Trumped: America in a Time of Corona Episode V

A perspective of life in the United States during an epidemic, based upon conversations with Michael L. Roberts, and in conjunction with The American Chronicle podcast series.

So here I am. Finally, here on the Eastern Seaboard, in the city of my dreams; Boston, Massachusetts. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, but thanks to coronavirus, there’s not a damn thing to do. Except, perhaps, chronicle these rather strange times…

Episode V

The schisms between the federal government and the individual state continue unabated here in the United States. In 2004, speaking here in Boston at the Democratic National Convention, Senator Barack Obama insisted that there were “no red states, or blue states, there were only the United States.” That was fine rhetoric, but flawed politics and if ever a reminder was required of the error in Obama’s statement, it is provided on a daily basis as the apparent division between red states and blue states grows ever wider during Donald Trump’s presidency. Great swathes of the country, incorporating states on the West coast, those here on the East Coast, as well as in the Great Lakes region, are banding together in defiance of the White House. Their governors, both Democrat and Republican, have decided that they alone will be the final arbiter of when and how any restrictions will be lifted in their states. Donald Trump has prompted this by repeatedly stating that he alone has the power to lift the stay-at-home orders that have been introduced across the land. This is in complete contradiction to the constitutional parameters of the American presidency, and has led to a growing sense of conflict, not only at a political level, but on the ground. This has started to be played out in various states, notably in Michigan, with people coming onto the streets not merely in defiance of the state home in order to get some fresh air, but to engage in protests against the stay-at-home orders as enacted by the state government. It is notable that this has occured in Michigan, where Governor Whitmer is being touted as potential vice-presidential candidate for Joe Biden.

These are not disengaged groups who have just decided to come out, it is very clearly a pro-Trump, anti-Democratic movement. Photographs of those protests show individuals wearing Donald Trump hats, with the Make America Great Again logos. Their signs read ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.’ This is a throwback to the revolutionary era, and it’s notable that these signs have started appearing on the streets in American cities, protesting against a lockdown designed to safeguard public health and public safety. The protesters appear at risk being of granted their Liberty, in terms of their ability to go and protest, but also of Death, if the suggestions about how this virus is being spread is anything to go by. They are inviting greater tragedy and in the last 24 hours protesters in Michigan have been confronted by health care workers, trying to prevent them from gathering, not in an attempt to deny them their First Amendment rights, but in an effort to maintain public health and public safety. 

None of this is being helped by the media, or by politicians. There are various suggestions going around that the Corona virus originated in a Chinese laboratory, a theory that Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas suggested weeks ago on American television. At the time he was roundly attacked for suggesting this was an attempt by the Chinese government to weaponize the virus, to unleash it on western civilization. That rumor disappeared for several weeks, but has now reemerged, presenting challenges in trying to figure out not only where the virus came from, but also about the incentives of various people for their stance on its origins. The question remains; did this originate in a lab? If so, was it deliberately manufactured? Was it something that escaped unexpectedly? For many weeks the prevailing narrative had been that it emerged from a wet market in China, as a disease carried by a bat that had passed into the human food chain. All we have to go on is what is being presented in the media, but there is a sense that no one has a clue about where this came from. If you can’t trace this to source, then how do you go about trying to find out a cure for this disease?

Partly due to the lack of vision from the White House, China has emerged as the nemesis in this situation. Whatever else there is disagreement about, one apparent point of agreement is that the virus originated in China. If that can be agreed upon, then perhaps a conversation can begin on how the Chinese authorities dealt with this: whether the virus was weaponized, escaped, or merely a terrible accident that passed into the human food chain. China’s emergence as the antagonist is an important development, because in the original phase of the crisis Donald Trump downplayed its significance and potential impact, insisting that all was well with US-China relations. He insisted that he had great faith in President Xi’s ability to deal with the situation. That approach has totally changed, resulting in attack adverts being run by the Trump administration trying to tie Joe Biden to China, just as it previously sought to tar Biden over his ties to Ukraine. The virus is posing a political risk for Donald Trump, as his opinion polls continue to hover in the mid-40s. Any dip below that figure would be catastrophic for most presidents in this point in a presidential campaign. This has caused a recognition that the virus needs to be addressed not only from a health point of view, but also from a political point of view, as the Biden campaign has taken to  attacking the Trump administration for its lack of response, and the president attack’s Biden for his apparent ties to the Chinese government.

