Our Weekly Discontents, 10/5/20: Better Get a Note from Your Doctor

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Hello and thanks for checking out another issue of Discontents! I’m Derek Davison of Foreign Exchanges, and if you’ve been near anybody from the Trump administration in the past week you have our best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Yes, our esteemed President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, along with White House advisers Kellyanne Conway, Hope Hicks, and Nicholas Luna; Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany; RNC Chairperson Ronna McDaniel; Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien; Senators Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, and Thom Tillis; former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; and Notre Dame President John Jenkins have all tested positive for COVID-19 over the past several days, and a whole bunch of Republican donors may also have been infected. Although it’s probably impossible to determine exactly how they all contracted the virus, speculation has fallen heavily on a conspicuously socially undistanced White House event marking the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett back on September 26.

2020’s version of a pox party (White House photo via Flickr)

Since the announcement of Trump’s diagnosis early Friday the president has been taken to Walter Reed hospital out of what the White House says is an “abundance of caution,” amid a stream of sometimes contradictory and frequently incomplete information about his condition. In an effort to assure the public that Everything Is OK the White House has released photos of the president signing blank pieces of paper and the president has had himself driven around the hospital to wave at his fans, possibly infecting a couple of Secret Service agents in the process. Which to be honest is pretty Trumpian stuff, so maybe everything really is OK.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. The list of presidents whose administrations have downplayed, suppressed, or outright lied about their health concerns stretches all the way back to James Madison and includes well-regarded figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt along with lesser lights like William Henry Harrison. And it’s safe to say that none of those past administrations had as little credibility as this one. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the Trump White House played fast and loose with the truth in this situation. Indeed the bigger surprise would be if it didn’t. By the time you read this, Trump may be back in the White House and on the mend. Or…not.

The president’s diagnosis has prompted calls from across the political spectrum to put aside our differences and offer our best wishes for his recovery. The Biden campaign was inspired to shelve its negative advertising, though that favor was not reciprocated and likely wouldn’t have been if their situations were reversed. Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter have all made it clear that they do not condone any messages wishing for anyone’s death, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

How you react to Trump’s predicament is up to you. For me, I wish our political and media elites could muster the same empathy for the families of the 200,000+ Americans who have been killed by this virus as they’ve so readily mustered for the president whose administration helped make those deaths possible. I’d ask them to manifest the same sympathy for those who can’t afford adequate healthcare as they apparently have for a president who, while receiving the very best care that American taxpayers can buy, is fighting to undo even the minimal progress this country has made in affording the rest of us with that same level of care. I’d like them to find the same outrage for the people Trump and his entourage put at risk with their arrogance as they do for those who aren’t keen on offering that crew their thoughts and prayers.

But that’s just me.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

At Foreign Exchanges last week I spent a possibly inordinate amount of time covering the latest outbreak of violence over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the southern Caucuses. Azerbaijani leaders seem intent on retaking a portion of the territory Armenia occupied during their 1988-1994 war, if not all of it, which makes this flare-up potentially more serious than previous clashes between the two countries. On Tuesday I interviewed Joshua Kucera of Eurasianet about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s historical background and geopolitical context. Although there’s been a fair bit of media hand-wringing about the possibility that a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan could expand to a regional conflict, for now the situation seems fairly contained. However, Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan has thrown a new element into the mix, and may ultimately draw Russia into the fighting on Armenia’s side. As yet there seems to be no appetite for that either in Yerevan or Moscow.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey Atherton

On Thursday night, the machinery of nuclear war whirred into action. An unarmed E-6 Mercury plane took flight over the Atlantic, ready to send signals to nuclear-armed submarines below the surface if the moment, suddenly, demanded catastrophic violence. Amidst the rush of revelations about Trump catching COVID, people looked at other possible signs that something was amiss, and found that night’s E-6 flight. It was, instead, just a routine function of the standard nuclear apparatus, rather than a novel feature of a unique crisis.

“On a day-to-day basis, people don’t think about the fact that the United States is postured to use more than 1,000 nuclear weapons on a few minutes' notice,” Jeffrey Lewis of Arms Control Wonk told Wired. “But Trump getting sick didn’t cause this. This is what it’s like all the time, and if you don’t like that then maybe that’s a conversation to have.” 

It’s not my story, but I couldn’t resist sharing it. The latest “Wars of Future Past” was about the difference between people living through long wars, and historians grouping them all together. There is a chance that everything which took place from 1946 on gets grouped as “under the constant specter of nuclear peril.” We will be lucky to see that future, contingent as it is upon a constant reduction of nuclear arsenals, and also a world leader, gasping for life, deciding not to just end everything at once.

A Lonely Impulse of Delight

Connor Wroe Southard

It’s been an eventful week, so I guess it was prophetic that I wrote about how writers Set Up Events in narrative. Chekhov is the master of the short story, and he often fails to take his own most famous advice. I wrote about that conundrum through the lens of Gooseberries, one of his late stories. It’s instructive to see the man himself fail to use anything like the famous Chekhov’s Gun. There’s probably a lesson in there, if you’re smarter than I am. I mostly settled for gawking at how good the story is.

Some of you may enjoy this kind of thing. In case you don’t, be assured that I will be writing about mass market movies and video games and other less hoity-toity things again soon. Also I’m taking reader questions that I will answer within the next couple of weeks. Sign up to get in on the fun!

