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Our Oligarchs’ Crisis of Confidence

Let's not attribute to malice that which can be explained by an insecure elite stumbling back into a tenuous grasp on power.

On November 9, as the first week of election disputes started to wind down, Big Pharma giant Pfizer Inc. announced that its COVID vaccine had been tested and shown to be 90 percent effective. The timing was…fortuitous; cue the crazies. 

Donald Trump, Jr. took to Twitter with the kind of vague suggestiveness that usually only works if you have something to suggest: “The timing of this is pretty amazing. Nothing nefarious about the timing of this at all right?” Charlie Kirk, a young conservative intellectual renowned for subtlety and nuance, took a similar tack in a Facebook video: “The reason is Pfizer wanted to wait until Joe Biden was coronated as president, so that Joe Biden could get the credit for this.” (Props to Charlie for the choice of “coronation” there, though his timing was off by a couple months.)

History repeats itself—and since 2020 took all the good material, in 2021 we’ve already hit the reruns. On January 24, word got out that California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom planned to lift his Regional Stay Home Order, one of the strictest anti-COVID measures in the country. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, another pandemic hardliner whose iron fist inspired a hilariously ineffective kidnapping plot last year, likewise announced suspiciously close to the inauguration that her loyal subjects would be allowed to dine indoors beginning on February 2.

Once again, murmurs issued from the lower-tier twitterati about the announcements’ suspicious timing. Some of it was serendipity, to be sure. Maybe, like Pfizer’s timeline being pushed back from just before the election to just after the election, it’s just a really bad look dictated by crappy circumstances. COVID numbers in both states are trending downward, and Newsom’s announcement came just as they’d dropped to the same point as when he’d put the order in place a month before. But there is a real question worth asking here, and it lies at the heart of our current political dysfunction: why do the people in power, in government and beyond, consistently act in a way that makes them look like part of some vast left-wing conspiracy? Why are tectonic policy shifts at the state level being arranged around the transfer of power at the federal? Why did the media and big business suddenly change their tune on the miracle date of January 20?

I think the answer is fairly simple, and a lot less nefarious than some of the alternatives.

We hear a lot of talk these days about “the politics of fear,” and it’s almost exclusively directed at the right (and almost exclusively in ridiculous ways): the only reason anyone possibly could have voted for Donald Trump is that they’re conditioned to fear Xi Jinping, or Jack Dorsey, or black people; the only reason to oppose progressive social policies is a fear of homosexuals, or of women, or of men who think they’re women; the only reason to reject the candidates of Wall Street—whose names are always tagged with a big, dark capital “D”—is fear that our backwards way of life will be ravaged by Kamala Harris’ lizard-people overlords; et cetera, et cetera, until it becomes apparent that the only possible explanation for any of the left’s electoral failures is some deep terror ingrained in the minds of half the voting public.

But it’s worth talking too about the fear that drives the left. There’s the obvious example of the pandemic—the hysteria that left most of Blue America hunkered down like it was a nuclear apocalypse, only to bravely emerge from their bunkers in droves on November 3. That’s the same kind of fear that underlies the really fanatical climate stuff. But there’s another kind too, and it essentially boils down to a fear of opposition, a fear of not being in power.

It’s a function of our adversarial politics: when you see no way of working with someone, when you can find no common ground, when the stated goals of that person go against everything you believe, you’re probably going to be terrified of any situation in which that person has power and you don’t. And it’s not fear of the extremes, either—call me an optimist, but I don’t think there are many people stupid enough to sincerely believe that Donald Trump is a fascist. We live in a world where four years of sometimes-successful administration by a scattershot, moderate conservative puts the fear of God in about 80 million people.

So why does everything change the second 45 gives way to 46? It doesn’t require Don Jr.’s hypothetical nefarious plot. All it requires is that people in positions of power—the people who are terrified of losing those positions—act exactly as we would expect them to act under the influence of that terror. That doesn’t just mean Democratic governors who overplayed their hands, and then rethought their moves the second they stepped into a post-Trump world. It means the huge companies that, for the first time (and likely the last time) in a long time, didn’t have a buddy in the White House and now are ready to dive back into the game. It means the legacy media that went through a well-earned hell over the past five years, and now get a little breathing room to lob softball questions at a friendly politician. It means every American who subscribes to the progressive culture and narrative that dominate our institutions, who worried just for a moment that maybe they wouldn’t always be in control.