The frustration that all of this generates within Donald Trump is palpable. It also compounds his inability to get out and engage with his base. One of the unusual features of Donald Trump’s presidency has been his propensity to engage in ongoing fund-raising rallies, designed to raise funds for the president’s reelection campaign. This president announced his decision to run for reelection and to start campaigning on the very first day of his presidency, and throughout his presidency he has visited cities around United States engaging in large political rallies designed to appeal to his core base. These have been tremendously well received by his followers, resulting in long queues outside cavernous arenas as supporters wait for hours to get inside to see their president. His ability to do this, however, has been stymied by the coronavirus. Donald Trump appears to have figured out a way to get around this, with the daily press briefing. 

On a nightly basis over the last several weeks, President Trump has taken to the podium in the press briefing room to talk about what the administration has been doing, and to present the White House view of how the coronavirus has been playing out. This is an unusual situation, since the individual theoretically in charge of the coronavirus task force is Mike Pence, not Donald Trump. There is also a shadow group running, which Jared Kushner is involved in. This has become a running source of tension in United States, between the president, the media, and the experts. Donald Trump has been holding forth on a nightly basis for anything up to 90 minutes per session, but his experts are also being interviewed by other networks and newspapers and, on occasion, are saying things which contradict the White House. This has raised eyebrows and raised questions as to how long these experts will be retained. Historically, anybody who has contradicted Donald Trump has eventually lost their job. It is entirely possible that Trump realizes that he simply cannot to fire these experts at this point, since they have more credibility in the subject then he does. There has been a marked shift in tone of these press briefings, as the administration have started to produce propaganda videos, including footage of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo praising the president for his reactions to the virus. Yet these presentations appear to be contradiction of federal law, since they advocate support for one candidate over another. No campaigning or fundraising is permitted in the White House, something that various politicians have come unstuck for in the past. There is, therefore, a fine line being walked by the administration with regarded to what could be seen as its use of propaganda within the White House. 

The media ae aware of this and have begun pushing back, raising doubts about the credibility of these videos. Instead of answering their questions in a considered manner, Donald Trump has rounded on the reporters, pushing back strongly. To the credit of the reporters in the room, they are not taking this lying down, and are pushing back against the president. It is remarkable to see the level of discourse to which this nation has fallen, whereby a president is being openly challenged in the White House by journalists. The extent to which the respect for this president has collapsed amongst the media is starting to cause embarrassment for the United States around the world:  The vision of their own leader being openly heckled and challenged by members of the press, including Fox News is going to cause Donald Trump great consternation heading into November.

The schism that exists in American political life is, therefore, reflected in the American media. MSNBC is very much on the left, CNN is certainly anti-Donald Trump, and Fox News is cemented on the right of the political spectrum. These news networks, however, have within them distinct individuals, performing distant roles. During the day, they generally deliver the news of the day. As evening falls, however, they become dominated by opinion makers. MSNBC has Rachel Maddow; CNN has Don Lemon. Fox News is no different. It employs serous dedicated journalist such as Chris Wallace, and my former student, Benjamin Hall. It also has people like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, who offer opinion, rather than engaging in investigative, quality journalism. This has long been the case with Fox News, but it is something which has come to the light during Donald Trump’s presidency. The distinctions between news reporting and opinion become all the more important when you have a candidate of your own in the White House and have to address the successes and failures without embarrassing oneself.

