Category Archives: United States of America

Conservatives and Progressives agree: The U.S. is already now in a constitutional crisis

[BenIndy Editor: This is an incredibly important wake-up call to the United States of America, quoted at length on the Rachel Maddow show tonight.  If you don’t have time for the lengthy article below, stay tuned – I’ll try to post Rachel’s piece later, in which she does a great job of summarizing.  This is for the record – we’re in for a tumultuous next few years.  – R.S.]

Opinion: Our constitutional crisis is already here

(Illustration by Anthony Gerace for The Washington Post; photos by Getty Images)
(Illustration by Anthony Gerace for The Washington Post; photos by Getty Images)

“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.”  — James Madison

The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves. The warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial. But about these things there should be no doubt:

First, Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. The hope and expectation that he would fade in visibility and influence have been delusional. He enjoys mammoth leads in the polls; he is building a massive campaign war chest; and at this moment the Democratic ticket looks vulnerable. Barring health problems, he is running.

Second, Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way. Some Republican candidates have already begun preparing to declare fraud in 2022, just as Larry Elder tried meekly to do in the California recall contest.

Meanwhile, the amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for Trump are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process. As of this spring, Republicans have proposed or passed measures in at least 16 states that would shift certain election authorities from the purview of the governor, secretary of state or other executive-branch officers to the legislature. An Arizona bill flatly states that the legislature may “revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election” by a simple majority vote. Some state legislatures seek to impose criminal penalties on local election officials alleged to have committed “technical infractions,” including obstructing the view of poll watchers.

The stage is thus being set for chaos. Imagine weeks of competing mass protests across multiple states as lawmakers from both parties claim victory and charge the other with unconstitutional efforts to take power. Partisans on both sides are likely to be better armed and more willing to inflict harm than they were in 2020. Would governors call out the National Guard? Would President Biden nationalize the Guard and place it under his control, invoke the Insurrection Act, and send troops into Pennsylvania or Texas or Wisconsin to quell violent protests? Deploying federal power in the states would be decried as tyranny. Biden would find himself where other presidents have been — where Andrew Jackson was during the nullification crisis, or where Abraham Lincoln was after the South seceded — navigating without rules or precedents, making his own judgments about what constitutional powers he does and doesn’t have.

Today’s arguments over the filibuster will seem quaint in three years if the American political system enters a crisis for which the Constitution offers no remedy.

Most Americans — and all but a handful of politicians — have refused to take this possibility seriously enough to try to prevent it. As has so often been the case in other countries where fascist leaders arise, their would-be opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement at this charismatic authoritarian. They have followed the standard model of appeasement, which always begins with underestimation. The political and intellectual establishments in both parties have been underestimating Trump since he emerged on the scene in 2015. They underestimated the extent of his popularity and the strength of his hold on his followers; they underestimated his ability to take control of the Republican Party; and then they underestimated how far he was willing to go to retain power. The fact that he failed to overturn the 2020 election has reassured many that the American system remains secure, though it easily could have gone the other way — if Biden had not been safely ahead in all four states where the vote was close; if Trump had been more competent and more in control of the decision-makers in his administration, Congress and the states. As it was, Trump came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year. All that prevented it was a handful of state officials with notable courage and integrity, and the reluctance of two attorneys general and a vice president to obey orders they deemed inappropriate.

These were not the checks and balances the Framers had in mind when they designed the Constitution, of course, but Trump has exposed the inadequacy of those protections. The Founders did not foresee the Trump phenomenon, in part because they did not foresee national parties. They anticipated the threat of a demagogue, but not of a national cult of personality. They assumed that the new republic’s vast expanse and the historic divisions among the 13 fiercely independent states would pose insuperable barriers to national movements based on party or personality. “Petty” demagogues might sway their own states, where they were known and had influence, but not the whole nation with its diverse populations and divergent interests.

Such checks and balances as the Framers put in place, therefore, depended on the separation of the three branches of government, each of which, they believed, would zealously guard its own power and prerogatives. The Framers did not establish safeguards against the possibility that national-party solidarity would transcend state boundaries because they did not imagine such a thing was possible. Nor did they foresee that members of Congress, and perhaps members of the judicial branch, too, would refuse to check the power of a president from their own party.

(Illustration by Anthony Gerace for The Washington Post; photos by Getty Images)

In recent decades, however, party loyalty has superseded branch loyalty, and never more so than in the Trump era. As the two Trump impeachments showed, if members of Congress are willing to defend or ignore the president’s actions simply because he is their party leader, then conviction and removal become all but impossible. In such circumstances, the Framers left no other check against usurpation by the executive — except (small-r) republican virtue.

Critics and supporters alike have consistently failed to recognize what a unique figure Trump is in American history. Because his followers share fundamentally conservative views, many see Trump as merely the continuation, and perhaps the logical culmination, of the Reagan Revolution. This is a mistake: Although most Trump supporters are or have become Republicans, they hold a set of beliefs that were not necessarily shared by all Republicans. Some Trump supporters are former Democrats and independents. In fact, the passions that animate the Trump movement are as old as the republic and have found a home in both parties at one time or another.

Suspicion of and hostility toward the federal government; racial hatred and fear; a concern that modern, secular society undermines religion and traditional morality; economic anxiety in an age of rapid technological change; class tensions, with subtle condescension on one side and resentment on the other; distrust of the broader world, especially Europe, and its insidious influence in subverting American freedom — such views and attitudes have been part of the fabric of U.S. politics since the anti-Federalists, the Whiskey Rebellion and Thomas Jefferson. The Democratic Party was the home of white supremacists until they jumped to George Wallace in 1968 and later to the Republicans. Liberals and Democrats in particular need to distinguish between their ongoing battle with Republican policies and the challenge posed by Trump and his followers. One can be fought through the processes of the constitutional system; the other is an assault on the Constitution itself.

What makes the Trump movement historically unique is not its passions and paranoias. It is the fact that for millions of Americans, Trump himself is the response to their fears and resentments. This is a stronger bond between leader and followers than anything seen before in U.S. political movements. Although the Founders feared the rise of a king or a Caesar, for two centuries Americans proved relatively immune to unwavering hero-worship of politicians. Their men on horseback — Theodore Roosevelt, Grant, even Washington — were not regarded as infallible. This was true of great populist leaders as well. William Jennings Bryan a century ago was venerated because he advanced certain ideas and policies, but he did not enjoy unquestioning loyalty from his followers. Even Reagan was criticized by conservatives for selling out conservative principles, for deficit spending, for his equivocal stance on abortion, for being “soft” on the Soviet Union.

Trump is different, which is one reason the political system has struggled to understand, much less contain, him. The American liberal worldview tends to search for material and economic explanations for everything, and no doubt a good number of Trump supporters have grounds to complain about their lot in life. But their bond with Trump has little to do with economics or other material concerns. They believe the U.S. government and society have been captured by socialists, minority groups and sexual deviants. They see the Republican Party establishment as corrupt and weak — “losers,” to use Trump’s word, unable to challenge the reigning liberal hegemony. They view Trump as strong and defiant, willing to take on the establishment, Democrats, RINOs, liberal media, antifa, the Squad, Big Tech and the “Mitch McConnell Republicans.” His charismatic leadership has given millions of Americans a feeling of purpose and empowerment, a new sense of identity. While Trump’s critics see him as too narcissistic to be any kind of leader, his supporters admire his unapologetic, militant selfishness. Unlike establishment Republicans, Trump speaks without embarrassment on behalf of an aggrieved segment of Americans, not exclusively White, who feel they have been taking it on the chin for too long. And that is all he needs to do.

