End of the Donald?
Suddenly everything seems to be going wrong for the president, says Daniel Lazare
“Is this the end of Rico?” Edward G Robinson asks in the final scene of the 1931 crime melodrama, Little Caesar. On the heels of a disastrous June 20 indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Americans are now asking the same about Trump: is this the end of the Donald as well?
Trump’s survival skills are legendary, so any sensible observer will think twice before writing him off. He survived bankruptcy as a real estate, hotel and casino developer and then survived two-plus years of non-stop headlines accusing him of collusion with Russia, once he entered the Oval office. Impeachment, charges of sexual wrongdoing, allegations that he corruptly steered government business to his hotels - he survived those as well. The same goes for Black Lives Matter, a scathing tell-all bestseller by former national security advisor John Bolton, and double-digit unemployment. So far he has outlasted them too.
But it is hard to see how he will survive Covid-19, now that it is ravaging his Sunbelt fan base. This is why the Tulsa rally was such a bust: it was supposed to take place in a crowded 19,000-seat arena, but ended up playing to a hall that was two-thirds empty. Supporters stayed away not because they were afraid of BLM protesters or Antifa ‘terrorists’, but because it has begun to dawn even on die-hard Republicans that a mass indoor political event filled with shouting, cheering Trump supporters - most of them contemptuous of the very idea of face masks - is the worst place to be in the midst of an epidemic that is now getting its second wind.
This is the new reality out in Trump country, and it does not bode well for his re-election prospects. When the coronavirus shutdown began in March, Oklahoma was still virus-free, which is why it was easy for locals to blame the fuss on George Soros, Bill Gates and others trying to rob them of their ancient constitutional liberties by forcing them to stay at home. But, with 400 deaths as of June 22 - a figure that could more than double by the end of the summer - Oklahoma attitudes are changing dramatically.1
So are attitudes in pro-Trump Arizona, where the current death toll of 1,500 could quadruple by summer’s end, according to mid-range projections by the University of Washington; in Texas, where deaths - currently at 2,200 - could increase two and a half times in the same period; in Alabama, where the toll could more than triple; and in Florida, which could conceivably see a sixfold increase, thanks to bars and beaches that are now jammed with summer revellers.2 As recently as late May, Covid-19 still seemed to be a Democratic disease, with pro-Trump counties enjoying an infection rate less than half that of those that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.3 But now the picture is flipping, as the disease ebbs in hard-hit New York and New Jersey, while surging in a largely-unprepared south and west.
It is a stunning political failure, but one that, believe it or not, is not entirely Trump’s fault. The reason, simply, is that US healthcare was a disaster long before he happened on the scene. With Congress gridlocked since the 1990s, healthcare planning - what little of it there is - has mostly fallen to 50 separate state health departments that sometimes coordinate with one another and sometimes do not. For its part, the federal government once had a top-flight health agency (or agencies) in the form of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but years of budget cuts have left it a shadow of its former self. While individual healthcare spending per capita in the US is double the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average, public health expenditures limp along at just 2.5% of the total - a mere $274 per person per year, as of 2017.4
This is the fiasco that Trump inherited upon entering the White House and one that he has seemingly gone out of his way to make worse. In 2017, he declared war on Obamacare, the government insurance programme that subsidises healthcare for 11 million of America’s most vulnerable citizens. In 2018, he closed down the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense - a White House committee expressly designed to deal with threats like Covid-19. Four months ago, he proposed a 16% budget cut for the CDC on top of all the cuts that have happened before.
When the coronavirus hit in the middle of last winter’s impeachment drama, the effect was to knock off-kilter a system that was already limping badly. “We have it totally under control,” Trump assured Americans on January 22, two days after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the Pacific northwest. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” On January 30, he said: “hopefully, everything’s going to be great” - and then suggested in mid-February that the virus might “miraculously” go away by Easter. When Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s top respiratory-disease specialist, warned on February 25 that Americans should brace themselves for a full-blown epidemic - “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness” - Trump was reportedly incensed and threatened to have her fired.5 Rick Bright, the highly-regarded director of a federal emergency medical response agency, after pressing for stepped-up production of face masks and other protective gear, found himself frozen out of top planning meetings. When he committed the cardinal sin of calling for rigorous vetting of hydroxychloroquine, Trump’s pet remedy, he found himself demoted and transferred to another agency. Since Trump did not want to hear about the virus, the bootlickers who occupy the top spots in his administration did not want to hear about it either.