The difficulties that this presents have contributed to great changes at Fox News. This has ensured that Fox News is not the same network that existed when Donald Trump became president. It has seen changes in its leadership, with the departure of Roger Ailes, and a recognition that the Murdoch-era is drawing to an end, one way or the other. High-profile journalists and broadcasters, such as Megyn Kelly and Shepard Smith, have departed the network, revealing the shifting relationship between Donald Trump and the network. Trump was always very happy to praise Fox News as long as it was giving him total loyalty and were opposed to the Democratic Party. That was never going to last forever. Last weekend Nancy Pelosi appeared on Chris Wallace’s Sunday morning show and critiqued Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. The president, instead of attacking Pelosi, instead attacked Chris Wallace for giving Nancy Pelosi airtime, suggested that this was a clear sign of demise of Fox News. Instead of fighting the coronavirus, Trump appears to be more intent on fighting not only his political enemies, but also is political allies; the longer that goes on the more dangerous it becomes for President Trump and his hopes for re-election in November.

Trumped: America in a Time of Corona Episode II

A perspective of life in the United States during an epidemic, based upon conversations with Michael L. Roberts, and in conjunction with The American Chronicle podcast series.

Episode II

So here I am. Finally, here on the Eastern Seaboard, in the city of my dreams; Boston, Massachusetts. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, but thanks to coronavirus, there’s not a damn thing to do. Except, perhaps, chronicle these rather strange times…

A 2 trillion-dollar stimulus package has now been approved by Congress and signed by President Trump, a truly remarkable occurrence. In 2008/9 a stimulus package was passed to try to save the American economy, but this has now been dwarfed by this package, an event made all the more remarkable considering it has been passed by a Senate controlled by the Republican Party, signed by a Republican president, without a word from members of the Tea Party who  were so adamant ten years ago that it is not the job of the American government to be bailing out the national economy. Yet now we have Republicans dishing out cash directly to American voters. This package was seen as something that would stabilize the situation, without actually starting to improve things. There will now doubtless be a move towards releasing even greater funds into the American economy. How that manifests itself will, in large part, depend on how this initial bailout is received once checks start arriving in the mail and money starts working its way into the system.

The threat to the continuity of Government continues. Quite where the Trump administration believes its apparent invincibility stems from is unknown. The age of the president and the vice president places both men in the high-risk category. There has been no word from the White House with regard to how is that Donald Trump and Mike Pence have avoided the virus, which is all the more remarkable considering the people they have been in contact with. They continue to meet with individuals who have subsequently come down with the coronavirus, and yet despite this, and despite the health risks that they are facing, they refuse to address the situation. There is no apparent end to their desire to be meet un-necessarily with people, to be in front of the cameras, to hold press conferences with dozens of people at the podium.  

Why are the president and the vice president not distancing themselves form one another at this point? There must be a very real risk to the health of President Trump at this point; were he to come down with this virus, both his physical and political life he would surely be in jeopardy. In the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, Vice President Cheney was repeatedly distanced from President George W Bush to ensure a continuation of government should the unimaginable occur. When you consider the danger that the coronavirus poses to someone of Donald Trump’s age, and as an individual who is constant contact with people, it is apparent that not enough is being done to safeguard him, or the office of the presidency, from the virus.

The only apparent concession has been in regard how the media has been allowed to work within the White House press briefing room. Simplistic efforts are being employed, using only every other seat within the press briefing room. This enables Donald Trump to have half as many journalists in the room as would otherwise be the case, which is probably still twice as many as he would like to be in the press briefing room at any one time.

As the coronavirus continues to spread its way across United States the reaction to the pandemic one is causing consternation and growing hostility between the White House and individual state governors. President Trump has spoken this week about how governors should be more appreciative of what it is that he is doing for their states, raising the issue of Trump’s ego and the extent to which he is unnecessarily injecting himself into the dynamic of this situation. The White House has raised the idea of a quarantine around New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and the movement of individuals between these states have become problematic. The Rhode Island police force have begun flagging down motorists with New York license plates who have crossed the state line, instructing them to self-quarantine, raising serious constitutional questions. Governor Cuomo of New York, who has emerged as a central figure, is talking about suing Rhode Island for unfairly identifying citizens of New York. However, since New York is the epicenter of this, people are trying to leave out of fear that a quarantine is about you put in place. As soon as the government starts clamping down on movement within one state, it raises the risk that people will flee that state and move to a neighboring state to stay in a second home. These issues raise questions not only about the role of state versus federal government, but also regarding patterns of illness across the country. 

