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Corona Diaries: the hippo and the birds

April 18, 2020

One of the interesting things about the reaction in the United States to the pandemic is how protest groups against the lockdowns in various states seem to pop up out of nowhere. Except that they’re not out of nowhere.

Whatever you think of the lifestyles of people labelled as Trump’s “base”, there’s no doubt that there’s a groundswell of discontent – perhaps not just among them – at the severity of the measures. People are pissed off that they can’t go to malls, go to church, go to the beach and invite each other to barbecues.

There’s nothing new about protests in America. I’m old enough to remember the civil rights marches and the Vietnam war demonstrations in the Sixties and Seventies. If you supported those protest movements, you can’t complain if people whose politics are far from your own turn out to register their discontent in public about a current issue.

But there’s a difference. And it lies in how quickly the mass media of the time enabled the virus of protest to spread. Two hundred years ago, it would have taken quite a lot of effort to organise protests in multiple cities more or less simultaneously. Think about it. No internet, TV, radio, means of rapid transportation. News would travel as fast as a horse could go. It took three days for official word of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo to reach London.

Even in the sixties, grass-roots protests – as the gatherings in Michigan, Ohio and other states appear to be – would have been organised by word of mouth, leaflets, posters and small meetings. Only when they became newsworthy would their impact be amplified by radio and TV. And as even today Fox News has amply demonstrated in its relationship with Trump and his base, public reaction to protest was heavily influenced by political views held by wealthy owners of newspapers, TV networks and radio stations.

Nowadays you don’t need to be William Randolph Hearst or even Rupert Murdoch to start a riot or two. Savvy use of the social media will buy you previously undreamed-of influence, as a bunch of Russians showed before the 2016 presidential election when they organised a protest in the US by the use of fake identities on Facebook. It also helps if you have a few billions at your disposal, because you can use your money to spread discontent in a number of ways – Facebook ads, bot campaigns on Twitter and funding for lobbyists, pressure groups, political action committees and so forth.

Whereas Murdoch through Fox News can influence opinion through the drip-drip repetition of selective information and outright lies, any old billionaire can ignite the fire. Robert Mercer, a former IBM computer scientist turned hedge fund magnate, proved that when he funded Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica, two organisations that played a major part in persuading America to elect Donald Trump and Britain to reject the European Union.

It took the Nazis eleven years to reach power in Germany. It took Donald Trump two years to gain the presidency. Who’s to say that over the next few days, with the tacit approval of Trump and the money of people like Mercer, we won’t see the preening exhibitionism of a few rifle-toting good ole boys turn into mass civil disobedience, with armed mobs storming statehouses and governors’ mansions in an attempt to force state administrations to uphold the right to go to shopping malls?

And what then? Armed insurrection? The collapse of the rule of law? The National Guard called out? The military?

By way of context, perhaps we should cast our minds back to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, or specifically around the time of the attempted coup against Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s subsequent accession. The country was in chaos. The value of the rouble had collapsed. Public servants were not paid for long periods. Nuclear scientists were touting their expertise to the highest bidder. The former constituents of the USSR who had weapons on their territories suddenly became nuclear powers. As Yeltsin launched his reforms, large industrial concerns found themselves in the hands of oligarchs, many of whom worked hand-in-hand with organised crime.

Those of us who welcomed the end of the Cold War looked on with horror and trepidation. Order was eventually restored, but at the cost of many of the new liberties that Russians won after the collapse of Soviet authority.

To compare post-Soviet Russia with virus-stricken America would be to invite ridicule. And yet, watching the early signs of America’s disintegration under the weight of the pandemic, exacerbated by a catastrophic lack of leadership from the federal administration, it’s hard to avoid a sense of diminishing certainty among those of us outside the US, for whom, for better or worse, America is a bedrock of global equilibrium.

We – speaking for those in Europe and beyond who have known centuries of disconcerting change, instability and war – may not have liked all of America’s policy decisions and their consequences over the past seventy years. But to contemplate life without its massive presence would be almost unthinkable.

Now, as some Americans worry about whether Trump will find a reason to postpone or even cancel this year’s elections, as individual states form alliances to take concerted action against the virus independently of the federal government and as law and order is threatened with the apparent connivance of the president, the world suddenly feels wobbly in a way that it hasn’t since those days following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Just as the hippo in the picture has a symbiotic relationship with the birds that keep it free of ticks, America, its friends and trading partners each benefit from their long-standing relationships. If the hippo gets sick or dies, the birds will find another hippo on which to feed.

In the geopolitical world, that is already starting to happen. But will the birds find the new hippo as hospitable as the old one?

Perhaps before long we we might start to find out.

From → History, Politics, Social, USA

12 Comments
  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Your galloping horseman seems to have forgotten that the proto-Germans helped to beat Napoleon……yeh, THOSE Germans. Lol.

    • True, but that would have deflected from the point! I suspect the news would only have taken two days to reach Konigsberg. S

  2. deborah a moggio permalink

    I would love to be able to attend one of these riots in waiting.
    I would love to be able to walk among them, and announce that I was from out of town, and ask if anyone was local and could give me some directions.
    I think we’d soon find out just how much of a “grass roots” movement this really isn’t

    • You would probably find out that what you suspect is true, Debby, but there might be less dangerous ways…

  3. deborah a moggio permalink

    ahhh but think of the FUN!
    I’m little (well, short) and old!
    no one is threatened by me. I get away with much thereby.
    can wander dark streets at night, sit near people on public transit, haven’t learned to walk on water yet.

    what’s life without a little spice?

    • If I can’t dissuade you, at least make sure you kit yourself with full PPE before you venture forth to confront the MAGA beast…

  4. deborah a moggio permalink

    I “kit up” before going much of anywhere anytime with anyone. I have a horror of the possibility of spreading something about that I am unaware of carrying.
    I often have to leave the store and go outside to breathe a bit, before putting the mask on again and getting back to work.
    I try to go but once a week and shop for others here at the same time.
    am surprised that I am not dying of boredom. The last two years of forced inactivity is paying off, I guess. In fact, I often find I’ve run out of day before I’ve run out of amusements.
    Thanks for being a welcome part of the latter.

    • Glad to be of service! Do stay safe and amused… S

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        enjoyed the “light at the end of the tunnel” cartoon from the Guardian.
        We’re facing something similar.
        Only Trump is holding it to the fuse of a pile of tnt the size of Mount Rushmore.
        They offer a copy of the Brexit version. Wish someone would make the other. That’s something I’d buy.

        yes, please stay safe. would hate to have to hunt for another forum

        sigh

      • Thanks Debby. Staying safe so far. We do have special protection though. I run my ultrasound squirrel repellent device past all incoming goods. It sends the little bugs scuttling away. Thinking of marketing it in Iran and Michigan. S

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        oooh I do so like your snarky wit!!!
        thanks for the first giggle of the day

      • I enjoy snarky. Thanks!

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