Donald Trump and extreme right groups are encouraging people to take to the streets during a pandemic. This week on Intercepted: Hidden behind the scenes of protests against Democratic governors is the role of radical fringe groups, gun enthusiasts, and right-wing financiers, some with ties to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Author Jeff Sharlet discusses the rise of right-wing religious extremists, influential members, their broader strategy, and how the shutdown protesters are being used as disposable pawns in a much longer game. Sharlet’s books “The Family” and “C-Street” chronicle the history and strategy now permeating the Trump administration and the Republican Party. As the U.S. economy continues to deteriorate, Trump is desperate to see the extension of his ego — the stock market — climb again. As his administration rolls out its phased plan for “reopening America,” Dr. Seema Yasmin, a former officer in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, analyzes the insanity of Trump’s daily briefings, his strategy to withhold aid from states based on how nice governors are to him, and what should be done to overcome the pandemic scientifically and socially. Plus, Intercepted listeners share their often gut-wrenching stories of struggling to survive in a country rocked by the nightmare of economic uncertainty in the time of the coronavirus crisis.
If you or someone you know needs emotional support or is contemplating suicide, resources include the Crisis Text Line, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Trevor Project, or the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
Donald J. Trump: Now with that, I have a couple of interesting — we have a few clips that we’re just going to put up. We could turn the lights a little bit lower. I think you’ll find them interesting. Please, you could put it on. Thank you.
Barack Obama: Hi, everybody. Let me start by saying the obvious. Of course, Democrats are not interested in progress, even in the middle of this public health crisis. Because one thing everybody has learned by now, they’ve shown themselves willing to kick millions off their health insurance who’ve lost their jobs, and that’s why I’m so proud to endorse Bernie Sanders for president of the United States.
DJT: They left out the good part. Good job, fellas. You want to put the rest of it up, or do you not have it? Go ahead.
Altered Allstate Insurance advertisement: Not another commercial.
Joe Biden: The kids used to come up and reach in and pull, and rub my leg down so it was straight, and then watch the hair come back up again. They’d look at it. So I learned about roaches, I learned about kids jumping on my lap. And I love kids jumping on my lap.
DJT: We could give you hundreds of clips just like that. We have them. We didn’t want this to go on too long, but I just want to say, it’s — you know, it’s very sad.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is episode 127 of Intercepted.
Maura Barrett: There are nearly 1,000 people here and hundreds more in their cars here at the state capitol this afternoon, protesting Governor Tom Wolf here in Pennsylvania at the state capitol.
Carlos Saucedo: Well, what started off as a small demonstration quickly turned into a mass gathering of more than 200 people, and protesters out here say they’re frustrated.
KVUE news anchor: Protesters rallied at the Texas State Capitol today. They defied stay-at-home and social distancing orders, hoping to put pressure on Governor Greg Abbott over how and when the state can reopen.
JS: In recent days, the United States has witnessed the type of group action that is generally seen in nations whose populations have far less access to scientific expertise than we have, to education, or who live under violent and repressive regimes. I am talking about the attacks on straightforward, scientifically-rooted, common-sense measures in the face of a health pandemic. In states across this country, specifically those with Democratic governors, groups of people — who are often wearing no protective gear whatsoever and often carrying guns — have been protesting against their state governments’ shutdown orders, against social distancing, or against business closures.
Protester: It’s time for our state to be opened up. We’re tired of not being able to buy the things that we need, go to the hairdresser’s, get our hair done. It’s time to open up. The sick are being taken care of. If you’re sick, stay home and in your house. The ones that can work need to work. We need to open our businesses.
JS: Now, before I go any further on this, I do want to make it clear that I am extremely concerned about powerful government entities — and corporations, for that matter — exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to violate our civil liberties or to build sweeping surveillance systems that can later be abused. But overwhelmingly, that is not what these so-called protests are about. At their heart, they are reckless Lollapaloozas of ignorance.
DJT: People feel that way, you’re allowed to protest. I mean, they feel that way. I watched the protest, and they were all six feet apart. It was a very orderly group of people. But, but you know, some, some have gone too far, some governors have gone too far. Some of the things that happened are maybe not so appropriate. And I think in the end, it’s not going to matter, because we’re starting to open up our states.
JS: What we are seeing right now is the president of the United States, Donald Trump, and some of his media allies on Fox News in particular, as well as shady, extreme, right-wing financiers, using the fears of ordinary people in this country in an effort to try to take down Democratic governors. Trump, and Judge Jeanine, and the DeVos or Prince families — they don’t seem to care one iota if the people that they are encouraging to rise up in public with no protective gear get infected or spread this lethal virus. They are using these people as cannon fodder in a war that they have been waging for decades, and that war has nothing to do with public health or the coronavirus.
Jeanine Pirro: You politicians want to flex your muscles? Well, start working on how you’re going to punish, ostracize, alienate, and financially sanction, and make China accountable for what they did to us and the rest of the world. But keep your damn hands off us.
JS: All of this is sort of like the Tea Party protests in Boston Harbor in 1773, except if the story there was that rich business owners and politicians were encouraging a bunch of people to protest taxation by jumping into the water with concrete blocks attached to their ankles instead of, you know, dumping chests of tea into the harbor.
[Music interlude: “No More Kings” from Schoolhouse Rock!]
Lynn Ahrens (singing): He even has the nerve to tax our cup of tea. To put it kindly, king, we really don’t agree. Gonna show you how we feel, we’re going to dump this tea and turn this harbor into the biggest cup of tea in history.
JS: Some of the financiers of these protests include entities linked to the DeVos family in Michigan. Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is the sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. And when she married Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway Corporation fortune, their families merged together to become one of the most powerful financial engines that fueled the rise of the radical religious right in the United States. They gave the seed money to form extremist religious groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, as well as to leaders like Gary Bauer and James Dobson.
James Dobson: Hi, I’m Dr. James Dobson. And I know that many of you are deeply concerned, as I am, and that’s why I’ve decided as a private individual to endorse Donald J. Trump for president of the United States. I believe he and his running mate, Governor Mike Pence, will provide the leadership this nation so desperately needs. Most importantly, Mr. Trump has promised to nominate conservative justices to the United States Supreme Court. I hope you will join me in voting for Trump and Pence on November the eighth.