There has now been a large outbreak in Louisiana, which many people are putting down to the Mardi Gras celebrations. Large outbreaks are also occurring in Illinois and neighboring Michigan. The virus has, therefore, reached the American heartland. As long as this is was something which was only threatening large, urban areas on the eastern seaboard and the West coast, many in the heartland, those classic Trump supporters, could dismiss this as a myth, or just another hoax. At this rate, no corner America is going to escape untouched, and the longer this goes on, and the greater the penetration into the American heartland, the more danger this poses not only to the health of the United States, but to Donald Trump’s and ability to win re-election to a second term. This has led to an interesting dynamic play out within the White House; between the need to attend to the health and the wealth of the nation, and the issue of what may or may not be in Donald Trump’s best political interests. The president has begun talking about wanting to get the United States reopen and ending restrictions on the free movement of people by Easter Sunday. This came just as more state governors were realizing the need to limit the movement of people within their states.  When Donald Trump talks about wishing to reopen the country in time for Easter Sunday, it is simply is not within his power to do so, because those restrictions on the movement of people which are in place have been put in place by state governors and it is their power and their power alone to reopen those states as they see fit, which  they will do on a case by case basis.

The White House has been desperate to present an image that all is well and that there really is nothing to panic about. This initial response to this virus, however, has clearly been flawed. President Trump’s continuing effort to talk about reopening markets, to make sure that the stock market rebounds, to enable people to continuing with their everyday lives, appears to fly in the face of the medical advice he receives, which suggests that doing so would be the worst thing that could possibly happen. To counter this situation, Donald Trump is no attempting to portray himself the one man who will personally bail out the United States. He has decided that the bailout checks that Americans will soon receive will be signed by him, as president. This is a profound shift, revealing the extent to which the American president is attempting to inject himself into the crisis and its solution. This is a distinct Donald Trump thing to do, and a very deliberate attempt maneuver ahead of the November election. Of course, some people who will need that money may not have bank accounts, so how will those checks will be cashed?  It’s also of possible that some people might chose to keep the check as a presidential souvenir instead of depositing it in a bank.

The on-going presidential election has been completely consumed by the coronavirus; elections have been cancelled, or postponed, and the reporting of primary elections hardly receives any coverage. This must be very frustrating for Joe Biden, who had a remarkable run of success in the primaries. He has seen his challengers drop out and endorse him, freezing out Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden, therefore, will be the Democratic candidate for president, unless something untoward occurs which no one can foresee. The primary season is meant to climax with two large rallies; one for the Democrats and one for the Republicans. At this point it is difficult to see how those two conventions, which are planned for late summer, can go ahead. These events take a great deal of planning and it’s difficult to see at this point how those conventions are going to take place.  Very clearly this virus is going to continue to have an adverse effect upon the American body politic and impact the ability to elect public officials to govern effectively. 

Despite this, all of the focus is on Donald Trump, because in time of national crisis it is to the White House that the American people and the American media look for guidance. Yet there is a recognition that Donald Trump is using his daily press conferences, not as public safety messages, but as political broadcasts at which he routinely takes the podium to talk about response to the coronavirus, to talk about his own personal actions, the actions of his administration and to then attack his opponents, demean them, and promote his own political interests. Many people are calling into question not only the suitability of these appearances, but also the veracity of his statements at this at these events. Concerns are growing that Trump is using this free airtime in a similar way that he did four years ago. The networks have realized what happened four years ago and are trying to avoid that happening once more. Calls are therefore being made for the media to stop broadcasting his daily appearances. 

At this point there has been very little upside to this current crisis for the White House. We have seen a very small 2% rise in Donald Trump’s opinion poll ratings, very minor compared to the double digit increase in public support which presidents have received during previous crises. Whilst there has been a minor bump for Donald Trump it is not the great rise that he would be hoping for and in several states, he continues to lag behind Joe Biden. This administration has been campaigning for reelection from the very first day of its term in office. It is now be facing the very real prospect of becoming a one term presidency.