US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington DC, April 21 (Photo: Getty Images)
SHORTLY AFTER President Donald Trump accepted the grim reality of the coronavirus (in early April—about three months after it started spreading in America), he threatened to do something unprecedented. “I view it as, in a sense, a wartime president. I mean, that’s what we’re fighting,” he said, describing the challenge of leadership in a pandemic. Did the divider-in-chief, a man who has made widening America’s deep racial, regional and other fissures his governing method, actually intend to rally the country?
Alas, no. his unifying moment lasted a few hours—or, roughly, until his next tweet. Trump has since politicised the pandemic and his administration’s response to it for all he is worth. The result, in the week that America officially recorded its 100,000th Covid-19 death, in the depths of its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, is a country boiling with grief, rage and partisan animosity.
Trump initially weaponised the virus in a spirit of self-defence. He wanted to deflect attention from his initial refusal to acknowledge its seriousness—and likely culpability for a portion of those deaths as a result. With that aim, he pushed conspiracy theories about the disease’s origin and peddled possible cures for it. On the former, he blamed China. And though he did not go so far as to accuse its leaders of launching the virus on the world as a bioweapon, which many of his Republican followers firmly believe to be the case, they will have listened to him approvingly.
On the latter, he pushed various quack solutions, including sunlight infusions and bleach injections. Last week, Trump announced he had started taking hydroxychloroquine to try to prevent himself contracting the virus. This is despite the fact that the anti-malaria drug has not been shown to have any prophylactic potential against Covid-19 and has been linked to possible side-effects, including heart failure.
But mostly Trump tried to deflect the blame by lambasting his political opponents. He blamed Barack Obama, claiming that the decrepit Covid-19 testing regime he inherited from his predecessor was the root of America’s problems. No matter that his administration had dismantled Obama’s pandemic taskforce, binned its pandemic response handbook, and that Covid-19 did not, of course, exist until last year. Trump also blamed the left-leaning media who reported on his administration’s failures. His daily coronavirus briefings were swiftly reduced to pantomime events, in which the president slammed the most basic question about America’s pandemic response as “nasty” and insulted the reporters putting them to him. Characteristically, he was rudest to women reporters, non-White ones especially. “Ask China”, he instructed CBS News’ Chinese-American reporter, Weijia Jang, after she had asked him why he was crowing about America’s improving testing numbers when so many people were dying.
He also attacked the state governors who—in America’s federal system—are on the frontlines of the pandemic response, running healthcare systems and putting in place social distancing regimes. Responding to criticism of his administration’s response from the governors of Michigan and Washington State—two states that suffered severe early outbreaks of the virus—he threatened to cut off any governor who was not “appreciative” of his efforts. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” he boasted. He dismissed an emergency request for 30,000 ventilators from Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York—where a third of America’s deaths have taken place—with disdain. “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” he said. Almost all the governors Trump singled out for criticism were Democrats.
Like a corporate raider, finding an opportunity in insularity and weakness, Trump understood that America’s partisan animosities made its democracy open to capture by an outsider
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It was characteristic of him to see the pandemic as more a political than a public health crisis. Narcissists take everything personally. His initial refusal to take the pandemic seriously, it transpired, was fuelled by a fear of spooking the stock market, which he has long seen as key to his prospects of re-election in November. His absurd decision to take hydroxychloroquine reflected the fact that, having earlier pushed the drug as a possible Covid-19 miracle cure, he did not want to be proved wrong by mere science, in which Trump only selectively believes. Yet what was more remarkable, as the body count rose, is how infected with partisanship the virus also seemed to be.
The most Democratic-voting parts of the country have been by far the worst hit by the virus. That chiefly reflects the fact that almost all the biggest and most connected cities vote Democratic—including Chicago, Detroit, New York, New Orleans, which together account for over half the death toll. That in turn points to the composition of the Democratic coalition, which is dominated by well-educated professionals and non-Whites concentrated in urban areas.
Minorities, especially African Americans, have been hard hit. In Washington DC, Blacks represent 46 per cent pf the population and 80 per cent of the capital’s Covid-19 deaths. Overall, around 20,000 Black Americans—around one in 20,000 of the minority’s entire population—have died of the disease. There seem to be two explanations for this tragedy. First, their relative poverty, which is associated with high rates of the underlying health conditions, such as obesity and hypertension, that the disease preys upon. In addition, poor minorities dominate essential industries, such as meat-packing and construction, which have been largely exempt from social distancing restrictions. To observe the Mexican and Jamaican builders crowded together on the building-site next-door to my home, while my wife and I sit comfortably over our laptops, is a daily reminder of the pandemic’s selective cruelty. Overall, America’s worst-affected counties are twice as likely to have voted for Trump’s Democratic opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton, as for the Republican president. A recent poll suggests 14 per cent of Democrats knew personally someone who has died of Covid-19 compared to 8 per cent of Republicans.
A humane and decent chief executive would not have tailored his pandemic response to this electoral geometry. Trump saw it as an opportunity. After his brief flirtation with rallying the country, he put his electoral hopes in trying to engineer the swiftest possible economic recovery. He therefore began attacking the lockdown measures state governors put in place, urging them on Twitter to “LIBERATE” Michigan/Pennsylvania/Virginia. This has encouraged a spate of protests by armed thugs, demanding deliverance from the “socialist lockdown”, outside many state capitol buildings. Echoing the president’s own rhetoric, the protestors claim the governors’ reluctance to reopen their states is not because of Covid-19, but is simply an effort to deny Trump re-election.