JS: The DeVoses and Princes were the premiere bankrollers of Newt Gingrich and the so-called Republican Revolution of the 1990s. And they have also supported the careers of extreme-right political figures, like Mike Pence, and of course more recently, Donald Trump. Their main focus is to attack any legislative effort on gay rights, to criminalize abortion, to privatize schools, and in general to promote a right-wing Christian theocracy in government while opposing government-funded social programs for the poor or disadvantaged.
These are dangerous people and groups, and with Donald Trump in power and Mike Pence as his vice president, they are living their best lives. Trump has been a Trojan Horse for their agenda, and he gave them opportunities that no traditional Republican candidate could have achieved. Many of them may have scoffed at Trump in the early stages of the Republican primary in 2016, but right now? They bow before him every minute of every day of every week.
DJT: I am somebody that believes in faith. And it matters not what your faith is, but our politicians seem to treat different faiths very differently. And they seem to think — and I don’t know what happened with our country, but — the Christian faith is treated much differently than it was. And I think it’s treated very unfairly.
JS: With Donald Trump using what are supposed to be public health briefings given by scientific and medical experts as his coronavirus-era political rallies, it’s easy to get caught up in the horrifying stupidity, incompetence, ignorance coming from the president. But Trump’s crowning achievement has been facilitating the most serious Republican pillage and looting campaign in modern U.S. political history. Trump’s time in office has allowed very savvy and sophisticated policymakers to ram through an extremist agenda, to pack the federal bench and Supreme Court with dangerous people who have lifetime appointments, and to engage in the most sweeping campaign of deregulation in generations
Mitch McConnell: I think this is arguably the most important thing we’re doing. I love the tax bill. I think the tax bill had an important impact on the economy. But if you want to have a long-term impact on the country, lifetime appointments to the courts is the way to do it, and the administration has done a good job of sending up nominees.
JS: Some of the most powerful players in all of this have been career right-wing religious fanatics who have become experts in exploiting crises. My guest today has spent years tracing the people and organizations who now have a very firm grip on power, firmer than they have had in our lifetime.
Jeff Sharlet is author of the excellent books “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.” He is also executive producer of “The Family,” a Netflix documentary series based on his best-selling books. Jeff Sharlet is currently an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College. His brand-new book is called “This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers.” Jeff Sharlet, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
Jeff Sharlet: Great to be with you, Jeremy.
JS: How do you see this moment and these, quote-unquote, protests?
Jeff Sharlet: I think the moment is sort of the great convergence of many strands of the right in America, and in some ways, it’s also sort of a fulfillment of prophecy for those who view this through a religious lens. I think there’s people who want to look at this, and they see the astroturf element of it, which is very real. There are big money sources sort of backing up these protesters. And so some liberals and lefties want to say, “Oh, it’s just paid protesters.” It’s never just paid protesters, you go out in the street.
And then others see the guys with guns, and they think it’s just the militia types. Others see that big truck — I don’t know if you saw the truck that’s got painted on the side, “Jesus is my vaccine” — and they see it’s just religious nuts. And I think really what we have to understand, that these protests are — much like the Trump presidency itself, I believe — the convergence of many strands of right-wingism in America, that had been in tension in the past and now are finding these ways to work forward.
And there’s one other thing that I look at when I see these rallies, because I’ve been — I spent the fall traveling around to Trump rallies looking at the role of religion in those rallies. And of course, he can’t do those rallies anymore, but he still has the briefings. And then there’s these gatherings out on the streets. And it’s a little bit like an arena full of Trump supporters, turned inside out and poured out, as if Trump has said, “Go forth, and this time — now — you can carry your guns.” It’s almost the next stage of the Trump rally.
JS: From the time you’ve spent investigating the world of fanatical right-wing Christians, what is the messaging that they’re hearing and holding onto that is emanating from Donald Trump and Mike Pence right now?
Jeff Sharlet: There’s a number of messages. And again, that’s where you find the convergence, because there’s, of course, the QAnon folks who are watching those daily briefings, and they look at what color tie is Trump wearing, or how many times did he blink? There are those who accept some degree of science, but nonetheless see Trump as a chosen one, and this is part of God’s plan. There was a lot made — remember last year when Trump sort of said I’m the chosen one?
DJT: I am the chosen one. Somebody had to do it.
Jeff Sharlet: Some people sort of went nuts over this, and some people said he’s only joking. Both things were true. But what is real on a broader way, is the broad section of American conservatism that sees Trump as either divine or divinely appointed.
Paula White-Cain: President Trump, these are some of your greatest faith leaders. They would love to pray over you. And we love you, everybody to stretch our hands towards the president.
Jentezen Franklin: Send your power and your presence to touch this president. Show him who you are. Show him your love. Show him the love —
Guillermo Maldonado: Father, I pray for my president and our president. I pray for you to give him bonus.
Robert Jeffress: Father, I thank you that we have a president, President Donald Trump, who believes in the power of prayer. We thank you for a vice president like Vice President Pence, who works alongside of him.
Mahalet Krause: God protect us. God protect our president, as he’s going through so much right now, so much scrutiny. God, I believe that you were — you gave him to us, and I believe that he’s gonna accomplish so much more. I know you have more for us.
Jeff Sharlet: There’s a whole spectrum of ways to look at that. But no matter how you cut it, they see God’s hand functioning. And now that you have those daily briefings, it’s a little bit like you’ve got your preacher right there every day, giving you the message straight from above.
DJT: I cannot tell a lie. So we will get you next. OK?
Yamiche Alcindor: Do you feel like, or are you concerned that downplaying the virus maybe got some people sick?
