The Trump Administration is Reading American History

Trump and FDR

It looks the Trump administration now thinks American history might be important.  Here is Gabby Orr at Politico:

When the avian flu first spread to pockets of Southeast Asia in 2005, President George W. Bush reassured Americans he would be prepared if the viral infection reached the United States.

“I have thought through the scenarios of what an avian flu outbreak could mean,” Bush informed the public at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden that October, noting his recent dive into a book on pandemics.

It was John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” a meticulous account of the Spanish flu, which claimed an estimated 675,000 American lives a century ago. Bush had read a copy while vacationing at his Prairie Chapel Ranch in Texas.

Now, as a new virus wreaks havoc on the United States — leaving hospitals overwhelmed, businesses shuttered and at least 10 million Americans suddenly unemployed in just two weeks — some Trump officials are replicating the former president’s approach. Desperate for insight into how to respond to a staggering death toll and deep recession, the White House machinery is digging through American history for answers, hoping that somewhere in 2½ centuries of war, economic volatility, resilience and patriotism they might find analogs to help rally the nation and protect their boss’ legacy.

Deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger finished a copy of Barry’s sobering narrative himself in early January, when the first cases of Covid-19 spread beyond mainland China.

A senior speechwriter for one Cabinet official read and then reread Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address — a powerful sermon on hope in the midst of the Great Depression, best known for Roosevelt’s declaration that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Read the entire piece here.

The books and documents Trump’s staff are reading were written and curated by historians who spend time conducting research to reconstruct the past. These scholars need support. I wonder if Trump will connect his staff’s reading of American history during this crisis with funding for the humanities. I’m not holding my breath. Trump has been trying to cut such funding since he got into office.

Donald Trump’s Grandfather Died in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

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His name was Frederick Trump. He died in the first wave of deaths during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Mary Pilon’s report at The New York Times includes interviews with historians and authors Nancy Bristow, Gwenda Blair, and James Harris.

Here is a taste:

The winter following Frederick Trump’s death, deaths from the flu pandemic exploded. Public health resources were already strained by World War I, so not much was done to combat it. “Little was done those first two thirds of the pandemic,” said James Harris, a lecturer at Ohio State University who studies medical history and pandemics. “There was the wartime context, pushback to social distancing, people moving around the globe on a massive scale.”

Since then, the world has benefited from better understanding the need for social distancing and quarantining, the rise of antibiotics and vaccinations, and improved hygiene. “An important lesson we can learn is to be proactive,” Professor Harris said.

In her numerous interviews with Donald Trump, Ms. Blair said, he “showed zero interest in history.” That included the story of his grandfather’s life and death, and the impact it had on his father and relatives at the time. “There was no rear view mirror,” she said.

Among his many comments on the ongoing coronavirus crisis, in Atlanta on March 6, Donald Trump, more than a century after his grandfather’s passing, commented on the current state of flu deaths, an estimated 36,000 annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Does anybody die from the flu?” the president said. “I didn’t know people died from the flu.”

Read the entire piece here.

Anthony Fauci: “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down”

Fauci wipes

Anthony Fauci is a national treasure. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is one of the heroes of this coronavirus pandemic. At Science Magazine, Fauci talks candidly with writer Jon Cohen about his role on the president’s coronavirus task force.

Here is a taste:

Q: What about the travel restrictions? President Trump keeps saying that the travel ban for China, which began 2 February, had a big impact [on slowing the spread of the virus to the United States] and that he wishes China would have told us three to four months earlier and that they were “very secretive.” [China did not immediately reveal the discovery of a new coronavirus in late December, but by 10 January, Chinese researchers made the sequence of the virus public.]  It just doesn’t comport with facts.

A:  I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?

Q: Most everyone thinks that you’re doing a remarkable job, but you’re standing there as the representative of truth and facts but things are being said that aren’t true and aren’t factual.

