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The Trailer: The pandemic and the protesters

In this edition: How the coronavirus has affected political protesters, what the U.K. left learned in its leadership elections, and an accidental exit interview with Lincoln Chaffee.

Don't tell anybody, but I've been writing this newsletter from the Maldives for weeks. This is The Trailer.

Nobody knew it at the time, but March 3, Super Tuesday, would be the last election night when candidates could encourage their supporters to come to rallies. For Joe Biden, that meant a rally in Los Angeles. He had hardly begun to speak when two women rushed the stage, one after the other, screaming, “Let dairy die!” before being dragged away.

The protest was a coup for Direct Action Everywhere, a group of animal rights activists who had been interrupting candidates since before the Iowa caucuses. One month later, every element of it — the crowd larger than 10 people, the protesters pushing through it, the staff grabbing them — would become impossible. No rallies, no disruption, no instant media attention.

“The Biden action blew away our wildest dreams in terms of media coverage,” said Matt Johnson, a spokesman for Direct Action Everywhere. “A few days later, I was talking to people in Cleveland, where the next big Biden and Sanders events were going to be held. And then, one by one, every event started getting canceled. So, it's been an adjustment.”

The past decade of American politics had seen a vast new wave of protests, mass organizing and direct action, from Occupy Wall Street to the Women's March, protests of Flint's water crisis and of Brett M. Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, most of it on the left. The election of Donald Trump gave conservatives fewer reasons to protest, while turning suburban moderates into Democratic activists. And from its inception, the Bernie Sanders campaign worked to stitch together dozens of grass-roots movements into an electoral force.

Then came the coronavirus. Traditional protests are now violations of stay-at-home orders. Politicians are quarantined. Legislative chambers are empty. That has sent organizers searching for new tactics and temporarily has deprived activists of their most powerful, visible tools — right when state and federal governments are moving billions of dollars around. 

“This is a very new world for a lot of front-line organizers, especially for people like myself, who would never think twice about putting our whole bodies on the line for a cause,” said Winnie Wong, an Occupy organizer who went on to found the grass-roots group People for Bernie and who now works for the Sanders campaign. “That's changed, because we are faced with a whole new set of rules.”

Wong, who was arrested during the Kavanaugh protests, had spent years working on inventive ways to organize as many people as possible. After the 2016 election, organizers had more bodies than they sometimes knew what to do with. The 2017 Women's March, for example, was hardly a march at all — the largest crowd ever gathered in Washington was too big to move through the streets, so marchers stood in place, inches apart.

That world has vanished, at least for now. Congressional town halls, which activists on the right and left used to pressure legislators, have been canceled and occasionally replaced with phone-in events. Canvassing and voter registration drives, which both parties had invested in, were impossible. Conservative groups and Republican campaigns that had mobilized against Democrats hit the pause button, and so did the “resistance,” the catchall term for activists who organized against the Trump presidency. 

“So much of the pushback against the Trump administration was about showing up,” said Tim Hogan, who helped promote Trump-era protests such as the Tax March and efforts to protect the Affordable Care Act before signing up with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota's presidential campaign. “Massive crowds, or even decent-sized crowds, draw attention and create pressure. The question now is how you keep the pressure on without that.” 

Hogan pointed to the scandal surrounding Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) of Georgia, who dumped stock shortly after a confidential briefing on the coronavirus, as an example of what has been lost. The story had been covered, but activists had no opportunity to pressure Loeffler publicly.

“The fact that you can’t confront these people in the halls of Congress or in their states means there’s no coverage of this back home,” he said, “and the pandemic is drowning out coverage of everything else, anyway. It's a double whammy.”

The new world is grimmer for working-class activists and the people trying to mobilize the very poor. Last year, organizer Cea Weaver helped bring 2,000 New York City renters to Albany to “shut down the Capitol,” as she put it, and win rent control from the new Democratic legislature. Since the start of March, housing advocates have taken their work online and were preparing for the end of the crisis, when they could again gather for protest.

“It's unacceptable to just throw up our hands and say, 'Well, you know, we can't protest in person,' " Weaver said. “Things can't just go back to business as usual, and mass mobilizations of people on the streets is [going] to be a really critical tactic.”

