Trumped: America in a Time of Corona Episode III

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 III

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…

The stay at home order has now lasted two-weeks here in Boston, and there is no end in sight. When Governor Baker announced it, the hope was that Massachusetts would be safe and sound very soon. Very clearly, that is no longer the case. Recommendations from the CDC, as well as from the governor’s office here in Boston, regarding what people should be doing in regard to public health have mounted in recent days. There remains, however, a real disconnect between the directives coming from the federal level, and from a state level by individual governors. President Trump has made statements regarding the use of face masks. His advisors are suggesting that the nation should start wearing face masks, although the president says that he won’t be doing so. Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, took his aircraft and flew around the world to pick up millions of masks from China, to be distributed here in Boston and in New York City. Here in Boston there is a move towards getting people to start wearing face masks. The challenge, however, is getting hold of them. There are several weeks’ delay for these things on Amazon, so it’s all well and good saying people need to start wearing these things, but  no one is telling you where to get them, how to secure them, or what particular type you are meant to get. People are walking around wearing scarves, some are wearing what appear to be decorating masks. There is a complete lack of direction being provided at a national or local as to what the ramifications or benefits are of wearing these masks. In the initial days there were suggestions that we shouldn’t be doing so, now there are suggestions that we should be doing so. The government appears to be making things up as it goes along, so we will have to wait and see what transpires with regard to directives and the use of face masks. 

The sense of the government making things up is exacerbated by President Trump, who has suggested that he really didn’t like the idea of sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and wearing one of these things. If this is all about appearances, then that seems to be rather a poor excuse not to do something. Either these masks are going to serve a purpose and will protect the spread of disease, or they won’t, and if there is a challenge for all Americans it is understanding what it is that these masks are meant to do. Are they meant to prevent the spread of the disease if you have it to other people, or are they designed to prevent you from receiving an infection from other people who may have it? At this point there seems to be a lack of appreciation as to the viability of these masks. The only people who may be benefiting are manufacturers of these things, who have seen a spike in demand and who were no doubt able to increase their prices as a result.

The debate surrounding the wearing of masks has highlighted inter-state tensions. There is, at this point, no national lockdown in place. Those that have been instigated have been issued by state governors. The lack of a national response has undermined the process due to states which are refusing to implement a lock down. Citizens can move freely from state to state, and even around the states, causing a disconnect  between the severity of the health crisis which is being addressed in many of the states, coming up against the idea that it’s somehow un-American and potentially unconstitutional to restrict the movement of people around the nation. Some organizations are seeking to ensure that their rights are not affected at this time. One of the remarkable situations we find ourselves in is that at a time when most businesses are closed, in some states certain organizations have been deemed ‘essential to the public good.’ This includes liquor stores and gun shops, so it’s entirely possible to go out, get drunk, buy a gun and shoot someone in this time of national emergency. The National Rifle Association is ensuring that America’s rights to do just that are not being enringed at this time. It is a remarkable scenario we find ourselves in that at this time, when we’re seeing millions of people being laid off, becoming unemployed, liquor stores and gun shops are experiencing a boom in sales, as people race out to make sure that they stayed liquored up and armed to the teeth.  

All of these decisions, regarding lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, the wearing of masks, and the movement of people, comes whilst the United States is, technically at least, in the midst of a presidential campaign. At any other time that would have dominated to the exclusion of everything else. Instead, the news continues to focus on the national emergency in which the nation finds itself. Bernie Sanders remains in the campaign, still desperately seeking the Democratic Party nomination, refusing to throw the towel in, although members of his team are recognizing that it really is time to do so. Nobody in the party wants a repeat of 2016, when his continued candidacy drove the party further to the left, making it difficult for Hillary Clinton to unify the party at its convention, contributing to her defeat in the general election against Donald Trump. The conventions are going to be very interesting this year because at this point it is impossible to say for certain that they will occur. The Democrats have chosen to delay their own convention, but at this point there is no way of telling if they will be able to go ahead at all, or if they need to be virtual. It seems unlikely that we will see the kind of conventions we’re used to seeing every four years, with the accompanying razzmatazz, as the parties gather to nominate two candidates whose names are already known.  