A: The way it happened is that after he made that statement [suggesting China could have revealed the discovery of a new coronavirus three to four months earlier], I told the appropriate people, it doesn’t comport,  because two or three months earlier would have been September. The next time they sit down with him and talk about what he’s going to say, they will say, by the way, Mr. President, be careful about this and don’t say that. But I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down. OK, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time.

Q: You have not said China virus. [Trump frequently calls the cause of the spreading illness, known as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)  a “China virus” or a “Chinese virus.”]

A: Ever.

Q. And you never will, will you?

A: No.

Q: At Friday’s press conference, you put your hands over your face when President Trump referred to the “deep State Department,” [a popular conspiracy theory]. It’s even become an internet meme. Have you been criticized for what you did?

A: No comment.

Read the entire interview here.

When Government Inaction or Delay Shaped the Course of Infectious Disease

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A Civil War field hospital in Virginia, 1862 (Library of Congress; Photo by James Gibson)

Over at The Atlantic, Jim Downs, professor of history at Connecticut College and author of Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction, writes about “the epidemics America got wrong.”  A taste:

By late March 1863, hundreds had died in Alexandria, Virginia. The mortality rate had almost doubled in just one night, and even quadrupled in other parts of the country. Three thousand people were dead in less than a month in North and South Carolina. The numbers in Louisiana, Georgia, and parts of Mississippi were equally as high. As a smallpox epidemic tore through the country, more than 49,000 people died from June 1865 to December 1867, the years an official count was kept.

Smallpox exploded at this time not because of a lack of protocols or knowledge—a vaccine even existed—but because political leaders simply didn’t care about the group that was getting sick. Government inaction or delay—due to racial discrimination, homophobia, stigma, and apathy—have shaped the course of many epidemics in our country. In the 1980s, for example, HIV spread as the government barely acknowledged its existence.

Now the United States is facing the coronavirus pandemic. Once again, the threat a disease poses has been magnified by the slow speed with which the government has reacted. And although this disease is not concentrated within any one community, it is poised to exacerbate existing inequalities. The lesson of past outbreaks of infectious diseases is that public officials must take them seriously, communicate honestly, and tend to the most vulnerable. If the United States has not always lived up to that standard, we now have the perfect opportunity to apply the lessons of our past mistakes.

Downs concludes:

History has shown us time and time again that epidemics worsen when the federal and state leaders with the power to implement preventive efforts fail to take it seriously. In the past few years, public-health and national-security officials have issued warnings that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, but the government failed to act then. Now the coronavirus is in all 50 states. In the 1860s and in the 1980s, communities had to find a way to help themselves. Today the government has a chance to not make the same mistake again.

Read the entire piece here. And let’s keep learning from the past in these troubled times.

A “Teaching Pandemics” Syllabus

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Catherine Halley of JSTOR Daily has put together a very impressive collection of articles. Here is a taste of her “Teaching Pandemics Syllabus“:

Last week, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. In an effort to slow the spread of the disease, schools and universities across the world have transitioned to online instruction. Educators find themselves wondering how to engage their students amidst the developing crisis. We all find ourselves scrambling for information and, let’s face it, ways to make sense of our fear and anxiety.

While JSTOR Daily can’t provide new research on the novel coronavirus that’s causing COVID-19, we can offer important historical, scientific, and cultural context for this unprecedented situation. The essays and articles below—published over the last five years—look at the history of quarantine, contagious disease, viruses, infections, and epidemics. We’ll be updating this as we publish new content. As always, free access to the underlying scholarship cited in the stories is available to everyone.

Read the rest here.

Obama Warned Trump About the Possibility of a Global Pandemic

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Check out Politico’s story on how the Obama administration tried to prepare the Trump administration for the potential of a global pandemic. Great reporting here by Nahal Toosi, Daniel Lippman, and Dan Diamond. They even uncovered the Powerpoint used by the Obama administration during the presentation:

Seven days before Donald Trump took office, his aides faced a major test: the rapid, global spread of a dangerous virus in cities like London and Seoul, one serious enough that some countries were imposing travel bans.

