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.

US Governmental Shutdown Looms Large Again

Earlier in the summer the threat of a government shutdown loomed large in Washington with wild predictions in some circles that President Obama would be forced to implement the 14th amendment to the Constitution to keep the government ticking over. That didn’t happen of course. Instead, as I suggested on Sky News, the politicians in DC merely kicked the problem into the long grass in the hope that the issue would be resolved. It hasn’t been and the issue is back once again as the end of the fiscal year arrived on Friday. Continuing resolutions are no way to run the United State’s government.
At a time when world markers are plummeting and investors and citizens are looking for signs of confidence in the market, politicians in Washington are doing their utmost to worsen the situation. Blame can be spread around and suggestions that this is simply a Tea Party roadblock are misleading, if for no other reason than that such a party doesn’t really exist as a single entity. Leaders from both sides of the aisle need to unite for the long term interests of the nation.
Policymakers and lawmakers need to recognise the damage that is being done not only to markets but also to the long term reputation of the United States by their actions. Critics enjoy analysing American hegemonic decline. Their work is made easier by the very individuals sent to Washington to prevent such an event.  

JDB on the BBC News Channel Today

Following my recent work with Sky News, Talk Radio Europe and LBC 97.3 FM, I will be returning to the airwaves this afternoon on the BBC News Channel.

I will be appearing on the BBC News Channels’  Four o’clock News Hour to address the debt crisis and the implications for the wider world.

Watch live on the Internet at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10318089

Dr. James D. Boys on BBC News
Dr. James D. Boys on BBC News

 

Political Violence and the United States

The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords this weekend has come as a terrible shock to the state of Arizona, to the United States and to the wider world. However, as I mentioned on Sky News this morning, perhaps the most dramatic element to this tragic event is the targeting of a young and relatively obscure female member of the lower house of congress. In the past, assassination attempts have focused on high-profile men, usually presidents or at least presidential candidates.

Barack Obama came to prominence claiming that there was no such think as red states or blue states, only the United States. Two years into his presidency, however, the U.S. is a deeply divided nation, and the divisions are only getting deeper and more pronounced. No longer is heartfelt political dialogue possible in some sections of society, as groups unite to wage political war on one another. Much has been made of the use of ‘targets’ on web sites to focus on certain districts for victory. This was not unique, not is the use of harsh rhetoric in politics. What is concerning, however, is the depth of disdain that has emerged. No longer can one merely disagree. Instead, opponents are savaged, tarred and feathered as being anti-American, and accused of dark plots, designed to radically alter the direction of the country and set it on the path to socialism.

In 2010 I was a visiting fellow at the University of North Dakota’s Centre for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. In October I received the keys to Grad Forks, the university’s hometown, having given a speech entitled The Perpetual War on Terrorism, in which I warned against the rise in political violence in the United States. What follows is an excerpt from that address:

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For the vast majority of its existence, the United States has benefited from its strategic geo-political position. With abundant natural resources, expansive land mass and weak neighbours to its north and south, the United States was able to thrive in relative and fluctuating isolation from the rest of the world. As the rest of the world suffered at the hands of one extremist group after another, the United States took great pride in having avoided any such attacks and the attending fear that such atrocities can strike into the heart of the populace. Indeed this was a primary boast of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover, who saw the lack of domestic political violence as a vindication of his methods and of his agency.

Just as the United States remained apparently unscathed, the European continent in particular was inundated with sporadic acts of extreme political violence. From the IRA in the UK, to the Baader-Meinhoff Gang and the Red Army Faction in Germany, from the Basque ETA group in Spain to the actions of Carlos the Jackal, few, if any, European nations were spared the horrors of terrorism in the Twentieth Century. Indeed political violence in the form of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria triggered the First World War, an event that formed part of a seven-year cycle in which anarchists assassinated President Carnot of France, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the prime minister of Spain and King Humbert of Italy. As the century progressed so the body count grew: The IRA attempted to assassinate two British Prime Ministers; Margaret Thatcher and John Major and succeeded in killing Lord Mountbatten and MPs Airey Neave and Ian Gow. In Italy, Premier Aldo Moro was kidnapped and shot to death in 1978 and an assassination attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul II, as the nation came under the grip of ‘Red Brigade’ factions. Political violence also led to the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and foreign minister Anna Lindh. Elsewhere, assassins claimed the lives of Israeli Prime Minster Yitzak Rabin, Rajiv and Indira Ghandi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.

Anarchism aside, much of this could be explained in terms of religious or political struggles that predated the modern era. Time and again leaders were struck down by groups dedicated to the promotion of an ideology or religion that they felt were threatened by the political status quo. Indeed, what differentiated the events in Europe and the rest of the world from the United States was the manner in which such events were implemented. Political violence on the European continent was uniformly seen as the act of groups, conspiring to overthrow leaders in an attempt to implement a specific philosophy, even if that was mere anarchy, with motivations ranging from the religious to the ideological and covering both extremes of the political spectrum.

Yet the United States could not escape acts of political violence, irrespective of claims made by Director Hoover, for the history of the United States is littered with such acts. Indeed, the aforementioned anarchist movement claimed the life of President William McKinley in the first year of the Twentieth Century. This led President Theodore Roosevelt to commence the first international effort to eliminate terrorism, stating, “anarchy is a crime against the whole human race, and all mankind should band together against the Anarchist. His crimes should be made a crime against the law of nations…declared by treaties among all civilized powers.”[i] TR’s motivations, of course, were a little cloudy, as he had ascended to the presidency as a direct result of the political violence that had claimed the life of President McKinley.

In the United States, however, political violence has almost always been explained as the deranged and misguided acts of lone madmen. From the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King or many other political leaders, such acts are rarely explained as being the result of conspiracies, but rather of disturbed, lonely young men, eager to make their mark on history, even if it is the last thing that they ever do. Little wonder, therefore, that few in Europe accept the official verdicts of such events, when they stand in stark contrast to the European experience. There are exceptions of course; the Klan and the Weather Underground amongst them, but the lone individual is the norm in America, with more recent examples including Ted Kazinski, Eric Rudolph, and John Hinckley.[ii] Also, the political origins of American political violence would appear to be from the extreme right, as opposed to the European experience of terror from the Marxist/Leninist left. American fanatics, it seems are concerned about too much government as opposed to too little!

These differences raise questions pertaining to the variances in the societal and political make-up of the two continents and their governmental structures, variances that require placement in the correct historical and political context. To do so, it is instructive to consider the actions and motivations of a successive number of administrations in order to ascertain the extent to which the United States has been waging a war against political violence and the degree to which this has succeeded to date. In so doing it is possible to ascertain patterns of behaviour and rhetoric and of repeated attempts by the United States to proffer apparently simple solutions to ancient hatreds only to be surprised when such platitudes provoke a backlash that perpetuates a new cycle of violence that has dragged the United States into an apparent nightmare of its own making.

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As American mourns its dead and continues its vigil for Congresswoman Giffords, it would do well to consider the lessons that have failed to be learnt from similar events in the past and how such lessons could be applied in the aftermath of this tragedy. To ignore history is to be condemned to relive it. Right now, America is continuing in a national nightmare due to its innate inability to learn the lessons of its own history. President Obama’s responsibility now is to follow President Clinton’s efforts in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, to unite the nation in grief, and in a shared vision of tomorrow.


[i] President Theodore Roosevelt, quoted by David C. Rapaport, ‘The Fours Waves of Modern Terrorism,’ in Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes (eds) Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004, 52

[ii] Respectfully, The Unabomber, the individual who sought to disrupt the Atlanta Olympics with a pipe bomb, and President Reagan’s would-be assassin.