“Socialism is what would happen if” we didn’t provide “emergency relief that will allow these industries to get back on their feet”
A Conversation With Michael Johns, Sr.
The ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency in the 2016 election shocked the world, but it did not shock Michael Johns, Sr., the national co-founder, one of the leaders, and a prominent national leader of the U.S. Tea Party movement.
Johns endorsed Trump for president on day one of Trump’s campaign in 2015 and supported Trump vociferously and consistently even when the idea of Trump securing the Republican nomination (much less the presidency) looked a remote and, to the establishment class, even laughable concept. Throughout the nearly two-year presidential campaign, Johns was a regular fixture on national television and talk radio, and also was a speaker to grassroots audiences throughout the nation, making the case for Trump’s candidacy and policy agenda.
Johns’ role in the founding of the historic Tea Party movement, which ultimately blocked much of Obama’s legislative agenda and established much of the grassroots groundwork for Trump’s 2016 victory (in addition to inspiring equally influential grassroots populist movements in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere around the world), is only a small part of his vast government, public policy, and private sector background. Johns served as a foreign policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, and later, a White House speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush. Johns is one of the nation’s prominent conservative commentators, appearing regularly on Fox News, Fox Business News, CBS News, CNBC, C-SPAN, the BBC, France 24, China Global Television Network, and other broadcast outlets. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, National Review, and other publications.
He spoke with The Cornell Review on April 16, 2020:
JOE SILVERSTEIN: How do you evaluate the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic so far?
MICHAEL JOHNS: We rarely face crises of this magnitude. The pandemic is commanding the attention of just about every department and agency of our federal government, and it is requiring a holistic governmental and policy approach, including public health resources, testing, prevention recommendations, analysis of immensely complex and sometimes unreliable clinical data, and a series of vast stimulus responses from the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department. It is inevitable and already self-evident that the pandemic will prove immensely costly, both in terms of human lives, in terms of inconveniences and hardships, and in terms of jobs and national prosperity. In essence, we have gone from having the most prosperous and successful economy in the history of the world just a few short months ago to facing a likely recession and the need for incrementally reopening and regrowing our economy as we balance the seemingly conflicting interests of public health safety and the need to get our economy back on track. I suspect not one American has been unaffected by this.
Facing a crisis of this magnitude, I believe it is an understandable human and political instinct to look for governments, institutions, or individuals to blame, but it’s both unfortunate and wrong to place that blame on President Trump or his administration. President Trump has responded quickly and comprehensively–and there is no doubt he has saved thousands and possibly tens of thousands of lives in the process. The most logical and important response was instituting the travel restriction on China on January 31, which was absolutely the correct decision, even though Joe Biden, Congressional Democrats, China, and the media opposed it.
There is blame in this crisis, but it lies predominantly with China and the World Health Organization (WHO), which appear to have conspired to conceal the pandemic in its earliest days in Wuhan and then represented, as recently as mid-January, that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 when we now know the evidence then was abundant, overwhelming and indisputable that it was transmittable and being broadly transmitted in Wuhan. In misleading the world about the virus, China and the WHO left the rest of the world vulnerable when sensible travel restrictions and other measures could have been put in place in January or even earlier that would have minimized the global impact of the pandemic and possibly even contained it to China.
Also too infrequently mentioned is the fact that many of the operational responsibilities for managing sufficient public health resources for a crisis like this actually fall to the states, not the federal government, but states have done a mixed job. New York and New Jersey appear to have been vastly unprepared, for instance. Others have done a very good job.
On a federal level, the Trump administration has done a stellar job in mobilizing vast federal resources, including testing kits, masks and ventilators, for even the states that were most unprepared. President Trump also did a great job in waving some of the regulatory burdens on health care institutions and facilities so they could respond more effectively and expeditiously, including permitting clinicians to provide services across state lines. A vaccine will take time, but there is work being done on that. He mobilized the USNS Comfort to alleviate the burden on New York City-area hospitals and the USNS Mercy to do the same in southern California, and the FDA approved hydroxychloroquine for emergency use and launched trials to determine if it is an appropriate mainstream therapy for the virus.
On the economy, I think the stimulus efforts were absolutely necessary and will ultimately prove successful even if imperfect. We are talking about emergency efforts in a fiat currency system, most of which–at least to businesses–are actually loans not grants. They are designed to preserve liquidity in crucial industry sectors that would not survive without it.