In some ways, the demobilization has hurt conservatives, with protesters at abortion clinics being cited for violating the new restrictions on public gatherings. It has probably hurt Democrats even more. Wisconsin activists who once packed the Capitol, for example, are unable to protest Republicans as they refuse to allow universal vote-by-mail for the April 7 primary.

But the crisis has also short-circuited protests of the Democratic Party itself. Laurie Cestnick, who helped bring thousands of Sanders supporters from New England to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, had planned another round of protests for this year's event in Milwaukee. Last week, the party moved back the date that protesters were planning around; on Sunday, Joe Biden told ABC's “This Week” that the entire convention might become “virtual,” with no in-person interactions.

“We were organizing a protest, and that is over for now,” Cestnick said. “People had booked places to stay, they'd arranged shared rides. We even started to book campsites, like we did last time. And clearly, we have no idea what’s going to happen now. People are even more heartbroken than last time.”

Organizers with more long-term goals, such as the housing advocates, are more optimistic about riding out the crisis. Jennifer Epps-Addison, the president of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, said ruefully that her group's network of organizers had hoped to knock on at least 7 million doors before the election and spend the summer registering voters at large events. But community organizers had been drawing attention to problems in the middle of the crisis, she pointed out, such as Amazon workers threatening a strike. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“They’re called ‘essential’ now, but just a few weeks ago, they were ‘low-skilled workers,’ ” Epps-Addison said. “Our people are the ones who keep this economy going. The way we execute our task is necessarily going to look different, but the goal is the same: transforming our country so that we have a real social safety net and aren't just putting up scaffolding during a crisis.”

Other activists were in for a bigger struggle. Direct Action Everywhere had gotten plenty of attention after disrupting Biden and Sanders events and had plenty to say about the coronavirus itself.

“It happens to be the case that the pandemic itself is centered on the actual issue we're talking about,” Johnson said. “These are zoonotic diseases.” But so long as the pandemic continued, activists could not crash events to raise awareness, and most of the public’s attention was consumed by the pandemic. This month's Animal Liberation Conference had already been transformed into the Animal Liberation Online Assembly. 

Joe Biden was not expected to attend.

Reading list

“Trump, GOP challenge efforts to make voting easier amid coronavirus pandemic, by Elise Viebeck, Amy Gardner and Michael Scherer

How lawsuits to limit absentee voting could suppress turnout.

“Your most paranoid pandemic election questions, answered,” by Ben Jacobs

Canceled elections? State legislatures seizing power from voters? It's all here.

“America was unprepared for a major crisis. Again,” by Dan Balz

The first in a series of articles about America's political response to the coronavirus.

“Republicans are forcing Wisconsin to hold an election in a coronavirus pandemic,” by Cameron Joseph

Inside the fight over the April 7 primary.

“Some top Sanders advisers urge him to consider withdrawing,” by Sean Sullivan

After three weeks of “reassessing” his chances, what is the senator's plan?

In the states

The battle over Wisconsin's Tuesday election is growing more intense as the date creeps closer, with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in a standoff with Republican legislators over delaying the election while they sue to limit absentee voting.

At the heart of this standoff: The legislature has the power to set or delay elections, and Evers only has the power to call them back and pressure them to change. Criticized for everything he'd done to keep the elections on schedule, including calling the National Guard to man the polls, Evers urged a delay and opened a special session to deal with it. On Saturday, Republicans did not bother showing up for those sessions and appointed their clerks to start them, then adjourn for the day.

On Sunday, mayors of nine Wisconsin cities asked the state's homeland security secretary to use emergency powers to stop in-person voting Tuesday, and the state's elections commission wrote a letter to state legislative leaders calling their inaction “unconscionable.”

Partisan standoffs have defined Evers's term in office, even before it started, with Republicans using a lame-duck session to remove some of Evers's appointment powers. Republicans also immediately adjourned a special session that Evers called last year to deal with gun safety laws. 

