fewer public health nurses to teach people how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS or the flu. When the wave of Covid-19 inundated Florida, the state was caught flat-footed when it mattered most, its main lines of defense eviscerated.
Of Florida’s sixteen thousand Covid deaths, over six thousand occurred in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The carnage in America’s nursing homes is a microcosm of the entire botched response. As Gabriel Winant wrote in this magazine earlier this year, the decades-long dominance of “for-profit operators and a growing presence of private equity ownership [in] the long-term care industry has long been a time bomb.” In 2020 that bomb went off, with a major assist from the Trump Administration, which in 2017 relaxed enforcement and blocked a ban on mandatory arbitration for facilities and their patients. In a February 2019 report, the Center for Medicare Advocacy concluded that “the extraordinarily limited enforcement against even the most poorly performing nursing facilities in the country underscores how weak enforcement has become. . . . The lives of vulnerable nursing home residents are at stake.” In a second term, the Trump Administration would cut funding to Medicaid and rescind an Obama Administration rule requiring every nursing home to have a part-time infection control—infection control!—specialist. Why learn old lessons when you can keep unlearning new ones? The arc of time bends toward vindictive amnesia.
Like the handful of car-clogged New York City streets that suddenly gave way to pedestrians and bikers, a corroded infrastructure can have accidental, absurdist upsides. Ironically, the weekly $600 unemployed workers received thanks to the CARES Act might have been less generous if state unemployment insurance systems—run on ancient COBOL software—had been more up to date. (A June 2019 GAO report titled “Agencies Need to Develop Modernization Plans for Critical Legacy Systems” mentioned COBOL twenty-six times.) If those systems could have handled flexible dollar amounts regressively pegged to applicants’ wages, rather than the blunt redistributive force of flat increments of money, Republicans surely would have pushed for the former, always eager to get as close to $0 as possible. Instead, the $600 number won out—until the benefits expired.
The failure to pass a second stimulus bill before the election represents a dereliction equal to the unusual beneficence (by America’s bedraggled standards, anyway) of the CARES Act. If pandemic time offered some Americans a measure of distance from the quotidian, this fall’s resurgence of cases has brought unprecedented proximity to the edge: states and cities are sliding deeper into fiscal crisis; teachers, parents, and students, already tested by the spring and summer, are long past their breaking points; Trump’s piecemeal eviction moratorium is doing little to assuage the apocalyptic feeling among Americans that they might end up not only jobless but homeless (never mind the already unhoused) just as the pandemic comes roaring back.
“Many things have a different name now, and the rules are constantly changing,” Trump said at the RNC, midway through a screed against cancel culture authored by turgid beta-fascist Stephen Miller. But in his unwavering focus on chaos and cruelty, he has endowed his first (and hopefully last) four years as President with something like consistency. Trump himself has spent his entire term living in the open-endedness of pandemic time. He stays up late and wakes up early, watches at least six hours of TV a day, flits between his properties in New Jersey and Florida, and LARPs his way through meetings and elaborate sessions during which he signs executive orders no one plans to enforce. In the pandemic’s early weeks, Trump was perturbed by the upheaval in this routine, but it wasn’t until his own diagnosis and brief hospitalization—a spectacular media event already memory-holed for, one hopes, eventual historical rediscovery—that he could have been said to have experienced the pandemic’s effects. Trump’s strange recovery and subsequent murderous path through superspreader rallies in the swing states seemed joyless even for him. The final stretch of the President’s campaign exposed his strategy as, in the last analysis, not just literally homicidal but politically suicidal: a Typhoid Mary with an electoral map.
In this respect the era’s most symptomatic urban transformation wasn’t any aspect of the built environment, but Uber and its rideshare clones. The company’s anonymous black and gray cars, which weren’t the company’s at all, but rather leased at usurious rates to exploited drivers, flooded the city’s streets, straining overstrained public infrastructure, filling gaps in (according to the company) transit coverage and (according to reality) road space. Like the subway a century earlier, Uber shrank the city down and made it traversable, but unlike the subway it did so illegally, subsidized by venture capital into something like legal acceptability. Over the summer the Financial Times, not known for its anti-capitalist fervor, began to refer to Uber as a “labour-law arbitrage business.” See “Disrupt the Citizen,” in n+1 Issue 29. ↩
In alphabetical order: Elliott Abrams, Alex Acosta, Alex Azar, John Bolton, Amy Coney Barrett, Scott Gottlieb, Joe Hagin, Jim Jeffrey, Brett Kavanaugh, Kirstjen Nielsen, Pat Philbin, Mike Purpura, Heath Tarbert, and John Yoo. And from the George H. W. Bush Administration: William Barr, Pat Cipollone. It’s also worth noting that Justin Muzinich, Trump’s deputy treasury secretary, worked on Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. ↩