The coronavirus has caused a further breakdown in political dialogue here in the United States. The machinations behind the scenes, and the political maneuvering that is occurring, are central to how this national crisis is being addressed. You are seeing the extent to which this crisis is revealing great schisms between the two parties. We’ve seen the Republicans, eager to try to get this over and done with, to get Americans back to work, and lift these stay-at-home orders as quickly as possible, and provide a bail out to businesses. Meanwhile, the Democrats are more willing to extend the lock down for fear of exacerbating the situation, are looking to get bailout money directly to the American people and are seeking to attach longstanding party aspirations to any related legislation. There is an expectation of more money being made available and more legislation being prepared to increase public expenditure and salvage the situation, in addition to the eye watering amounts being spent in an attempt to reinforce the national economy. There is talk about infrastructure legislation going forward, which should be a key area that Democrats and the White House could agree upon, but this is Washington DC so at this point anybody knows what will happen next. 

The political uncertainty is exacerbated by the president, who continues to speak from the White House on the state of the virus, while engaging in a war of words with high-profile governors, particularly those in New York, Michigan, and California. These are all Democrat governors, and Trump seems happy to continue his war of attrition against his political opponents. There has been talk of an attempt to instigate a unified response to the crisis by Trump and Biden and that maybe the two men will speak in regard to this. There is, however, very little in Donald Trump’s history to suggest that he will give any attention to the views of his opponents, much less give them any credence. The track record of Donald Trump’s career to date shows he has a  propensity to put his finger in the air and get a sense of where the political winds are blowing and to follow that route, to make gut decisions, rather than make decisions based on the advice of experts and certainly not his political opponents. 

One of the great challenges which the Trump administration is brought to Washington DC is that it is made political bipartisanship far more complicated and difficult. Politicians have long had caustic comments for their opponents, but they tend to be forgotten once only behind closed doors. If you have not been involved with politics, run for office, or held office, and seen the political machinations that go on behind the scenes, it’s understandable why politicians might appear to be at one another’s throats all day, every day. However, relationships between politicians of different political parties is often very different than they may appear on camera. Politics is about theater, ensuring that when most politicians go before TV cameras, they draw sharp distinctions between themselves and their political opponents in order to present themselves in as good a light as possible. Once the TV cameras are switched off, however, they have to deal with their opponents, or nothing gets done. Cross-party friendships have emerged in the past which have ensured that legislation has been able to get passed. Individuals like John McCain and Edward Kennedy were able to reach across the aisle and make political deals.  It’s notable that neither of those senators are with us anymore.

Donald Trump has taken political rivalry and name calling to a new low, making it much more complicated for politicians to forgive and forget behind closed doors. He is not unique in terms of making bipartisan agreement difficult. President Obama foolishly engaged in megaphone diplomacy, speaking harshly about his political opponents with whom he needed to work to pass his legislative agenda. It was notable that when strides were taken during the Obama administration, it was all often because of the work of the vice president, Joe Biden, who worked behind the scenes to make sure that deals were struck. Politicians can talk, and shout, and scream, and stomp their feet, but if they are not prepared to recognize that politics is the art of compromise, that to get they must also give, then nothing will ever pass. Over the course of the last decade, however, there has been a growing sense by groups on the left and the right of American politics, including the Tea Party movement and radical left, that in compromise is a dirty word. Both extremes have adopted a sense of indignation and of political purity, making life very difficult in DC. To govern you need to gather in the center, since legislation needs to have general agreement. The passage of legislation, depending upon what it involves, requires either a straight majority, or in many cases a supermajority. Trying to get a supermajority in United States Senate is a difficult prospect, and you need to have a common ground approach to politics. What is need ed is what might be thought of as old school politicians who can recognize that while politics involved  rough and tumble, there is the reality of politics which takes place behind closed doors in which people can find common ground and common purpose; no side will emerge totally victorious, and that compromise may well be a dirty word in some circles, it is also a lubricant which allows for politics to move forward. Without it, as we’ve seen in recent years, nothing gets done. As long as nothing gets done the American people will continue to look aghast at Washington DC in a time of national crisis, scratch their heads, and wonder what is that these politicians are doing in their name.