It is wrong to look at these initiatives, as some have, and label them “socialism.” Socialism is what would happen if we did the opposite: Allowed these sectors to collapse and then empowered our federal government to attempt to relaunch and manage them operationally. That is not happening. We are instead providing necessary emergency relief that will allow these industries to get back on their feet and preserve their roles as key components of our free market economy.
Support for individuals and small businesses is much the same. It is reasonable to extend loans to small businesses when, without them, they would be forced to terminate many employees as a result of a national crisis for which they are not responsible. Now, some of these loans will possibly default and, since they are not collateralized, there is downside risk for the U.S. government. There likely is no “perfect” response to a crisis of this magnitude. But net/net, the small business support will be hugely constructive, at least compared to the alternative. And stimulus checks to individuals and families makes perfect sense. The goal is to get money in their hands urgently to avoid foreclosures and evictions and other irreversible damage to people’s lives.
So I would say President Trump is doing an exceptional job on every front, at least to date, amidst the most complicated and difficult circumstances. He is containing the damage and building the foundation for our comeback. He did not create this crisis and he did not invite it, and the virus would be vastly more omnipresent and deadly had the Democrats had their way and not closed down travel from China as Trump correctly did on January 31. I think the big question now confronting Congressional Democrats is whether they want to work with the administration and be part of the solution, or go back to their districts and explain to their constituencies why they were part of the problem as part of the 2020 campaign.
JOE SILVERSTEIN: Do you support President Trump’s proposal to invest in an infrastructure program in order to create jobs?
MICHAEL JOHNS: I really do. I understand that some conservatives and nearly all libertarians have long-standing reservations about these sort of initiatives. But there are some functions–and infrastructure is one–that we must accept are largely, though not exclusively, government responsibilities. We say that we are a great country, and we are. But one component of this greatness means having a national infrastructure–airports, train systems, subways, highways, city and town roads, and public water and broadband systems–that live up to our greatness.
I have been all over the world and always dislike the experience of leaving some country in Asia, Europe or the Middle East with a hugely comfortable and cutting-edge, clean and functioning airport and arriving home at JFK, which is dilapidated and sometimes even dysfunctional. I always end up putting myself in the place of a foreigner who arrives here for the first time and thinks, “Wait. This is the greatest country in the world? This airport is nothing compared to the one I just left.” Then this foreigner jumps on a $50 cab ride through non-stop, horn honking traffic across the Queensboro Bridge or through the Midtown Tunnel on roads that are filled with deep potholes and surface cracks. It’s inconvenient. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not pretty. And I don’t think it represents us well.
We need to address these and many other deficiencies–and much of it will require vast federal resources. I do not want to overpay or see wasteful projects like bridges to nowhere, but I am talking about $1 trillion or more of targeted, project-specific spending to bring our infrastructure into the 21st century. It has been decades since we have done something of this magnitude, and it shows. We now have buildings, highways, roads, bridges, tunnels, and public water systems that are literally falling a part. The Treasury Department has been taking in record tax revenues.
We have very limited inflationary pressures in the economy, the cost of borrowing is almost zero, and now we have this immense demand to put millions of Americans back to work. We also know there is a return on infrastructure investment. When you make a community easier to navigate and safe to live in, you save time, you save energy, you make communities more appealing for job creation and as ideal residential locations. Jobs even outside infrastructure get created. Property values increase, which is helpful for public school funding. It cannot be reckless or political, as it often has been. But done correctly, it can be one of the greatest initiatives we’ve ever launched, and this is the very moment to do it.
JOE SILVERSTEIN: Do you worry that state governments in places like California will attempt to retain the authority they’ve exercised after this crisis passes?
MICHAEL JOHNS: Well, our Tenth Amendment is very clear that all powers not delegated to the federal government, nor prohibited to the states, belong to the states, or the people. Our federalist system of government is a core part of our national liberty. It affords people, in best or worse case scenarios, to leave states with bad policies or to go to states with better policies. Choice and options are central to conservatives.
We believe that people will operate in their self-interest and, in so doing, will create an incentive for state and municipal governments to be responsive to their constituents. That is why it is immensely telling that the biggest population trends in the country are people fleeing the most liberal and high tax and high regulation states like California, New York, and New Jersey for some of the most conservative and low tax and low regulation states in the country like Alaska, Idaho, Florida, Nevada, and Texas. If California’s progressive polices are so great, why do 53 percent of Californians want to leave the state? It’s a question that answers itself. Those policies are not working for a lion’s share of the people.
