The richest and most technologically advanced country in the world is currently floundering in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic and thousands of individual Americans, not to mention the American economy, will be paying the price unnecessarily. How has this happened?
The first and most obvious explanation is that the country is saddled with a president who is simply not up to the job. But there is much more to this tragic story, and it is worth examining the underlying problems that have led to this unfortunate result.
Of course the American political system has sometimes appeared unwieldy due to the many checks and balances imposed on its structure, but it has generally accommodated pressing issues well in the past, and the advantages have often outweighed the disadvantages. Similarly, the American two-party brokerage system has been frequently criticized for failing to present the full range of democratic options (socialism, liberalism and conservatism) to voters. But there has always been widespread recognition that Democrats are located to the left of Republicans on the political spectrum and both parties, while stressing their big tents, have historically been dominated by moderates. (The unexpected nomination of the far-right Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964 — and that party’s subsequent thrashing at the polls — reinforced this moderation for years.)
American politics have been complicated by the race issue, which cost the Democrats the south for decades over their implementation of the Civil Rights Act and eventually led to the dominance of the far-right within the Republican Party, stressing social conservative issues in the guise of “states’ rights” arguments. Further distortion of the system has been introduced by the uncontrolled wild west approach to campaign financing, personified by Mitt Romney, Michael Bloomberg, the Koch brothers and Donald Trump himself. Last but hardly least, the rapidly growing inequality and regional divides in American society, exacerbated by various government policies under both Bush presidencies and only somewhat mitigated under Obama, have made many Americans less convinced of the legitimacy of the political system.
Still, under the existing system Democrats have historically been the natural governing party. To be successful Republicans were obliged to target certain demographics and build specific coalitions, a practice Ronald Reagan’s organizers perfected. This approach is even more important in presidential campaigns due to the unique nature of the Electoral College system, as both the George Bush Jr and Obama campaigns successfully demonstrated.
What was different about Donald Trump’s 2016 run for the Republican presidential nomination was the hand grenade he threw into the traditional practices and norms of the political system by simply ignoring them, and by showing thinly veiled contempt for his opponents and his purported party, all the while stressing his lack of credentials and outsider status. (Newt Gingrigh, it will be remembered, had earlier tried to position himself as an outsider but failed, largely because everyone knew he was actually a Republican insider of long standing.) Trump deliberately cultivated the image of an anti-politician rather than adopting the expected presidential persona: a seasoned veteran with relevant experience, someone obviously capable of assuming the most important job in the country if not the world. Trump also successfully promoted an unabashed populist agenda which was neither right nor left, nor even consistent or rational. He reversed himself on major issues on a regular basis and notoriously ignored facts. The worst elements of populism emerged in his relentlessly polarizing, misogynistic and quasi-racist rhetoric and ruthless fact-free attacks on opponents.[i]
Despite an abundance of shortcomings that would normally have doomed his candidacy, a perfect storm of errors and bad judgment by other key actors in the system allowed Trump to prevail. The failure of the Republican Party establishment and moderate grassroots Republicans to come together behind a credible alternative candidate was a crucial element in Trump’s eventual success. So was the mainstream media’s inability to establish a new protocol for reporting practices, one which would have put the longstanding ethical requirement for ‘balance and fairness’ into some sort of reasonable context, given Trump’s litany of falsehoods and unsubstantiated claims. But his victory was also the result of the Democrats losing their way with programs that were out of step with the needs and concerns of ordinary Americans, and of the Democratic leadership failing to stop the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, whose campaign created deep rifts in the party and arguably played a role in Hilary Clinton’s failure to secure the presidency. (According to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 1 in 10 Sanders supporters voted for Trump, while an unknown additional number stayed home in protest over his defeat for the nomination.) [ii] This was compounded by the unprecedented and extraordinary decision by FBI Director James Comey to intervene in the election by publicly raising the Clinton email investigation, to say nothing of the now established Russian “disinformation” intervention in the election campaign, of which President Obama was informed at the time by his security adviser but declined to reveal, out of a perceived abundance of ethical caution that others might consider a lack of common sense.
The end result was the election of an incompetent president with little or no regard for evidence-based decision-making and scientific expertise, and a profound distrust of what he calls the “deep state.” Yet the deep state is precisely what Americans need now. Unfortunately, much of it is no longer functioning. Trump’s numerous budget cuts over the last four years have come back to haunt him. Among the many victims of his cutbacks were key elements of the country’s infrastructure which was created precisely to protect against pandemics.
In early 2018 Trump imposed a $15 billion reduction in health spending that had previously been approved, much of it under the Obama administration. The world-famous Centre for Disease Control and Prevention was forced to cut its budget for the prevention of global disease outbreak by 80%. The $30 million “emergency complex crises” fund (created by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State) was eliminated, while the disease-fighting budgets of the National Security Council and Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services were cut significantly. By March 2018 the man in charge of the entire U.S. pandemic response program, Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, had resigned in protest.[iii]
Now that the Covd-19 pandemic has reached America’s shores, Trump’s response to the crisis has been characteristically incoherent and frequently dangerous. Initially downplaying the severity of the situation and refusing to be tested, he assured Americans the situation was under control, a blatant falsehood as the outbreak in Seattle proved. Then he declared a vaccine would be ready shortly when experts insisted it would take 12-18 months, and told everyone they would be tested even though the system’s ability to carry out tests has been crippled by his cuts. Attempting to place the blame elsewhere, he refers frequently to the “foreign” and “Chinese” virus, arbitrarily closed American borders to Europeans with no consultation or forewarning, and in one of the more outrageous examples of politicization, appointed the equally incompetent vice president Mike Pence to “take charge” of the whole situation, thereby reassuring no one. By the time Trump finally declared a national state of emergency, the horse had long left the barn.
America does have the equivalent of a Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s national public health officer, but the public is rarely allowed to hear from him. The reason became clear on Friday March 20. In one of the more bizarre developments so far, Trump spent much of the day in a sparring match with the country’s top public health expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who consistently and categorically dismissed Trump’s repeated claims that a malaria drug could prove useful in combatting the virus.
the Democrats have improved their chances in November enormously by coming
together behind Joe Biden as their presidential candidate, finally putting an
end to another divisive run by Bernie Sanders. Biden’s March 12 speech on the
pandemic, which might once have seemed acceptable but hardly exceptional, has
now been compared glowingly to Trump’s performance by many commentators who
have described it is a model of leadership. Deemed both presidential and a
political winner, it has seemingly provided Americans with the calm reassurance
that someone competent and responsible is waiting in the wings to take over.
Unfortunately, it will be too late for the unnecessary victims of this
[i] For a detailed analysis of the growing role of populism in American politics, see Ronald Inglehart.
The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles among Western Publics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977) and Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris. “Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties: The Silent Revolutionin Reverse. “Reflections”. Cambridge University. Vol.15, No.2, June 2017.
[ii] See the analysis of the study data by Professor Brian Schaffner of the University of Michigan at https://www.npr.org/2017/08/24/545812242/1-in-10-sanders-primary-voters-ended-up-supporting-trump-survey-finds
[iii] For more detail see Chris Morris. “Trump Administration Cuts Could Become Major Problem as Coronavirus Spreads”. Fortune. Feb. 26, 2020.