Trumped: America in a Time of Corona

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 1

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…

The outbreak of the coronavirus has revealed a near-total disconnect between the federal government in Washington, and the individual state administrations, run by the governors of each individual state. Life has taken on the guise of a civics lesson, played out in real time as the President squares off against individual governors for reasons that have less to do with the virus and more to do with raw political power and the small matter of the 2020 election cycle that we are technically in the middle of, but which everyone seems to have totally forgot about. 

The initial weeks saw a pretty consistent position being adopted by Republican and Democratic governors across the nation, realizing the importance of trying to clamp down on the virus as soon as possible. States began issuing lockdowns, effectively placing a curfew on citizens, except for going out for exercise and to get necessary items. This resulted in the effective closure of American civil society in the hope that the virus may dissipate in a matter of months if not weeks. This had been expected for several weeks here in Boston before it was eventually announced, with friends sending alerts suggesting its imposition was imminent. Clearly, the state administration here in Massachusetts was hesitant to impose such a draconian measure, but when faced with the fact that it had been already been implemented in neighboring states, its enactment became a foregone conclusion.

The decision to do so by a growing number of governors across the nation placed them at odds with the White House, which has routinely provided a very different message. From the start of this crisis, Donald Trump has called for markets and supplies to be re-opened, a remarkable stance to adopt at a time when states across the nation began tightening their grip and closing down, exacerbating a clash between the federal and state governments. A schism has also been evident within the administration, between individuals working at the White House at an advisory level who seem to understand the importance of containing the virus, and others around the president who are seeing his political fortunes collapsing. The president is clearly trying to put a spin on the situation, having touted the success of the American economy since the morning of his election. To see those gains wiped out in space of two weeks must be terrifying as he looks ahead to the November election. 

There is a great deal at stake here, not least of which is the concept of continuity of government: The president and vice president are routinely in meetings together, placing both men in jeopardy, and endangering the continuity of government in the United States. Vice President Pence is theoretically in charge of the coronavirus task force, but right now he doesn’t appear to be in charge of very much at all. Both he and the president have taken test that have come up negative, but they have had contact with members of Congress and key White House advisers who have subsequently come down with the virus. It seems clear that the virus will eventually penetrate the White House; there are reports that Secret Service agents have come down with the virus. It seems clear that from the president down, there is a lack of seriousness being adopted at the White House with regard to the potential to transmit this from person to person due to physical proximity. This is most evident at the White House press briefings. The White House is a very small building, and the West Wing complex within which the most senior members of the administration work or meet, is remarkably small. The press briefing room used to be the White House swimming pool. If you were devising a modern press advisory area from scratch, you wouldn’t use the space because it is simply not up to the standard or dimensions required in the modern era. Yet the administration is routinely cramming very important people with very important decisions to make into this very tight space. When it subsequently emerges that these people have come into contact with people who have developed the virus, it seems all the more remarkable that there has not been a greater attempt to separate these people.

The politics of the virus are remarkable to consider. A consideration of its geography is revealing: if you look at a map of where the virus was initially impacting the United States, its focus was in Blue, heavily Democratic states. Those areas most affected are dominated by major cities that are home to large numbers of solid, Democrat voters, large urban areas on the northeastern seaboard corridor, between Washington and Boston, and on the West coast, in Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you were a Trump supporter in the Midwest, or anywhere between the Appalachians and the Rockies, you might have looked at this and thought, what virus? Initially, at least, the virus found focus in California and here on the northeastern seaboard, so it will be interesting to see the extent to which Donald Trump’s supporters view this as something that is happening to ‘The Other America.’ 

