Trump's War Against America
- Jeremy Agar
In the course of one Independence Day weekend, the one when America is meant to celebrate ideals like "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", Donald Trump insisted on twice rallying his supporters to pack themselves, unmasked, to witness yet more of his rants. As a result, hundreds of people will get sick and some will die.
He told his audiences that Covid-19 was almost always "totally harmless". As it was being announced that deaths had passed 130,000, he said that America was "leading the world" in recovering from the pandemic. But doctors spoke of a "free fall". As a result of Trump's remarks, millions of Americans will be confirmed in their belief that it's OK to risk others' health and, even better, it's OK not to believe anything you don't want to know.
Then he switched to his main theme, by explicitly endorsing the Confederate flag, again shouting his preference for the values of slavery. He declared himself a "wartime President". Previously, he let us know, such a role involved fighting Nazis. His war was against all the “"narchists and looters" who thought that Black Lives Mattered. His message was explicit: black lives do not matter. His war was against America.
America is presided over by a vile man with no interest in anything beyond his personal whims. Trump has been warring against his officials, his medical and scientific experts, federal agencies, state governors, city mayors, judges, generals, bishops, foreigners, and most of the civilian population. He thinks this is the way to get re-elected so he can continue to abuse his country. Is it? They call it a "culture war", but it's more a war fought by lies against truth, death against life, and barbarism against civilisation. The man has always been delusional, but has he slipped into dementia? He's certainly panicking, and that makes him ever more dangerous.
These metaphorical wars were declared on the Fourth of July, but previously Trump had literally declared war against his own people. This occurred when he deployed the National Guard to clear a way through peaceful demonstrators so that he could hold someone's Bible up for the cameras. That was an unconstitutional denial of the right to assemble and a denial of the demonstrators' freedom of speech. It was (in spirit) unconstitutional in a third way as federal forces are not to be used within the USA, but as Washington DC is considered federal territory, he got away with it.
Tactically Hopeless & Tone-Deaf
This was in June 2020, when George Floyd was murdered. Trump called in the press the next day and did not mention the death. Instead he announced measures he was stepping up against China and the World Health Organisation (WHO) and he took no questions as they would have been about Floyd. He thought to change the subject, but no-one cared about China or the WHO. They were interested in America's racial tensions. Besides all his evil, Trump is tactically hopeless. He can tune into his own types but he's tone-deaf to the sort of reactions normal people have.
Then it was on to Oklahoma for a rally, where many thousands were supposed to hoot and holler their contempt for the measures Trump's own government and his health experts were taking to slow the spread of Covid-19. Hours before the rally started, he warned that Tulsa would not be like Minnesota or New York, where "thugs" and protestors felt free to assert that dislike of racism. Minnesota was where Floyd was killed and the first protests began; New York is full of "liberals" and the President of all the people wanted his mob to provoke violence against their compatriots.
Days later the rally was in Phoenix., where Trump addressed students on the same day that Arizona announced a record number of new infections. Both there and in Tulsa Covid-19 cases had doubled in the previous week. So, Trump and his bare faced mobs were deliberately spreading the virus, not caring who they might be killing. A parallel suggesting itself from an earlier decade might be the refusal of the Deplorables' predecessors to use seat belts. The difference is that an unbuckled car crash is a suicide venture while the Trumpers knew they were going to kill (almost certainly) hundreds and possibly thousands of their neighbours.
Whenever Homer Simpson, a total Deplorable, sees a brawl or any other chaotic public behaviour, he breaks out into a chant of "USA, USA". In April in the cartoon land that is Trump's America, mobs had gathered outside Government buildings to protest social distancing by following Homer's example. "USA, USA", they bellowed, certain in the knowledge that the State Governor inside was loyal to some other, alien, entity. The target of the abuse, doubtless cowering under her desk, terrified of tthis manifestation by Real America, was a woman and, of course, a Democrat.
The demonstrators had been emboldened by their man, the country's President, who had called upon the states to "liberate" their much-abused people. Their sin? They were following the guidelines set by the White House itself, a loose version of the practices followed in New Zealand. In this way the use of masks became the pretext through which an aspect of the culture war was declared. Trump had been prevailed upon by the doctors and scientists that he had inherited from previous conventions, but in his daily briefings he made it clear that he tolerated them unwillingly.
