Lawyer’s tweet pick­ing econ­omy over the el­derly en­rages Amer­ica

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARC FISHER

Scott Mcmil­lan had had it with be­ing cooped up, with the whole country be­ing closed, with the col­laps­ing mar­ket and the isolation, the con­stant worry and the politi­cians who didn’t take the coro­n­avirus se­ri­ously when they could have.

On Sun­day night, Mcmil­lan, a 56-year-old lawyer in La Mesa, Calif., near San Diego, saw Pres­i­dent Trump’s tweet about how “WE CAN­NOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROB­LEM IT­SELF.” The lawyer took to Twit­ter to add his own two cents:

“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-an­dolder 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-yearold 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.

“Hey, sorry.”

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Pres­i­dent Trump de­parts af­ter speak­ing with the coro­n­avirus task force dur­ing a brief­ing on Tues­day at the White House. One of Trump’s tweets about the re­sponse to the out­break this week in­spired a Cal­i­for­nia lawyer to wade into the de­bate about whether stay­ing at home is the best ap­proach for the country and the econ­omy.

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

This im­age ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post shows the tweet that Scott Mcmil­lan wrote in re­sponse to Trump’s com­ments this week.

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