DJT: And a lot of people love Trump, right? A lot of people love me, you see them all the time, right? I guess I’m here for a reason, you know? To the best of my knowledge, I won. And I think we’re gonna win again. I think we’re gonna win in a landslide. But just so you know —
JS: One of the main strands in studying Blackwater that you have to examine is the role of the Prince family and the DeVos family. And those two families sort of merged together like the monarchies of old Europe, and they really became the premiere bankrollers of some of the foundational groups that made up the radical religious right. Then you have Mike Pence, who is a product of that initiative that the Princes and DeVoses financed. He first made it to Congress, and now he is vice president of the United States and in charge of the coronavirus response. Unpack some of that for us, Jeff, the way that right-wing financiers, evangelical Christians — and this moment that we’re in now, where Mike Pence, a right-wing Christian nationalist supremacist, is in charge of the coronavirus response.
Jeff Sharlet: Pence is such a sort of representative figure in this sense, because, while a sort of fairly undistinguished uncharismatic figure himself, he serves more as yet another convergence point. To understand the role of the religious right in America, I think most people sort of see the pulpit pounders, the Bible thumpers — you know, the southern guys in too-tight suits sort of shouting, and all this kind of thing. That’s the populist front. That’s the populist front. But there’s always been this Christian right elite, sometimes financial, as through the Princes and the DeVoses, sometimes like Chuck Colson, an intellectual elite, an elite of ideas. And there has been some tension.
And what I think is interesting is the populist front has always cared most about social issues: abortion, homosexuality, and so on. The elite fundamentalism has always seen the economy itself as a religious issue, a kind of free-market fundamentalism, the idea that we have to take the chains off those whom God has selected for wealth and success and let them build greater success, which will trickle down to the rest of us. And they’re not without concern for the poor. The rest of us will be taken care of through this kind of trickle-down fundamentalism. And I think Mike Pence is a guy who has really neatly positioned himself to be able to speak to and for both those strands of the religious right. And I think that’s why Trump as a deal-maker is overstated but that’s a deal he got right. He understood that Pence was the deal, and it’s paid off for him so brilliantly, from his point of view.
JS: In putting Pence on the ticket, the Republican establishment, particularly the extremist groups that you’ve written about, found in Trump a Trojan Horse. He was sort of the messianic figure that they rejected when he first appeared, and now they prostrate themselves before him every day. But the real story of the terror of the Trump administration, in my view, is that you’ve had this incredible consolidation of extremist ideas within the Republican Party and very skilled policymakers ramming through all of the proposals that they have had laying around for many years, and that they’ve been very happy to use Trump as their Trojan Horse. And by throwing him some nuggets of policy that he can wax on about and be their kind of gaudy QVC hosts to sell the crap to the base, the Republicans have really thrived under Trump, and Trump had to drag them kicking and screaming back into executive power, because they didn’t want him at first.
Jeff Sharlet: Pence has always been — I don’t wanna say always, because at the very beginning, if you go back and you look at his early congressional speeches — I mean, they’re batshit. There’s a long, long speech about what he calls ancient gynecology, and how MLK cared most about abortion, and he was ranting and raving, and then he realized, wait a minute, this is gonna work better if I work for money and I combine my religious ideas. So the idea, though, that he’s their guy, the trade with Trump — I don’t think that’s quite right, because they gave him more than a few policy nuggets. They gave him — and I don’t think we should sort of dismiss this — they gave him a kind of godhood. Now, we don’t believe in that godhood. But just because something’s not real doesn’t mean it can’t still hurt you. Trump has this divine power. And it’s not as cynical a deal as I think it began as. It has become a kind of belief. And Trump, in return, has gone full force. I almost think that Mike Pence is sort of like the executive producer, but Trump is still the star. I don’t think Pence can ever take center stage. They don’t need him to. Trump will do what they want, because what he wants is what they want.
JS: One other small piece about Mike Pence that I find really fascinating — part of his bio is that he came from, as he describes it, a family of, you know, Kennedy Democrats, they were Catholics. And Mike Pence was converted from Catholicism to a kind of born again Christianity at a Christian music festival, like, on-the-spot converted.
Jeff Sharlet: So much of the modern Christian right goes back to those times in sort of the late 60s and early 70s, the Jesus people, which is sort of a hippie Jesus movement.
Unidentified person: I took LSD like, hundreds of times, you know, just taking acid all the time, because I thought LSD was the answer for the world. And I think the only answer for anybody is Jesus Christ.
Jeff Sharlet: There was something called Explo ’72, which was this massive rock concert.
Unidentified person: What I will always remember about Explo is the wonderful, loving kindness that God has shown through all the people here.
Johnny Cash: I think of all the places I’ve ever had the privilege of performing, this is probably the most important to me.
Billy Graham: Explo ’72 has been one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Jeff Sharlet: And it’s always been a more countercultural movement than people understood. It’s not defined by Ned Flanders from the Simpsons, even as Pence seems to have now stepped so perfectly into that role. But that’s not where he starts. It starts with this rebellion against the establishment, which was for a long time a kind of, you know, center-right, center left kind of consensus, right? It was a rebellion against that. It’s a rebellion against the very idea of democracy. And I don’t mean that flippantly, as an accusation. These are folks who find the idea of democracy an affront to what they consider a more beautiful vision of God.
JS: I want to talk about your excellent books, particularly the book “The Family.” “The Family” and another book of yours were made into an excellent — and I encourage everyone to watch it — Netflix documentary series. Let’s start off by just explaining what The Family is.
Jeff Sharlet: The Family is the oldest and most influential Christian conservative organization in Washington, founded way back in 1935 by a man who had a vision from God. He thought he was having a conversation with God, telling him that FDR and the New Deal was Satanic, was socialism, and that Christianity, in fact, had been getting everything wrong for 2,000 years by focusing on the poor and the down-and-out. What God really cared most about were those whom The Family would come to call the up-and-out, or the “key men,” those in positions of power. And the idea was God had put — if you are in power, it’s because God had put you there. Now, you might not be pious, but it’s because God wanted to use you. And so that was their ministry.
They were never interested in mass rallies, they didn’t care. They didn’t care about your soul or mine. They cared only about the soul of the elites, and they managed to do a terrific job as organizers, getting much of Congress into prayer cells and starting something called the National Prayer Breakfast, which is held every year since 1953, attended by the president, much of Congress, and leaders from all over the world, which has allowed them to expand their operation into countries all around the world.
JS: And how have they wielded influence in Washington, in Congress, and also in presidential administrations?