Social distancing? The President and his Vice President and his stooges stood close together, randomly. Face marks, as recommended? Never, not even when Mike Pence visited places where they were mandated or after his staffers had caught the virus (in Tulsa, at least eight of Trump's staff tested positive for what their boss was pleased to call the "Kung Flu").
An Invented Reality
Whether the virus is good, bad or indifferent depends on the needs of the moment. When he wants to blame others, it's bad; when it's killing Americans, it's not so bad. The man doesn't care how many die: he needs the economy to rev back because that will help his chances in the November 2020 election. He is not smart enough to know that he is in fact deepening the economic turmoil. Or perhaps the economy is of no concern, his focus always being to invent a reality that people can pretend to believe. At Tulsa he pointed out another hope that has long been evident: if cases are not counted and if people are not tested, then the numbers might look better (for him) than they actually are.
The Trumpian freedom fighters had been let loose as the country's death rate was spiking. As the number of deaths topped 80,000 Trump had celebrated by announcing he had "prevailed". He had just reversed a statement that his expert team was about to be disbanded, expressing surprise that it was "popular". This suggests - if there had been any lingering doubt - that the President habitually shuts himself off from informed opinion.
This time, overnight, word had managed to get to him from a sane outside world that the population was keen to get some accurate information from public health officials. He had no idea (and late in June, when the deaths had reached 120,000, he was able to announce that the virus had gone). Meanwhile the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, another total yes man, had taken up Trump's new gambit: that the virus had broken out from a lab in China. Of this he had proof.
After a day or so, though, this invention went silent, having been spewed to the world to satisfy the momentary needs of his boss's ego, but denied by his very own Five Eyes spies. Lest that be insufficient as diversion, Trump was pointing out how the virus was at its most virulent in states governed by Democrats. And so it went on. And on. Reality would say that the present surges are mostly in red states, where Trumpian recklessness is based.
The men and women in lab coats are the embodiment of expertise, otherwise known as the Nanny State. Would John Wayne, back in the 50s when Trump was a child and men were men, have allowed himself to be cowed into a surgical mask? (In July, in a unique moment, Trump said he sometimes wore masks - no, another lie - as he could then resemble the Lone Ranger).
It is not at all coincidental that variations of the denialist style played out elsewhere in places like the UK, where Boris Johnson caught the virus, but thanks to Nurse Jenny from Invercargill, came through a tricky night. Or in Brazil, where the President, Bolsonaro, the man who is burning the Amazon, refused to admit the virus was anything more severe than the common cold (he tested positive for it in July. Ed.). Then news came through that Vladimir Putin's Russia was doing its worst to catch up with America's huge rate of infections. All the strutting autocrats. It's all so unsurprising.
A "pandemic" derives from the Greek. It is "all the people". It's an affliction that is everywhere. Covid-19 is the biggest threat to our public health - at least in economically advanced countries - in our lifetimes. It's a global disaster. So, what qualities does a pandemic ask of a leader? He needs to unite. He needs to act decisively to avert the danger. He needs to communicate clearly and consistently.
He needs to show firmness to avert division and any anti-social resistance and sympathy to show that he cares for the population. He should model good behaviour. Above all, he needs to inspire trust and confidence that he is morally and intellectually above reproach. Trump denies all these attributes. He is uniquely awful.
Virus Will "Magically Disappear"
A former boss of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went public with the observation that it would be a good idea to "listen to the people who have their best interests at heart", by which he was implying that the President did not. That was why the present CDC was not making regular comments or issuing advice. If it did, it might be shut down.
On the same day the federal official in charge of public health policy contradicted his own officials who were advising the importance of social distancing and testing (any American Ashley Bloomfield would have been fired on the first day of federal reaction to the pandemic). Commenting on safety violations a Bloomfield counterpart had to agree with his scientists that "irresponsible things" were going on, but he couldn't leave it at that.
Trump would get to know, so he added the observation that crowding people in the midst of the pandemic was "part of the freedom we have in America". Eric Trump could be unequivocal, letting Fox TV know that his dad would draw 50,000 to any rally, and that was just fine because, taking the line from Dad, the virus would "magically disappear". As "mom and pop businesses" surged.
