You would think that one could enjoy watching a television miniseries involving the execution of abandoned pets without politics intruding, but nooooo, that is not possible in 2019.
Let me explain a bit further. HBO has been broadcasting “Chernobyl,” an extraordinary five-part miniseries about the events surrounding the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history and the horrific toll it exacted on residents of the Soviet Union.
The miniseries fictionalizes and simplifies a few things but is scary accurate in its depiction of Soviet life and Soviet bureaucracy in action. The show is unsparing in depicting the effect of the accident on first-responders and power plant personnel. Episode four in particular contains some of the grimmest moments of television I have ever witnessed and is not for the faint of heart.
So, what does this have to do with modern-day politics? The Hill’s Morgan Gstatler provides a useful rundown. It started Thursday, when the novelist Stephen King tweeted out, “It’s impossible to watch HBO’s CHERNOBYL without thinking of Donald Trump; like those in charge of the doomed Russian reactor, he’s a man of mediocre intelligence in charge of great power—economic, global—that he does not understand.”
In response, conservative commentator Dan Bongino fired back with his own tweet, suggesting that King was comparing apples and oranges: “Chernobyl was a failure of socialism (where the govt controls the means of production), the exact opposite of the Trump deregulation and tax cut agenda.”
That, in turn, brought in Chernobyl’s screenwriter Craig Mazin to respond to Bongino with a pretty serious insult: “Chernobyl was a failure of humans whose loyalty to (or fear of) a broken governing party overruled their sense of decency and rationality. You’re the old man with the cane. You just worship a different man’s portrait.”
To understand the “old man with the cane” reference, you have to watch this scene from the miniseries, in which local Communist Party officials in Pripyat — where Chernobyl is located — meet to discuss what to do in the hours after the initial explosion:
Bongino’s last word on the subject was to insult Mazin back: “Please crack a textbook before you embarrass yourself again..... Every wanna-be tyrant blames the humans, not the system. What a joke.”
And now you are all caught up, and probably feel dumber for having read this far. Let’s try to referee this debate.
Bongino’s “It Can’t Happen Here Because of Capitalism” claim is a comforting ideological line to take. It is also ridiculous to assert the very same week that this New York Times story by Jack Nicas, Natalie Kitroeff, David Gelles and James Glanz ran:
The fatal flaws with Boeing’s 737 Max can be traced to a breakdown late in the plane’s development, when test pilots, engineers and regulators were left in the dark about a fundamental overhaul to an automated system that would ultimately play a role in two crashes.
A year before the plane was finished, Boeing made the system more aggressive and riskier. While the original version relied on data from at least two types of sensors, the final version used just one, leaving the system without a critical safeguard. In both doomed flights, pilots struggled as a single damaged sensor sent the planes into irrecoverable nose-dives within minutes, killing 346 people and prompting regulators around the world to ground the Max.
But many people involved in building, testing and approving the system, known as MCAS, said they hadn’t fully understood the changes. Current and former employees at Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration who spoke with The New York Times said they had assumed the system relied on more sensors and would rarely, if ever, activate. Based on those misguided assumptions, many made critical decisions, affecting design, certification and training.
While prosecutors and lawmakers try to piece together what went wrong, the current and former employees point to the single, fateful decision to change the system, which led to a series of design mistakes and regulatory oversights. As Boeing rushed to get the plane done, many of the employees say, they didn’t recognize the importance of the decision. They described a compartmentalized approach, each of them focusing on a small part of the plane. The process left them without a complete view of a critical and ultimately dangerous system.
The company also played down the scope of the system to regulators. Boeing never disclosed the revamp of MCAS to Federal Aviation Administration officials involved in determining pilot training needs, according to three agency officials. When Boeing asked to remove the description of the system from the pilot’s manual, the F.A.A. agreed. As a result, most Max pilots did not know about the software until after the first crash, in October.
Boeing is viewed as one of America’s premier corporations, an actor that has a very strong incentive to preserve its brand image. The fact that this screw-up happened suggests that unregulated capitalism is hardly immune to complex catastrophes.
Bongino’s proud declaration that Trump’s deregulatory push has nothing to do with the likelihood of a Chernobyl-like accident does not pass the smell test. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that the Trump administration was a laggard and not a leader in grounding the 737 Max. After all, the CEO of Boeing called Trump and got him to delay grounding the plane, debasing the FAA’s reputation in the process.
So yes, Bongino does not know what he is talking about — but that is the usual state of affairs. What about King and Mazin’s claims about Trump handling such a crisis? I am not sure they are correct either. It should be noted that the Trump administration did handle some of the 2017 hurricanes pretty well — outside Puerto Rico; even this administration has some competent political appointees. Furthermore, when the 737 Max imbroglio bubbled to the surface, Trump eventually decided to announce the grounding of those planes via tweet. Even this beclowned administration has tried to appear competent in response to natural or man-made disasters.
I would posit that the key driver mitigating against a Chernobyl-type disaster in the United States in the Age of Trump is the existence of the free press. The president follows the news as closely as any human being. If reports of a nuclear disaster or a similar event emerged, Trump would recognize the need to appear to take action. He would also react if the media highlighted that his claims of taking action were bogus.
None of this is a guarantee of a competent federal response to a disaster. The Trump administration whiffed badly in its response to Puerto Rico, but the president has refused to acknowledge that fact. So it is possible that if the administration messes up its initial response, Trump’s refusal to acknowledge error could exacerbate a deteriorating situation.
Still, I have marginally greater faith in the federal government under Trump than the Soviet government of the mid-1980s. Which is the nicest thing I have said about the current administration in quite some time.