And this was before Trump inspired a generation of late-night comics by speculating about the benefits of injecting disinfectant. Still, it was all so much distant thunder as far as Sunbelt Republicans were concerned, as long as the problem remained concentrated in the north-east and a few other urban hot spots. But then the balance began to shift and, with it, the political calculus as well.
How Trump managed to fall into a trap of his own making is a question to fuel a thousand PhD theses. But, as someone who entered the White House by virtue of a constitutional fluke, despite trailing by two percent in the popular vote, he is a product of a superannuated political system that is increasingly uncontrolled - and uncontrollable. Since disorder only begets disorder, he added to the chaos by declaring war on the federal bureaucracy and engaging in other bull-in-a-china-shop activities. The upshot was a kind of national reality TV show, in which the only thing that mattered was that the stock market went up - even as other social indicators, such as public health, mass incarceration and political corruption, went crashing through the floor. As long as Trump was heading for a second term, everything would be OK.
For a while, the epidemic threatened to interfere in this long march to victory. But, when it proved too bothersome, he simply gave up. The coronavirus was yesterday’s topic, whereas today’s was BLM. Besides, what did he care, as long as Democratic states suffered the brunt of the damage? As long as his own base was spared, he was home free. Indeed, it would be a double win, since it would allow him to make fun of timid, facemask-wearing liberals, while playing up to “rugged individualists” who comprise the Republican base.
Since then, the denial has only deepened. Trump still enjoys poking fun at face masks. “I see Biden - it’s like his whole face is covered, it’s like he put a knapsack over his face,” he recently told the Wall Street Journal. “He probably likes it that way.” He still enjoys referring to the virus in xenophobic terms as the “Kung flu”. He still insists that the surge in new cases is merely a statistical blip caused by stepped-up testing.
“You know, the numbers are very small,” he said. “… It’s, like, very few people. And I think they’re in great shape. But I would even say the spike ends, has already ended. So I think we’re going to do very well ...”
None of it was remotely true. On June 18, the same day the Wall Street Journal interview ran, the Covid Tracking Project reported that cases were rising in 30 states overall, including Texas, where they were up 44% over the previous week; Arkansas, where they were up 41%, and Florida, where they had spiked by 78%. By June 21, the seven-day moving average of new cases for the nation as a whole had risen more than 24%, compared to the week before.6 With Sunbelt states opening up for business and precautions like face masks and social distancing falling by the wayside, the disease was racing through the population unimpeded. With Washington instructing states to cease paying unemployment benefits to recipients who fail to return to work, employees faced a grim choice between staying home and starving or endangering their health and that of their families by going back to their jobs.
But it will not work. Not only is Trump’s strategy medically destructive, but it is economically destructive as well. Growth cannot resume so long as consumers stay away from stores, restaurants, and other venues for fear of contagion. Demand can only slacken as long as workers huddle at home. Income can only fall, as the job market continues to contract. The more the virus rages out of control, consequently, the more society will wilt under the pressure. Trump’s efforts to restart the economy without first taming the epidemic are thus a fantasy. Sure, election day is more than four months away - an eternity in terms of American politics.
But, while anything can happen, it is beginning to look like Trump’s re-election hopes are a fantasy too.
Covid-19 Projections, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, June 15 2020: covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america/oklahoma.↩︎
All projections are by the University of Washington’s IHME. Data for all 50 states is available at covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america.↩︎
Covid Tracking Project: covidtracking.com/blog/weekly-covid-19-data-update-june-18-the-regional-gap-widens. Noah Higgins-Dunn; also cnbc.com/2020/06/22/coronavirus-hospitalizations-grow-in-arizona-and-texas.html.↩︎