There was a time when political analysts wondered what would happen when Trump failed to “deliver” for his constituents. But the most important thing Trump delivers is himself. His egomania is part of his appeal. In his professed victimization by the media and the “elites,” his followers see their own victimization. That is why attacks on Trump by the elites only strengthen his bond with his followers. That is why millions of Trump supporters have even been willing to risk death as part of their show of solidarity: When Trump’s enemies cited his mishandling of the pandemic to discredit him, their answer was to reject the pandemic. One Trump supporter didn’t go to the hospital after developing covid-19 symptoms because he didn’t want to contribute to the liberal case against Trump. “I’m not going to add to the numbers,” he told a reporter.

Because the Trump movement is less about policies than about Trump himself, it has undermined the normal role of American political parties, which is to absorb new political and ideological movements into the mainstream. Bryan never became president, but some of his populist policies were adopted by both political parties. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s supporters might not have wanted Biden for president, but having lost the nomination battle they could work on getting Biden to pursue their agenda. Liberal democracy requires acceptance of adverse electoral results, a willingness to countenance the temporary rule of those with whom we disagree. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, it requires that people “endure error in the interest of social peace.” Part of that willingness stems from the belief that the democratic system makes it possible to work, even in opposition, to correct the ruling party’s errors and overreach. Movements based on ideas and policies can also quickly shift their allegiances. Today, the progressives’ flag-bearer might be Sanders, but tomorrow it could be Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or someone else.

For a movement built around a cult of personality, these adjustments are not possible. For Trump supporters, the “error” is that Trump was cheated out of reelection by what he has told them is an oppressive, communist, Democrat regime. While the defeat of a sitting president normally leads to a struggle to claim the party’s mantle, so far no Republican has been able to challenge Trump’s grip on Republican voters: not Sen. Josh Hawley, not Sen. Tom Cotton, not Tucker Carlson, not Gov. Ron DeSantis. It is still all about Trump. The fact that he is not in office means that the United States is “a territory controlled by enemy tribes,” writes one conservative intellectual. The government, as one Trump supporter put it, “is monopolized by a Regime that believes [Trump voters] are beneath representation, and will observe no limits to keep them [from] getting it.” If so, the intellectual posits, what choice do they have but to view the government as the enemy and to become “united and armed to take care of themselves as they think best”?

(Illustration by Anthony Gerace for The Washington Post; photos by Getty Images)

The Trump movement might not have begun as an insurrection, but it became one after its leader claimed he had been cheated out of reelection. For Trump supporters, the events of Jan. 6 were not an embarrassing debacle but a patriotic effort to save the nation, by violent action if necessary. As one 56-year-old Michigan woman explained: “We weren’t there to steal things. We weren’t there to do damage. We were just there to overthrow the government.”

The banal normalcy of the great majority of Trump’s supporters, including those who went to the Capitol on Jan. 6, has befuddled many observers. Although private militia groups and white supremacists played a part in the attack, 90 percent of those arrested or charged had no ties to such groups. The majority were middle-class and middle-aged; 40 percent were business owners or white-collar workers. They came mostly from purple, not red, counties.

Most Trump supporters are good parents, good neighbors and solid members of their communities. Their bigotry, for the most part, is typical white American bigotry, perhaps with an added measure of resentment and a less filtered mode of expression since Trump arrived on the scene. But these are normal people in the sense that they think and act as people have for centuries. They put their trust in family, tribe, religion and race. Although jealous in defense of their own rights and freedoms, they are less concerned about the rights and freedoms of those who are not like them. That, too, is not unusual. What is unnatural is to value the rights of others who are unlike you as much as you value your own.

As it happens, however, that is what the American experiment in republican democracy requires. It is what the Framers meant by “republican virtue,” a love of freedom not only for oneself but also as an abstract, universal good; a love of self-government as an ideal; a commitment to abide by the laws passed by legitimate democratic processes; and a healthy fear of and vigilance against tyranny of any kind. Even James Madison, who framed the Constitution on the assumption that people would always pursue their selfish interests, nevertheless argued that it was “chimerical” to believe that any form of government could “secure liberty and happiness without any virtue in the people.” Al Gore and his supporters displayed republican virtue when they abided by the Supreme Court’s judgment in 2000 despite the partisan nature of the justices’ decision. (Whether the court itself displayed republican virtue is another question.)

The events of Jan. 6, on the other hand, proved that Trump and his most die-hard supporters are prepared to defy constitutional and democratic norms, just as revolutionary movements have in the past. While it might be shocking to learn that normal, decent Americans can support a violent assault on the Capitol, it shows that Americans as a people are not as exceptional as their founding principles and institutions. Europeans who joined fascist movements in the 1920s and 1930s were also from the middle classes. No doubt many of them were good parents and neighbors, too. People do things as part of a mass movement that they would not do as individuals, especially if they are convinced that others are out to destroy their way of life.

It would be foolish to imagine that the violence of Jan. 6 was an aberration that will not be repeated. Because Trump supporters see those events as a patriotic defense of the nation, there is every reason to expect more such episodes. Trump has returned to the explosive rhetoric of that day, insisting that he won in a “landslide,” that the “radical left Democrat communist party” stole the presidency in the “most corrupt, dishonest, and unfair election in the history of our country” and that they have to give it back. He has targeted for defeat those Republicans who voted for his impeachment — or criticized him for his role in the riot. Already, there have been threats to bomb polling sites, kidnap officials and attack state capitols. “You and your family will be killed very slowly,” the wife of Georgia’s top election official was texted earlier this year. Nor can one assume that the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers would again play a subordinate role when the next riot unfolds. Veterans who assaulted the Capitol told police officers that they had fought for their country before and were fighting for it again. Looking ahead to 2022 and 2024, Trump insists “there is no way they win elections without cheating. There’s no way.” So, if the results come in showing another Democratic victory, Trump’s supporters will know what to do. Just as “generations of patriots” gave “their sweat, their blood and even their very lives” to build America, Trump tells them, so today “we have no choice. We have to fight” to restore “our American birthright.”

Where does the Republican Party stand in all this? The party gave birth to and nurtured this movement; it bears full responsibility for establishing the conditions in which Trump could capture the loyalty of 90 percent of Republican voters. Republican leaders were more than happy to ride Trump’s coattails if it meant getting paid off with hundreds of conservative court appointments, including three Supreme Court justices; tax cuts; immigration restrictions; and deep reductions in regulations on business. Yet Trump’s triumph also had elements of a hostile takeover. The movement’s passion was for Trump, not the party. GOP primary voters chose Trump over the various flavors of establishment Republicanism (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio), and after Trump’s election they continued to regard establishment Republicans as enemies. Longtime party heroes like Paul Ryan were cast into oblivion for disparaging Trump. Even staunch supporters such as Jeff Sessions eventually became villains when they would not do as Trump demanded. Those who survived had a difficult balancing act: to use Trump’s appeal to pass the Republican agenda while also controlling Trump’s excesses, which they worried could ultimately threaten the party’s interests.

That plan seemed plausible in 2017. Unlike other insurgent leaders, Trump had not spent time in the political wilderness building a party and surrounding himself with loyalists. He had to choose from an existing pool of Republican officials, who varied in their willingness to do his bidding. The GOP establishment hoped that the presence of “adults” would restrain him, protecting their traditional agenda and, in their view, the country’s interests, from his worst instincts.

This was a miscalculation. Trump’s grip on his supporters left no room for an alternative power center in the party. One by one, the “adults” resigned or were run off. The dissent and contrary opinions that exist in every party — the Northeast moderate Republicans in Reagan’s day; the progressives in today’s Democratic Party — disappeared from Trump’s Republican Party. The only real issue was Trump himself, and on that there could be no dissent. Those who disapproved of Trump could either keep silent or leave.

