Letters from an American: March 21, 2020Roundup
tags: Harry Truman, Donald Trump, Department of Justice, historian, coronavirus
Heather Cox Richardson teaches nineteenth-century American history at Boston College. Her early work focused on the transformation of political ideology from the Civil War to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. It examined issues of race, economics, westward expansion, and the construction of the concept of an American middle class. Her history of the Republican Party, To Make Men Free (2014) examines the fundamental tensions in American politics from the time of the Northwest Ordinance to the present. She is currently working on an intellectual history of American politics and a graphic treatment of the Reconstruction Era.
In the last two days, we learned that the administration and Republican members of Congress heard dire warnings about the coming coronavirus and continued to lie to the American people, telling us the Democrats trying to alert us were simply bent on undermining Trump.
We also learned that Trump has refused to use the Defense Production Act, passed under President Harry S. Truman, who used it during the Korean War. This law would enable Trump to demand that American industries produce the medical equipment we currently need so badly. Business leaders say the invoking the law isn’t necessary, and Trump claims they are volunteering to produce what the nation needs in a public-private partnership. Currently there is such a critical shortage of medical equipment that some hospitals are asking people to sew basic masks at home, but today Trump announced that the clothing manufacturer Hanes is retrofitting factories to make masks; it has joined a consortium that is expected to produce 5-6 million masks weekly.
These two stories reveal the same ideology that would underlay a law permitting arrest and imprisonment without trial: that society works best when it defers to a few special people who have access to information, resources, and power. Those people, in turn, use their power to direct the lives of the rest of us in larger patterns whose benefit we cannot necessarily see. We might think we need medical supplies but, in this worldview, using the government to force individual companies to make those supplies would hurt us in the long run. This ideology argues that we are better off leaving the decisions about producing medical supplies to business leaders. Similarly, we need leaders to run our economy and government, trusting that they will lead us, as a society, toward progress.