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 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.