In a sober briefing, Trump’s incoming team learned that the disease was an emerging pandemic — a strain of novel influenza known as H9N2 — and that health systems were crashing in Asia, overwhelmed by the demand.

“Health officials warn that this could become the worst influenza pandemic since 1918,” Trump’s aides were told. Soon, they heard cases were popping up in California and Texas.

The briefing was intended to hammer home a new, terrifying reality facing the Trump administration, and the incoming president’s responsibility to protect Americans amid a crisis. But unlike the coronavirus pandemic currently ravaging the globe, this 2017 crisis didn’t really happen — it was among a handful of scenarios presented to Trump’s top aides as part of a legally required transition exercise with members of the outgoing administration of Barack Obama.

And in the words of several attendees, the atmosphere was “weird” at best, chilly aworst.

POLITICO obtained documents from the meeting and spoke with more than a dozen attendees to help provide the most detailed reconstruction of the closed-door session yet. It was perhaps the most concrete and visible transition exercise that dealt with the possibility of pandemics, and top officials from both sides — whether they wanted to be there or not — were forced to confront a whole-of-government response to a crisis. The Trump team was told it could face specific challenges, such as shortages of ventilators, anti-viral drugs and other medical essentials, and that having a coordinated, unified national response was “paramount” — warnings that seem eerily prescient given the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

But roughly two-thirds of the Trump representatives in that room are no longer serving in the administration. That extraordinary turnover in the months and years that followed is likely one reason his administration has struggled to handle the very real pandemic it faces now, former Obama administration officials said.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump’s Shocking Answer to a Reporter’s Question at Today’s Press Conference

Watch Trump’s answer to Yamiche Alcindor‘s question during today’s coronavirus press conference:

Trump’s answer is quite shocking, and not just because he called Alcindor’s question “nasty.”  He seems to have no clue what’s going on in his own administration. In May 2018, John Bolton, the National Security Adviser at the time, eliminated the Global Health Security team in the National Security Council set up to in the wake of the Ebola outbreak.

Here is The Washington Post on May 10, 2018:

The top White House official responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic has left the administration, and the global health security team he oversaw has been disbanded under a reorganization by national security adviser John Bolton.

The abrupt departure of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer from the National Security Council means no senior administration official is now focused solely on global health security. Ziemer’s departure, along with the breakup of his team, comes at a time when many experts say the country is already underprepared for the increasing risks of a pandemic or bioterrorism attack.

Ziemer’s last day was Tuesday, the same day a new Ebola outbreak was declared in Congo. He is not being replaced.

Pandemic preparedness and global health security are issues that require government-wide responses, experts say, as well as the leadership of a high-ranking official within the White House who is assigned only this role.

Read the rest here.

On May 8, 2018, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown also expressed his concerns in a two-page letter to Trump:

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Sherrod Brown 2

As Brown wrote, “In our globalized world, where diseases are never more than a plane ride away, we must do all we can to prepare for the next, inevitable outbreak and keep Americans safe from disease.”

Alcindor asked a question that deserved an answer. Trump’s response shows the incompetency of the Trump presidency.  I am reminded of homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem‘s remark yesterday:

 

Does Social Distancing Work?: Some Historical Perspective

Social Distancing

Over at the Microbial Menagerie, microbiologist Jennifer Tsang argues that social distancing helped to slow down the 1918 Influenza Pandemic (Spanish flu) and it just might work for the Coronavirus as well.

Here is a taste of her piece:

…do social distancing measures actually work?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at the response of several cities during the 1918 influenza pandemic. A 2007 paper in PNAS documented the effects of the 1918 pandemic in various US cities based on when public health interventions began, what the interventions were, and how many interventions they enforced. Examples of public health interventions include isolation policies, closures of schools, churches, and other venues, bans of public gatherings, and more.

Cities that began interventions earlier had significantly lower peaks of pneumonia and influenza-related mortality. And cities that implemented four or more interventions had a lower median peak weekly death rate (65/100,000 people) versus 146/100,000 people from cities with three or fewer interventions.

