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 IV

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 IV

The lock-down continues unabated here in the United States. Easter weekend came and went and still the United States appears no closer to getting out of this situation. This was the weekend that Donald Trump originally speculated would see the country reopened, but that hasn’t happened. There seems to be very little sign as to when, or if, the various statewide curfews are going to be lifted, and the gulf between the federal and state responses is doing very little to improve that situation. The Covid crisis is raising questions beyond issues of health that now extend into the political realm, not merely regarding the handling of the pandemic, but as to whether the disease could contribute to an effort to undermine democracy here in America.

The United States is still in the process of selecting a Democratic nominee to challenge Donald Trump in the November election, with Wisconsin being the latest state to hold a primary, albeit in a very convoluted fashion. The Democrat governor of Wisconsin tried to prevent the primary because of fears for public safety, that was challenged by the Republican controlled state legislature. Initially, it looked as though the governor was going to prevail, until the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which sided with the Republican majority, ensuring that the poll went ahead. We are still in a state of flux with regards to the result, since there was a time period allowed for postal voting and for absentee ballots to come in. It is clear, however, that people are looking at the debacle in Wisconsin and the differing approach adopted by the Democratic and Republican Parties, fearing it could be a harbinger for the general election in November.

Conspiracy theorists are already suggesting that Donald Trump might use this as an excuse to cancel the election, or to call into doubt question the results in November. He is already casting doubt on the concept of postal votes, despite the fact that he already has one in place for his residency in Florida. Four years ago, he was asked if he would accept the results of the presidential election if he lost, and he said, ‘wait and see,’ revealing his willingness to play fast and loose with accepted norms of American democracy 

What would transpire if Donald Trump sought to cancel the presidential election in November? Students of American politics who want to get a grasp of what’s going on here need to start with the Constitution. The timing of the election is addressed in the 20th amendment to the Constitution, which states that;  If the president shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect you have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until the President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as Present, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.

This appears to mean that it would be up to Congress to decide who would be president, on the basis that neither Mike Pence nor Donald Trump would have become president. If the election is not held, their terms in office will expire at noon on January 20th.  As of today, the Democrats control the House of Representatives, and the Senate is controlled by the Republicans. We move into uncharted territory when you consider that the new Congress will take its seats on the third day of January. We could end up in a bizarre situation whereby if the presidential election is suspended, but there are still elections to the House and the Senate, Democrats could control both the House and Senate. Those Democratic majorities would take their seat on the third day of January next year, and in the absence of a presidential election, once Donald Trump’s term expires at noon on January 20th, they could very well decide who the new president will be.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden spoke this week with regards to the coronavirus and the only news appears to be a total lack of news coming out of that call. It was not a face to face meeting which you may expect at this time in an electoral process, but nobody expected that. President Trump is not going to turn around and suggest that his thinking on this subject has been changed due to any input from Joe Biden. That would not be politically viable. Neither should anybody necessarily expect any original thinking from Joe Biden, whose career to date suggests that such a development really would be quite a miraculous occurrence. What you ae seeing, therefore, is simply the continuation of politics as normal. It is surprising that the phone call took place at all,  but clearly it was an opportunity for the two men to demonstrate some degree of national unity in this time of national crisis, even if the unity is going to be relatively short lived in what is indeed a very strange election cycle. 

Perhaps the most important news to have occurred this week is the decision by Bernie Sanders to finally suspend his campaign for the presidency. This, however, is nothing more than acceptance of political reality. Bernie’s campaign this year really failed to take off in a manner which he and his supporters had anticipated after the results from the Democratic primaries four years ago. In 2016 he came second in a two-horse race with Hillary Clinton. He and his supporters felt that he was the anointed one this year, but history and the voters have decided otherwise. Instead, Joe Biden has emerged as the unity candidate for the Democratic Party, and it’s interesting to see what has happened within the party this year. 

Four years ago, when everyone was terrified that Donald Trump might emerge as the Republican Party candidate, everyone assumed it simply couldn’t happen. Nobody dropped out of the race in an attempt to coalesce support around a single unity candidate, such as Jeb Bush, and as a result Donald Trump came through to win with a pretty constant level of support that hovered around 35%, suggesting that the majority of Republican voters were overwhelmingly opposed to him. However, as long as their egos were intact, Trump’s opponents refused to bow out, guaranteeing him victory. The Democrats have attempted to learn from that this in 2020 and were mindful of Bernie Sanders becoming the Donald Trump figure for the Democratic Party. You saw about a month ago, the leading candidates after Super Tuesday bowing out and throwing their weight behind Joe Biden in a deliberate effort to block Bernie Sanders. What’s telling is the extent to which Biden has recognized that he needs to do what Hillary Clinton failed to do last time around: Bernie Sanders did not drop out until the last minute in 2016, and chased Hillary Clinton all the way to the convention, throwing his weight somewhat tepidly behind Hillary Clinton only very late in the game, ensuring that even at the convention Hillary was heckled by his supporters.  