The takeover extended beyond the level of political leadership. Modern political parties are an ecosystem of interest groups, lobby organizations, job seekers, campaign donors and intellectuals. All have a stake in the party’s viability; all ultimately depend on being roughly aligned with wherever the party is at a given moment; and so all had to make their peace with Trump, too. Conservative publications that once opposed him as unfit for the presidency had to reverse course or lose readership and funding. Pundits had to adjust to the demands of their pro-Trump audiences — and were rewarded handsomely when they did. Donors who had opposed Trump during the primaries fell into line, if only to preserve some influence on the issues that mattered to them. Advocacy organizations that had previously seen their role as holding the Republican Party to certain principles, and thus often dissented from the party leadership, either became advocates for Trump or lost clout.

It was no surprise that elected officials feared taking on the Trump movement and that Republican job seekers either kept silent about their views or made show-trial-like apologies for past criticism. Ambition is a powerful antidote to moral qualms. More revealing was the behavior of Republican elder statesmen, former secretaries of state in their 80s or 90s who had no further ambitions for high office and seemingly nothing to lose by speaking out. Despite their known abhorrence of everything Trump stood for, these old lions refused to criticize him. They were unwilling to come out against a Republican Party to which they had devoted their professional lives, even when the party was led by someone they detested. Whatever they thought about Trump, moreover, Republican elders disliked Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democrats more. Again, this is not so unusual. German conservatives accommodated Adolf Hitler in large part because they opposed the socialists more than they opposed the Nazis, who, after all, shared many of their basic prejudices. As for conservative intellectuals, even those who had spent years arguing that Woodrow Wilson was a tyrant because he created the Federal Reserve and supported child labor laws seemed to have no concerns about whether Trump was a would-be despot. They not only came to Trump’s defense but fashioned political doctrines to justify his rule, filling in the wide gaps of his nonexistent ideology with an appeal to “conservative nationalism” and conservative populism. Perhaps American conservatism was never comfortable with the American experiment in liberal democracy, but certainly since Trump took over their party, many conservatives have revealed a hostility to core American beliefs.

(Illustration by Anthony Gerace for The Washington Post; photos by Getty Images)

All this has left few dissenting voices within the Republican ecosystem. The Republican Party today is a zombie party. Its leaders go through the motions of governing in pursuit of traditional Republican goals, wrestling over infrastructure spending and foreign policy, even as real power in the party has leached away to Trump. From the uneasy and sometimes contentious partnership during Trump’s four years in office, the party’s main if not sole purpose today is as the willing enabler of Trump’s efforts to game the electoral system to ensure his return to power.

With the party firmly under his thumb, Trump is now fighting the Biden administration on separate fronts. One is normal, legitimate political competition, where Republicans criticize Biden’s policies, feed and fight the culture wars, and in general behave like a typical hostile opposition.

The other front is outside the bounds of constitutional and democratic competition and into the realm of illegal or extralegal efforts to undermine the electoral process. The two are intimately related, because the Republican Party has used its institutional power in the political sphere to shield Trump and his followers from the consequences of their illegal and extralegal activities in the lead-up to Jan. 6. Thus, Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, in their roles as party leaders, run interference for the Trump movement in the sphere of legitimate politics, while Republicans in lesser positions cheer on the Jan. 6 perpetrators, turning them into martyrs and heroes, and encouraging illegal acts in the future.

This pincer assault has several advantages. Republican politicians and would-be policymakers can play the role of the legitimate opposition. They can rediscover their hawkish internationalist foreign policy (suspended during the Trump years) and their deficit-minded economics (also suspended during the Trump years). They can go on the mainstream Sunday shows and critique the Biden administration on issues such as Afghanistan. They can pretend that Trump is no longer part of the equation. Biden is the president, after all, and his administration is not exactly without faults.

Yet whatever the legitimacy of Republican critiques of Biden, there is a fundamental disingenuousness to it all. It is a dodge. Republicans focus on China and critical race theory and avoid any mention of Trump, even as the party works to fix the next election in his favor. The left hand professes to know nothing of what the right hand is doing.

Even Trump opponents play along. Republicans such as Sens. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse have condemned the events of Jan. 6, criticized Trump and even voted for his impeachment, but in other respects they continue to act as good Republicans and conservatives. On issues such as the filibuster, Romney and others insist on preserving “regular order” and conducting political and legislative business as usual, even though they know that Trump’s lieutenants in their party are working to subvert the next presidential election.

The result is that even these anti-Trump Republicans are enabling the insurrection. Revolutionary movements usually operate outside a society’s power structures. But the Trump movement also enjoys unprecedented influence within those structures. It dominates the coverage on several cable news networks, numerous conservative magazines, hundreds of talk radio stations and all kinds of online platforms. It has access to financing from rich individuals and the Republican National Committee’s donor pool. And, not least, it controls one of the country’s two national parties. All that is reason enough to expect another challenge, for what movement would fail to take advantage of such favorable circumstances to make a play for power?

(Illustration by Anthony Gerace for The Washington Post; photos by Getty Images)

Today, we are in a time of hope and illusion. The same people who said that Trump wouldn’t try to overturn the last election now say we have nothing to worry about with the next one. Republicans have been playing this game for five years, first pooh-poohing concerns about Trump’s intentions, or about the likelihood of their being realized, and then going silent, or worse, when what they insisted was improbable came to pass. These days, even the anti-Trump media constantly looks for signs that Trump’s influence might be fading and that drastic measures might not be necessary.

The world will look very different in 14 months if, as seems likely, the Republican zombie party wins control of the House. At that point, with the political winds clearly blowing in his favor, Trump is all but certain to announce his candidacy, and social media constraints on his speech are likely to be lifted, since Facebook and Twitter would have a hard time justifying censoring his campaign. With his megaphone back, Trump would once again dominate news coverage, as outlets prove unable to resist covering him around the clock if only for financial reasons.

But this time, Trump would have advantages that he lacked in 2016 and 2020, including more loyal officials in state and local governments; the Republicans in Congress; and the backing of GOP donors, think tanks and journals of opinion. And he will have the Trump movement, including many who are armed and ready to be activated, again. Who is going to stop him then? On its current trajectory, the 2024 Republican Party will make the 2020 Republican Party seem positively defiant.

Those who criticize Biden and the Democrats for not doing enough to prevent this disaster are not being fair. There is not much they can do without Republican cooperation, especially if they lose control of either chamber in 2022. It has become fashionable to write off any possibility that a handful of Republicans might rise up to save the day. This preemptive capitulation has certainly served well those Republicans who might otherwise be held to account for their cowardice. How nice for them that everyone has decided to focus fire on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

Yet it is largely upon these Republicans that the fate of the republic rests.

Notes of the vote count taken by the staff of the House impeachment mangers are seen after the Senate voted to acquit former president Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 13. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Seven Republican senators voted to convict Trump for inciting an insurrection and attempting to overturn a free and fair election: Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Romney, Sasse and Patrick J. Toomey. It was a brave vote, a display of republican virtue, especially for the five who are not retiring in 2022. All have faced angry backlashes — Romney was booed and called a traitor at the Utah Republican convention;  Burr and Cassidy were unanimously censured by their state parties. Yet as much credit as they deserve for taking this stand, it was almost entirely symbolic. When it comes to concrete action that might prevent a debacle in 2024, they have balked.

