“The advent of this virus has revealed the great rift between those who want to keep maintenance of the general welfare at the local (i.e. state and municipal) level and those who want to complete the transformation of the United States into a unitary national government. President Trump is caught in the midst of this struggle, as he has let individual states act for themselves. If he favors one area with federal resources over another, how will this affect him politically come November? The presidential election has already become the Coronavirus Election and popular judging of his response will arguably determine his reelection,” Dennis Nilsen told Tasnim.
Dr. Dennis M. Nilsen is an American author and political analyst from New York.
Following is the full text of the interview.
Tasnim: According to reports, the coronavirus outbreak across the US is getting worse, with damage accelerated by shortages of key medical supplies. As of today, there are over 215,000 confirmed cases nationwide, with over 5,100 deaths. The spike of cases has hospitals around the country scrambling to keep up with the demand for care. Warnings of shortages have reverberated across the country as state governors have pleaded with the federal government to make more supplies available. What is behind this mismanagement? How do you see President Donald Trump’s role in this?
Nilsen: These questions get at the base of a historic tension in American political culture. Which level of government is to dominate: the federal government or the state? The attempt to limit the spread of the virus by social distancing is not something that the government can realistically enforce, but only by declaring a quarantine on the areas with the most cases, or epicenters. President Trump was elected by people who had had enough of the oligarchic élite who control the political class and who have - arguably since the end of the War Between the States, 1861-1865 (called the Civil War by regime historians) - continually centralized the economy and society of this country in the interests of their own big businesses and financial giants. A sizable force behind the push which got him to the White House was made by people who want the federal government to retreat back to the boundaries which it was originally given in the Constitution of 1787. The advent of this virus has revealed the great rift between those who want to keep maintenance of the general welfare at the local (i.e. state and municipal) level and those who want to complete the transformation of the United States into a unitary national government. President Trump is caught in the midst of this struggle, as he has let individual states act for themselves. If he favors one area with federal resources over another, how will this affect him politically come November? The presidential election has already become the Coronavirus Election and popular judging of his response will arguably determine his reelection.
The current political race aside, the limited federal response exhibits a deeper theoretical problem of constitutionalism, as the federal government has usurped many powers belonging to states but cannot fulfill them properly. There has developed a conflict between virtue signaling and reality: It is clear to many voters that the verbosity and pompous self-assurance of federal politicians - "We will take care of it" - has now bred the expectation that the federal government will, in fact, do everything, or nearly everything, if not providing direct assistance then at least directing the states in the business of the hour. But can it? The state governments know their people with greater intimacy and the localities even more so. There is a conflict between resources (Feds have the most and can perform damage control with greater strength in particular spots) and locality knowledge (states and municipalities who lack the resource level of the federal government but who have greater on the ground knowledge). This is symptomatic of massive federal spending on areas outside what was originally considered its appropriate purview, but which after the War between the States was assumed by federal power with the connivance of the federal justice system.
There is a false notion that this is a 'national problem'. The blame lies partly with President Trump - again, to avoid showing favoritism to one area and losing political capital - and partly with the national media. What should have happened is that the localities with the greatest number of cases - in this instance of New York, which accounts for nearly half of them - should have been shut down by state authority or even local authority. Signaling that the entire country may be shut down due to a virus which has caused a relatively small number of deaths and the great majority of whose sufferers will survive, and suffer only the mildest symptoms, is absurd in the extreme. Many thousands of Americans have been laid off of work, or are not receiving their paychecks - many more than those who are infected or who are likely to be. Do establishment liberals and conservatives believe that the federal government is promoting the general welfare in suggesting this?
This problem finds a direct analogy in the last century of the existence of the Roman Republic, from the first efforts of radicals led by the Brothers Gracchi to the final triumph of Caesar Octavianus (133-23 BC). During the preceding century (c. 250-150 BC), the Republic expanded greatly from control of the Italian peninsula to nearly the entire Mediterranean shoreline; its society became gutted with captive slaves and material riches, while small farmers and industries became bankrupt because the men who had owned and worked them had been off for years fighting in wars further and further from home. This unhealthy obsession with foreign affairs existed side by side with a woeful ignorance of social ills which even several slave wars (the most famous of which was the rebellion led by Thracian gladiator Spartacus (73-71 BC)) could not bring to social consciousness. Politics remained a battle between rival senatorial factions until eventually, the moral corruption of the citizenry and especially the ruling class broke the resistance of the institutions designed to be directed by virtuous men, and the system collapsed into anarchy, then civil war, then an empire. Roman citizens had shown that they could not handle wealth and still be virtuous and hence the century of turbulence was a great period of turning inward.
Matters are not so outwardly drastic in America, but the same story is being written: fantastic debt levels both public and private, a military served largely by the poor, an obsession with foreign affairs, concentration of wealth and outsourcing of manufacturing. The two parties, Republican and Democrat, are two oligarchic clubs fighting over the riches which come from taxation, and hence the great anti-establishment movement has begun. Even though President Trump has acted boldly and precipitously in foreign affairs to your country's disadvantage, he has begun the end of the American empire and time of inward struggle will begin here. Iran will then have less to worry about.
In Iran, you have a unitary system of government in which the Minister of the Interior appoints, with the approval of the Cabinet, the provincial governors-general, the ostandaran. While each is susceptible to local pressure, he ultimately must answer to the Minister. Although no country can prepare for an epidemic, the Iranian government was able to respond so effectively partly due to a greater streamlining of authority, likewise with China. In the United States, state governors are elected by residents of each state and are only responsible to the federal government for the use of funds granted to them by a federal agency for a certain use.
To reiterate, there is a disjunct between the federalism which is supposed to exist in America, and what the federal government is expected to do.
