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…
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.