Coronavirus has already transformed America, for better and for worse

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Robert Scheer. Illustration by Mr Fish aka Dwayne Booth.

In a special edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” host Robert Scheer becomes the guest as filmmaker Stephen French asks for the journalist’s take on the coronavirus crisis. Speaking on the eve of Scheer’s 84th birthday, the “Scheer Intelligence” host draws from lessons learned in his seven decades of reporting to make sense of this unprecedented moment. His two most recent books, “They Know Everything About You” and “The Great American Stickup,” are especially helpful in understanding how governments, as well as financial institutions and private companies are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When the filmmaker asks him what he thinks about the pandemic sweeping the world, Scheer initially discusses the impact the coronavirus is already having on privacy and civil liberties. He explains that when he first wrote “They Know Everything About You” on the ever-expanding surveillance state, and our willingness to sacrifice all sense of privacy to companies for the sake of convenience, he had not expected he’d live to see the day people around the world would also welcome government spying. Yet, the terrifying spread of the novel coronavirus has provided governments with a justification for expanding already wide-reaching, invasive surveillance apparatuses. 

“The extreme surveillance state [we’re already seeing in China, for example], is, I suspect and from all reports seems to be, quite popular there,” says Scheer. “People think it's necessary and they think the government will only do it when necessary. I'm sure there are some who are suspicious, but suddenly every society in the world, whatever they call themselves — socialists or capitalist democratic or authoritarian religious — they're all using this new surveillance technology. 

“And [the public is] eager for the government to have their private data,” he continues, “because the government will make them safer. Or at least that's what the government has promised. And they're desperate, they're scared, they're afraid of this invisible enemy.” 

French and Scheer go on to discuss how the novel coronavirus has highlighted something crucial about all societies: every member is interconnected. It seems like an obvious point, and yet this idea of the collective — and collective health — has been obfuscated by years of rampant capitalism and the over-glorification of individualism. As many people are currently arguing, COVID-19 has made it incredibly clear that there is no way the wealthiest members of society can really hide from the fact that we are all only as healthy as the most marginalized people around us, a point Scheer drives home during his conversation with French. This is why, the journalist believes, the 2020 election and the trajectory of America as a whole have shifted dramatically since the beginning of the year. 

For starters, Bernie Sanders, despite having ended his presidential campaign on Wednesday, has undoubtedly won the ideological war, especially when it comes to Medicare for All, posits Scheer. In addition, the debate surrounding the future of the country will necessarily change dramatically in the coming months as Americans struggle to repair their lives after the mass death and job loss caused by the pandemic.

“[Post-plague], you will not be able as a political candidate to talk about anything but how you make us whole [after this crisis],” says Scheer. “Anything else will be like a cop out. They don't want to hear about what you're going to do in Syria, you know, and they don't want to hear about, you know, some plan of getting us closer to God and, [how to] get rid of the homosexuals or you know, Roe vs Wade. That will all just be seen as obvious obfuscation and noise. 

“People want to know how are you going to make us feel economically safe, medically safe, secure in our communities. That's what they're going to want to know,” the “Scheer Intelligence” host concludes. 

Recalling the lessons of Scheer’s book on the 2008 financial crisis, which details how a bipartisan, decades-long deregulation led to the wholesale swindling of the American people, French asks an important question about the economic consequences of the pandemic. 

“You mentioned how [the government’s] financial injection into main street [with the CARES Act] might revolutionize, for the short term, the financial markets,” says French. “I also want to make that point in conjunction with your previous book, ‘The Great American Stickup: How Reagan and Clinton Enriched Wall Street While Robbing Main Street.’ Is there a potential that history could repeat itself somehow?” 

“No,” responds Scheer, “I think the American public right now, they're in a state of shock, but they're not going to have [the trust they had during the 2008 banking bailouts] anymore.

“The good thing about the bailout is that this time,” says the journalist, “[is that the government] didn't just bail out the people who had created all [the problems of inequality]: the big corporations and the banks. [And] it wasn't just the Democrats putting pressure [on Republicans] because they control the house. That was helpful, but Donald Trump himself and the Republicans knew they were going to have riots in the streets if they didn't help people stay in their homes.”

Listen to the full conversation between French and Scheer as the two find glimmers of hope for a better future in the midst of this unprecedented crisis. 



Joshua Scheer

Editor: Natasha Hakimi Zapata