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

If you’re looking for brand-new content on our ongoing descent into farcical authoritarianism, I can’t help you. But if you’re really curious about how agriculture spread into Europe from the Fertile Crescent 8,000 or so years ago, you’re in luck: I covered the two routes by which farmers migrated first to the Aegean Sea, then overland into central Europe and by sea along the northern coast of the Mediterranean. Farming was a fairly miserable lifestyle, compared with hunting and gathering — farmers were shorter, had worse dental health, more degenerative trauma from ceaseless work, and enjoyed shorter lifespans than their less settled counterparts — but they were great at making babies. This meant that there were more farmers who could take their way of life to the next spot, where they built their homes, planted their crops, and tended their livestock. One of these farming groups, the Linear Pottery Culture, spread everywhere from the Ukraine to Normandy before falling apart around 5000 BC in an orgy of massacre, mutilation, and likely cannibalism. Pretty wild stuff.

Last week, I put together my first installment of book reviews, which you should check out if you’re looking for something good to read; before that, I wrote a long essay on America’s local gentry, our forgotten but essential elite class of property-owners. This coming week, I’ll be discussing the enormous standing stones and tombs of megalithic Europe.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

It has been roughly five years since my most recent post from Saturday although everything continues to be absolutely hilarious and terrifying in much the same way.

As I wrote the morning after the news broke:


If it happens we’re all going to run out into the streets and throw the biggest party mankind has ever known and instantly catch covid from each other then die on the spot and it will be the end of life on earth as we know it but it will be worth it.

And later:

You can do whatever you want but I’m not personally going to rend any garments over the president and his inner circle coming down with a disease that they’ve done a very good job convincing us all is no big deal anyway. And no I won’t be shamed by any of the very fair and serious minded libs like Smerconish up there or Rachel Maddow who have come out to express their earnest hopes that the president and first lady come through this safely. All of these people have spent the past five years explaining in no uncertain terms that Donald Trump is our Worst American Man and a unique heretofore unseen threat to our democracy and our way of life and an authoritarian Putin stooge hellbent on subverting the rule of law and plundering our coffers for his own benefit. How do you then turn around and wish such a man well when he’s ailing?

Earlier in the year by which I mean the week I wrote about the debate in a paid-subscriber-only piece.

Before the debate began last night I tweeted that there’s probably going to be a shooting on election day and I hope I’m wrong about that but nothing that came after exactly disabused me of that notion. There was some controversy this week at an early voting spot in Pennsylvania where they wouldn’t let some Trump supporters in to “monitor” what was going on and then the president tweeted about it and I guess the idea is to turn polls into abortion clinics and stand outside and make people think twice about whether or not it’s worth it to go in.

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Discourse Blog

The Discourse Team

It’s been pretty strange for us, running a version of the newsroom that we had at Splinter, but without the impetus to post madly whenever something happens to reap the rewards of fresh-news unique impressions. On a normal week, it’s incredibly freeing — lets all of us write about the big picture and issues that we care about, and disregard the pressures of whatever dumb things everyone else is frantically writing about. But then there are weeks like this week.

When we started this week, the New York Times report on Trump’s tax returns was the biggest political story in the country. That story, as Paul wrote, was more one of a broken system set up to enable people like Trump, rather than one individual’s amoral behavior. Then the news cycle went full debate mode: we livestreamed that shitshow on Twitch and Twitter, which made the whole experience sort of entertaining in a sense. We’ll be doing more live events like that in the future which we livestreamed on Twitch and Twitter, especially after our full website launches (extremely soon).

And then on Thursday of course all of those stories got immediately pushed aside because the President got coronavirus. Here is our response. Through the end of the week, we wrote about liberals fawning over asking Trump to get better and about how we cannot, under any circumstances, trust his medical team. That about brings us up to today, when the Presidential Prognosis is ????????

Some notes: we’re still collecting horror stories about the IRS. Send those in to us to be a part of this project. I found time this week to do a navel-gazey media blog even with everything else going on. WEBSITE SOON. SUBSCRIBE NOW. That’s it from us.


Felipe De La Hoz and Gaby Del Valle

The Trump administration’s obsession with illegal immigration often has the effect of obscuring its disgust with practically all forms of immigration, legal or illegal. There’s hardly a more perfect example of people entering the country “the right way” (a meaningless phrase that gets twisted to the utterer’s preferences) than refugees, who are typically identified and selected by international bodies and U.S. embassies and then undergo years of applications, vetting, testing, and assorted bureaucratic hell before they’re finally approved to resettled in the United States. In a last-minute decision ahead of the start of the federal fiscal year last week, the administration slashed the refugee numbers yet again, to the lowest-ever yearly cap of 15,000, divided in such a way as to heavily preference those fleeing religious persecution (read: Christians).

For last week’s BORDER/LINES, we analyzed the report that the administration sent to Congress, which repeatedly conflated the asylum and refugee programs and invented security concerns out of whole cloth, and went a little into the frenzy of asylum restrictions that have come down in the last few years. We also took a look at an injunction against the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ proposed fee hike (which would raise the cost of just applying for citizenship to $1,170), another injunction limiting the administration’s attempts to restrict work visas, and a new proposed rule that could make it much harder for low-income U.S.-based sponsors to help relatives immigrate.

The Insurgents

Rob Rousseau and Jordan Uhl

This week we spoke to Henry Williams and David Oks of the Gravel Institute. We talked about the feeling of overwhelming dread that comes along with this latest stage of American decline, especially among young people. They also spoke about their plan to combat right wing disinformation and propaganda coming from incredibly well-financed outlets like Prager U.

We also advise the Biden campaign to own Trump by pointing out, as revealed by the revelations about his taxes in the NYT, that he’s broke and in debt, something that no one could possibly ever relate to.

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