By the end of May, when US deaths were approaching 100,000, Trump and Pence had successfully signalled that a refusal to wear a mask could become an ideological statement from the global alt.Right crowd. Fox TV had taken up their President's call for freedom fighters to flock together and on the holiday weekend that followed thousands were anti-socially not-distancing on beaches.
One red state governor felt he had to defend the wimps who were masked in public, saying that they might not be against "freedom" after all: they might have to protect a baby. On the same day's news, we were treated to images of a bare faced Bolsonaro glad-handing Brazilians. In the UK, BoJo's key adviser, the designer of the Brexit campaign - Britain's Trumpian moment - grinned at the cameras as he set out on his second long car drive with his wife - who had tested positive for Covid-19 - and children.
As America reeled, it was subjected to further abuse by the braindead tribal posturing of congressional Republicans, for whom nothing had changed. Business as usual meant that grants to state and local governments, in the trillions of dollars, were denied because the people that advocated them belonged to the same political party as Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.
The Democratic majority House passed some decent measures to prop up small business but the schemes were delivered through banks, which favoured enterprises they already knew and liked - larger and richer companies. So, Black-owned and other minority businesses have got a lot less help than the usual suspects.
It's the same with universities, with the already advantaged Ivy Leagues faring a lot better than small community colleges, where African Americans are more likely to be. And as professionals are often able to work from home and stay safe, Covid deaths have been disproportionately among the darker skinned, who are more likely to work in front line jobs and travel by bus or train. So, the trends to inequality continue to widen.
The House of Representatives introduced stimulus aid budget measures along the lines of the budget in NZ. Whereupon the Republican majority in the Senate let it be known that the bill, a "liberal wish list", would be "dead on arrival" there. The next day a White House official, identified as being there to advise on trade, echoed this reaction, before rabbiting on about Pelosi and immigration.
Meanwhile the endless Democratic convulsions over picking their candidate for the Presidential election necessarily went quiet. Publicity and gatherings were out of the question - at least within circles who continued to observe conventional good manners - and further debate seemed inappropriate when the mood was for unity and cooperation.
It was not long before Joe Biden was the only one left, while his last opponent, Bernie Sanders, declared his support. The mood on that side had changed, but had the politics? What sort of campaign would the Democrats run when the country's attention returned? Would Joe be nudged to a more vigorous challenge to the status quo, as pleaded by Bernie and Elizabeth Warren?
Americans Allergic To Word "Socialism"
When the early Democratic primaries were held in February 2020, the media had been sure that Sanders would fade away as "moderates" would ensure America of politics as usual. Biden was the assumed front runner, largely because he had been with Obama and because he stood for nothing in particular. But Sanders' support only increased. Concurrently it was reported that Russia wanted not just Trump to be elected; they also wanted Sanders, while Hillary Clinton wanted anyone but him. Wouldn't these desires sink Bernie? In the event they made no difference to the outcome, but did indicate that Russian analysts are naïve and Clinton is treacherous.
Bernie Sanders, the talking heads agreed, was "unelectable". It was agreed also that his policies were popular. So, a riddle presented itself: how could popular ideas be unpopular? It seems that the answer lay in Sanders' willingness to dub himself a "democratic socialist", a term which traditionally was anathema to polite society, a term even worse than its successor on the American Right, worse than "liberal". Younger voters, however, born into a post-Cold War world, have no such worries. They see Sanders' policies for health care, electoral reform and climate change, and like them.
Once it became clear that Sanders was the pick of the crop the old guard (human age does not define this) threw their support behind Biden, who seemed to be a nice enough bloke, if no challenge to the ruling elites. Sanders' directness gave the "moderates" all they needed to attack his candidacy. It is curious that over the years no-one has convinced Sanders to swap the order of his two words and call himself a "social democrat".
He often refers to how he lives a few minutes from the Canadian border, over which universal free health care is provided at much less cost than the corporate American model, so he would be aware that in Canada the New Democratic Party (NDP) is able to describe itself this way without alarming the country.
A while back indeed the NDP made its opposition to "corporate welfare bums" the centre piece of its federal election campaign. Sanders prefers to talk about "socialism for the rich". Social democrats opposing corporate welfare bums would surely be a clearer call to attract the working-class pragmatists Sanders sees as a key constituency. Enough were successfully targeted by Trump's lies last time round for him to win.