The response between Philadelphia and St. Louis made a great case that social distancing does work. In Philadelphia, the first case was reported on Sept 17 and authorities downplayed the significance of the case. They even allowed a city-wide parade to happen on Sept. 28. School closures and bans on public gatherings did not happen until Oct.3, 16 days since the first case. Meanwhile, St. Louis had its first case on Oct 5 and the city implemented social distancing measures two days later.

What was the effect? The 14-day difference in response time between the two cities represents approximately 3-5 doubling times for the epidemic. The peak weekly death rate from pneumonia and influenza-related deaths was 257/100,000 people in Philadelphia. The same metric in St. Louis was 31/100,000.

Read the entire piece here.  HT: John Haas on Facebook.

What Can We Learn from Philadelphia’s 1918 Liberty Loan Parade?

liberty-loan-parade-of-1918-designed-to-pay-for-war.

Check out Meagan Flynn’s piece at The Washington Post:

On the afternoon of Sept. 28, 1918, about 200,000 people crammed onto the sidewalks in Philadelphia to watch a two-mile parade snake through downtown in the midst of World War I. Billed as the city’s largest parade ever, it featured military planes and aggressive war-bond salesmen working the crowds, in scenes that graced the front pages of the evening papers.

But readers who flipped toward the back of the Evening Bulletin might have stumbled on an unsettling headline: In the last 24 hours, 118 people in Philadelphia had come down with a mysterious, deadly influenza, which was quickly spreading from military camps to civilians amid a worldwide pandemic.

“If the people are careless, thousands of cases may develop and the epidemic may get beyond control,” the city’s health commissioner, Wilmer Krusen, said in the 1918 article, according to the Philly Voice.

He was the same person who, just a day earlier, allowed to go forward what is now known as the deadliest parade in American history. In doing so, he ignored the advice of medical professionals who urged him to cancel the parade or risk an epidemic.

Within three days, every bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was filled. There were thousands of influenza patients.

A century later, as the novel coronavirus grips the nation with anxiety and disrupts everyday life, Philadelphia’s 1918 Liberty Loan parade “is a perfect historic example of how the misplaced priorities can become so dangerous,” historian Kenneth C. Davis told The Washington Post on Wednesday. This week, major cities including Philadelphia, New York and Chicago decided to cancel their St. Patrick’s Day parades amid fears of accelerating the spread of coronavirus.

Read the rest here.

What Are the Court Evangelicals Saying About the Coronavirus?

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According to Ruth Graham’s piece at Slate, they feel pretty calm about.  Here is a taste:

In the 2015 book Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning, Robert Jeffress described a world on the brink of chaos. “Never in my lifetime have I sensed so much unrest in the air,” the Dallas pastor wrote. “Will an Ebola epidemic or an outbreak of some other super virus spread across America?” But today, as an actual “super virus” advances across the United States, Jeffress seems to be feeling much more sanguine. “I do predict this will be under control in the not too distant future,” Jeffress told me on Thursday. “I would encourage any Christian to take sensible precautions without being overrun with anxiety.”

Jeffress, one of Donald Trump’s most full-throated evangelical supporters, plans to preach a sermon on the coronavirus this Sunday at his church, First Baptist Dallas. Its title is “Is the Coronavirus a Judgment From God?” Jeffress strongly suggested to me that the answer is no: “Many times illness is just a consequence of living in the fallen world.” In other words, the virus is nothing to fear nor anything to draw theological or political conclusions from.

Graham asked me to weigh-in:

Few other prominent pastors would speak from the pulpit in such blunt political terms. But that doesn’t mean their politics aren’t influencing their theology. “It’s hard not to think of this as a political story,” said historian John Fea, who has written about white evangelicals’ loyalty to the president. Fea suggested that some Trump-supporting pastors and prophets may be taking their cues from both the president and from Fox News, even if they don’t see it that way. The president himself has gone out of his way to minimize concerns about the virus. In an interview with Sean Hannity this week, Trump said he had a “hunch” that the coronavirus death rate is actually significantly lower than the WHO’s estimate of 3.4 percent. “Personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent,” the president said. At a Pennsylvania town hall on Fox News on Thursday night, he said that widespread travel cancellations might be good for the economy, since “people are now staying in the United States.”

