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.  

The Right To Bear Arms and to Expect Political Honesty

Irrespective of one’s political perspective, the tragedy that has rocked the United States this week is one that is particularly appalling. The death of over 20 children in such circumstances is beyond comprehension and has rightly raised serious questions as to the environment in which it occurred. I have sought to bring together my developing thoughts on this subject on this post, which includes various writings and interviews….

Yet for any serious discussion to occur there is the need for political honesty and right now, that is sadly lacking. It is not enough for President Obama to weep from one eye and talk about the need to change. If this is all he has to offer then it is a real indictment of his presidency. It is also politically dishonest. To deliver a speech in which the president reads the names of the deceased and then insist that America must change, without mentioning the words “gun” “control” and “legislation” is politically dishonest, for it suggests that change can be delivered upon whilst refusing to utter the very words that would be required for this to happen. This is not leadership: It is political posturing of the very worst kind. The tragedy in Connecticut is likely to be compounded by a total lack of meaningful reaction.

In case this is perceived as a right-wing rant against a Democratic president and an attempt to use the tragedy to attack Obama for political reasons, let me mention that I worked on Capitol Hill in the 1990s, and lobbied Congress in gun control legislation. As a European you would expect no less, I’m sure, since those of us in Europe who have a special place in their hearts for the United States often struggle to comprehend the nation’s embrace of firearms. As I have sought to highlight in various interviews, my stance on this matter is far from philosophical or ideological.  As a long-term student of the United States it is clear that this latest tragedy fits an all too appalling pattern of horror and inaction. Consider any related tragedy over the last 15 years and you will recall the initial reaction of horror, political and media soul-searching followed by….nothing. There is, alas, little in this latest tragedy to suggest that anything will be any different. Even the initial statements by politicians and the NRA will doubtless lead to any meaningful change.

President Obama has spoken on gun control but has done little on the subject in this first term. Indeed, he has repeatedly sought to placate gun owners in the vain hope of securing their vote. Fear that he may have implemented serious gun control legislation promoted a spike in gun sales following his election in 2008 and in the lead up to 2012, but this is based on emotion, not reality. The reality is that President Obama has done little, if anything, to restrict gun ownership. His declarations this weekend mask the fact that in terms of gun control legislation, he is as much a part of the problem as his political opponents, who will doubtless receive a great deal of the blame in coming days.

This is an area that has witnessed not only political dishonesty but also political cowardice. In the 1960s President Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were killed by firearms. Subsequent shootings have involved Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace and Gabby Gifford. Four American presidents (almost 1 in 10) have died at the hands of gunmen. Yet Congress has failed to act even when fellow politicians have been the target. The only serious effort to pass gun control legislation was the Brady Bill, signed by Clinton in 1993, which introduced background checks into gun purchases, and the Federal Assault Weapons ban of 1994, again signed by Clinton, which lapsed in 2004 and has not been renewed since. Clinton was able to get these bills passed in his first two years in office when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House. Such a political climate does not exist today.

To enact serious reform would require serious political leadership, and this is in short supply in Washington. It takes no leadership to make a statement imploring America to change. If Obama truly wishes to initiate the change of which he speaks, he will need to make it a priority for his second term. As he campaigned without expressing a specific agenda for the next 4 years, this would at least give his administration a domestic focus. However, with the Republican control of the House of Representatives, he has little to no hope of implementing any such legislation.

If legislation is impossible to consider passing, then changing the Constitution is even less likely and is an area in which the president is a mere spectator. To do so both houses of Congress must propose and endorse an amendment with a 2/3 majority. Then 2/3 of the nation’s state legislatures must approve the amendment within 7 years. Since 1787 only 33 amendment proposals have ever received sufficient support from Congress and only 27 eventually gained popular support in the country. This figure includes the first ten amendments (The Bill of Rights), including the second amendment that is currently under the microscope. Therefore, in over 200 years, the constitution has only been altered on 17 occasions and 2 of these were to implement and then end prohibition. This was the only effort to us the Constitution to restrict rights and its was later repealed.

This is not a simple matter of banning guns. There are social, cultural and historical issues in addition to the political ramifications. The America that Europeans don’t visit is rural, where guns are a way of life. Are semi automatics necessary for hunting? No. But will efforts to restrict firearms be seen as an infringement of American constitutional rights? Absolutely. Irrespective of the political noises that will be expressed in the coming days, it would be unwise to expect any solutions any time soon.