Our Tea Party movement is based on a vital recognition–an adamant recognition–that we are still a free people, and the people are empowered to shape their government. Government must responsive to the people and the rule of law, or it must be replaced. We have a right to “throw off such governments,” as the Declaration bravely states.
I do not know how the California story ends. On one hand, it appears hopeless–the craziest, illogical and self-destructive policies and the obvious and vast negative ramifications of those, including people fleeing the state, the state struggling to meet its overextended financial obligations, an economy that is stalled combined with vast, growing illegal alien, poverty, and homeless crises. On the other hand, however, I keep hearing from good liberty-minded patriots in California who say they want change and are working for change. I show up in California whenever I am asked, and I make the case for our agenda, which I know can save that once great state. And I never bet against the American people, which means I am not betting against California.
California simply needs to be bold: Begin tossing out some of these long-standing liberal Democrats who are doing nothing but destroying the place and elect pro-Trump and Tea Party-friendly Republicans. There are such candidates. Todd McClintock in CA-4 is a great example. I thought John Cox would have been an exceptional governor back in 2018. But statewide campaigns in California require a lot of television advertising in some of the nation’s markets. The party and others did not invest in his race, likely because they did not perceive it to be winnable. But that becomes a chicken and egg scenario, and the result was he ended up with just less than 40 percent of the vote. But at some point, in America’s cities and liberal states like California, the people will awaken to the reality that they are never going to get the change they want if they keep electing the same people cycle after cycle. So many of these races are a complete mockery of democracy with no competition election after election. Time for that to change.
So, let’s not give up on California. Let’s organize and communicate in California. And let’s seize advantage of California’s fairly lenient rules on state referendums and get referendums on the ballot for our agenda. If California wants to raise taxes even further, make sure the people paying those taxes vote to do that. If Californians want to stop arresting people for theft, ensure that the people who are getting their stuff robbed vote for that. If Californians want to legalize street heroin use, don’t just turn a blind eye on it; make sure the people who have to walk their kids to school, stepping over used syringes daily, vote to say that is the sort of community they want. Of course, I do not believe that a majority of Californians actually want these things for their beautiful state. They are policies being forced on them by a governor, state administration, and state legislature that has a hugely radicalized agenda and lost touch with the will and aspirations of the state’s citizens a long time ago.
JOE SILVERSTEIN: What are the political implications of this crisis? We’ve already seen the Democratic Party postpone their convention.
MICHAEL JOHNS: Well, on a political basis, I see it changing everything. President Trump was well positioned to run a reelection campaign based on the fact that he came to the White House with a new and bold agenda to make sweeping changes and did so to great success–from the standpoint of job growth, wage growth, African-American and Hispanic-American employment and wages, stock market records, trade agreements overhauled, enhanced border security and improvements in our irrational legal immigration policy, advancements with the pro-life agenda, dozens of great federal court appointments, and admirable foreign policy and national security achievements. In that now dated context, I believe the argument for his reelection pretty much made itself–especially against an opponent who has spent four decades in government and accomplished little and who has no real bold current ideas for the nation. Like Hillary Clinton, Biden is basically running, saying “It’s my turn.” 2016 proved that will not likely ever work again.
But this is now going to be a very coronavirus-focused campaign. I believe the pandemic, serious as it is right now, will remain serious for months but not forever. By the fall, it will either be gone or vastly improved. But the magnitude and cost of it is going to prove so extensive that the obvious campaign question will be: Which candidate would have ushered us through this crisis better, Donald Trump or Joe Biden?
On the very basis that Biden stated openly that he would have permitted Chinese citizens from Wuhan to continue traveling here well past January 31 and possibly even now makes the answer to that question self-evident, in my view. Responding properly to this threat started with closing down China travel. No one unwilling to have done that has any credibility in saying they would have managed this crisis any more effectively. Yet, Biden, like seemingly every Congressional Democrat, the media, and the intellectual class, all opposed and even denounced the president’s January 31 decision to close down that travel.
As for the primaries and elections themselves, I really hope that polling locations can be open. I would suspect, by November 3, we should be able to do that safely and the election will not itself be terribly different from those to which we have become accustomed. As for outcome, if we all do what we need to do, the president will be reelected–and perhaps overwhelmingly reelected.
Joe Silverstein is a sophomore at Cornell University majoring in government and economics. He is the current Editor in Chief of the Cornell Review, where this article originally ran.DONATE
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