Read the entire piece here.

Where is this “we have nothing to fear” and “trust God” mentality when it comes to the demographic and cultural changes that they think are undermining their Christian nation?

Yellow Fever Hits Philadelphia, 1793

High Street

Here is a taste of historian Billy Smith‘s article in the Spring 2019 issue of Pennsylvania Legacies on the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic

“They are dying on our right hand and on our Left; we have it opposite us, in fact, all around us, great are the number that are called to the grave…To see the hearse go by is now so common that we hardly take notice of it;…we live in the midst of death.” While Isaac Heston penned these words to his brother on September 19, 1793, yellow fever claimed the lives of about 70 Philadelphians each day. “When I see the Metropolis of the United States depopulated,” the 22-year-old moaned, “it is too distressing and affecting a scene for a person young in Life to bear.” A mosquito carrying the virus bit Heston about the time he wrote the letter; he died 10 days later.

It all started in late July 1793 in a brothel near a pier in the northern part of the city. Two mariners, mostly likely from the ship Hankey or one of the other vessels that had arrived a few days earlier from the West Indies, had rented a room at the “disorderly house.” A violent fever quickly killed one of the sailors. An English boarder in the house shivered with an elevated temperature, vomited a black substance, and died a few days later. Mrs. Parkinson, an Irish lodger (or prostitute), suffered with sunken eyes, jaundiced skin, and blood trickling from her nose and mouth for a week before she expired. Both brothel owners died, as did the second mariner and several next-door neighbors. 

All these fatalities in such a brief time attracted the attention of Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most distinguished physician in the new nation. After visiting a few of the sick people in the neighborhood, he announced in late August that yellow fever now stalked the city’s streets. During the next three months, the disease killed more than 5,000 people—one out of every 10 Philadelphia residents. Not until the late 19th century did physicians understand that infected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were the source of all this human misery. 

Read the rest at the blog of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Alfred Crosby, RIP

CrosbyI just learned about this today.  Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 was one of the first books I read in graduate school.  Later I read The Columbian ExchangeCrosby‘s work continues to inform many of my lectures, both in my U.S. Survey Course and my Colonial America course.  He was such an innovative thinker.

Here is a taste of the New York Times obituary:

In the eyes of many of his peers, Alfred W. Crosby was the father of environmental history, and he owed that distinction in large part to his childhood infatuation with Christopher Columbus. He revered him as much as he did his comic strip hero Superman.

That fascination led him, as a scholar, to delve into the biological and cultural impact of Columbus’s voyages to the Americas. And to purse that investigation he expanded the historian’s toolkit.

In groundbreaking feats of interdisciplinary research, he incorporated studies of biology, ecology, geography and other sciences in his efforts to chronicle and understand human events — work that introduced sweeping explanatory concepts like “the Columbian Exchange” and “ecological imperialism.”

“For historians, Crosby framed a new subject,” the historian J. R. McNeil, author of several books on environmental history, wrote.

Read the rest here.  Crosby was 87.

Quote of the Day: More Daniel Walker Howe

Yet another great line from Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation ofAmerica.  
This quote appears in the context of Howe’s discussion of the cholera epidemic that hit major seaport cities in 1832 and Andrew Jackson’s refusal to declare a day of prayer in response to it.
When another cholera epidemic occurred in 1848-49 and both houses requested such a day [of prayer], Whig president Zachary Taylor issued the proclamation.  Whatever the effect of the prayers, at least they did no harm to the victims of the disease—more than one can say for the remedies of the physicians: bloodletting and massive doses of poisonous mercury.– p. 470.