Most Republican voters are more measured. Despite a persistent partisan gap in attitudes towards the pandemic, Americans of both political stripes have by and large followed public health guidance. And Trump’s rabble-rousing has not been especially popular even among his supporters. Even so, it has ensured the pandemic elicited only the briefest moment of national unity. A majority of Republicans now say they are not worried about contracting the virus compared to 23 per cent of Democrats. Republicans are also roughly twice as likely as Democrats to want to end the lockdown and restart the economy. Two-thirds of states are to varying degrees now doing so.
The lockdown could not continue indefinitely of course. The economic cost has been enormous; 36 million Americans have lost their jobs, perhaps a third of them permanently. At the same time, reducing social distancing will inevitably mean secondary waves of the virus, so more infections and deaths in the country that leads the global rankings on both measures. It is a daunting trade-off for any administrator. Yet, it does not need to be nearly as polarising as the president has made it. Where state governors are grappling with the lockdown-reopening dialectic responsibly—easing lockdown strictures where possible; but heeding scientific advice to keep them in place elsewhere—their efforts have been appreciated.
For example, Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of my own state of Maryland, was quick to enforce social distancing, but is now relaxing the rulebook. America’s decentralised system can be a big help to such conscientious administrators. For example, Montgomery County, Maryland, where my wife and I live, has too high and unyielding a plateau of infections to be safely reopened. Its local administrators have therefore exercised their right not to observe the governor’s reopening decrees. With a minimal degree of competence and goodwill, in short, the lockdown-reopening dilemma need not be anything like so politicised or divisive as the president has made it. Hogan has an approval rating of 85 per cent. Had Trump maintained his brief unifying position, he would probably be unprecedentedly popular. Instead, his ratings are less than half Hogan’s.
DIVISIVENESS IS his only stratagem. Like a corporate raider, finding an opportunity in insularity and weakness, Trump understood that America’s partisan animosities made its democracy open to capture by an outsider. He did not need to make most Republicans love him to win their votes; he needed only to ensure that, even if they disliked him, they hated his Democratic opponents. Trump’s relentless divisiveness, including his conspiracy theorising, Twitter tantrums and racist dog-whistling, is intended to exacerbate and remind Republicans of this animosity on a daily basis. He has, in this sense, behaved like a wartime president after all. But the enemy he has in his sights, as the political analyst Ron Brownstein has noted, is not a foreign power, terrorism or, for that matter, Covid-19. It is the liberal half of America that opposes him.
The corrosive effect of Trump on America has never been more apparent than over the past two months. This goes far beyond his quackery and other antics, which were predictable. At an institutional level, Trump’s fellow partisans have been accelerating their assault on what remains of the constitutional checks on his presidency. In the justice system, William Barr, the attorney general, has launched two unprecedented interventions to try to exonerate or reduce the jail-time of two of the half-a-dozen Trump campaign associates who have been convicted of crimes. The new conservative majority on the Supreme Court is meanwhile ducking its responsibility to weigh in on several outstanding legal charges against the president himself. These include, for example, his claim of complete immunity from congressional subpoenas—including especially House Democrats’ demand to see his financial and tax records.
Impressed by the president’s success, lower-level Republicans are not repudiating him, but rather copying his methods. While old-school Republicans like Hogan have provided a lesson in pragmatic governing, others, such as governors Brian Kemp in Georgia and Greg Abbott in Texas, have gone to war with Democratic-run cities. For example, Kemp ordered businesses in Atlanta to reopen their doors despite the fact that its infection rate was not under control and the city’s Democratic mayor had urged him not to. After a brief burst of bipartisan legislating—including to issue over three trillion dollars of economic stimulus—Republican congressmen have also resorted to their usual obstructive posture. They are opposing an additional, probably necessary, Democratic stimulus bill and also sensible Democratic proposals to expand postal voting in November’s election.
Outside America, many wonder at the lack of leadership the country has displayed in this crisis. The Trump administration has done hardly anything to rally developed countries and even less to address the coronavirus’ threat to developing ones. The contrast with Obama’s forthright response to the West African Ebola epidemic, in 2013-14, or George W Bush’s impressive work to push back Africa’s AIDS epidemic is manifest. Yet, this diminution has received little comment in America, so thoroughly is the country subsumed by its political fray. The consequent blow to America’ international reputation could be severe. It will certainly outlast Trump’s presidency.
Whether the pandemic will help bring it to an end in November is plausible; but impossible to predict with any confidence. Americans have a habit of changing their governments in a recession. Yet, Trump’s domestic warmongering may ensure most of his voters still turn out for him. And it is not yet clear his uninspiring Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, will be able to field Democrats in similar numbers.
Yet, if the political future is uncertain, the political verdict of this current wretched moment is in. Even before Trump won power, Americans asked themselves what it would take to bring their divided country together. The answer, it turns out, is that it would at least take more than the world’s worst coronavirus caseload, a ruined economy and over 100,000 deaths.