“The fundamental problem is whether we are going to tank the entire economy to save 2.5% of the population which is (1) generally expensive to maintain, and (2) not productive.”
At which point, McMillan instantly became Scrooge, a “ghoul,” an advocate for the death of 8.2 million Americans. Within minutes, he was trending on Twitter, and not in a good way.
People called him a “liberal” and a “right-wing nut,” even a “Nazi.” They threatened his livelihood, his family, his home. The polite people told him about their elderly parents, who teach their grandchildren Latin and music and produce more happiness in their golden years than most working adults do in their entire careers. The mean people, who are not shy on Twitter, invoked the full array of lawyer jokes, Soylent Green and the Holocaust to convey just how awful McMillan was for implying that old or infirm people should be put aside to allow America to get back to work. People posted testimonials from clients who hadn’t been happy with McMillan’s legal work.
Within 48 hours, he had received nine death threats.
“I am not a coldhearted monster,” McMillan told The Washington Post in a phone interview. He added: “Nature does this every so often — it wipes out a bunch of us.”
McMillan was not the first person to express the idea that it is more important for the country to get back to work than it is to do everything possible to protect the elderly and infirm. In the anxious political and personal struggle between doing whatever it takes to avoid a wicked, sometimes-lethal virus and doing what is needed to revive a suddenly dormant economy, McMillan’s tweet became a lightning rod, a marker of a nation once again divided about the right way forward.
The chain that led to his tweet started weeks earlier, possibly with a March 3 comment by a CNBC analyst that maybe the nation would be better off if we gave the coronavirus “to everybody and then, in a month, it would be over.” Or perhaps it was the blog post by a tech entrepreneur who said that politicians were “inflicting massive harm and disruption” with “draconian edicts” hindering the U.S. economy. That commentary got quoted on Fox News, where, on Sunday night, talk show host Steve Hilton said that “our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces are whipping up fear” and concluded that “the cure is worse than the disease.”
Hours later, the president of the United States tweeted that same phrase, in ALL CAPS. And Texas’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick (R), who is 69, said that if he were asked, “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?” he would say: “If that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”
As the number of coronavirus cases soars, thousands of young and middle-aged people are joining old people in the ranks of the infected and the hospitalized. But a sometimes ugly debate about the elderly and people with underlying medical issues has grown heated as Trump threatens to defy public health officials and ease health guidelines that rendered the country, as McMillan put it, “not productive.”
As the blowback grew fierce, the lawyer took down his tweet, took down his website, screened his calls. He was miserable. He took his chloroquine, the anti-malaria drug that Trump kept talking up, hoping that it might protect him against the virus, though there is no evidence that it will. It makes him feel like crap. He lowered his dose, but he keeps taking it because, he said, maybe it does work.
McMillan remained unapologetic on Twitter. He wrote that his approach, “whether you like it or not,” is “the analysis that will be performed by our political leaders and our medical personnel. If you doubt that, you need only look to Italy.”
McMillan, who has three grown children, protests that far from being heartless, he is thinking about the next generation.
“I don’t want to take out the old people,” he told The Post. “But I don’t want the kids coming up today to be akin to the Depression kids. The longer this drags on without people working, the worse it’s going to be. We can’t allow our society to collapse over this.”
'Why be selfish?'
Scott’s father, Jim McMillan, is alive. He is 78. Scott’s mother, Gloria, is 75. They are well. They are, by Scott’s measure, not productive. Jim is a retired lawyer. Gloria is a retired high school English teacher.
They have been especially not productive since Feb. 23, which is the last time they left their house in San Diego, when Gloria and her friends went to see the Los Angeles Opera perform “Eurydice.” Well, the last time except for 10 days ago, when Jim said he was going to Home Depot to get a light switch to replace the one that went on the fritz. Gloria gave him permission to run that errand, if he gloved up and put on a mask and used the sanitizer.