The geographical focus of the virus will also present a challenge to the administration in terms of its financial response. Not all areas of the country appear to have been impacted, or to be in equal economic need of a bailout. The government is planning to distribute money directly to all American citizens below a certain economic level. That’s a fascinating development, considering that great swathes of the nation appear to be an untouched directly by the coronavirus. Yet the virus has seen the government force organizations to effectively close down, force the closure of cafeterias, and restaurants, causing a knock-on effect. While the coronavirus is affecting parts of the nation directly, a further indirect impact is affecting businesses and livelihoods. The great fear, just as with the Great Depression, is that while most Americans don’t own stocks, a collapse in the American stock market will impact all business, leading to permeant closures and declining business confidence, impacting 401K pension funds and causing long-lasting detrimental impact to the American economy and American Society. 

Much will need to be learned from the reaction to the last financial crisis in 2007/2008. Then, it was believed that while Wall Street was bailed out, Main Street was left in the lurch. A conflict is playing out in real time in halls of Congress over the financial response to adopt: the initial bailout package failed to pass due to a lack of Democratic support, since it was believed to offer too much to the banking sector, and not enough support to average citizens. There’s going to be more debate, but the Republican leadership will need to acquiesce to Democratic demands, and create a more equitable financial package, because they are nowhere near the numbers required to get this through the United States Senate. 

Throughout the history of the American presidency, the presidents that are remembered are often those who rose to the occasion during a crisis: JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. They used great rhetoric to speak to the nation: Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural when he made it clear that all America had to fear was fear itself; John F. Kennedy in his inaugural, and his address to the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, offering calming yet decisive words. Donald Trump appears to be failing this test of leadership. He has not made effective use of what Theodore Roosevelt called ‘The Bully Pulpit.’ For someone who prides himself on his communication skills and ability to connect with the American people, Trump has not used the mechanism of the White House to his advantage. At this point to is difficult to think of anything Donald Trump has said that’s been positive and beneficial. Even when he is presented with softball questions by the media that would allow him to calm the nerves of anxious Americans, he instead uses them as an opportunity to attack the medium. You have to wonder about who is advising him, and why this approach appears to be his natural inclination. He feels the need to go on the attack all the time, when this really is a tremendous opportunity for President Trump to be presidential and distinguish himself from his Democratic opponent in November.

He has great tools available at his disposal, including the ability to address the nation from the Oval Office. When he has done so, however, it has proved calamitous, as he has stumbled over his delivery, apparently unable to read from his own script speech which had been cobbled together at the last minute, without any effort to adequately weave together important ideas or concepts. His briefings from the press briefing room are not an ideal setting for a president: this is a small, cramped room that has been stripped back to let fewer members of the fourth estate in to mitigate the impact of this virus. Every time the president has spoken in recent weeks has been accompanied by a drop in the stock market and a decline in support and enthusiasm. He is surrounded by people who are trying to give him the best advice, scholars, academics, medical professions, yet he seems to be unable to get his head around the seriousness of this. Part of the American president’s job is to offer encouragement, but there is a sense that the president either doesn’t get it or is underplaying the severity of this crisis.

The longer this drags out, the more politically damaging this will be for President Trump, as people start to raise serious questions about whether more could have been done earlier. You’re starting to see a state by state recognition that there needs to be a two week clamp down on the movement of people, which see the national borders sealed in large part. We have already started to see the clamp down on movement within the largest states, but we are still to see that absolute directive come from the White House. One will have to draw conclusions as to why that is, but you can see great hesitancy on the part the president to instigate a national lockdown for fears of a political pushback and electoral blowback. Whatever happens next, one thing is for certain, the Age of Trump will now be forever defined, at least in part, by the devastating impact of the Coronavirus and his administration’s response to it.