Then and now, Evers has public opinion on his side; last week's Marquette poll found 71 percent of voters approving of his response to the pandemic. But Republicans, who drew maps that make it almost impossible to dislodge their majority, have often opted to block Evers. While they plan to meet again on Monday, they are supporting lawsuits that have already reversed one judge's order for absentee ballots to count if they lack a witness's signature and are now focused on limiting the window for absentee ballots to be sent in, from the court-set date of April 13 back to the April 7 election.

On the trail

On Friday, former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee called The Trailer to talk about his campaign for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination. The very next day, Chafee informed Libertarians in Wyoming, where he now lives, that he would be suspending that campaign. 

We are disappointed, but it was his decision,” said Jacob Linker, a spokesman for Chafee. 

The former governor will remain a member of the party, the third one to which he has belonged in the past 15 years. Chafee, the son of an iconic liberal Republican governor and senator, had started his career as the city of Warwick's liberal Republican mayor. When his father died, Chafee was appointed to replace him and easily won a full term from 2000 to 2006. 

After losing in the 2006 Democratic wave, Chafee became an independent, won a single term as governor — during which he endorsed President Barack Obama for reelection — and ran as a Democrat for the party's nomination in 2016. Chafee quit that race after one debate, long before the voting began.

He got further in the race for the Libertarian nomination, which has so far consisted of candidate forums at party events. Chafee remembered his last normal days as a candidate, speaking to Indiana Libertarians on March 6, then heading to Philadelphia the next day.

“Both of those events had a lot of people in small spaces,” Chafee recalled. “The next weekend was supposed to be the Illinois convention. I had my tickets and my hotel booked, and my wife, who is an infectious-disease nurse, said, 'If you go, you're going to come home and be quarantined.' ”

Chafee came to the Libertarian Party at an uncertain time and with a record that made many members skeptical. In 2016, the party had given its vice presidential nomination to Bill Weld, a former Massachusetts governor who would end up advising voters in swing states to support Hillary Clinton and this cycle mounted a primary challenge to President Trump. Since 2008, when the party nominated former Georgia congressman Bob Barr for president, it had picked high-profile former Republicans to lead the ticket and watched its vote share grow. 

Yet it persistently fell short of the 5 percent needed to win matching funds, a traditional measure of a party's viability. As this year's nomination approached, a number of more ideological candidates without experience in elected office went for the nomination. They ranged from Jacob Hornberger, a Virginia activist who wants to “end all government involvement in health care,” to Adam Kokesh, a veteran and pundit who supports the “peaceful, responsible dissolution of the entire federal government.” The wide-open primary had even attracted Vermin Supreme, a New England activist who wears a boot on his head and runs absurdist campaigns every four years on a platform of giving every American a pony.

“Some of these delegates want to go with a true Libertarian who's been toiling in the vineyards for decades,” Chafee explained.

The result was a primary in which Chafee was easily the best-known candidate, similar to the position former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson was in when he won the nomination twice. But while Johnson was ideologically committed to libertarianism, Chafee reworked his agenda, and his résumé, around the party. He focused his campaign on his vote against the Iraq War in 2002 and on his opposition to deficit spending. He'd point out that when he shared a debate stage with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), only he had fully supported Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked data on government surveillance. But it was that 2002 Iraq vote, and the chance he could have to contrast himself with Joe Biden, that seemed to interest Libertarians.

“My big issue is antiwar,” Chafee said Friday, shortly before everything about his campaign went into the past tense. “Nothing's changed under Trump. Just as it didn't with Obama and Biden. By the way, Obama beat Clinton in the 2008 primaries on antiwar, and then nothing changed.”

The deficit question was trickier. Unlike his Libertarian opponents, Chafee did not want to end Medicaid and Medicare, explaining that “there are a lot of seniors who vote” and that the party needed to expand its appeal. Asked on Friday about deficits, Chafee did not explain precisely how the size of the deficit was related to growth or prosperity.

“I think whenever we get into deficits, you see an economic crash,” Chafee said. “Bush did it. He had all those tax cuts and then he got a war, and Hurricane Katrina, and the economy crashed. People lose confidence when they see deficits piling up. And the interest on the debt is a big one for me. It's at $400 billion now. It could it could dwarf our defense budget. Interest on the debt, that's the most wasteful expenditure of tax dollars that you can imagine.” Asked how that affected the economy, Chafee referred to “investor confidence” and warned that “investors get shaky when they see the interest on the debt getting high.”

