Toppling over a cliff

It is not just Trump’s fault that cases of Covid-19 are soaring, writes Daniel Lazare

In early February, this reporter made note of “the increasingly bizarre behaviour of the United States in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.” I wrote: “While not all countries have responded as well as they should have, the US reaction has been in a class by itself - not just incompetent, but uniquely so.”1

This was back when the pandemic was still in its infancy, with just eight cases in the United States and fewer than 25,000 in the world as a whole. But now, with the global caseload surpassing 10 million - more than a fourth of them in the US - the world is getting an up-close view of what unique incompetence really looks like when raised to the nth degree.

It’s a shocker. A couple of weeks ago, vice-president Mike Pence - an ultra-rightist who once denounced Charles Darwin on the floor of the US House of Representatives - declared in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal that America was “winning the fight against the invisible enemy”.2 Four days later, Trump told a sparsely-attended indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that the only reason numbers were going up is that the US was doing more testing: “… when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people; you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down, please.”

A week after that, Pence issued another upbeat assessment to the effect that all 50 states were “opening up safely and responsibly”, that the administration had “flattened the curve” and that, if caseloads were continuing to rise, it was due to the same old statistical blip caused by stepped-up testing.3

All of which was completely and totally false. Starting on June 16, the day Pence published his Wall Street Journal op-ed, the number of Americans testing positive for the disease have since risen by 21%. Bad as this is, the picture in southern and south-western Sunbelt states that are Trump’s stronghold is many times worse. In Arizona, cases are up 91% over the same period. In Florida, they are up 83%, while in Texas 64%. In Mississippi and Alabama - two of America’s poorest states, in which healthcare is already stretched dangerously thin - cases are up 32% and 38% respectively: a sign of even more alarming developments to come.4

The contrast with the rest of the advanced industrial world is glaring. Over the same period, infections have risen 4.6% or less in South Korea, Japan, Germany and the UK, 1.5% or less in Spain and Italy, and a measly 0.34% in China.5 If Boris Johnson’s response to the pandemic has been nothing less than “shambolic,” as Patrick Cockburn put it recently in The Independent,6 then what does that say about Trump, whose response has been nearly five times worse?

What it says is that the USA is setting a new standard for incompetence and that, if it is not a failed state yet, it is well on the way. America’s ancient constitutional structure is freezing up in the face of the greatest health and economic crisis in capitalist history, and the resultant breakdown can only intensify. The upshot can only be growing neglect at a governmental level, and rising levels of infection and disease below.

How did the US arrive at such a parlous state? One reason, of course, is Trump himself - a rank amateur, who, as the subject of his own cult of the personality, is certain that his gut instinct is always right and that any expert who dares disagree is wrong. Another reason is fragmentation: ie, the fact that healthcare planning, such as it is, is scattered among some 50 states and that things that other countries take for granted, such as centralised statistics, are in short supply.


These alone all but guarantee that any US response will be slow, spotty and incomplete. But a third factor makes matters even worse: America’s fundamental constitutional structure. James Madison - known as “father of the constitution” due to his leading role in creating America’s new plan of government - was an intensely conservative thinker, whose chief concern was to prevent the new republic from heading off in a direction he did not like. The result was a complicated array of checks and balances, whose purpose was to prevent the masses from ‘going astray’.

But then he and his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, added another wrinkle in 1798-99, in the form of a series of secret position papers known as the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which argued that not only should Congress serve as a brake on presidential power, but that the states should serve as a brake on the federal government in general.

Whether Madison and Jefferson invented the concept or merely seconded a process that was already underway is open to debate. But the consequences more than two centuries later are not. Whenever the federal government says one thing, southern and south-western states most loyal to the Jeffersonian-Madisonian tradition can be counted on to say the opposite. On issue after issue - guns, abortion, civil rights and now Covid-19 - a burgeoning ultra-right in some two dozen Republican-controlled states is convinced that the Deep State is out to rob them of their ancient constitutional liberties and that real patriots must mobilise to head the conspiracy off at the pass.