Specifically, they have refused to work with Democrats to pass legislation limiting state legislatures’ ability to overturn the results of future elections, to ensure that the federal government continues to have some say when states try to limit voting rights, to provide federal protection to state and local election workers who face threats, and in general to make clear to the nation that a bipartisan majority in the Senate opposes the subversion of the popular will. Why?

It can’t be because they think they have a future in a Trump-dominated party. Even if they manage to get reelected, what kind of government would they be serving in? They can’t be under any illusion about what a second Trump term would mean. Trump’s disdain for the rule of law is clear. His exoneration from the charges leveled in his impeachment trials — the only official, legal response to his actions — practically ensures that he would wield power even more aggressively. His experience with unreliable subordinates in his first term is likely to guide personnel decisions in a second. Only total loyalists would serve at the head of the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and the Pentagon. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs will not be someone likely to place his or her own judgment above that of their civilian commander in chief. Nor would a Republican Senate fail to confirm Trump loyalists. In such a world, with Trump and his lieutenants in charge of all the levers of state power, including its growing capacity for surveillance, opposing Trump would become increasingly risky for Republicans and Democrats alike. A Trump victory is likely to mean at least the temporary suspension of American democracy as we have known it.

We are already in a constitutional crisis. The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. In a little more than a year, it may become impossible to pass legislation to protect the electoral process in 2024. Now it is impossible only because anti-Trump Republicans, and even some Democrats, refuse to tinker with the filibuster. It is impossible because, despite all that has happened, some people still wish to be good Republicans even as they oppose Trump. These decisions will not wear well as the nation tumbles into full-blown crisis.

It is not impossible for politicians to make such a leap. The Republican Party itself was formed in the 1850s by politicians who abandoned their previous party — former Whigs, former Democrats and former members of the Liberty and Free Soil parties. While Whig and Democratic party stalwarts such as Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas juggled and compromised, doing their best to ensure that the issue of slavery did not destroy their great parties, others decided that the parties had become an obstacle to justice and a threat to the nation’s continued viability.

Romney & Co. don’t have to abandon their party. They can fashion themselves as Constitutional Republicans who, in the present emergency, are willing to form a national unity coalition in the Senate for the sole purpose of saving the republic. Their cooperation with Democrats could be strictly limited to matters relating to the Constitution and elections. Or they might strive for a temporary governing consensus on a host of critical issues: government spending, defense, immigration and even the persistent covid-19 pandemic, effectively setting aside the usual battles to focus on the more vital and immediate need to preserve the United States.

It takes two, of course, to form a national unity coalition, and Democrats can make it harder or easier for anti-Trump Republicans to join. Some profess to see no distinction between the threat posed by Trump and the threat posed by the GOP. They prefer to use Trump as a weapon in the ongoing political battle, and not only as a way of discrediting and defeating today’s Republican Party but to paint all GOP policies for the past 30 years as nothing more than precursors to Trumpism. Although today’s Trump-controlled Republican Party does need to be fought and defeated, this kind of opportunistic partisanship and conspiracy-mongering, in addition to being bad history, is no cure for what ails the nation.

Senate Democrats were wise to cut down their once-massive voting rights wish list and get behind the smaller compromise measure unveiled last week by Manchin and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. But they have yet to attract any votes from their Republican colleagues for the measure. Heading into the next election, it is vital to protect election workers, same-day registration and early voting. It will also still be necessary to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which directly addresses the state legislatures’ electoral power grab. Other battles — such as making Election Day a federal holiday and banning partisan gerrymandering — might better be postponed. Efforts to prevent a debacle in 2024 cannot. Democrats need to give anti-Trump Republicans a chance to do the right thing.

One wonders whether modern American politicians, in either party, have it in them to make such bold moves, whether they have the insight to see where events are going and the courage to do whatever is necessary to save the democratic system. If that means political suicide for this handful of Republicans, wouldn’t it be better to go out fighting for democracy than to slink off quietly into the night?

500,000 COVID deaths – 4 ways to visualize an almost unimaginable toll

By Roger Straw, February 22, 2021

First, the chilling illustration on New York Times’ front page from yesterday, where each dot represents a death, starting at the top with a single death on February 29, 2020  (Click on the image to enlarge.)  …and be sure to also see the Washington Post story, below.

The Washington Post Graphics Department posted 3 ways of imagining 500,000 of us – a caravan of 9,804 buses full of people, 50 on each bus; names listed on a memorial wall like that of Vietnam War dead, only 87 feet tall; and a filled-to-capacity new cemetery the size of Arlington Cemetery.  (This story cannot be shared visually on the BenIndy, but you can view it free at the WaPo. Click here or on the image below.)  Thanks to Washington Post graphics staffers Artur Galocha and Bonnie Berkowitz.

500,000 dead, a number almost too large to grasp

Here are three ways to visualize the monstrous death toll of the coronavirus in this country 


In countries keeping the coronavirus at bay, experts watch U.S. case numbers with alarm

Washington Post, By Rick Noack, June 19, 2020

As coronavirus cases surge in the U.S. South and West, health experts in countries with falling case numbers are watching with a growing sense of alarm and disbelief, with many wondering why virus-stricken U.S. states continue to reopen and why the advice of scientists is often ignored.

“It really does feel like the U.S. has given up,” said Siouxsie Wiles, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand — a country that has confirmed only three new cases over the past three weeks and where citizens have now largely returned to their pre-coronavirus routines.

“I can’t imagine what it must be like having to go to work knowing it’s unsafe,” Wiles said of the U.S.-wide economic reopening. “It’s hard to see how this ends. There are just going to be more and more people infected, and more and more deaths. It’s heartbreaking.”

Visitors to the River Walk pass a restaurant that has reopened in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
Visitors to the River Walk pass a restaurant that has reopened in San Antonio. (Eric Gay, File)

China’s actions over the past week stand in stark contrast to those of the United States. In the wake of a new cluster of more than 150 new cases that emerged in Beijing, authorities sealed off neighborhoods, launched a mass testing campaign and imposed travel restrictions.

Meanwhile, President Trump maintains that the United States will not shut down a second time, although a surge in cases has persuaded governors in some states, including Arizona, to back off their opposition to mandatory face coverings in public.

Commentators and experts in Europe, where cases have continued to decline, voiced concerns over the state of the U.S. response. A headline on the website of Germany’s public broadcaster read: “Has the U.S. given up its fight against coronavirus?” Switzerland’s conservative Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper concluded, “U.S. increasingly accepts rising covid-19 numbers.”

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“The only thing one can say with certainty: There’s nothing surprising about this development,” a journalist wrote in the paper, referring to crowded U.S. beaches and pools during Memorial Day weekend in May.

Some European health experts fear that the rising U.S. caseloads are rooted in a White House response that has at times deviated from the conclusions of leading scientists.

“Many scientists appeared to have reached an adequate assessment of the situation early on [in the United States], but this didn’t translate into a political action plan,” said Thomas Gerlinger, a professor of health sciences at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. For instance, it took a long time for the United States to ramp up testing capacity.

Whereas the U.S. response to the crisis has at times appeared disconnected from American scientists’ publicly available findings, U.S. researchers’ conclusions informed the actions of foreign governments.

“A large portion of [Germany’s] measures that proved effective was based on studies by leading U.S. research institutes,” said Karl Lauterbach, a Harvard-educated epidemiologist who is a member of the German parliament for the Social Democrats, who are part of the coalition government. Lauterbach advised the German parliament and the government during the pandemic.

Despite its far older population, Germany has confirmed fewer than 9,000 coronavirus-linked deaths, compared with almost 120,000 in the United States. (Germany has about one-fourth of the United States’ population.)