Asked if he, like Weld, would tell voters in swing states to have a backup plan, Chafee demurred. “Joe Biden voted for the war,” he said. “Donald Trump has presided over a $24 trillion debt and he was completely unprepared for the coronavirus.” 

The next day, Chafee ended his campaign. According to Linker, he was finding too much “bad anecdotal evidence” that Libertarian Party members did not want a convert who was not 100 percent bought in to the ideology. He compared it to the experience Weld had after 2016; the former Massachusetts governor spent more than a year visiting Libertarian events and considering a 2020 run before seeing it as impossible and opting for a challenge to President Trump in the GOP primary.

“Libertarians scared off another good one, as far as I'm concerned,” Linker said.

On Friday, before making his decision, The Trailer asked Chafee which party he'd been the most comfortable with. Had he felt at home in the Libertarian Party? Did he wish the Democratic run in 2016 had gone better? Did he miss the old Republican Party?

“When I first got into politics,” he said, “I was a liberal Republican in a very Democratic state. I unseated a Democratic incumbent to become mayor of my city. I was outside the establishment. Taking on the establishment was fun.” 

Poll watch

Approval of the president's coronavirus response (ABC News/Ipsos, 505 adults)

Disapprove: 52% (+9) 
Approve: 47% (-8)

This is the second polling we've seen suggesting a slackening of public support for the White House's coronavirus response; the other numbers have come from Navigator Research, a survey project used by Democrats. Trump's relatively wan approval ratings clash with what we're seeing for other national leaders during the crisis. From South Korea, where the fast testing response was seen as a model of how to respond, to Italy, which has been shut down for a month, national leaders have seen double-digit spikes in support. Trump's numbers have moved up a little and now look steady or have started to return to post-impeachment levels.

Candidate tracker

The online and live-shot campaigns continued through the weekend, with Bernie Sanders holding another forum for supporters online and Joe Biden appearing on ABC's “This Week.” As in previous online events, Sanders sketched out the structural changes he wanted to make to the economy to guarantee health insurance and incomes, now and after the crisis.

“I know there are some people saying, well, it's a great idea, but it is very expensive,” Sanders said. “Well, you're right. It's very expensive. But I think the alternative of not going forward in that direction, and allowing the economy to disintegrate, with massive, massive unemployment, massive, massive anxiety, and hunger, and homelessness — I think the alternative is a lot worse.”

Biden used his interview to suggest that the Democratic National Convention, already delayed by a month, might have to become a “virtual” event and to criticize the Trump administration for relieving Navy Capt. Brett Crozier after he warned of a coronavirus outbreak on the ship he was commanding.

“It's close to criminal the way they're dealing with this guy,” Biden said. “I think he should have a commendation rather than be fired.”

President Trump continued holding briefings on the pandemic that veered away from the somber tone of his Tuesday remarks. While the Republican National Convention is now being held just a week after the Democrats' event, Trump said Friday that Republicans would be “having the convention” and had “no contingency plan.” 

What I’m watching

The end of Jeremy Corbyn. The U.K. Labour Party has a new leader: Keir Starmer, a human rights lawyer first elected to Parliament five years ago. Starmer handled Labour's Brexit policy as a member of the “shadow cabinet” of Jeremy Corbyn and was the favorite since last year's election defeat forced Corbyn's resignation as party leader. 

But his victory over a rival more closely associated with Corbyn has finished a political experiment that inspired and shared lessons with America's rising left-wing movement — until five months ago, when it fell apart. 

Labour's leadership elections are national contests decided by paid-up members of the party, members of Parliament and affiliates such as unions, and Starmer won in a landslide. Of the 490,731 ballots cast, he took 56 percent of them; Rebecca Long-Bailey, a more left-wing member of Parliament more closely aligned with Corbyn, won 28 percent. The Corbyn wing's defeat was comprehensive, as Lisa Nandy, who co-chaired a failed 2016 effort to remove Corbyn as leader, picked up the remaining 16 percent of the vote.