Of course Gavin Newsom is going to do a 180 at the end of the age of Trump. He’s spent the last heaven-knows-how-long in a hysteric fugue, wrecking the bottom 90 percent of his state’s economy because he thought the world was ending. He came out of it to realize that there are consequences for the things you do in a panic, and that he was heading into a recall election. I don’t know everything; there’s always the outside possibility that Barack Obama and George Soros instructed Newsom on the necessary timeline during a weekend getaway at Bohemian Grove (or a pricey lunch at the French Laundry). But I find it more likely that the guy is just scrambling.

Amazon is in a similar situation. On Inauguration Day, CEO Dave Clark sent a very buddy-buddy letter to Joe Biden, tripping over himself in a rush to announce the conglomerate’s eagerness to help with vaccine distribution. Of course, during the months the Trump administration had a vaccine in hand—or the months before, for that matter—the online megacorp made no such public offer. Were they holding the nation hostage? No vaccine until you vote the right way; scratch that, no vaccine until we’re absolutely sure that you all voted the right way and there’s no possible chance of going back. Again, anything’s possible—and speaking of lizard people, I’m suspicious of Jeff Bezos—but there are more probable explanations. Amazon’s profits skyrocketed during the pandemic, but so did negative attitudes among the public—as well as certain players in the federal government. I don’t see any imaginable world, even under Trump, where Amazon takes a real fall, but I can imagine plenty of ways that an unhappy government could make things a little harder for them. If I were Dave Clark, I’d be worried enough to curry favor with the new caudillo. I scratch your back, you stay 3,000 miles away from me.

There are other reasons too, of course. A contract to help with the distribution of vaccines at the federal level is likely to be lucrative, and Donald Trump may have had the sense to deny it to Amazon. (Not least of all because the evidence has consistently shown that top-down distribution plans are failing, while locally oriented ones have seen remarkable success.) But at an even more fundamental level, Amazon wants to jump to the front of the queue. They’ve been pushing to get their labor force vaccinated as early as possible, including by a direct petition from Clark to the Centers for Disease Control. Can’t very well make record-breaking profits if all of your floor workers catch the WuFlu. A plum deal that keeps the labor force from needing sick days and boosts optics with the public and the feds may be exactly what Amazon needs just a few months after protesters set up a guillotine outside its founder’s Dupont Circle house.

That’s one of the key takeaways here: these people are far too desperate to be as nefarious as we might think. The more outrageous aspects of the last few months—from Twitter censorship to post-election whiplash—may be best understood not as the first flashes of an ascendant tyranny, but as a flurry of idiotic moves by an elite who clearly have much less faith in their hold on power than we do.

The wild saga of GameStop’s stock adventures over the past week or so is a perfect illustration of the point. When users of the subreddit r/wallstreetbets decided to invest in the video game chain, the price of the stock skyrocketed to peaks well over $400 (six months ago it was closer to $4). The move resulted in jaw-dropping profits for some of the amateur traders—and a whole lot of anger from the Wall Street establishment. Hedge funds and other big-dollar investors who had shorted the stock have lost over $5 billion altogether from the episode. So what did our robust market system do? Simple: citing market volatility, Robinhood and other day-trading services just restricted transactions on GameStop and other WallStreetBets picks. The big funds, meanwhile, were free to continue trading as normal. Besides giving the big guys a chance to get their ducks in a row, the freeze caused the stock to crash on Thursday morning, costing many amateur investors a pretty penny.

It’s corrupt and immoral, and I’d be mad as hell if I’d been smart enough to get in on the GameStop craze. But it’s not the kind of thing that confident oligarchs do. It suggests the same fear that’s motivated so many decisions by people in power these past few months. Not to mention it may spark a backlash that will be well worth watching—and that may yet change our course in surprising ways.

I’m as wary of the Wall Street-Silicon Valley-Washington axis as anyone. But it’s hard to be too afraid of any regime that can be thrown into such a devastating panic by a horde of Redditors buying GameStop stock from laptops in their mothers’ basements—or, for that matter, by a virus, or an election, or the host of The Apprentice.



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