Captain, My Captain

Fletcher Christian and the mutineers sent Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 others adrift; 1790 painting by Robert Dodd.
Robert Dodd’s 1790 depiction of the mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty. National Maritime Museum. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

attempt to stay apolitical with my meanderings. I try (and often fail) to maintain a semblance of coolness and objectivity. But I must deviate from that path today because our president has taken his megalomania to a whole new level.

With the absence of strong federal leadership, governors of the most hard-hit states have issued executive orders to protect their citizens. In my own state of Michigan, Gov. Whitmer enacted strict stay-home orders. Her actions and outspoken criticism of Trump has earned her the title “that woman from Michigan.” Whitmer has joined the ranks of other governors who have taken drastic yet necessary steps to protect their constituents.

But instead of respecting the prerogative of state governments to address public health emergencies, Trump, ignoring critical thresholds the CDC recommended be in place before opening the country, plans to reopen the economy. Trump made it abundantly clear Monday how he views those who dare question his economy-first policy:

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1250075668282576898?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1250075668282576898?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

So mutiny? You want to go there?

bit of a Spark Notes sesh about Mutiny on the Bounty. The HMS Bounty was a Royal Navy ship that left England in 1787 to collect breadfruit plants for transplant elsewhere in the British Empire. A long layover in Tahiti reminded the crew that the heavy hand of their captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, wasn’t the coolest thing since sliced bread. Bligh began doling out harsh punishments to his crew members, including torture, imprisonment, and extreme verbal attacks. In April 1789, these disaffected crewmen, led by Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, sent Bligh and his loyalists adrift and took the ship into their own hands.

Later, the HMS Pandora successfully apprehended one group of mutineers. Upon returning to England to render justice, the ship struck the Great Barrier Reef, killing 31 people, including four prisoners. The surviving ten were taken to England for court-martial: Four were acquitted, three pardoned, and three hanged.

So “justice” was really only dealt to three mutineers. Bligh’s insatiable desire to punish his mutineering crew resulted in years of resources diverted from other vital endeavors and 31 needless deaths. All to vindicate himself with the death of three people.

And Trump uses this as a threat to our governors? More disturbingly, Trump compares himself to Bligh, who, in all three cinematic versions of the story, is depicted as a villain (as a side note, the American Film Institute ranks Bligh as #19 in the top 100 movie villains of the century).

One of Bligh’s most infamous sayings from the 1935 version of the film:

My point is that cruelty with purpose is not cruelty — it’s efficiency. Then a man will never disobey once he’s watched his mate’s backbone laid bare. He’ll see the flesh jump, hear the whistle of the whip for the rest of his life. — Lt. William Bligh in the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty

If Mutiny on the Bounty is Trump’s inspiration, it hints at how far he’s willing to go, the needless resources and lives he’s ready to sacrifice to vindicate himself, and how delusional he truly is.

Like the crew of the Bounty, we have had a “layover” that has made us less receptive to our captain’s magnanimity. The state response to the coronavirus pandemic has proven the crew doesn’t need the captain to do what needs doing, especially when their captain is steering the ship towards an iceberg. In an act of self-efficacy, local and state governments have done what is best for their citizens. They recognize the self-inflating, pompous brinkmanship of their captain. They are stepping up to fill the gap he has left while fluffing his feathers and wounded pride.

Time and time again, our captain has denied the best evidence, propping up opinion over fact. When it became clear the virus would likely spread in the US, Trump yielded to the scientific acumen of President Xi, assuaging the public that Xi believes the heat of Spring will kill the virus by April. When reality finally hit, our captain employed denial, ignorance, and blame to cover his tracks and justify inaction. And now that he asks the crew to get back to the rigging, local governments are bringing the ship about away from the gales the captain assures are safe.

If “mutiny” saves the ship, let it be called whatever the captain wants. Our captain claims he’s got the helm, but his real experience is more akin to rowing a pleasure boat in a duck pond. This is the ocean, the Heart of Darkness. The Trump administration is unable and unwilling to provide leadership on critical issues, and our local governments are taking the mantle of initiative. And they’re doing it in a more rapid, effective, and equitable manner than the federal government could with its archaic emphasis on closing borders.

That’s not how epidemiology works.

This localized response, which our captain calls a mutiny, is an unveiling of the collective power of community to enact change. Yet instead of putting aside tribalism and listening to the legitimate perspectives of local leaders, our captain chooses to save face.

I challenge the mayors, state health officials, governors, NGOs, and the millions of workers doing their part to craft local solutions to keep up the fight. Call it a mutiny, but it’s really a stand for state sovereignty, public health, and checking tyranny. We don’t need the captain, we need each other. And the United States and its systems are there to serve us, not the other way around.

