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. This, therefore, ids 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Old-style politics is beginning to rear its head for the first time in weeks, as a variety of issues compete for headlines with the Coronavirus. There are efforts underway to pass even more financial assistance legislation, as unemployment reaches ever higher figures. However, not only are there challenges within the Senate in terms of trying to get this legislation together, both Democrats and the Republicans trying to bolt their own policy requirements onto this document. The president is talking about delaying the release of funds and one of the areas that he is focusing upon is the US Postal Service, as he seeks to make sure the Postal Service increases the cost of sending packages, suggesting that it is being taken advantage of by Amazon and other delivery services. For several weeks people have been suggesting that Donald Trump will cast some doubts over the results of the presidential election in November if he loses. One way to do so is to cast doubt over postal ballots, which would be dealt with by the US Postal Service. Therefore, the greater doubt President Trump can cast over postal voting, and by extension the Postal Service, the better for his election campaign.
The Trump presidency moved beyond the bounds of satire this week, as the American citizenry were advised to use ultraviolet light on themselves or ingest bleach in an attempt to stem the spread of the Coronavirus. Trying to stay relevant in this age of craziness, Saturday Night Live hired Brad Pitt to play Dr Fauci, speculating upon the good doctor’s oft-rumored removal from office. Four years ago, Trump supporters insisted that the media needed to “take him seriously, but not literally,” suggesting that the media were taking him literally, but not seriously. Apparently, the media were not alone, with stories merging this week that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans have been admitted to hospital for having listened to the president and followed his advice, consuming deadly products. Having ended up in hospital, if they survive ingesting toxic fluids, they could end up being exposed to the very virus that they were trying to avoid in the first place.
There had been hopes that the daily press briefings would act as a substitute for the large-scale presidential rallies, which would have been a stable of the president’s reelection campaign. Since these have been prevented by the Coronavirus, a nightly, presidential press briefing played into Donald Trump’s image of himself as a great communicator, who can convince anybody of anything. What is notable however is how those are clearly backfired and you’re starting to see that in the polls. Following the latest backlash, this time against his suggestion that Americans, President Trump’s daily press briefings have been suspended. The White House has decided that they are apparently not worth the time or the effort, claiming that the media is misrepresenting what the president has been saying. Unfortunately for the White House, the media has been doing precisely what they wanted, which is to broadcast the president’s remarks live and un-edited, unfortunately stating things that are demonstrably untrue. Unable, therefore, to claim to have been mis-quoted, Trump is now suggesting that he was being sarcastic, insisting as much to one particular journalist, who, it was imediaely noted, had not been in the particular briefing session Trump was referring to. The president’s problem is that if you want to get someone in trouble, put them in front of a microphone and let him talk; eventually they’ll talk themselves into trouble. This has certainly happened to Donald Trump over the last week. He has often issued incendiary statements, but they have attracted as many people as they have repelled. Now he has strayed into areas where he clearly has no clue whatsoever, taking snake oil salesmanship to a whole new level.
This unforced error was compounded by the president’s continuing insistence on singling out female reporters out for his ire. The White House sought to move CNN’s White House correspondent, Kaitlin Collins, from her front row seat to the back of the room and sought to get the Secret Service to enforce this. Despite this attempt, it was made immediately clear that despite this being the president’s house, he has no authority to move journalists in the press briefing room, a responsible that rests with the White House Correspondence Association. The frustration that this combination of media-related setbacks had on the presidential psyche was apparent in a series of Tweets, in which Trump suggested that journalists who had won the ‘Noble Peace Prize’ were on the wrong side of history and should return their prizes. Correct side of history or not, the ‘Nobel Prize’ winning journalists can likely hold onto their awards, if for no other reason than they can at least spell, which apparently is one step ahead of the American president.