Lauterbach cited in particular the work of Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, whose research with colleagues recently said that forms of social distancing may have to remain in place into 2022. Lipsitch’s work, Lauterbach said, helped him to convince German Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz that the pandemic will be “the new normal” for the time being, and it impacted German officials’ thinking on how long their strategy should be in place.

Regarding the effectiveness of face masks, Lauterbach added, “we almost entirely relied on U.S. studies.” Germany was among the first major European countries to make face masks mandatory on public transport and in supermarkets.

Lipsitch said Thursday that he was not previously aware of the impact of his research on German decision-making, but he added that he has spoken to representatives of several other foreign governments in recent weeks, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and officials or advisers from Canada, New Zealand and South Korea.

Even though Lipsitch cautioned it was impossible for him to say how or if his conversations influenced foreign governments’ thinking, he credited the overall European response as “science-based and a sincere effort to find out what experts in the field believe is a range of possible scenarios and consequences of decisions.”

Lipsitch said he presented some of his research to a White House group in the early stages of the U.S. outbreak but said the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic did not reflect his conclusions. “I think they have cherry-picked models that at each point looked the most rosy, and fundamentally not engaged with the magnitude of the problem,” he said.

European researchers dispute that the U.S. government’s reliance on scientists to inform decision-making comes anywhere near the degree to which many European policymakers have relied on researchers.

After consulting U.S. research and German studies, for instance, German leaders agreed to make reopening dependent on case numbers, meaning restrictions snap back or reopening gets put on hold if the case numbers in a given region exceed a certain threshold.

Meanwhile, several U.S. states have reopened despite rising case numbers.

“I don’t understand that logic,” said Reinhard Busse, a health-care management professor at the Technical University of Berlin.

Lauterbach said that even though most Germans disapproved of Trump before the pandemic, even his staunchest critics in Germany were surprised by how even respected U.S. institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, struggled to respond to the crisis.

The CDC, for instance, initially botched the rollout of test kits in the early stages of the outbreak.

“Like many other aspects of our country, the CDC’s ability to function well is being severely handicapped by the interference coming from the White House,” said Harvard epidemiologist Lipsitch. “All of us in public health very much hope that this is not a permanent condition of the CDC.”

Some observers fear the damage will be difficult to reverse. “I’ve always thought of the CDC as a reliable and trusted source of information,” said Wiles, the New Zealand specialist. “Not anymore.”

April was death. April was hope. April was cruel.

April’s coronavirus death toll surpassed the Vietnam War’s, and it tested almost everyone, yet Americans found ways to come together.

The Washington Post, by Marc Fisher, Abigail Hauslohner, Hannah Natanson and Lori Rozsa, May 2, 2020

April was death. Bodies stacked, mothers and fathers discarded in bags piled onto refrigerator trucks in hospital parking lots, dumped into mass graves. People leaving this life without farewells, without a last look of love, without a touch.

April was hope. A frenzy of purposeful energy, scientists and doctors and nurses searching for patterns that might lead to answers. People without fancy degrees snapped on gloves, tied on masks and prayed that the help they gave to people they would never know might not lead also to their own demise.

April was cruel. There have been worse months in the history of human beings, but not many. An average of 446,000 people died each month from August to October in 1942 during Germany’s mania of industrialized murder, the Holocaust. In the United States, the deadliest month was October 1918, when about 200,000 people succumbed to the flu.

The new virus is a swift executioner. In the war in Vietnam, 58,209 Americans were killed between 1960 and 1975. In the battle against the novel coronavirus, 58,760 Americans died in April alone. Both crises leeched into existing fissures, exacerbating political and social divisions. But the war analogy goes only so far; in this conflict, we have no big guns, no ready defense. All we can do at this stage is hide and try to manage the damage.

April 11: U.S. death toll becomes highest in the world (20,429)
April 20: U.S. death toll doubles in 9 days (42,128)
April 29: U.S. death toll now surpasses nation’s Vietnam War casualties from 1960 to 1975 (58,209)
April 30: 62,557 total U.S. covid-19 deaths

The virus that changed America in April is an invisible and insidious killer, aimed at no one in particular and at everyone at once. This disease, covid-19, has the power to cause searing pain, to turn our bodies against us, to rob us of the thing we take most for granted, the air we breathe. It also steals jobs and money and food and the simplest of gestures — a smile now hidden under a mask, a glance that doesn’t happen because you’re stuck at home, a handshake that now shivers with danger.

By the end of the month, more than 2,000 Americans were dying each day and more than 1 million had confirmed infections — about one in every 325 people in the country.

Kathleen Kelly, an emergency room physician at Reston Hospital Center in Northern Virginia, seen outside her home in Alexandria, Va., on April 27. “It’s just like nothing anybody’s seen,” she said of the covid-19 crisis overwhelming many hospitals. (Alyssa Schukar/for The Washington Post)

A desperate month

April was a frantic blur, at hospitals, in makeshift wards in hallways and closets, in formless days as nurses tried to salve gasping patients. After 12 hours of tending to people for whom they had no answers, doctors stole a few moments to trade stories in their Facebook groups, telling what they had seen and what they had tried. Somehow, they hoped, their collective anecdotes might add up to something useful.

“There’s no consensus on what’s the right thing to do,” said Kathleen Kelly, an emergency room physician at Reston Hospital Center in Northern Virginia. “It’s just like nothing anybody’s seen.”

Put the patients on their bellies, give them high-flow nasal oxygen, try this, try that, anything to help them draw air. People came in with breathing so labored that nurses could hear them clear across the ER.

There was no such thing as dropping by to check on a patient. Everything was an ordeal, a detailed process designed to keep health-care workers going beyond where they ever thought they would go.

It took five pairs of gloves just to safely remove one set of protective gear (mask and face shield and gloves and gown and booties): Clean an area, remove the gloves, dump them in a paper bag, put on another pair, clean an area, repeat. It took five minutes to prep for each bedside visit.

“But these people need you in there right now,” Kelly said. “We’re used to running to colleagues for advice, but now, nobody can run in to check with anyone.”

There were so many questions, so few answers. Where, for example, were all the other patients — the heart attacks and cooking burns and car crash injuries? (Okay, that last disappearance was explainable: Hardly anybody was driving.) Were people suffering at home, too scared to come to the hospital? Even the neonatologists wondered: Where are people delivering their babies?

When people did arrive, their situation was bad.

“Heart attacks are coming in too late, and they’re ending up with long-term cardiac damage,” said Kelly, who is 63 and started her career during the first big wave of HIV cases. “You protected yourself then, but it was nothing like this. This is so infectious, and we don’t understand it. I don’t know how I’ll know when to take the mask off.”


A hunger for air

April was a scary quest for air, a hunger for the very stuff of life.

Shani Evans, 50, thought it was just menopause. Hot flashes, chills. Then, after two days, the sore throat, headache, and dry cough. Uh-oh.

But she had a job interview — she was in the process of switching from one Lowe’s store to another, where she would be working in the lawn and garden department — and the teledoctor she called told her she probably just had a seasonal allergy.

Then everything got worse. The symptoms stacked up — add nausea and fever to the mix. She called in sick and drove from her home in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to an urgent care clinic 15 minutes away in Charles Town, where they told her she didn’t meet the criteria for getting a coronavirus test. They gave her cough medicine and sent her home.

Then the virus took her breath away.

“I was never sicker,” Evans said. Thirteen days into the suffering, her boyfriend, Ronald Grey, drove her to the ER at Jefferson Medical Center. She was gasping for air.

On the third try at the hospital, Evans said, a staffer decided she needed help and rustled up a wheelchair.