Leading into "Super Tuesday", a day in March when lots of states hold their primary vote, Bernie was calling for a "revolution", another term which would have scared those wanting to be scared. It was rhetoric which undoubtedly boosted Joe's numbers. No, Bernie, you were advocating reforms, reforms which would bring America into line with all other comparable countries - the point that you yourself make. Canada and the UK, with its popular National Health Scheme, (and NZ) are not revolutionary. They're not Cuba.
Biden certainly won't employ Bernie's phrases, but if he were to advocate the specifics that Sanders and Warren have campaigned for, he might do well. It would certainly be relief from Trump's tired vulgarities. Trump's cliche of choice to dismiss the merits of political opponents is that they would "not be elected dog catcher". This happens to be the case with him. The dog catcher is the lowest rank of elected person and the most local, and that is why Trump would never make dog catcher. He became President of the world's superpower because the election and the campaigning which preceded it were at the other end of the scale.
US elections go on for years, with huge bluster, confusion, disinformation, hype and money. They are quite removed from everyday reality. This is why Trump can carry on as he does. It is because he and his allies revel in publicity and hysteria and lies. But imagine if he presented himself in this mode as a candidate for a school board, say, or a society dedicated to their village library.
He would be the talk of the town for years. Remember that demented man with the orange hair who shouted at us and insulted all the immigrants in the room and groped our chairlady and told us to inject ourselves with our kitchen disinfectants and couldn't answer a single question? They say he spends all day tweeting about how we love him.
Theatre Of The Absurd
In any other place which sees itself as existing within a responsible democracy a person like the American President would have long been ousted. In a Parliamentary set up, there would have been a coup such as we saw with the recent change in the National leadership over stylistic concerns that were trivial - if compared to Trumpland's. Or if the chair of the village library society were to become a little Trumpian, she would have been asked to vacate the role.
In America, as we know too well, the only recourse is impeachment, and we've seen how that plays out. Trump might not have been fired on his first day on the job if he had applied to be a driver or plumber or judge, but only because there would have been no first day on the job. No (real world) employer would have hired him in the first place.
The Americans are locked into a ponderous binary in which there is no room for flexibility. This is compounded by the fact that, despite the emphasis on "checks and balances", the President is able to fire civil servants he does not like - and that's a lot of them. If convention is cast aside, as now, there is no check and no balance, though as the Leader Of The Free World became ever more erratic, revulsion emboldened some and Anthony Fauci, the chief public medical officer, became increasingly direct until, on the day when Trump and the students were spreading the virus in Arizona, he let it be known that more testing was needed, not less. He had not met Trump for weeks.
Someone must have got word to the President because a few days later, three weeks since Fauci had heard from Trump, the health briefings resumed, but this time as farce. Fauci and his other top official stood deferentially to the rear as Pence spoke. They were masked; Pence was not. Trump was absent. This in itself was an image that beamed as incoherent a message as could have been contrived. It shouted disunity and confusion.
That wasn't bad enough for Pence, who chose to slide into theatre of the absurd. As the TV picture screened graphs with infection rates soaring vertically, the man said that America was "flattening the curve". And as the graphs were replaced by shots of large crowds on beaches and in bars the Vice President said that everyone was "acting responsibly".
The scenes brought back memories of Comical Ali in Iraq, the head of Saddam Hussein's propaganda department, who told the cameras that the infidels had been repulsed, even as American tanks could be heard a few hundred metres away as they entered Baghdad. Pence's moment was worse. Whereas Ali was in a hopeless situation and panicking, Pence and Trump thought to display their chaotic calls to spread the virus as a likely re-election ploy.
Despite this madness, two days later matters became madder when Pence and the governors of spiking Florida and Texas - both previous deniers - called in the media to announce that the virus was indeed serious and should be resisted, Grave words were spoken about social distancing and the rest. And Pence was masked. And Trump was absent.
Had Pence become aware that his time near the centre of power might be cut short? Did the governors suspect that their "freedom" loving citizens might turn on them? And Trump? He just cannot admit he is wrong. This sequence might well be seen by future historians as the most incompetent tableau that the government of a country that is deemed "advanced" has ever presented to the world.