Tasnim: More than seven weeks into the Trump administration’s response effort — which began Jan. 29 with the announcement of a coronavirus task force and, two days later, the declaration of a public health emergency — ramped-up testing for the virus has only just begun, hospital systems say they don’t have enough beds and medical supplies to handle the onslaught of anticipated patients, and there is a shortage of respirators, ventilators and other protective equipment for nurses and doctors on the front lines. The emergence of the coronavirus exposed the vulnerability of western governments in the face of such pandemics despite their “advanced medical technology”. There are reports that elderly people are not receiving medical treatment across western hospitals due to shortages and that the medical community in the US, as well as Europe, would also have to make decisions about who to prioritize if hospitals become overwhelmed. Western countries all rich but have so far failed to show an acceptable performance to protect their own people and stop the virus. What do you think?
Nilsen: It is understandable at first glance to contrast the great material wealth of Western countries with the less-than-superb response by some, but upon closer inspection, you will find that certain countries did admirably, among which were Norway. It would also be erroneous to suppose that a country in possession of advanced medical technology also has a political class that is virtuous and consistently seeks the common good. Further, what country can prepare for such an epidemic? Of course, there are not enough pieces of specialized equipment needed to treat the severely ill. The medical facility network in any country is designed to handle the ill section of the population under what are deemed normal circumstances.
What should be brought home to your readers is that the riches of the Western countries consist in material things, not in spiritual things. This is not to say that religion, and particularly the Catholic Church (which created European civilization), is dead, but that it is severely weakened and is at its lowest point since the end of the Roman Empire. This great weakness can be measure by the lack of a common public purpose which fellow citizens have and the willingness to act together on a local level where the greatest social intimacy exists. Prizing of private rights have trumped public responsibilities and so it is that the average citizen expects directives from the national government before altering his life. The Chinese have only been able to contain the spread - as far as one can believe what they say - because they have a totalitarian government, and arguably your citizenry have a greater consciousness of responsibility and greater centralized power of the government. For the West, this is a test of the regime of immense personal freedoms which has now become equivalent to license.
Europe and the United States will only revive when religion, and especially the Catholic Church, arises from indolence and injects against spiritual vigor into the populations. The epidemic is certainly a test from God: the bad will suffer to no purpose, but the goodwill glorify the Father for granting this chance at renewal through suffering. In the Middle Ages, hospitals were established to care for the sick in body and soul, for to do so was to perform a corporal and spiritual work of mercy. In the modern era, in which states no longer identify corporately as religious, the body becomes the focus, and what little is recognized to be spiritual is categorized under the psychological and treated only secondarily. When Europe was Catholic people recognized, even with the limited scientific knowledge about diseases that they possessed, that the sick were to be cared for spiritually as well as physically. The obsession with the physical and the increasingly weakening of morality in the West - even according to the Natural Law, never mind the Law of the Gospel - means that there is a panic over such diseases, but the great evils of abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce continue to be seen as constitutional rights. The connection has not been made because faith has been lost.
Tasnim: Many countries across the world have been hit hard by the virus, including Iran and the US. The situation in Iran could get worse as the White House has refused to lift its unilateral sanctions despite a growing global outcry against them. However, Washington has offered to help Iran with the contagious virus despite the sanctions and its own shortages. Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei recently spoke out about the offer and stated it is “very, very strange” that the Trump administration would be offering some form of help when it is blockading medical supplies and equipment from reaching Iran. What is your take on this?
Nilsen: Ayatollah Khamenei is right to have refused. The same nation which used the stick with the assassination of General Soleimani now offers a disinterested carrot in the form of medical assistance, and without ending the sanctions on your country? This clearly shows that the American government is operating on the level of supreme self-interest and has no concern for the general well-being of your people, despite President Trump's protestations to the contrary. To reiterate what I said in a previous interview, if Trump had a casus belli against your nation, he would have brought a suit according to the time-honored tradition of requesting mediation through a third party, and not unilaterally executed a highly respected and effective military commander. The Iranians should be as wary of American help as the Irish have been of English offers of help throughout their history. When the Great Famine (1845-1849) struck Ireland, the English insisted on continuing the exportation of food because in this way the great estates of the land (owned by English nobles) would continue to be fiscally solvent; they prized avoiding the ruination of the ruling class rather than feeding the people so that roughly two million died of hunger and one million emigrated. Ireland's population still has not returned to what it was prior to the Hunger. When the Irish War of Independence ended with the Treaty of 1921, and Ireland entered into a civil war, the same English who had fought the Irish Republican Army for three years then offered arms and material to the Irish Free State Army (formed from that treaty) to enforce the treaty. Why? Because it was in their interest to do so.
So the interest of the lack of trust is paramount. Considering the actions of the American government for decades, and especially of the Trump Administration, how does the Ayatollah know the US would not introduce another strain while posturing its personnel as relief workers? Would they dare? Perhaps, because regime change is what you all should reasonably believe this administration wants; even though the most prominent advocate of toppling your government, John Bolton (who appeared publicly with the Mojahedin-e Khalq), has been dismissed, you cannot assume the goal of Trump is now different. Would he risk damaging the American image? American PR is believed over yours and the US could conceivably browbeat its 'allies' into accepting it. Even if this is unlikely, can you really trust a country which pulled out of the JCPOA after accusing your country without substantial proof of violating its measures, even going so far as to insist that your ballistic mission program, considered essential as a deterrent by your country in light of the absence of a nuclear deterrent (forbidden by the fatwa), is a violation of its stipulations?
A paraphrase from the Roman poet Vergil in his Aeneid is an admonition to the Trojans to, "Beware of the Greeks, even those bearing gifts." For the reasons stated above, it was wise to reject the American offer.