Jeff Sharlet: Their big project in the 1930s, forties, and fifties, was to break the spine of organized labor in America. They saw that as the greatest challenge to their version of Christianity. And they succeeded. There’s a reason when we look at, you know, why the United States alone among developed nations doesn’t have universal health care — because we have the weakest organized labor movement amongst those developed nations.
And that has a lot to do with the role that the religious right, working in concert with the National Association of Manufacturers, corporations, and so on, understood that you needed to break that challenge to this kind of authority of the elite. That’s where they had that influence. They didn’t say, “Vote for this.” They didn’t pass the Taft-Hartley Act, that famous anti-labor law. They said, “What does God want for the nation?” And the answer was always sort of slouching rightwards toward a more and more expansive vision of American empire.
JS: The DeVos family, the Prince family, they were major financiers of something called the Michigan Prayer Network. And basically this was a scam, essentially, to circumvent lobbying restrictions on religious institutions. And they created these networks in Michigan of what they call prayer warriors, and they assign them to nearly every legislator in the state of Michigan, calling legislators and asking them to pray for issues like school choice or to prevent gay marriage from ever being legalized. These are the kinds of strategies you’re talking about, where they’re saying, “Oh, no, no, we’re not really in the politics game. We’re just praying for these results.”
Jeff Sharlet: Right, exactly. Or even more sort of structural is, listeners might remember something called faith-based initiatives. We heard a lot about it in the Bush years. And I think maybe some people think it went away. That was actually an idea that began getting talked about in The Family in the 1980s and 1990s. Reagan’s attorney general, Ed Meese, was a part of The Family, became very involved in it — came into being in the Bush administration, directly through political figures involved with The Family.
And what they understood is, if they could put a faith-based office in every agency and department, once you change the bureaucratic structure like that, there’s incredible inertia. Once it’s there, it’s not going away. It’s now open to be used as a patronage machine however you want.
Now we fast-forward to the current moment, where Mike Pence is using those offices to funnel more and more money to far-right churches in the name of religious freedom, where you have a figure — Trump has taken his favorite pastor, Paula White, who is a kind of snake oil prosperity gospel preacher, and put her in charge of this faith based offices. She’s the figurehead. There’s actually much more competent administrators who are really moving massive amounts of money away from the public sphere into the private hands of the far, hard, Christian right.
JS: Set the protests that we’re seeing in the context of what you’re talking about. My sense is that part of the strategy from the kinds of more sophisticated right-wing players that you’re describing, is that they are trying to achieve the same goal they always have. In the state of Michigan, they want Gretchen Whitmer gone, they want a Dick DeVos-type character to be the governor, and the reason that they want that is they want to ram through very right-wing policy.
Jeff Sharlet: No, no, no. Jeremy, the reason they want that is because God wants it.
Jeff Sharlet: We’re joking, but actually — I think it is important to remember when you are dealing with someone like that, I think the temptation is always to imagine them as sort of, you know, smoking cigars in the backroom and plotting, and Mitch McConnell is really running the show. You know more about Betsy DeVos than I do, but from everything that I’ve been able to learn, she, like so many of those figures, is deeply sincere. And I mean, that is no defense. That’s what makes her more terrifying.
JS: What it seems like we’re seeing is, they’re essentially using ordinary people who are Trump supporters as foot soldiers, who potentially can be infected or spread this virus to achieve their religious-slash-political objectives.
Jeff Sharlet: That’s exactly right. And I think, where really was the first of these reopening protests? It wasn’t actually on the steps of the Capitol. You could say it was at Liberty University with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s massive intellectual center for the Christian right. And he decided that he was going to reopen the college early. He was going to let everybody come back from around the world, and so on. And that was sort of the first reopening protest. This is that kind of juxtaposition of these elites sort of modeling the behavior that they want the foot soldiers to actually put into action.
JS: Let’s talk for a moment about some of the other members of Trump’s cabinet or team outside of Mike Pence. You have Alex Azar, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Both of them on the coronavirus task force are, quote, “cabinet sponsors of Capitol Ministries, a Bible study political organization.” And Ralph Drollinger, the leader of the White House Bible study for Capitol Ministries, recently published a study entitled “Is God Judging America Today?” You also have Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State who shares the worldview of this clique of people. Talk about those figures and Capitol Ministries.
Jeff Sharlet: Capitol Ministries is fascinating. And that’s another point where I do have to return to Pence for a second, just to say that Pence, again, marks a sort of convergence point between the populist Christian right and the elite Christian right, because that’s — Ralph Drollinger didn’t used to have that access, and he’s much more from the populist Christian right world. He’s pretty critical of The Family, because they’ll work with anybody. They have a saying — they say, “We work with power where we can, build new power where we can’t.” Drollinger won’t do that. Drollinger won’t cross that line. And yet, you have a number of these figures who are shuttling back and forth between Capitol Ministries, Family weekly Bible studies — there’s another one called Christian Embassy, which is very active, especially in the Pentagon, in the military. You have this almost sort of religious revival going on in the White House that can kind of cover the waterfront for people like Ben Carson, and more interestingly, I think Mike Pompeo, who is obviously a savvy operator and is a very hard-right fundamentalist. And I think that’s been overlooked by most of the press.
Michelle Goldberg did good reporting early on, digging up all these old transcripts of his Kansas radio shows, in which he was going on and on about the Muslim menace, and how Muslim terrorists were sneaking into small Kansas towns and poisoning the well. But he’s the more savvy figure who is sort of slowly shifting U.S. policy ever more rightward. And I want to say ever more rightward, because it’s not like we were going along great before this.
There are other figures people aren’t paying as much attention to — former Senator Sam Brownback, who is now Trump’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, which sounds like a nothing job. It was more or less a position created by The Family, and what it does is it gives the State Department this lever to essentially make itself into a lobby for Christians, and especially evangelical Christians in other countries, not just for their religious freedom — which is absolutely appropriate — but also for their power, and the politicians like Bolsonaro in Brazil, who want to harness that power.
