Covid-19 set to destroy Trump?
Daniel Lazare says the excess deaths are not only down to the president’s incompetence
Where other countries are preparing for a second wave of Covid-19, America is bracing itself for a third - a prospect that does not bode well either for US public health or Donald Trump’s re-election chances. What is worse from Trump’s point of view is that, after ravaging the urban north-east, the virus is now wreaking havoc in the ‘red states’ that in 2016 took him over the top.
The result is a rural-urban divide of growing political importance. America has more than three thousand counties. But of the 1,166 that had 500 or more new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents last month, better than 85% - 1,025, to be exact - were pro-Trump in the last election. Republican states have nearly twice as many cases per capita, while the increase has been particularly startling in pro-Trump agricultural states deep in the interior.1 Since mid-July, new cases have more than doubled in Utah, tripled in Oklahoma and quadrupled in Wisconsin. They have increased seven times in Wyoming, eight times in North Dakota, and more than 18 times in South Dakota, where a massive motorcycle rally this summer may have generated 260,000 additional cases. Masks were rare among the half-million bikers who converged on the small town of Sturgis, Confederate flags and pro-Trump insignia were abundant, while a T-shirt for sale with the words, ‘Fuck Covid, let’s ride’ summed up the general attitude of ‘Live free or die’.
The same rural-urban split is evident within states such as the racially polarised Michigan. In Detroit - a byword for urban collapse - new cases are off about 90% from their peak of late March. But in Grand Rapids - a city of 200,000 some 150 miles to the west and the centre of an alleged neo-fascist plot to kidnap Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer - new cases started low, but have since seen a 26-fold increase. Wisconsin, known as ‘America’s dairyland’, is no different. Heavily black and Hispanic Milwaukee has seen new cases decline by nearly 50% since July, while in Janesville - a largely white town 75 miles to the south-west, where thousands of the faithful gathered to hear Trump speak last weekend - the daily caseload has more than doubled.
All this could not be worse, as far as Trump is concerned. A disease that once seemed safely confined to the Democratic north-east is now ravaging a Republican heartland that he desperately needs in order to stave off defeat. States and localities that took his anti-mask message to heart - “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it,” he said when asked if he would wear one in April - are paying a growing price.
The political effects are clear. While core support is holding firm, the evidence is that centrists are peeling away. A recent poll found that disapproval of Trump’s handling of the pandemic had risen from 60% to 66% since September, while another reports that between 25% and 35% of voters now name healthcare, the economy and Covid-19 - all pandemic-related - as among their top concerns.2 Last time around, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania provided Trump with his margin of victory. But Joe Biden now apparently enjoys a comfortable lead in the first two, while edging ahead in the third. Trump still has a whopping 10-point lead in South Dakota. But that is less than half of what the polls indicated this summer.3
So if Trump loses, it will not be because of Russiagate, impeachment or any of the other issues that rivet Washington. Rather, it will be because of coronavirus and the president’s complete inability to mount anything resembling a coherent response. Trump’s performance has been the worst of any world leader with the possible exception of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Yet he continues to insist that “we have done an amazing job” and the disease is “rounding the corner”.4 The discrepancy is so jarring that it is hard to see how he can avoid punishment at the polls.
But is it really all Trump’s fault? If Democrats say yes, it is because they are eager to put the blame on a man they have been trying to oust from the moment he took office - and because they are correspondingly desperate to get the larger political structure off the hook. But, from a Marxist perspective, the answer is more sweeping and complex.
There is no question that Trump personally was tailor-made for the debacle. Not only is he a monstrous egotist, but he is also an ignoramus who, by all indications, has never read a single book in his life and whose view of the world could not be more idiosyncratic. The chances that he would assemble a team of top-flight scientists and professionals to devise a rational plan and then implement it systematically and comprehensively, month after month, were therefore nil from the outset.
But people like Trump do not arise out of nowhere. Rather, they are by-products of the historical process. Trump’s showmanship and love of glitz perfectly captured the 1980s mood of financial excess, while his hard-nosed style reflected the era’s growing love affair with tough-guy bosses. Following George W Bush’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq, millions tuned into The apprentice, Trump’s hit reality-TV show, for the sheer joy of watching him bark at one job applicant after another, “You’re fired!” Brutality was the key to success in business no less than imperial policy. While two presidential bids flopped, something clicked when Trump headed out on the campaign trail a third time in mid‑2015. The difference had nothing to do with Trump himself, whose act was unchanged. Rather, it had to do with bourgeois politics in general, which were in a state of collapse.
The litany of disasters that marked Barack Obama’s second term is well known, as are the great Washington wars that marked Trump’s first. But after years of Russiagate, plus an impeachment trial that went nowhere as well, the bottom line is that Washington was little more than a battle zone by early 2020, with a by-now victorious Trump striding across the rubble like a latter-day Coriolanus.