Such thinking leads straight to a far-right never-never-land. Instead of a medical emergency, the pandemic is thus a hoax cooked up by George Soros, Bill Gates and the immunologist, Dr Anthony Fauci, the man ultra-right paranoids most love to hate. Instead of a necessary precaution, face masks are a means of reducing Americans to sheep-like subservience. The same goes for social distancing, orders to shelter at home and the rest. Rather than means of reining in the virus, their only purpose is to impose a new slavery on what was formerly the land of the free and the home of the brave.

This explains the Sunbelt’s head-in-the-sand defiance. When an Arizona newspaper reporter showed up at a Trump appearance wearing a face mask, Trump supporters shouted at her, “You’re on the wrong side of history … you’re on the wrong side of patriotism - you’re like communists.”7 When Houston tried to mandate face masks in mid-April, Texas higher-ups denounced it as “the ultimate government overreach” and quickly countermanded it.8 In Flint, Michigan, a store security guard was shot and killed after telling a customer that face masks were required for entry, while in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a mandatory face-mask rule sparked such fury, including at least one gun threat, that local officials quickly backed off.

“It became clear to me that that was just a bridge too far,” Mike DeWine, the Republican governor of Ohio, said of efforts to mandate face masks. “People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.”9 Given such attitudes, the official response is all but certain to be too little, too late.

Admittedly, this is not the entire story. In New York, for instance, infections are up just two percent since mid-June. The same is true in hard-hit New Jersey - New York’s sister state across the Hudson River - where they are also up just two percent. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule, since both states exist firmly in a Hamiltonian tradition of strong government. Neo-Jeffersonian Sunbelters, by contrast, view governmental interference with deep suspicion, which is why state officials have not only refused to amp up their own response, but have actually stepped in to prevent local officials from doing so themselves. In Nebraska, for example, the Republican governor has threatened to withhold federal coronavirus aid from localities that impose face masks, while for weeks Arizona governor Doug Ducey blocked Phoenix, America’s fifth-largest city, from imposing a face-mask requirement as well.10 It is like not only refusing to battle a forest fire, but refusing to allow local communities to douse the flames, even if they are licking at their front door.

Attitudes like these are unknown elsewhere in the world, yet in America they are baked into the constitutional structure. If the US is uniquely incompetent, it is because its form of government is uniquely unsuited to the modern world.

  1. ‘An empire unravelling’ Weekly Worker April 2.↩︎

  2. ‘There isn’t a coronavirus “second wave”’ The Wall Street Journal June 16: wsj.com/articles/there-isnt-a-coronavirus-second-wave-11592327890.↩︎

  3. As cases surge, Pence misleads on coronavirus pandemic’ The New York Times June 26: nytimes.com/2020/06/26/us/politics/coronavirus-pence-fact-check.html.↩︎

  4. All data is from the Covid Tracking Project: covidtracking.com.↩︎

  5. worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries.↩︎

  6. ‘The blundering British political class has shown the same incompetence in both fighting wars and coronavirus’ The Independent June 27: independent.co.uk/voices/boris-johnson-coronavirus-libya-war-reading-attack-david-cameron-a9588061.html.↩︎

  7. ‘Trump supporters harassed Arizona reporters for wearing masks’ Poynter Institute May 5: poynter.org/reporting-editing/2020/trump-supporters-harassed-arizona-reporters-for-wearing-masks.↩︎

  8. The statement was by Dan Patrick, the state’s ultra-conservative lieutenant governor. See ‘Harris County latest to mandate face masks, as criticism mounts that the requirement is “government overreach”’ The Texas Tribune April 22: texastribune.org/2020/04/22/harris-county-mask-order-coronavirus.↩︎

  9. ‘Masks become a flash point in the virus culture wars’ The New York Times May 3: nytimes.com/2020/05/03/us/coronavirus-masks-protests.html.↩︎

  10. ‘Virus spikes while local and state officials bicker over face mask mandates’ Pew Charitable Trusts June 29: pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2020/06/29/virus-spikes-while-local-and-state-officials-bicker-over-face-mask-mandates.↩︎