JS: Jeff, as we wrap up, I want to just talk a bit about your newest book, which is called “This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers.” For the past several years, I’ve really enjoyed your posts on social media, where you’ve put pictures of oftentimes ordinary people, and then you have written vignettes about who they are or a struggle that they’ve gone through. First of all, it’s brilliantly written. You’re a brilliant writer, a beautiful writer — but also the humanizing of everyday people in the face of information all the time, social media, cable news, press conferences, elections — it really is a breath of necessary fresh air to read the stories that you tell. Just share with people what the concept is behind the book, “This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers,” and that part of the work that you’ve done.
Jeff Sharlet: I began pursuing this book as an antidote to the very subjects that we’re talking about, which I had been reporting on for 20 years. And I was sort of getting poisoned. You know the risks, you spend enough time sort of reading this stuff, and it never leaves your head. And in fact, I was working on a magazine story about the worst right-wing group I’ve ever written about. They’re not the most powerful at all, they’re just the worst, and it’s the men’s rights activists. And it’s like — I can’t do this anymore. And I remember, I was looking up, I was working late in a Dunkin’ Donuts. I live in rural Vermont, it’s the only place that’s open if you want to work late at night. And I looked up, and there was a clerk at Dunkin’ Donuts, he’s got this T-shirt with this very baroquely drawn skull, which is not the Dunkin’ Donuts uniform.
And I get to talking to him, and about — it’s his last night in the job, he’s on the night shift. He’s the night baker, and he hates the job and he can’t do it anymore. And I asked him about his tattoo, a tear beneath his eye, and it’s for his child, who died. And suddenly we’re having this very intimate conversation. And just that moment, those moments of small connection — I asked him if I could take his picture. And I took this picture, and I wrote a story. And I said, these everyday people, this is what got me into writing in the first place. This is what I care about. I need these people to keep me sane if I’m going to keep looking at those other people, the elites who are the Christian right, the powerful folks. I need to balance it. So this book, “This Brilliant Darkness,” is really a collection of stories of everyday people. The politics come in, too. It’s a book that’s a lot about police brutality, and it’s a lot about addiction and everything else — but from the bottom up, rather than looking at the top.
JS: Jeff Sharlet, thank you so much for being a human, above all, but also for your incredibly important journalism. Thanks for being with us.
Jeff Sharlet: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Jeff Sharlet is the author of “The Family” as well as “C Street.” He is also executive producer of the Netflix documentary series “The Family,” that’s based on his books. He’s currently an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College. His new book is called “This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers.”
JS: As I’ve said many times on this show recently, part of what keeps all of us human during the darkest moments is knowing that we are not alone. We’re all connected, whether we admit it or not. And we need each other to get through this pandemic. We’ve been asking for our listeners to call us to share how this situation has been impacting their lives. It isn’t just frontline workers or infected people and their families who are suffering. There are so many ricochets that this crisis has fired off at innocent people, ordinary people, who have lost their jobs, their insurance, their homes — people who are careening into debt, or unsure how they’re going to find a job or get a surgery that they need. Here are some more of your voices from the pandemic.
Gail: Yes. Hi, my name is Gail, and I live in Maine. I work with trauma patients and have been out of work since March 10. My hardship is I have health issues, and I haven’t been able to get a dime from unemployment. I have exactly $18 in my checking account. I have to buy things for my health. I have rent to pay. So I just want to understand where this money is going, that our governments have graciously gave us peanuts. Where’s it going?
Unidentified person: Hi Jeremy, and everyone at Intercepted. I’m a laboratory specimen courier that relied on overtime to make ends meet. Volume dropped, hours dropped, work dropped. And although I’m in close contact with Covid-19 tests, I have no health insurance. Long story short, I was not able to make April’s rent. The investment firm that owns our building will be just fine. I and so many hours like me will not.
Michelle: Hi, my name is Michelle. I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, and I work in the restaurant industry. I was able to file for unemployment through the state of Ohio. You know, it took four or five days to even get through the line, because the lines have been so busy. For these three weeks now, I’ve not received any pay, because I am still working at 20 hours a week. People are tipping like 10%. Today I made $1 plus 10% tips. Yet my landlord said that they’re hoping that we take advantage of Trump’s stimulus to pay for our rent. I’m so scared for the future. I’m so scared for next week and tomorrow.
Enrique: My name is Enrique. I’m calling from Durango, Colorado. Out here in the Southwest, we have a huge undocumented community that is in dire need of food and rental assistance. We have Native American reservations that are also seeing a lot of hardship. Myself, I lost two-thirds of my income due to the fact that I lost my night job. I am fortunate enough that I do work for a nonprofit down here, Compañeros, and we are an immigrant resource center, so I do have part-time work through them. But the uncertainty of knowing if I’m going to be able to make next month’s rent is really daunting. The work I do here in organizing, we’re seeing that those who are affluent, who do have privilege are the ones who are okay, while those who are underrepresented, whose voices are being marginalized, suppressed, are struggling, not being heard, and not being cared for.
Emily: Hi, my name is Emily, and I’m calling from Salem, Oregon. I work April through October for the Park Service maintaining the trail system at North Cascades National Park. Because of the pandemic, my crew starting date has been repeatedly delayed. Like many people, I’m living in uncertainty, not knowing if I’ll be able to work the job I was counting on this year. Park Service seasonals are not kids going to summer camp. We are professional field workers who accept being laid off and rehired each year because we care about public lands and continuing outdoor labor traditions. The Park Service Administration, like many agencies that employ seasonally, does everything it can to avoid employing us year-round or granting us off-season benefits. And now that the parks are closed, there is no safety net for us.
Unidentified person: I’m an adjunct professor in Texas. I myself am not dealing with much hardship, but many of my students have what are considered essential jobs and work at grocery stores and pharmacies. These are students who are being asked to do more than they maybe have ever done in their entire lives. And they’re being asked to put off their future for all of our benefit. They are not going to get the credit they deserve for what they’ve done.
Michael: Hi, my name is Michael. I live in Everett, Washington, the city that had the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the United States. I’m a pizza delivery driver who has been deemed an essential worker. I come in contact with a lot of people in my job. I feel a little bit at risk. I’m young and healthy, but I want to keep working, and I need to make a living. I’m also a part-time student, and it means a lot to be able to still get a paycheck. Thank you for setting this up. And it’s been really good, but hard, to hear from other members of our country who are going through hard times and hardship because of the virus. But your podcast and your journalism have been helping a lot, and thank you for what you do. Bye.