Just a year or so ago, a defeat for Corbyn's left-wing politics inside the Labour Party would have been unthinkable. Corbyn, who had spent decades as a gadfly inside the party, took it over by vastly expanding party membership. There were just 201,293 members of the party on the day before the 2015 general election, which produced a Conservative Party majority. Corbyn's anti-austerity campaign and mass town hall meetings pulled tens of thousands of people into the party, doubling its membership within a year, and drawing praise from Sen. Bernie Sanders. The comparison was almost too easy, starting with the crowds, continuing with how both men were born in the 1940s and represented politics that had been tossed aside.

“Whether it's the U.K. or here in the U.S., people are sick and tired of establishment politics,” Sanders told BuzzFeed News as Corbyn rose. “They are sick and tired of a politics in which people continue to represent the rich and the powerful.”

In 2016, when Nandy joined the campaign to oust Corbyn, he retained the leadership with 313,209 votes — a reflection of how much he'd increased the party's membership. And Labour's surprisingly strong performance in the 2017 election temporarily quieted doubts about his theory of politics, that mass organizing could expand the electorate and produce a left-wing government. The number of votes won by Labour went up more than 35 percent from 2015 to 2017. Conservatives who had called the election hoping to capitalize on Labour's weakness ended up losing their majority.

The takeaway for America's left-wing activists was that the moderate, neoliberal wing of the party, which had warned that a left-wing leader would destroy them, had been wrong. At conferences on both sides of the Atlantic, Labour and Sanders organizers shared best practices for organizing, confident that the next election would bring them into power.

“There is a real similarity between what he has done and what I did,” Sanders said during a June 2017 trip to the United Kingdom. “He has taken on the establishment of the Labour Party, he has gone to the grass roots, and he has tried to transform that party. [And] that is exactly what I am trying to do.”

But Corbyn and his wing of the party have lost control, just as Sanders's path to the Democratic nomination disappears. It's as quick a change in fortunes as the one moderates confronted after that 2017 election. And it happened with the consent of all those new Labour members who seemed to have bought in to the project.

What happened? Corbyn was weaker than Sanders in ways that were papered over when Labour seemed to be doing well. Sanders, if elected, would be the first Jewish president; Corbyn was a lifelong critic of Israel who was slow to criticize anti-Semitism. That issue, more than any other, put a low ceiling on Corbyn's support and inspired wave after wave of challenges inside the party, which damaged Labour's left, even as they failed to dislodge him.

Corbyn's party was also badly divided by Brexit, an issue with no analogue in American politics. In 2017, with plenty of time before the day when the country would leave the European Union, Corbyn held the party's base together by promising to proceed with Brexit, which its voters in the north and industrial towns had supported, while keeping pro-E. U. voters in the tent with his anti-austerity campaign. 

By 2019 the country was exhausted by Brexit, and Corbyn's message, a compromise with pro-E. U. factions, promised a new deal with the European Union and a new referendum. That alienated working-class voters in the “red wall” constituencies, turning places that had voted reliably for Labour for decades over to the Conservatives. Promising those voters a bigger welfare state and more nationalization of industry was simply not enough.

By that point, American leftists were starting to back away from Corbyn as a political model; Sanders, anyway, seemed to have better odds of winning an election. The 2020 leadership election didn't make many waves here, in part because Starmer did not run outright as an antidote to Corbyn. His “10 pledges” put him firmly on the left, in favor of ending tuition fees, nationalizing the rail and energy industries, and a Green New Deal. 

Skepticism of Starmer centered on whether he would keep those promises. But the leadership campaign, which concluded in the throes of the pandemic, made his job easier. Starmer argued that only Labour's ambition could rebuild after a crisis and adopted enough of the Corbyn left's politics to soothe worries that the party would jerk back to neoliberalism.

“That's a critical commitment,” the left-wing commentator and activist Owen Jones wrote on Twitter. “The left's job is to debate and imagine what society looks like after the pandemic.” 


… two days until the Democratic primary in Wisconsin, maybe
 … 65 days until the cutoff for picking Democratic delegates
 … 79 days until the final Democratic primary
 … 134 days until the Democratic National Convention
 … 141 days until the Republican National Convention
 … 211 days until the general election