Sure, he said, and out he went, not bothering with gloves or mask. After Home Depot, he stopped by Walmart to look for some canned goods, of which the shelves had been swept clean. No ice cream, either. No potato chips. He bought some coolant for the car and called it a day.
“I railed at him when he got home,” Gloria said. “I laid down the law. ‘What are you doing? You’re going to infect all of us.’ He said he used the sanitizer they had at the front door.”
Gloria’s sister and a friend have been living with Gloria and Jim for several months now, since before the virus, and they’re not going anywhere either.
Since the Walmart trip, they’ve continued their not-productive life at home. Jim mostly stays in his room, leaving the living room to the women. Gloria patrols the house with Lysol spray, keeping the doorknobs germ-free. They all watch a lot of TV.
“The main activity is watching the news,” Gloria said. “We watch Fox, CBS and PBS. We like Judy Woodruff. I never miss the president’s briefings.”
Jim said he’s fine with “television, Internet and cellphones. That’s enough for me, man. I only put 900 miles on my car a year anyway, so this isn’t that different for me.”
When they’ve had enough of the news, Gloria sits down at her Roland Atelier organ and plays a few tunes. Her favorites are “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the 1971 hit popularized by John Denver, and “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” the 1948 song, a hit for Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and Johnny Cash, that warns a cowboy to change his ways or face eternal damnation.
Nobody sings along, but the other women like to sit and listen.
Jim and Gloria like to argue about the virus, the president, pretty much anything. They even argue about whether they argue and about who wins.
“Around here, it’s my way or the highway,” Jim said.
“The heck if that’s true,” Gloria replied. “He steps out of line, he pays the price.” They laugh.
Actually, they’re of like minds about what to do now.
They agree with their son Scott that Trump dallied way too long and failed to act in ways that could have stopped the virus in its tracks. They agree with their son Scott that the president is right to push now to restart the economy.
And they agree with Scott that businesses should reopen even if it means putting old folks and people with underlying illnesses and other nonproductive types into quarantine for an extended period.
But older people aren’t necessarily unproductive: As 65-and-older Americans become a larger portion of the population than the 18-and-under group, older people are also working longer and spending disproportionately, according to Census Bureau studies.
“I have maybe 10 more years to live,” Jim said. “We shouldn’t sacrifice the economy to save the elderly. We’re on the short list anyway. To screw up my grandchildren’s future over this, what’s the point of that? Why be selfish?”
Gloria might not have put it exactly like Scott did, but she doesn’t disagree.
“It could sound a little harsh to people, but what he wrote is an accurate description,” she said. “Most people 75 and over have slowed down. We don’t have to go out. And the economy has to be rescued.”
'Let them shelter in place'
Scott brings his parents food. He doesn’t want them to go outside. Last week, the last time he went to court before everything shut down, he was there to seek a delay in a trial involving a 78-year-old client because “I didn’t want her being exposed to the virus in court.”
He wishes he hadn’t brought the wrath of the Internet upon his family.
He wishes the anti-Trump people who hate him understood that he’s “an old-style JFK Democrat” who thinks the Trump administration “betrayed us by not taking this seriously much earlier.” (McMillan has also criticized Trump from the right, saying the president is insufficiently supportive of the rights of gun owners.) He wishes the pro-Trump people who spewed hate at him after his tweet understood that he believes the president is doing the right thing now by pushing to get the country moving again.
He stands by his view of old people as not productive. “It’s expensive to maintain them and they’re not out there driving trucks or being police officers,” he said. “Let them shelter in place.”
He really didn’t think people would react this sharply. “I thought I’d have some interesting conversations with people, and maybe have to explain that I’m not an evil psychopath who wants to cull the old people,” he said. “But nothing like this.”
He’s thought about it, and he has something more to say: “In retrospect, it was probably insensitive to say it that way. I know people are really scared, and as an attorney, I know people can’t handle uncertainty. In retrospect, I understand people are in a vulnerable place, even if it is true that we can’t let our supply chain break.