JS: This pandemic is not just threatening the physical health of all of us, it is hurting tens of millions of people, sending them deep or deeper into depression or hopelessness. There are a lot of crisis services that people can call or groups that you can reach out to if you’re feeling total despair right now. We’re going to link to some of those in today’s episode notes. If you have a story to tell about how this crisis has impacted you, your family, or your community, we want to hear from you. Call us at 202-930-8245. Share your story with us, and we may play your message on a future episode.
DJT: My administration is issuing new federal guidelines that will allow governors to take a phased and deliberate approach to reopening their individual states.
JS: On Thursday, the Trump administration revealed its guidelines for reopening the country. The three-phase plan calls on states to demonstrate a 14-day downward trajectory in Covid-19 cases before moving into the first phase. The plan also heavily relies on states to prepare and plan for efficient screening, testing sites, and contact tracing to control any spikes in cases.
But then the next day, Trump tweeted — in all caps — “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.” His tweets came after the small number of protests we discussed earlier in this program against Democratic governors. Both Democratic and Republican governors have pushed back on Trump encouraging these protests and his assertion that states have adequate testing to begin lifting social distancing orders.
Larry Hogan: Every governor in America has been pushing and fighting and clawing to get more tests.
Gretchen Whitmer: And so, while our capabilities are there, these important supplies are not.
Mike DeWine: We really need help, anybody — if the FDA’s watching — this would really take our capacity up literally, Chuck, overnight.
JS: On Monday, a bipartisan group of experts in economics and public health released what they called a “Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience.” The top recommendation calls for, quote, “at least 5 million tests per day by early June to help ensure a safe social opening. This number will need to increase to 20 million tests per day by mid-summer to fully remobilize the economy.” Now, currently, the U.S. is testing about 146,000 people per day. We have a long way to go. The federal government under Donald Trump has repeatedly failed in providing adequate coordination to help states prepare, it has failed to reduce the larger public’s exposure to the virus, and it has failed to implement a sustainable safety net for people in economic free fall.
Now, we all want to get back to some semblance of normalcy. But we must also recognize that what we understand as normal, our lives before the pandemic, is what led us to this free fall. Decades of austerity and free market absolutism led us down a path in which our society is unraveling very quickly. People already living on the thin margins are losing their jobs, their health care, and they’re lining up in huge lines to get food.
Jim Handly: We’ve been following an incredible scene at local Megamarts. Chopper 4 here showing hundreds of people lined up for food giveaways, massive crowds making it very challenging to follow social distance guidelines.
JS: The federal response from the U.S. government as-is is not sustainable for the majority of people, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Joining me now to discuss the level of federal and local response that is needed now and for the future is Dr. Seema Yasmin. She’s a journalist, a public health physician and an author. Dr. Yasmin served as an officer in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her academic research focuses on the spread of health misinformation. Dr. Seema Yasmin, welcome to Intercepted.
Seema Yasmin: Thanks so much for talking with me, Jeremy.
JS: So, I want to begin by asking you about the Trump administration’s idea for how to, quote-unquote, “reopen the country.” On Thursday, Trump’s team unveiled their ideas about this. Dr. Deborah Birx outlined a three-phase plan that includes a gating criteria where states should demonstrate a 14-day downward trajectory.
Deborah Birx: You have to go through those gating criterias related to 14 days of decreasing evidence of illness and decreasing testing, despite adequate testing. So, phase one begins with all vulnerable individuals, including those with comorbidities, continuing to shelter in place.
JS: What’s your assessment of the plan as we understand it right now, and the Trump administration’s efforts to get life and business back to levels that it existed at before the pandemic?
SY: With a public health situation of this scale, you have to be thinking globally and acting locally, which means that there will be different timelines in different parts of the world and even in different parts of the U.S. Right now in Wuhan, which was the epicenter and the starting point of all of this, the government there is lifting some containment measures and gently nudging folks back into some daily activities, although it’s very interesting from a behavioral perspective that people are resisting some of those things and choosing to stay at home.
In the U.S., we’ve seen New York City be very much an epicenter. So that means that the next step there and the timeline for the East Coast might be very different from California where I live, and where Governor Newsom has talked with Governors Brown and Governor Inslee of Washington and Oregon to think about what timeline and what steps might make sense for California. So, although we need a federal government that provides oversight and that provides support nationally, we will want to see states have the autonomy to make the right decisions and choose the right timeline for them. The problem there is we’ve seen local leadership not take this seriously. And we’ve seen local leadership follow politics and not follow the science.
So I’m really concerned that there are still states that haven’t had shelter-in-place orders, or there are states where infections are beginning to peak, where the governors are rushing to lift containment measures and try and get back to business as usual.
JS: Have you, in all of your work — investigating infectious diseases pandemics — have you ever seen the kinds of demonstrations that we’ve seen in Michigan, Virginia, California, elsewhere?
Clayton Sandell: In Denver tonight, they came with and without masks, hundreds throwing social distancing to the wind.
Nikole Killion: As protesters in various states rallied against stay-at-home orders, President Trump backed their calls. In a series of tweets, he exclaimed, “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia.
SY: So, while we have never seen a situation like this one in general, right? This pandemic is a new scenario, even for experts like myself who track epidemics. We have seen people act against their best interest many, many times. And so, even though we’re in this global health crisis right now, I’ve been embroiled in a longer crisis, which is the anti-vaccination movement here in the States and other parts of the world where there are people who are emboldened by many politicians who go against the science, who will do strange things like expose their kids to very dangerous infectious diseases, who will protest for bills that harm public health.
So that behavior, that kind of protesting isn’t new. But this situation, that does feel new, but to me, actually not surprising, because of what we’ve seen.
JS: What is it like for you, given your background and your knowledge, to watch the president of the United States, Donald Trump, dominate what are supposed to be public health briefings that are in the interest of the American public and the world?