So, we could be on the verge of a global pandemic of corruption and idiocy. But there's another possibility: things might be about to get a lot better. Covid-19 and Trumpery are alien invasions, abnormalities, and the subject of all this comment just because they are. We struggle to understand because the maladies reject our values and expectations.
We evolved to be social beings. Trump's sociopathy violates human norms, and contrary to his pathological dishonesty and cynicism, civilised species rely on trust. During the lockdown and the lesser levels that followed, the NZ government was supported almost unanimously across the country because people respected and expected a united response based on science and cooperation. Crisis engendered solidarity. And the vast sums of money borrowed to stimulate the economy were accepted as a good idea almost without dissent.
The higher Government debt is morally necessary, but the point here is that it is economically necessary too. With no supply and little demand, The Market has been rendered feeble. People need to spend, not just to feed the kids but to create jobs. This seems obvious these days, but it should have been obvious during the previous decades.
Did not the Rogernomes and the Ruthanasians know that the Depression of the 1930s was prolonged because governments cut spending when they should have boosted it? Of course they did, but their agenda was to privatise and redistribute resources upwards. So, we were subjected to the neo-liberal epidemic of reduced public investment, and redistribution of wealth to the already wealthy. Austerity bred inequality.
The shock of Covid-19 has exposed what is needed for a healthy society in a way that the less obvious crises of the last 40 years could not. We were told there was no alternative and we couldn't summon the strength to resist, not when the virus infected governments around the world. But neo-liberalism was built on three assumptions, all wrong. It held as an unshakeable truth that humans are inherently selfish and motivated by private greed. We're not; we are communal creatures.
The mere owning of things does not confer happiness. And they insisted that individuals make rational financial choices. Yeah, right. These two myths were bound by a third: that governments make poor economic choices. That might be the case with the ones in Washington, Moscow and Brasilia, but there has never been a reason to think that it is necessarily the case, and it certainly is not in our present crisis. Anti-social behaviours might be common, but that does not mean they express our essential nature. They result from frustration or deprivation - or viral disease. The key question remains: will enough Americans be revolted by their federal government to chuck it out?
A possible parallel presents itself. When Romanian Nicolae Ceausescu, a highly unpleasant dictator, stood on a balcony in Bucharest with his wife to harangue his citizens, they presented themselves as a dowdy couple with no trace of charisma or natural authority. All they had to project was fear. But, undetected by the tyrant, holed up in his palace, the wind had shifted. His threats were met with jeering, even laughter. The collapse of his government was immediate. The mum and dad dictators fled. Four days later they were shot. When the electorate is debased it can tolerate corruption, stupidity and despicable behaviour, but ridicule is fatal.
That is what Trump cannot allow himself to suspect. If he were to be greeted with open contempt in a way that he could not miss acknowledging it would be the very worst thing he could imagine. A Ceausescu-type moment would, like a pricked balloon, burst him to nothing, but such a fate is unlikely. The Deplorables are not political creatures so much as they're the followers of a cult. They've staked too much on their hero to admit they got it wrong, and were they not so anti-social they would never have taken their man seriously in the first place.
Elsewhere in America and around the world he's been a joke for most of his life. During a lockdown flick through the channels, for instance, I came across an Ashes cricket test in Adelaide. On a big hoarding advertising a phone company was the tagline "Donald Trump won't shut up". That was ten years ago, when Trump was just a very public private citizen of another country.
Trump's huge self-importance and tiny self-awareness cannot imagine that he is anything less than magnificent, a very stable genius no less, so there is no chance of his moderating his behaviour. He thinks that, never mind how outrageous his rants, his mob will back him. Everything he does is aimed at re-election and he does not try to hide this, even as some think the balloon might be leaking. To date 12 former staffers, including the highest ranked ones, have publicly disowned him, and others are either in jail or awaiting criminal trial.
The sort of people who used to be the Republicans' face to the world - professionals, "soccer moms", Mitt Romney, even some chief executive officers - are deserting. All he has left is the Deplorable base. To motivate them he needs ever more turmoil and division. We should expect to see unhinged diatribes against African Americans and/or Mexicans and/or Muslims and/or gays and/or women and/or "liberals" and/or "elitists" and "the media". He might provoke a fight with China or North Korea or Iran or....