All of which is necessary to consider in order to understand why Washington was uniquely unprepared when the virus washed up on American shores last January. Trump emerged from the impeachment ordeal at odds with his own bureaucracy, which he believed - not incorrectly - had sided with the Democrats in their effort to destroy his administration. He distrusted experts who had touted the “collusion delusion”, as he put it - the baseless conspiracy theory that he was in cahoots with the Kremlin. Most of all, what he concluded from years of close-quarters combat is that he was the only one who knew how to win. The combination of such attitudes - disdain for experts and belief in his own gut instincts - proved deadly. The upshot was a string of statements about the pandemic that were more and more ignorant and absurd.
Two days after his impeachment acquittal on February 5, he declared that the disease would go away as soon as “the weather starts to warm”. On February 11, he asserted that “during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus”. Two weeks later, he said that “the coronavirus is very much under control”: on February 26, he confidently predicted that “within a couple days [it] is going to be down close to zero”. “It’s going to disappear,” he added a day later. “One day, it’s like a miracle - it will disappear.” And so on.
The disease meanwhile continued its relentless advance, with daily new infections nearing 27,000 by April 1 and then, following a brief lull, hitting 75,687 per day as of mid-July. Now, after another slide, they are back up at 70,464 as of October 16, just below last summer’s peak. With just 4.2% of the world’s population, the US now accounts for 21% of all Covid cases and 20% of all Covid deaths. Per capita, its infection rate is double that of France, two and a half times that of the UK, nearly six times that of Germany, and five times that of Canada, its supposed twin to the north.
So Trump is plainly a fool with no idea of what he is doing. But even under the best leadership, America’s hyper-federal structure would still render it unsuited to the task. The United States has a national health bureau known as the Department of Health and Human Services, but it is an agglomeration of specialised agencies with no control over the population as a whole. Instead, power is distributed among 50 state health agencies - all chronically underfunded, with minimal levels of competence and staff. Toss in a political structure in which legislators and executives are continually at odds with one another, and the result is weakness and ineffectuality from the federal level down.
To be sure, a few governors have cut through the cacophony - most notably Democrat Andrew Cuomo in neo-Hamiltonian New York, where new cases have fallen from over 1,000 per day as of early April to less than 20 as of October 19. But Democrats have been less successful in other states, such as California, while Republicans have seized on America’s deep-seated concept of ‘rugged individualism’ to oppose any government response at all. Brian Kemp, Georgia’s ultra-right Republican governor, thus sued Atlanta, the state’s largest city, to prevent it from imposing a public face-mask requirement, while Doug Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor, prevented cities like Phoenix from doing the same. In Texas, Republican governor Greg Abbot banned face-mask mandates outright, as rightwing protestors waved signs reading, “Just say no” and “Don’t mask my freedom!”5 It is the equivalent of suing the local fire department to stop the use of water to douse a burning house.
But anti-government hostility like this is not just something that Americans come by, but a political principle that is deeply entrenched. The reason is the US constitution, which is fundamentally ambivalent on the question of federal powers. While authorising them in some respects, it sends an implicit but powerful message that federal authority is constantly in danger of tipping over into tyranny if allowed to go too far. As a result, virtually all political debate since the document was drafted in 1787 has hinged on the question of ‘how much is enough’ - of how much authority to grant an inherently tyrannical federal government, in other words, versus how much to withhold. The great face-mask debate is not about the utilitarian issue of whether masks are effective in preventing contagion, which they clearly are. Rather, it is about the constitutional issue of whether they impinge on ancient freedoms that the authorities are constitutionally bound to protect.
This is why heavily-armed militias have converged on the Michigan state capitol in Lansing: because they are convinced that politicians are engaged in a deep-state conspiracy to deprive them of their ancient rights by forcing them to wears masks. By protecting a private right to keep and bear arms, the second amendment all but enjoins citizens to grab their assault rifles and drive out state legislators the way they once drove out the redcoats.
As for the freedom to enter a public place without risk of contagion - a freedom that is only possible if masks are mandated - it does not even register, because it raises the possibility that liberty is not something that citizens must safeguard against government intrusion, but something that democratic government can create by acting vigorously and intelligently on its own.
Biden does not dare tangle with such assumptions and has thus conceded that he would lack constitutional authority to require the wearing of masks nationwide. “I can do that on federal property,” he said. “As president, I will do that. On federal land, I would have the authority.”
But elsewhere he would be helpless, thanks to 233-year-old constitutional provisions that are all but written in stone. So Democrats have effectively thrown in the towel on the question. Trump may well go down in defeat, but America’s anti-Covid effort will continue to limp along well after he has gone.
usnews.com/news/elections/articles/2020-10-15/no-bump-for-trump-after-bout-with-coronavirus-poll; US election 2020 bulletin: brandwatch.com/email/us-election-bulletin-007.↩︎
The statements were made during a televised ‘town hall’ meeting on October 15 and the quote starts at 9:15: youtube.com/watch?v=rjwWG6kJ6io.↩︎