SY: It’s absolutely terrifying to see somebody who does not understand the science, who doesn’t care for large swaths of people in the U.S., have the power to derail the response here. It’s frustrating from a scientific perspective. We see him at this pulpit daily, often, and he says one thing and then walks away, and then the Dr. Faucis and Dr. Birxes and the ones who have some expertise have to backtrack. That kind of mixed messaging is incredibly, incredibly dangerous.
Deborah Birx: We are tracking the number of cases, and it must have a downward trajectory for 14 days as well as the influenza-like illness.
DJT: We’re starting to open up our states. And I think they’re going to open up very well.
Anthony Fauci: Unless we get the virus under control, the real recovery economically is not going to happen. So what you do if you jump the gun and go into a situation where you have a big spike, you’re going to set yourself back.
SY: Talking to my sources at CDC, it seems like there’s confusion within the agency, too, about what its remit is during this global health crisis. And it has the resources, it has the personnel to do the things that you need to do during an epidemic or pandemic, mainly contact tracing, testing, but really aggregating data from across the states. You know the CDC has the resources and the intelligence to do that. It’s how at any given time we know how many Americans have [the] flu, how many have died from flu. But with this, something bizarre is going on. Because at one point as a journalist, if you wanted data on how many people across America had been tested, how many were infected, you had to call 50 different state health departments to get that information.
And sometimes the information was on CDC’s website, then it magically disappeared. It’s just bizarre and speaks to poor leadership and poor coordination.
JS: In your view, and if you were part of the core team right now with Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx and others, what would you be advising in terms of, “opening the country back up for business?” Based on what you understand right now, what is your sort of best assessment of how we should responsibly proceed?
SY: I’d be saying to consider peeling back containment measures gradually, methodically, and guided by the science. And you’re looking for four key things. Firstly, are you seeing a dramatic decline in the number of deaths and cases? Are you having access to widespread testing and really effective tests where you have a quick turnaround?
Third, you want to make sure that your health care systems have the capacity so that as you see potential new cases, they can deal with those. And lastly, you want boots on the ground locally, wherever you’re thinking about peeling back these measures, to do contact tracing. That’s that really difficult but critical work of an epidemic investigation, where you have field epidemiologists, go out, find cases, and then trace back everyone who had contact with that person while they were contagious. And that can be sometimes hundreds of people. So even as you’re looking at those four metrics locally, you’re still looking back at Wuhan, and you’re still looking at neighboring states to see what those trends are there, because you’re hoping to guard against the second wave and against future outbreaks.
JS: The Trump administration is continuing to argue that it is the responsibility of individual states to secure PPE and medical equipment that they need. On March 31, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, said —
Andrew Cuomo: It’s like being on eBay with 50 other states, bidding on a ventilator.
JS: Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, said —
Ralph Northam: Allowing the free market to determine availability and pricing is not the way we should be dealing with this national crisis.
JS: You also have reports from states that they’re being outbid by the federal government, and that in some cases, their PPE shipments have been seized. We’ve also seen this in the case of some Caribbean nations accusing the United States of, essentially, piracy, and taking equipment that is destined for Caribbean nations. What is your view of both of these things: on the one hand, how aid is being approached federally in the United States, and then some of the reported actions of the United States toward other smaller, less powerful countries?
SY: So all of this speaks to a basic lack of understanding, a complete ignorance, really, of how public health works. And I think we saw this demonstrated at community levels, too, Jeremy, where you had people like Matt Colvin and others hoard tens of thousands of hand sanitizers, or masks, or soap, whatever it was — not comprehending that that stockpiling does nothing to protect public health, because your public health relies on not just you having hand sanitizer, but your neighbor having hand sanitizer, the homeless person down the street having having it, the kid around the corner who’s on chemo having it.
We need to be thinking in a much more community-focused way, and we’re not seeing that happen at the top levels. I don’t think it’s surprising, some of these actions, as disturbing as they are. I saw some of that early reporting from the LA Times about states receiving some of that personal protective equipment and then federal authorities seizing it, and then doctors saying, “We don’t understand why it didn’t come to us. There’s no transparency around where this much-needed equipment is turning up.” I think it speaks to larger foreign policy. It’s kind of the way the U.S. has behaved historically in many ways, but it does not protect America’s public health to behave in this way.
We’ve seen how an epidemic that began in Wuhan became a pandemic around the world, caused a health crisis in New York City and other parts of the states. We are completely connected, which is how these things work, and therefore our approach, scientifically from the perspective of aid and PPE — that needs to be much more community oriented, thinking about our neighbors and not just ourselves.
JS: Earlier, you spoke about contact tracing. But you also have what I think are very legitimate concerns about opening a door for abuse of privacy and civil liberties. In other words, you can do something that is medically necessary or scientifically necessary to confront a very dangerous pandemic that could potentially create a surveillance infrastructure that could be exploited. What are your thoughts about balancing the immediate need for saving public health with the longer-term dangers of creating systems that could be exploited by very bad actors and authoritarians?
SY: Within public health, some of us, myself included, have even criticized the use of the term “surveillance,” which is one of the fundamental things in a public health system. It’s one of the first things you learn is how to establish a surveillance system when you join the Epidemic Intelligence Service. But that word has such negative connotations to it about being monitored, about a federal agency doing that monitoring. When you think about infectious diseases and who is vulnerable, the most vulnerable to contagion, it’s often those same communities who are heavily policed. It’s often those same communities who are under surveillance.
So I always worry about that. In the context of this pandemic, as soon as things started to get bad, I saw in the U.K., special powers were given to police to detain people who appeared infected. You see those things happen early, and often in times of crisis, we see laws implemented that give more and more power to the police and other authorities. And then those are not being pulled back after the crisis. So we have to be really careful about that.
From the perspective of somebody who’s done a lot of contact tracing and done field epidemiology, I will tell you that it really, really harms your efforts when people don’t trust you because of the agency that you represent, or because of that fear of being monitored. It can harm your investigation if the person believes that the data you’re collecting from them is going to be shared widely and that it won’t be confidential.
