Trump’s Pandemic Response is the #FyreFestival All Over Again
The year 2017 was a simpler time. Back then, one of the biggest scandals in the country was the spectacular failure of a fraudulent music festival, posted to Instagram in real time. That it was such a cultural landmark was probably because Fyre Festival marketing had been so ubiquitous leading up to it. And, to be real, there was a lot of schadenfreude in watching overprivileged young people freak out when they were dropped in the middle of, essentially, a refugee camp.
As someone who’s immune to influencers and allergic to celebrity news, I ignored the whole phenomenon as best as I could. Now, stuck at home with nothing but time on my hands, I finally relented. I binged the Fyre Festival documentaries Hulu and Netflix released last year (and the American Greed episode, because I’d listen to Stacy Keach narrate paint drying).
As I was watching, parallels between the Fyre Festival and our current situation kept appearing, until one conclusion became blatantly obvious: the way Billy McFarland cocked up his festival was a lot like the way Donald Trump is cocking up our pandemic response.
Of course, the two situations aren’t exactly the same. McFarland’s failure, thankfully, didn’t cost any lives (though it certainly could have). And McFarland, for his crimes, was sentenced to six years in prison and fined millions of dollars.
But there are too many similarities to ignore.
The first, most obvious, similarity is the men who were in charge of both debacles. Both are spoiled rich kids, used to getting whatever they want and buying or talking their way out of trouble. They’re both accomplished con men, slick talkers who know what their marks want to hear and use that knowledge to sell them whatever they’re peddling — a lavish party with supermodels or a triumphant America with white men firmly on top again.
I don’t have the time to rehash all the frauds, scams, and shady deals our president has engaged in over the years (though this article from last year does a good job of it). Not to belabor the point, but Trump is, and always has been, a grifter.
McFarland is much younger than Trump, so he hasn’t had the decades of grifting experience Trump has. But he’s off to a good start: before the Fyre Festival, he sold the Magnesis card, which quietly went under when it couldn’t deliver on its promises. Even after he was arrested for fraud, he and a “business partner” were calling and e-mailing people to sell them VIP tickets to exclusive events — tickets they didn’t have.
Like all con artists, McFarland and Trump are more concerned with the image of success than with actual success. That’s why McFarland hired supermodels, media crews, and advertising agencies to create an illusion of luxury, then promote it to their immense social media followings. Fyre Festival, the ads and posts and videos said, would be the experience of a lifetime, complete with luxury cabanas, private yachts, five-star chefs, and big-name artists.
Even as they were kicked off Norman’s Cay for violating their contract, they continued to promote the event as taking place on “Pablo Escobar’s island.” In fact, as each of the festival’s promised selling points failed to materialize, his team would continue to promote the illusion they had created.
Similarly, Trump, faced with the likelihood that the coronavirus would spread to the US, used his enormous platform to claim it was all a hoax, nothing more than the flu. His loyal propagandists at Fox and other right-wing media further repeated his lie to their millions of followers. As the reality of the pandemic’s seriousness, and the failure of his response to it, has become clear, he now tries to rewrite history, complete with a slick propaganda film attacking the media and extolling his “perfect” response.
The issue at the center of all this is that people like Trump and McFarland are all about grand, over-the-top visions, but they have no practical experience in carrying them out. McFarland had never organized a music festival, which was clear to everyone on his team who had. His inexperience put the event at a disadvantage right from the start, when he scheduled it at the same time as the Exuma Regatta, the largest event in the Bahamas — a rookie mistake for any event planner.
Similarly — if more horrifyingly — Trump’s lack of experience in governing, or basic knowledge of government, period, has also been on clear display from the start. He repeatedly violates the Emoluments Clause, the Hatch Act, and campaign finance laws. He ignores Congressional subpoenas and fires independent oversight officials. He fires insufficiently loyal cabinet officials via Tweet, then replaces them with “acting” secretaries who aren’t approved by Congress. Most troublingly, he has repeatedly insisted that Article II of the Constitution gives him “absolute authority,” even over governors, apparently.
And then there’s the way they both exploit the people tasked with actually making their visions a reality. Trump’s history of stiffing his workers is well documented — and it’s a tactic McFarland used the same way. As the date of the festival approached, McFarland leaned heavily on Bahamian workers to make it happen. He contracted with hundreds of laborers — nearly the entire Bahamian workforce — who worked at backbreaking speed to essentially build, and feed, an entire city in a matter of weeks. Despite the impossibility of the job, the laborers worked long hours in the heat to try to make it happen. Yet McFarland, who had spent millions on lavish parties, private yachts, and top-shelf liquor, never paid any of them.
Now that the American economy is in free-fall, Trump, like McFarland, expects the workers of this country to pull his (and investors’) chestnuts out of the fire. The essential workers keeping people alive and fed are, for the most part, low-wage workers without paid sick leave. Many of them are working in extremely risky jobs without proper protective equipment. Trump, and his Republican Senate, are refusing to give these essential workers the pay, protection, and sick leave they need.
Neither of these crises had to happen. Both McFarland and Trump had experienced, competent people around them who tried to avert their respective disasters. McFarland’s planning crew in the Bahamas tried to tell him what needed to be done: stages and housing needed to be built, electricity and sewage systems needed to be hooked up, caterers needed to be hired, and countless other details that required planning and preparation. Their advice was dismissed; if they warned of the consequences, they were fired.
This is the same pattern Trump has followed throughout his career — including his presidency. Government experts tried to warn him of the pandemic’s dangers and tell him what he needed to do to prepare for it, but, like McFarland, he ignored or dismissed them. Now, in the midst of one of the biggest crises our country has faced, he continues to contradict and sideline the experts and put unqualified sycophants in charge.
In both situations, the outcome was sadly predictable. McFarland’s victims arrived in the Bahamas to find themselves stranded at an unfinished construction site with no food, no villas, no utilities, left to fight over soaking wet mattresses and leftover FEMA tents.
Americans are similarly stranded in the wake of Trump’s failure, in a country that now has the most cases of Covid-19 in the world. While he and his Republican enablers lavish Wall Street and his corporate cronies with trillions in bailouts, Americans are facing evictions and foreclosures, mass unemployment, and a lack of critical medical equipment. Lines for food relief and unemployment benefits stretch for miles while the dead are buried in mass graves. The government’s relief efforts, like the soggy FEMA tents on Fyre Cay, are too little, too late.
Scams like the Fyre Festival happen pretty regularly — before McFarland, there was Elizabeth Holmes; after him, Anna Sorokin, and so on. People are taken in with a flashy image, a slick marketing campaign, a promise to give you whatever you want most. At some point we need to learn from those mistakes and look beneath the surface, so as not to get taken in by yet another con artist. Because this time, we’re getting scammed for a lot more than festival tickets.