The suspension of the presidential press briefings coincides with word that Republicans across the country are getting wary. They are not necessarily ready to speak out against the president, but they are starting to run away from Donald Trump, to focus on local issues and talk about anything other than the present. As long as they are having to talk about Trump, the less they are able to talk about what is important to the American citizens in their state. This is a shift within the Republican Party, which, only a few weeks ago, was convinced it would retain the Senate, would retain the presidency, and pick up a couple of seats in the House of Representatives. None of that now seems likely. There are increasing concerns amongst the Republican Party that it might well lose control of United States Senate, lose ground in the House, and that Donald Trump’s reelection is no longer as assured as it was just four weeks ago. Donald Trump ran for office and spent three and a half years as president boasting about his ability to increase American wealth, noting that if Hillary Clinton had been elected the American economy would crashed and that unemployment would have soared. That nightmare scenario is exactly where we are with just six months to go until the next American presidential election. While it is difficult to blame Donald Trump for all of this, he was determined to take credit for three and a half years of economic prosperity, so he must now take responsibility for what happens in the last six months of his term. The Coronavirus is having as devastating impact on the president’s reelection campaign and the campaign strategies of Republicans around the country who are running for office or running for re-election in November.
Despite the president’s problems, Joe Biden is struggling to get any attention. In any other year he would have been out about meeting and greeting, holding rallies and raising money. This year, he is having to compete with the president from his basement, in Delaware, struggling to get the word out, or to raise funds. Joe Biden is not on the television, and the only time he is being discussed at the moment is in regard to an allegation that he may have assaulted a former congressional aide when he was a senator several decades ago. This is hardly the kind of press Joe Biden or the Democrats want at this point. One thing that Biden does have going for him, however, is that the Democratic Party is unified, with all of his former challengers for the nomination having now fallen in line. They have clearly looked back to what happened four years ago and realized that the longer they keep their hat in the ring, the more likely it was that a potential Bernie Sanders candidacy emerged from the Democratic primary season. The Democratic Party can now unite around a moderate candidate, which presents a challenge for Republicans who had expected to allege that socialists had hijacked the Democratic Party and nominated Bernie Sanders as their leader. Trump and his allies would have initiated a scorched-earth campaign, going after Sanders and the politics of the left, just as Nixon did against George McGovern in 1972. Now that the left has been effectively silenced, it becomes very difficult for Donald Trump to label Joe Biden, a relatively bland, centrist Democrat, as being a dangerous socialist. We are faced, therefore, with the prospect of two old, white men in their seventies running for the most powerful office in the world, raising doubts about their capacity to survive a four-year term in office. As a result, questions are being asked about who Biden’s vice-presidential pick might be. He has made it clear he is going to select a woman, causing several names to be mentioned as his potential running mate. Stacy Abrams of Georgia has put herself forward in a big piece in The Atlantic, detailing why she believes she should be the vice-presidential pick for Joe Biden. It is extraordinary for someone to put themselves forward in such a manner, since once upon a time, American presidents didn’t even run for election, they stood for election. Candidates agreed to allow their names to be put forward if people wished to vote for them, but they certainly didn’t actively seek the office. The idea that people are now actively campaigning to be selected as vice president is really stepping things up, and it’s likely to backfire upon her.
With Joe Biden emerging as the presumptive nominee, it is apparent that Barack Obama’s legacy will be on the ballot in November. That legacy is very much in the balance, to an extent he can likely hardly imagine. Obama was a two term Democratic president who everybody expected to be followed by Hillary Clinton. This would have been two epoch making presidencies in succession: the first African American president, followed by the first female American president. In retrospect, however, it appears that Barack Obama simply didn’t do enough to make sure that Hillary Clinton was elected in 2016. It is possible that Obama, like many Americans, figured that Hillary couldn’t lose, and that, therefore, he didn’t have to do that much. It is also possible that Obama felt that his presidency would look all the more impressive by way of contrast if Trump were elected. It would appear even more erudite, more impressive, with a greater record of success in office, passing Obamacare, opening relations with Cuba, negotiating the Paris climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal would all look more impressive if Donald Trump floundered and ended up as a failed, one-term president. Certainly, Obama’s presidency, in the eyes of some, now looks better, but it is also being erased from history. Donald Trump has sought to remove all traces of Obama from American history books; he has erased his deal with Cuba, withdrawn from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, is dismantling Obamacare, and has pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Agreement. It is widely considered that if Obama had cured cancer, Donald Trump would bring it back. Obama’s presidency is being erased from history by Donald Trump to such a degree that if Trump gets a second term, students of American politics may eventually ask, Obama who?