Because, think about it. You’re asking somebody, one, to tell you when they were infectious with a disease that’s stigmatized, because often disease is. And second, you’re trying to find out from them exactly: where did they go and who did they have contact with at the time when they were contagious. And that’s really personal information. They may not want to admit where they went or who they spoke to. So to do contact tracing, this thing that we keep talking about that sounds so simple, actually, you need to build rapport and trust with people. That can take a long time. If they are seeing reports of a government abusing these powers of taking data and not keeping it confidential, and not just you using it for the sole purpose of protecting public health, that can massively derail an epidemic investigation.
JS: Recently, we’ve had Donald Trump not just announcing that he wants to defund the World Health Organization, but railing against the WHO. And I’m sure like all international bureaucracies, there are a lot of lines of criticism that we could unleash against the WHO. But on a practical level, what does Trump’s rhetoric, the threat to pull the funding from — what will the impact of that be on the WHO?
SY: Unfortunately, I don’t feel like the World Health Organization is being enabled to do its best work in terms of global health diplomacy — bringing everyone to the table. Trump has just suspended funding to the World Health Organization.
DJT: As the organization’s leading sponsor, the United States has a duty to insist on full accountability. One of the most dangerous and costly decisions from the WHO —
SY: American taxpayers contribute about 15 percent of the agency’s funds. And to do that during a pandemic is terrible. It’s terrible for global health. It’s terrible for America. But I think we need to enable the World Health Organization to do its best work now, which means working with China, working with the U.S., bringing all those folks to the same table.
And I’ll say, hands up as a public health physician, I will be one of the first to critique the World Health Organization because there’s a lot of criticism to be made, even thinking about how its reputation was damaged because of some of the things they did wrong during the Ebola crisis. But right now, we are in the midst of the biggest global health crisis of our generation. We don’t have anything better than the World Health Organization, and for many low- and middle-income countries, the World Health Organization is its lifeline.
You think about how quickly WHO got out testing kits to dozens of countries, way before the U.S. even developed a test that works. That’s exactly the kind of assistance you need in a crisis like this. Having Trump criticize it, and worse, pull back that funding, is bad for all of us it endangers global health.
JS: As people I think are getting really antsy with their situation, and some people’s very survival is being called into question, not just from potential exposure to the virus, but economically — when you’ve worked on situations where you have people’s livelihood being threatened by measures that need to be taken to protect the public health — what kinds of things have ended up working to resuscitate societies after being hit with such a terrifying illness?
SY: This is a brand-new situation in terms of our generation facing a crisis like this. But I think from a public health perspective, you’re always remembering the first word, and that is the public. So yes, you’re going in with expertise. And, yes, you’re going in with tools and the good intentions to stop contagion. But you know that if you don’t communicate what you’re doing well, you know that if you don’t act in a way that builds trust with communities, that you can’t protect public health, because people won’t listen, they won’t listen to what you’re saying, and they won’t follow the measures. That’s happening here. It’s why we’re seeing these quite scary protests of people not wearing masks, and gathering because they want the country to reopen.
I think a lot of that comes from leadership that does not explain well how big of a crisis this is, that we are losing people to deaths that are preventable, which I think is unforgivable, really. And so this rush to reopen — while I understand it from an economic perspective — we just really run the risk of lifting containment measures and then just seeing the virus get the upper hand again in places where we followed orders to try and flatten the curve [and] bring the number of cases down. You do that reopening part wrong, you don’t explain that to the public, why you’re doing what you’re doing at the right time — you just threatened to undo the gains that you’ve made.
JS: What will it look like to put this behind us in terms of a vaccine or treatment? Just scientifically, what is going to happen in order to erase this as the grave threat it is at this moment?
SY: This is the question I get asked most, although the way it’s often framed is, when will things go back to normal? I think we will have to reconsider what normal means. I don’t want to go back to the normal that was the set of conditions and systems that led to this mess. We’re seeing disproportionate deaths among black and brown people. I don’t want to go back to that normal.
I don’t want to go back to a normal where health care workers — my friends — are crowdsourcing PPE from their neighbors, because the system isn’t providing enough for them to do their job while safe. I want us to move forward to a normal where people have paid sick leave, where people know that they are safe to stay at home and will still get paid, so that they don’t infect others and jeopardize their own health. I mean, I can’t believe that — years ago, when I first came to the U.S., one of the first epidemics I investigated was an outbreak in a neonatal intensive care unit, where these preemie babies became infected because their health care workers were not vaccinated and were working while sick.
And when I said to them, “Why would you go to work while sick?,” they said, “Well, because sick leave and PTO is all lumped together.” So there was no incentive to stay home while they were contagious. And these babies nearly died. That needs to change. There needs to be universal access to health care. There needs to be better access to good physicians. I want those things to be hopefully the positive that comes out of this, and that we move forward to a society that is safer and has better safety nets for the most vulnerable.
In terms of what will help us pass this crisis and move into that new normal, we hopefully will see a vaccine. We saw the first Covid-19 vaccine being injected into a person’s arm on March 16, while animal studies were still being done. Normally, vaccine development takes 10 to 15 years, at least. In some cases, it takes a few decades and tens of millions of dollars. Here we’re seeing it done so rapidly that some of the very legitimate experts I’m speaking to believe that we might have a vaccine available within 18 months. So, the science does give me hope. I don’t want to offer false hope, there’s no guarantee. But seeing that kind of academic, corporate cross-country collaboration to fight this thing while the politicians are bungling this at every level — it’s the scientists, the frontline workers, the first responders who really give me hope.
JS: Dr. Seema Yasmin, thank you very much for being with us on Intercepted.
SY: Thank you.
JS: That was journalist, public health physician, and author Dr. Seema Yasmin. She has two books out right now: “The Impatient Dr. Lange,” about a leading AIDS doctor who was killed on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, and the new book, “Muslim Women Are Everything.” You can find her on Twitter at @DoctorYasmin.
And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter at @intercepted and on Instagram at @interceptedpodcast. I want to give a big, big thank-you to our wonderful transcriptionist, Nuria Marquez Martinez. She has gotten a new job that takes her away from our show, but we have greatly valued her work in making this show accessible to more people, as many people as possible. And we wish her all the best in her future endeavors.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and the Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor-in-chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program was done by Ariel Boone. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.