Pete Paganussi, a doctor in the ER, saw Evans. “He was so nice,” Evans said. “He stayed with me for hours.”

Paganussi explained that the best thing he could do for her breathing was to intubate her — put her on a ventilator.

“I explained it, and she got up and ran out,” Paganussi said.

Evans said she refused the treatment because “I’m a strong person, maybe stubborn, too. I was scared to go on the ventilator because I didn’t want to lose control. I wanted to keep my lungs moving.” (In a study of covid-19 patients in New York, 88 percent of those who were put on ventilators died.)

Evans went home. The hours crawled by. She drank tea, used an inhaler. She did whatever she could to avoid lying down, because that’s when the cough intensified. She vacuumed the floor, dusted, anything to keep active, keep her lungs going. Not normally given to anxiety, she was scared beyond imagining. Time became a blur. For seven days, she barely slept, getting just minutes of rest at a time because the coughing would wake her.

“I was in and out of my mind,” she said. “It was really weird.”

She tried to watch TV. She put CNN, Fox News and MSNBC on split screens and she had no idea what to believe. “Everybody says different things, and I don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “Fox plays it down and CNN takes it more serious, and I can’t get anywhere with it.”

Paganussi kept calling from the hospital and leaving messages. No answer.

“I was afraid she’d died,” the doctor said.

On the third day after the hospital visit, her breathing eased. She called the doctor back. She was okay, she said.

“It’s been a long month,” Evans said. “A very long month.”

The sickness lifted. The cough lingered, then resolved. But the anxiety remained, even after her employer paid her for her time in quarantine. Her boyfriend is okay, and she’s back at work, but “mentally, I’m changed,” Evans said. “I don’t know how I’m going to go back to going places.”

Her doctor shares her anxiety. “I’ve been a doc since 1985, and I’ve never been afraid to walk into a room,” Paganussi said. “This virus scares me.”

Before every shift, he reads the 91st Psalm to the nurses: “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”

When he finishes, the nurses break into applause.


Silent and eerie

April was still. Silent schools and eerily empty highways, shuttered shops and deserted offices. Outside their homes, many people were muffled — masked, gloved, fearful, possible vectors of a contagion that knew no bounds.

Even death seemed more still than usual. No bedside farewells, no last hugs, no comforting gatherings of loved ones.

From their homes in the Boston area, Shannon, Jean and Kellie Lynch could only listen on the phone to the beeping monitors in their mother’s Florida hospital room. A nurse propped the phone on Carol Lynch’s pillow at the Villages Regional Hospital.

“We love you,” said Kellie, 59, the eldest. “Mom, if this is too much and you can’t do this, you can let go.”

And then, Kellie said, “all of a sudden, the beeping stopped.”

Carol Lynch was 84 when she died of covid-19. She died alone, and that is not how the Lynches pass from this world.

“In our family,” said the middle sister, Jean, 56, “we’re all there by their side when they die.”

They were there, at home, when their father, James, succumbed to a stroke, in 1999.

“I administered his last dose of morphine,” said Jean, a real estate agent who lives in Chelmsford, Mass.

When the fourth sister, Susan, died of leukemia at 23, her parents were by her side.

Now, Carol was gone.

“Can you imagine being surrounded by people with face masks, no one you know?” Jean said.

Carol Lynch, second from left, with her daughters, from left, Kellie, Shannon and Jean celebrating Shannon’s birthday in 2018. (Family Photo/Family Photo)

Their mother had suffered from occasional bronchitis but was otherwise healthy. When the virus struck, Carol thought it was her usual ailment. The daughters persuaded her to see a doctor, who said she had “a teeny bit of pneumonia,” Kellie said. Carol wanted to charge ahead with planning her birthday party. Her daughters told her to cancel it because of the virus.

“They get their news from Fox down there,” Kellie said. “They believe what Trump tells them. She said she had a lot of shopping to do for the party. I said ‘No, you’re not.’ She grumbled and complained, but she canceled the party.”

The decline came swiftly. One day, Carol was cooking up a storm, making beef stew and meatballs for her friends. The next day, she was delirious, with a high fever.

Kellie — who owns a fitness studio in Cohasset, Mass., where the youngest daughter, Shannon, 50, also works — went down to Florida to bring their mother home. But when Kellie arrived, hospital staffers wouldn’t let her into her mother’s room.

A few days after Carol died, Kellie received a box containing their mother’s ashes.

“I just kept moving it around the house,” Kellie said. “Finally, my girls were like, ‘Mom, you have to open the box.’ When they unpacked the urn, I started to shake all over.”

She put it in the living room, near a picture of her mother.

There could be no family gathering. “No big funeral, no wake, no ritual,” Shannon said. “There’s a lot to be said for having your people around you, where you can express your pain and cry your eyes out.”

The daughters hope to arrange a small family funeral in May, as well as a celebration of Carol’s life in June in Florida.

Jean said she has been “crying so hard that it actually hurt me. I couldn’t hold a thought. I was like, what the hell is wrong with me? Why do I feel so heavy? I called a friend, and she said, ‘That’s grief.’”


A rain of blows

April was punch after punch, a beating that knocked some families down, then slammed them again.

Miguel and Maria Hernandez were inseparable. Their love came late — they were already in their 40s when they met in a shopping mall — and endured through civil war in El Salvador, migration to a new country, and years of troubled health.

In Elizabeth, N.J. — where the couple settled and raised their son — Miguel, 77, and Maria, 80, were rarely seen apart.

“If people saw one of them alone, they’d be like ‘Where’s your husband?’ ‘Where’s your wife?’” said their son, Jose. “They were attached at the hip.”

Miguel and Maria lived upstairs in the family’s main house; Jose, now 36 and married, with one son, lived in the apartment below.

In recent years, Miguel had battled prostate cancer, and then heart problems. He had a pacemaker installed. He was shocked with a defibrillator twice.

When the epidemic began, the family was cautious. But, as March ended, Miguel fell ill. For many years an active bicyclist, he stopped eating, struggled to climb stairs, lost his balance. He grew confused and dehydrated.

At the beginning of April, Jose, Maria and Miguel donned masks and drove to the hospital.

Almost as soon as Miguel was admitted, Maria, who had long suffered from asthma, began to cough. They both tested positive for the virus, and Jose shuttled them back and forth to the hospital.

With his mother hospitalized and his father at home, Jose juggled his hopes and his emotions, his duties to Miguel upstairs and his concern about his wife, Kimberly, and their 5-year-old son, Marius, downstairs. Jose wore a mask and a separate set of clothes to feed and bathe his father.

Miguel and Maria Hernandez with their grandson, Marius. “They loved every single minute with their grandson,” their son, Jose, said. (Family Photo/Family Photo)

Miguel couldn’t sleep. He struggled to pull in air. “He would close his eyes, start to drift off, but he wasn’t breathing right,” Jose said. “He’d open his eyes, startled.”

Jose called an ambulance. The paramedics showed up looking like first responders at a chemical spill.

At the hospital, Miguel was placed on a ventilator. Within three days, he died in his sleep.

Jose couldn’t tell Maria. He knew it would break her heart.

But then Jose got an urgent call from the hospital. As doctors prepared to intubate Maria, too, they asked Jose whether they should start chest compressions if her heart stopped — as it would — warning that performing CPR on an 80-year-old in her condition might break her ribs and cause serious harm.

Jose thought of what his mother had told him a few years earlier when his grandmother died: “I don’t want them keeping me alive when I’m not really alive.” Now, Jose told the doctor: No chest compressions.

Just like that, his parents were gone. Married for 37 years, dead within three days.