Hillary’s defeat can be explained by many elements, not least of which was the fact that there was a 5 million decline in Democratic turnout from 2012. There was no great surge in Republican support, there was simply a dip by 5 million for the Democratic Party. Joe Biden believe this is an eminently winnable election. If the Democratic base gets out to vote, the thinking clearly is that Joe Biden can win where Hillary Clinton did not. Biden is attempting to court Bernie Sanders’ supporters, talking about the fact that his team have created a movement. Very clearly there has been the emergence over the past four years of a new-left movement in the United States, identifiable with Bernie Sanders as well as AOC in New York City, formulating around the support for the Green New Deal concept. It must be said that in many ways this is somewhat out of kilter with the mainstream United States. Bernie Sanders and this nascent movement helped drag the Democratic Party to the left four years ago, making it more difficult for Hillary Clinton to position herself at the political center where she spent much of a political career along with her husband. Joe Biden is, therefore, playing lip service to Bernie Sanders’ supporters, hoping that by doing so this early in the primary season any hard feeling will be diminished by the time of the election in November, enabling them to come out and voting for the Democratic candidate. 

Biden’s apparent grip on the nomination has raised questions about whom he might name as his vice-presidential running mate. He has made clear that he intends to name a woman to the position. Some people are suggesting this is a historic first, but  this is not the case; We have seen Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee at the top of the ticket four years ago, Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic Party vice presidential nominee  in 1984, and  who can forget Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee for the Republican Party in 2012? The idea that Biden is going to select a woman is significant, so that narrows down the field of potential candidates. The most important factor to consider is that Joe Biden needs to choose someone who can help him win the presidency. To do so, he needs 270 Electoral College votes. He needs, therefore, to choose someone as a running mate who can guarantee to bring along their own state; the more populous the state, the more delegates it brings for the Electoral College. Therefore, Biden needs to choose someone who is very popular in a state with a large population. Who might Biden be thinking about? Some people have suggested Kirsten Gillibrand, senator from of New York, although her media presence has been diminished, and no one is really talking about her.  There are certain states which are all but guaranteed to vote for the Democratic Party in November, and New York would certainly be one of them,  so it doesn’t really make an awful lot of sense to choose Senator Gillibrand because New York will be in the Democratic tally, and if it isn’t then Joe Bryant has a lot bigger things to worry about!

A similar challenge faces Kamala Harris, whom a lot of people have talked about as a potential Democratic vice-presidential running mate. Yet the last thing Joe Biden needs is any more votes from California! The Democrats won that state by 2 million votes four years ago, and desperately need to spread their support among the neighboring states, so bringing Kamala Harris on board fails to contribute an awful lot to Joe Biden’s ground game. Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota is a serious possibility, coming from the Midwest which is part of the country the Democrats desperately need to bring into their tally. It is part of the country which was seen to back away from Hillary Clinton four years ago, so she could very well be a possibility. Someone who has a lot of light on them  is Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, but again the great problem with naming her is the fact that Massachusetts is going to vote Democrat come what may, and therefore, naming her would not necessarily galvanizes an awful lot of excitement, or pick up local support beyond where it already is. An interesting candidate is Governor Whitmer from Michigan, an individual who may lack a great deal of experience, but who would be able to help deliver Michigan, a state which Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, and which Donald Trump desperately needs to hold onto it he wants to be re-elected. She’s a candidate who could help bring the Midwest along and would, therefore, be an all too obvious candidate for Joe Biden’s presidential running mate. 

We are in uncertain times. In the 1930s and 1940s, once the Great Depression was ending, and America’s involvement in the Second World war was becoming increasingly inevitable, Franklin Roosevelt presented himself as being vital to the national interests of the United States. It was claimed that ‘Dr. New Deal was going to become Dr. Win the War,’ suggesting that the United States would be unable to prevail without FDR in the White House. That turned the elections of 1940 and 1944 into unprecedented situations whereby a sitting president remained in office seeking election for a third and a fourth time. The Constitution was changed subsequently to prevent this from happening again, but when FDR did it there was nothing to prevent him from doing so, only precedent stood in his way. What Donald Trump is going do in November is anybody’s guess. At this point, he is required to run for reelection in the November election. There is no example in American history of a presidential election not being held. Even during the Civil War an election was held. During the Spanish Flu epidemic elections were held. During World War Two, elections were held, so there really is no historical precedent for Donald Trump to look back upon to use in an attempt to potentially undermine American democracy in November. His opponents would doubtless suggest that would not be an impediment for Donald Trump should he seek to thwart democracy, for we are in the most uncertain of times here in the United States.