What Will He Do If He Loses?
In the event of a loss, he's likely to say he was the victim of electoral cheating, a claim that he has already laid the ground for with his tweets about (a non-existent) history of fraudulent mail voting. This particular invention is also put up because it is likely that postal voting favours Democrats. Trump has admitted this motive. Trump has mused about delaying the election or following - for some time at least - his mates Xi and Putin, both of whom are staying put till they die. He could cancel the vote. To do so, he would first need to claim a crisis from Covid-19 or racial violence necessitated a state of emergency.
Then he could bribe some protection by enlisting the army, which would be granted a huge funding spike to spend as it wished. When we consider that he has been tearing down all conventions and agencies which might impede his power and replacing the principled and the expert with unqualified toadies, might he not try the same trick with the military by appointing Deplorables to run the Army and Air Force?
They could then surround the White House just as they did when demonstrators gathered outside. Trump would have become America's Ceausescu. If the Grand Old Party (Republicans) were to retain a majority in the Senate the sycophants there would find reasons to accept such a situation. That autocracy could be embedded, as within the next four years he'd have the chance to appoint some Deplorable Supreme Court judges to "interpret" the Constitution his way. America would have been Made Great Again.
In the year before the dreadful four years of Trumpery, we assumed that the man had rendered himself unelectable, but the opposite was the case. Each lie, each tacky conspiracy theory, each racist call for division, strengthened him enough for him to win. So now, as we approach the next American federal elections, the question returns: Trump or Biden, and does it matter?
Sometimes a sort of romantic anarchism holds that if everything were to be smashed, the next dawn would herald a beautiful new day. The opposite is the case. Chaos disadvantages the poorer and the marginalised, who rely on governments and conventions to sort things out and, sometimes, improve matters. Trumpery indicates all this.
In 2016 it looked likely that Sanders would have defeated Trump. He would have picked up support from a naturally progressive constituency that did not care for Clinton and he would have got votes from some who were taken in by Trumpian lies. It looks now that some of the people who disdained Hillary will return to Biden. They want more equality, a decent health system and a clean environment
It took a coherent State and a trust in science for the virus to be contained in NZ and some other countries. Biden is not all that progressive, but he will appreciate that, and it is at least possible that the experience of the coronavirus and the shift of opinion since the George Floyd killing might have moved the Centre leftwards.
What's going on in America, Brazil and Russia is confirmation that the constant repetition that Markets are the way to go has been shown up as irresponsible. When the pandemic hit Trump's country, the big pharma corporations did not want to make the masks and respirators that were needed and the President would not use the powers available to force them to do so. So, the Market was sufficiently unpatriotic to spread the disease.
In NZ and other places where governments have responded to a health emergency rather than seeing it as a political inconvenience, the emphasis has been on social cohesion. Borders are seen as important. People are greeted with "Buy Local" signs. Workers in health and other essential services are applauded. Policy makers assume that a "whole of Government" response is the appropriate one.
Billions of dollars are borrowed to stimulate a recovery. These are all refutations of the neo-liberal experiment. As Bernie has always said, when there is a need, the money is always there. His example of a pre-Covid emergency spend up was Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, which lifted millions of Americans out of poverty.
He'd Prefer Another Civil War
Trump's going the other way as recklessly as he can. He'd prefer another civil war. Last time out his side - the ones who committed treason - lost, and 160 years later there will be a sizeable majority who will be hoping for the same outcome. He'll lose the overall popular vote but, given the system's rigging in favour of smaller (Trumpian) states, he could eke out an electoral college mandate.
Historians reckon that social change typically takes longer to come about than people are expecting, but that, when it does occur, the changes are bigger than they'd anticipated. History, like evolution, isn't a smooth progression; it goes in bursts. The recovery from a post-slavery psychosis is certainly centuries overdue, so could the fury over racial injustice be about to bring on a new era? The global reaction to the George Floyd murder might be heralding something along these lines, and the President's treasonous tenure could just be the final tipping point.
But who knows? If the electorate voted rationally, only bigots and billionaires would opt for Trump, but these days common sense is an endangered species. The Deplorables might want the pandemics of virus and violence to rage on. Trump might not ever be elected dog catcher but he could still be elected President.