On top of the loss, Jose faced the sudden cost of two funerals — $12,450 for two plots, two caskets, two services.

Miguel had worked hard his whole life, doing maintenance in warehouses. And Jose had a full-time job as a supermarket security guard. But money to cover the cost of dying simply didn’t exist.

Jose’s aunt — Miguel’s sister — and her children set up a GoFundMe appeal. They posted pictures of the man who played the guitar and loved mariachi bands, who regaled relatives with stories of the old days, who was always up for a game of checkers.

The money arrived in 500 donations — $10 here, $100 there.

“No one should have to worry about funeral expenses while mourning such a painful loss,” one man wrote.

Jose would have to wait for the funeral. For now, at home in a house left only half full, he and Kimberly searched for a Disney movie that might help explain the death of a loved one to a 5-year-old. The only one that came to mind was “The Lion King,” in which the father lion is killed, but it didn’t seem quite right.

Jose and Kimberly put off telling Marius about what had happened to the grandparents he had visited every day, with whom he played and watched cartoons. But he soon began asking. Where were they? Were they feeling better?

Niche farmer Yiling Cui prepares garlic chives and tiny carrots for sale at her farm, Everlasting Garden, in Hollister, Calif., on April 16. With the closure of most high-end restaurants, which are Cui’s primary customers, the business is reeling financially. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Plunged into crisis

April was lost — jobs evaporated, bank accounts run dry. Liquor sales soared, as did prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications and calls to suicide hotlines. Food lines and empty grocery shelves became commonplace in a nation accustomed to a life of plenty.

In the California valley that prides itself on being the nation’s salad bowl, Yiling Cui named her farm Everlasting Garden, and for more than two decades, the name seemed accurate. She grew tiny French breakfast radishes and lemon grasses and six kinds of basil for high-end San Francisco restaurants.

Like many other business owners across the country, Cui saw the impact of stay-at-home orders almost overnight. With restaurants closed, she went from 55 clients to none. Cui was left with five acres of food she couldn’t give away.

She tried to shift to serving her neighbors. She tore out those specialty crops and planted foods people needed now that they were cooking at home: baby carrots, scallions, fava beans.

Cui, 67, put notices on Facebook and went to farmers markets. While locals were happy to buy some greens — they drove up, popped their trunks, and Cui deposited a box of produce — the revenue was a tiny portion of what she usually brought in.

She had no work for her two seasonal employees. She and her partner did all the labor now — mostly sad work, plowing in plants that used to end up on $30 plates in Bay Area eateries.

“Every day now, we just try to figure out tomorrow,” she said. “I just try to keep going. At least we can eat what we grow.”

At Andrea Osorio’s house in San Antonio, they planted seeds for beans, tomatoes and squash in the front yard and started building a chicken coop in the back.

It’s not enough. After she chastises her sons for eating more than two eggs, after she calculates how much she owes the bill collectors, and after she feeds the men in her life frijoles — refried beans — for the fifth night in a row, Andrea retreats to a corner of her living room to cry.

The panic felt tighter each April day without work, without a way to buy food. On this night, the worry left her breathless.

Before the pandemic, Osorio, 46, did not have to ration. The undocumented domestic worker found a way to provide for her Mexican American family. If work was slow, the mother of four pushed harder. She usually made nearly $500 a week cleaning houses in San Antonio, bolstering her husband’s construction wages.

Before, Osorio’s 75-year-old father, Victorio, did odd jobs to help bring in money. Before, her youngest, Osvaldo, a plump 10-year-old, would sneak snacks and his mother would let it go. Before, Osorio sent what money she had left over to her mother in Mexico.

Now, the mother eyes her son warily in the kitchen. Now, the old man stands at attention after each dinner to deliver a formal thank you to his daughter.

“At the beginning, I thought I could do this,” Osorio said. “But two weeks became three and then four and now who knows when I can work again? I cry, but never in front of them. I wait until they go to sleep and I’m alone.”

Her husband, Oscar Sanchez Sr., leaves every morning before 7 to finish off the roof of a resort home miles away. At least they have that, Andrea said.

They are paying their bills in bits and pieces. Ten dollars toward the monthly car payment. One hundred for the taxes. Twenty bucks for the water and electricity. Undocumented families don’t get stimulus checks. They can’t apply for unemployment. With so little money coming in, they emptied their freezer for the first time.

While her husband works, Andrea struggles to assist her youngest son with homework. He receives special help at school and attends a tutoring program. But his parents had to stop payments for the tutor.

Andrea came to San Antonio from Mexico as a teenager, learned some English, graduated from high school and wanted more. But not having papers meant not having chances, she said. She married, escaped an abusive ex-husband shortly after becoming a mother and saw her two oldest children go to college. Her daughter’s college diploma is the first thing on display inside the family’s front door.

For Andrea, April has meant tears, often shed alone in the living room. But not every day was bleak. Oscar Sanchez’s boss paid him a bit extra. The other day, a man called offering Andrea some work. And Oscar found an envelope stuffed with $240 in their mailbox.

For the first time in April, the family had meat for dinner.

Laura Simons, a high school physics teacher, with her son, Oliver, 17 months, at their home in Springfield, Va., on April 28. Simons’s 5-year-old daughter, Chloe, looks on from inside. (Alyssa Schukar/for The Washington Post)

Lost lessons

April was families forced into close quarters, roles reordered — parents becoming teachers, students left to learn on their own, rites of passage skipped over.

Laura Simons held her 5-year-old daughter’s hand in her left palm as she scrolled through slides of physics equations with her right.

On the child’s laptop, set up next to Mom’s, a teacher sang “Days of the week, days of the week!” The singer asked her pixilated pre-kindergarteners to cheer because “yesterday was Thursday,” meaning today was Friday.

Chloe Simons yanked her mother’s hand. Chloe said she did not understand: “Why are they cheering?”

Laura had an hour and 44 minutes before she had to log in to Zoom to teach her AP Physics 1 class. But she pulled away from her preparations to peer at her daughter’s screen.

“Well, normally when you go to school,” Laura told her daughter, “you get to stay home on Saturday and Sunday.”

Had Chloe forgotten weekends already? Weekends no longer really existed here. The line between school and their home in Springfield, Va., between work and family — a line she’d fought to find through her decade in Alexandria City Public Schools — had vanished, too.

Throughout April, Laura, 37, had led online classes in the kitchen on weekday mornings, with Chloe underfoot and her 17-month-old son, Oliver, on her lap.

Laura’s 109 physics students knew by now that Oliver liked to dump anything in the lowest kitchen drawers onto the floor. That Chloe spilled Cheerios and pretzels. Laura had canceled class once when her children dissolved into simultaneous meltdowns.

She spent weekends in her basement — drawing up lesson plans, evaluating student work — while her husband, a bridge engineer also working from home, focused on the children.

How much longer, Laura wondered, could she keep this up?

She picked up her son’s fidget spinner — hardly a good replacement for how she would usually teach that day’s lesson on angular momentum. She should have been asking her students to step onto turntables. She should have been handing them spinning bicycle wheels. She should have been laughing at their shock when they, too, began to spin.

Thankfully, the AP test had been adjusted, like everything else in Laura’s life, and would no longer focus as heavily on rotation. But things still didn’t feel right.

She had added two questions to a recent online assignment: “How are you doing?” “How’s life?”

“I miss school so much,” one student wrote, adding, “never thought I’d say that.”

“The middle of the night,” wrote another, “is my most productive time.”

The middle of the night was when Laura awakened now, her dreams colored by the fears she represses by day: Worry for her 70-year-old mother, who is prediabetic. Terror over what would happen to Chloe and Oliver if she and her husband caught the virus and died. And constant anxiety: How can she possibly teach next year’s physics students if school doesn’t reopen in the fall?