The mutineers know better than their captain. Why? Let’s look at a timeline of his monologues from the helm, shall we?

A message from the helm: “We’ve done a great job. Everything is under control”

January 21: First case in the United States. President Trump says “[i]t’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be fine.”

February 24: Dow Jones drops 1,000 points. Trump tweets that the virus “is very much under control” and the stock markets are “starting to look good to me!”

February 26: Trump tweets in response to the first community spread case that the United States is “really prepared.” In a press briefing, Trump predicts the infection rate will be “down to close to zero” within days. “[T]hat’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

February 26: “It’s going to disappear,” Trump says at a White House meeting. “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

February 29: “And we’ve done a great job,” Trump says at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. “Everything is really under control.”

March 6: Trump claims anyone who wants a test can get a test. “Anybody that wants a test can get a test … The tests are perfect …”

March 9: Trump tweets higher mortality from common flu than the coronavirus, indicating that, like the common flu, life will go on, business-as-usual.

March 10: Trump tells Republican senators to “[j]ust stay calm. It will go away.”

March 12: Trump boasts of low death count to Irish Prime Minister. “I mean, think of it: The United States, because of what I did and what the administration did with China, we have 32 deaths at this point … [I]t’s pretty amazing when you think of it. So, that’s it.”

March 13: Trump declares a national emergency to release $50bn in funding to states and territories. He tweets “This will pass,” urging those without symptoms to forgo testing. Trump denies culpability of difficulty getting tests, instead blaming it on previous administrations.

March 17: Trump asks citizens to social distance and stay home, adding later that he had “always known this is real, this is a pandemic. I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Trump had said February he would limit the spread in the U.S., and it would no longer be a threat by April.

March 24: Trump tweets that the “cure” can’t be “worse than the problem itself,” citing the failing economy. In an interview with Fox News, he indicates his desire to have the economy open by Easter. In a press briefing later that day, Trump touts “tremendous hope” for “light at the end of the tunnel.” Five days later, U.S. Cases jump from 65,800 to 161,800.

March 30: Trump warns Americans to prepare for “hard days.”

March 31: Trump says COVID-19 is not the flu, backtracking prior comparisons between the flu and COVID-19.

April 3: The Trump Administration urges Americans to masks but indicates he will not do so himself when meeting foreign dignitaries. Trump stands behind his claims that the virus will go away. “I said it was going away — and it is going away.” The next day, nearly 30,000 new cases were confirmed in the United States.

April 4–5: Trump advises Americans to take an unproven anti-malaria drug. “Take it. What do you have to lose?”

April 7: Trump boasts testing increases in the United States, citing nearly 1.8 million tests conducted nationwide. “That’s more than any other nation in the world,” he said in a press briefing. An NPR report several days earlier indicated the United States was woefully behind in per capita testing.

April 13: Trump tweets the federal government has sole authority to open states, not governors. “[S]ome in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the president of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect … It is the decision of the president, and for many good reasons.”

Absolute Authority: “that’s the way it’s got to be.”

“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total.” Trump at a news briefing April 13.

e’s dead wrong. Legal experts and governors, the Federalist Papers, the 10th Amendment, and Supreme Court precedence on issues surrounding state rights contradict any claim to the president’s “total authority.” What is more, the administration has been unable to produce any law or provision substantiating claims to said authority.

And here we are with one of his latest tweets directed to governors who see the real picture. He is making it crystal clear that he wishes to strong-arm the real change-makers into submission because they dare to question what he covets most: “absolute authority.”

And in an unprecedented move to placate dissenters (or, more likely, to put his signet ring on his brand), Trump’s name will be signed on each $1,200 paper stimulus check. The president, by the way, is not an authorized signer for legal disbursements by the Treasury. The motivation is clear: The cavalry has arrived, brought to you by yours, truly. And at the end of this dog-and-pony show of denial, obfuscation, retraction, and blame, there’s a shiny $1,200 check with Trump’s name on it.

The Captain has no understanding of epidemiology, patience, nor how his own government works.

Forgive me, fellow readers, for not speaking out so passionately against this administration’s arrogance and cruelty in past matters. Climate change, immigration, wholesale xenophobia, and perpetuation of institutional inequity, to name a few. But this matter of claiming sole authority over people who know better and punitive threats to push them back into line, that’s it for me. Given the current administration’s track record, I’m convinced it’s local governments and communities that will enact and sustain change in this nation. The pressing issues of our time will be championed by governors, mayors, councils, and their constituents, not a national government that has been hijacked to serve the purposes of nationalism and fascist ideals.

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Christian Wayne Yonkers

A Michigan-based journalist and photographer creating content for environmental and social change.