Better, she told herself, to focus on this year’s class. Forty students joined her Zoom session. Laura whipped the fidget spinner to a frenzy, then flipped it over. “It feels weird, it fights you,” she said, “and this is angular momentum.”

One 12th-grader’s eyes widened. Another threw his hands above his head.

Laura laughed: “I see your little brains breaking on your faces. I miss that look.”


Heartbreak and hope

April was boredom and heartbreak, sports unplayed and sweethearts unkissed. With schools closed and games canceled, the embers of teamwork could be tended only from afar.

As the month began, Cy Harwood, a star infielder at Huntingtown High in southern Maryland, was not ready to concede his senior season. He pushed himself with the possibility that everything might return to normal. He lifted weights in his basement, did throwing drills with his father in the driveway and went on long runs through his neighborhood, still driven by the dream of returning to his friends and their mission to win a state championship.

But in mid-April, Maryland’s governor extended at-home learning through May 15. Harwood took out his phone and crafted a message to his team’s group chat.

“This is obviously the worst news ever,” he wrote. “I wish we could have our season and our chance to win it all. I’ll always be here for every single one of you no matter what.”

That last part was hard. He was one of the team’s captains and had known some of the other players since he was 6 years old. And this was supposed to be the year they broke through.

Harwood had a shot at setting some school records at the plate this season — at-bats, hits and RBIs, his coach said. Harwood had committed last summer to play baseball after graduation at Salisbury University, a Division III program two hours from home. But some other colleges had shown interest last fall, and in early March, Harwood called Salisbury to de-commit. That had been a long, hard conversation with the head coach.

Three weeks later, after the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc, sending high school recruits across the country scrambling for opportunity, Harwood called Salisbury back for a harder conversation: He told the coach he was sorry, he’d made a mistake and now he was again excited to be a Sea Gull. They took him back.

Harwood ended the month at home, playing baseball video games, watching sports documentaries, spending at least three hours a day on his craft — lifting, throwing and sprinting with an eye toward college.

A crater had opened in the part of his existence where Huntingtown baseball once thrived.

“It’s not the same when you’re not out there,” he said. “There’s just been no way around that. We have to accept it.”

Seven hundred miles away, in Sparta, Mich., April was spring. Birds beckoned and flowers bloomed, and many who were stuck inside found ways to plant seeds of hope.

Kendyl Bjorkman’s spring was a quest for new diversions. She and her two sisters baked and cooked and played cards — Garbage and Exploding Kittens — escaping from remote school into their yard as often as possible.

Kendyl is 14, a freshman at Sparta High School and determined to get through this without wallowing in the unfairness or the boredom.

Kendyl Bjorkman, 14, at her family’s home in Sparta, Mich. (Evan Cobb/For The Washington Post)

“The month was so long and lonely,” she said. But she didn’t want to look back 10 years from now and “say I spent all that time watching YouTube.”

She and her sisters, who are 17 and 9, wrote and recorded song parodies about the epidemic.

“Stay at home, stay at home, can’t go to school anymore,” they sang, to the tune of “Let It Go” from the Disney film “Frozen.” “Stay at home, stay at home, soccer season is no more.”

The order had come seemingly out of the blue. “It was just one Thursday and then you never go back to school again,” Kendyl said. “I don’t think it’s going to be back to normal for a long time.”

She does an hour or two of school work each morning, but it’s busy work, mostly. To make the new life palatable, you have to create your own satisfaction.

“You have to enjoy each other’s presence,” she said. Her family — her mother is a teacher, now working from home, and her father still goes to the office, at the local health department — plays games. The girls go outside. “It’s good to be in your yard because it can get sad in the house,” Kendyl said.

She wakes these days around 8 or 9 — a welcome respite from the usual 6 a.m. school day alarm — puts on her running shoes, and takes off, flying along empty streets, training for cross-country meets that will not happen.

No school, no church, friends are only images on a screen, so Kendyl sings: “Stay at home, stay at home, will I ever be set free?”

Eugene “Gene” Campbell, 89, who became ill with covid-19 at Life Care Center of Kirkland, leaves Swedish Edmonds hospital in Washington state on April 20 after six weeks in treatment. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

A yearning for recovery

April was a prayer, a yearning for recovery.

Eugene “Gene” Campbell learned he had covid-19 days after he turned 89. Everyone feared that was the end.

He was one of more than 120 mostly sick and elderly residents infected with the coronavirus at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home near Lake Washington, northeast of Seattle, site of the first major coronavirus outbreak in the United States. More than 40 people died.

Campbell had arrived in February for two weeks of rehabilitation after a stroke. But fever and cough soon racked his body, and an ambulance took him to the hospital.

At the Swedish Edmonds emergency room, his frightened sons could only watch through glass doors as their father shook, hacking.

“He just seemed so alone,” said Todd Campbell, one of Gene Campbell’s three sons.

Within days, the symptoms faded, and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams hailed Campbell at a White House briefing as proof that even the elderly could vanquish the virus.

But in April, Campbell was still confined to a hospital room with a bed, television and an empty chair. He needed two negative coronavirus tests to return home to his wife, Dorothy, 88, known as “Doe,” at Vineyard Park, an assisted-living facility in nearby Bothell.

“I just want to get out of here,” Campbell would say.

He endured multiple invasive nasal swabs, but never got consistent results. In early April, after a sixth swab came back positive, he began to refuse the tests.

“This is your ticket out,” Todd told his father. “If you don’t do it, you are stuck there.”

Nobody could remember a time when Campbell had been sick — or alone.

He had been student body president of Lynden High School’s class of 1949. He sang in the choir and captained the football team. The yearbook called him “a born executive.” He finished college, was drafted into the Army, married Dorothy, and taught their three sons to clean their plates, work hard and save their money. He worked his way up to president of a textbook distributor — a job he didn’t like — to provide for his family.

“His number one priority as a father was to teach us how to survive,” said Todd, 59, an industrial engineer.

Gene Campbell spoke through his actions; he never told his boys, “I love you.”

When he arrived at Life Care, his sons told him they loved him, and they prodded him to say it back.

“He’d say ‘Yeah, okay,’” said son Charlie, 61, a retired registered nurse. Their father would wave them off with a smile.

Then the virus invaded. Barred from visiting, his sons could be with him only by phone.

Campbell told his sons one night that he had decided to refuse meals. He said his “quality of life going forward wouldn’t be worth living.” His sons hung up and cried.

But by the next morning, Campbell cheerily reported that he had just finished breakfast and the eggs were a little cold.

As April crawled by, with tests both positive and negative for the virus, Campbell seemed to change: At the end of each call, he told his sons, “I love you, too.”

Finally, on April 17, Campbell got the word: He had received two negative test results in a row.

Smiling behind face masks, his boys picked him up outside the hospital on April 20, hugged him and helped him into Todd’s SUV.

In all its complexity, in all its despair, in all its glory, April was life.

Campbell still faced two more weeks of quarantine at home, but first he had 30 minutes in the car with Todd and Charlie. Now they could envision another Christmas together, maybe another Seattle Mariners game, certainly another phone call to tell their dad they love him. And to hear him say it back.

Rozsa reported from Central Florida. Arelis R. Hernández in San Antonio and Michael Errigo, Ellen McCarthy and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.
Design and development by Joanne Lee. Graphics by Joe Fox. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Copy editing by Gilbert Dunkley.
Weekly unemployment claims from the Department of Labor. Cause of death data from the CDC.

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