Donald Trump’s response to the COVID crisis has laid bare the irresponsibility and malevolence of his administration and the challenge his very political existence poses to public health and to democracy itself.
It is thus easy to blame him for our current situation. And it is necessary to do so. Both Michelle Goldberg and Jamelle Bouie have recently made this argument, and I agree with them. Trump is a menace, and blaming him, and then removing him from office, is the only way to get a government capable of dealing with COVID and its effects in a way that is just, competent, and simply humane.
At the same time, this has proven to be a difficult thing to accomplish politically. And while we writers and activists must relentlessly criticize Trump, we also need to understand the reasons why the opposition to Trump has been so profoundly hamstrung by its inability to effectively blame him during the current crisis as it has thus far unfolded.
One reason is simply that the very real crisis has given Trump, always the master of mass media attention-getting, a perfect platform for his unique brand of daily reality TV, and he is exploiting this to the max. The virus–and Trump’s responses, non-responses, and Tweets—has literally taken over the news, spreading like the virus itself, and crowding out everything else. Trump is using his “bully pulpit” to bully, bloviate, and lie, and as his voice has been magnified, all others have been diminished.
There are obvious exceptions, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and to a lesser extent his counterparts in Ohio, Washington state, and elsewhere. But in a way they are exceptions that prove the rule. Because, at the same that these figures have been able to garner justifiable media attention for their efforts to contain the pandemic, they have been forced by circumstance to moderate their criticisms of Trump and in effect to play along as if he were the responsible and competent president that he manifestly is not. A recent Associate Press story by Kathleen Ronayne and Jonathan Lemire states the challenge confronting these Governors well: “Flatter or fight? Governors seeking help must navigate Trump.” As Ronayne and Lemire make clear:
“Facing an unprecedented public health crisis, governors are trying to get what they need from Washington, and fast. But that means navigating the disorienting politics of dealing with Trump, an unpredictable president with a love for cable news and a penchant for retribution. Republicans and Democrats alike are testing whether to fight or flatter, whether to back channel requests or go public, all in an attempt to get Trump’s attention and his assurances.”
This, then, is the second reason it has proven so difficult to hold Trump politically responsible: because it is impossible for any elected official at any level of government to accomplish anything meaningful to address the pandemic without some assistance from the federal government, whether this be executive action by Trump or legislation, which of course requires the approval of a Trump-dominated Senate and the signature of Trump himself. During the intense negotiations surrounding the two pieces of emergency legislation passed in recent weeks, it was common to hear Democratic Senators and House members talking about how important it was to “work across the aisle” to get the legislation passed, and to “look forward” to what can be done rather than “look backward” at who is responsible for what. Admittedly, that was, and remains, a very fine line to walk. And there has been a constant rhetorical wavering between the rhetoric of “coming together for the public good” and the rhetoric of outrage and blame of Trump’s handling of the crisis. In recent days Nancy Pelosi has come out with strong and entirely legitimate attacks on Trump. At the same time, she and Chuck Schumer have been compelled by circumstances to work closely with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, one of Trump’s closest confidants, to finalize deals with the White House. This has understandably muted their attacks on the administration. Unlike during the protracted impeachment struggle, it has been impossible for most Democratic messaging to focus on Trump, for it has been necessary for all elected public officials to focus on the virus.
And this leads to the third reason why blaming Trump has been so difficult: because the pandemic, by literally shutting down all forms of public gathering and virtually eliminating all forms of face-to-face interaction, has essentially shut down the Democratic primary campaign, and along with it all forms of public campaigning and all kinds of public assemblies, demonstrations, “town halls,” and events where people can come together to be politically mobilized.
The enforced social distancing, however necessary, has been profoundly enervating for everyone, turning most of us into house-bound and anxious individuals whose social contact is extremely limited. And with the complete closure of public life, the only form of mass politics and political mobilization that currently exists is the form of mobilization practiced by Trump through his monopolization and manipulation of the mass media.
And so we confront a bitter paradox: the more necessary it is to hold Trump responsible, the more difficult it is to hold him responsible.
Governors are trying to govern, legislators are trying to legislate, health care workers and other “essential personnel” are working hard at their jobs at great risk, everyone else is trying to get by while “sheltering in place,” and Trump alone dominates the public sphere.
This is an explicable and even predictable consequence of a crisis of this magnitude.
Trump thus dominates the political scene.
But dominance can be challenged. And indeed, it was presumably the purpose of the Democratic primary contest to select a Democratic candidate best suited to challenging Trump’s dominance. Such a challenge is necessary now, more than ever, and the fact that the obstacles are great only means that determined and creative leadership is all the more necessary.
In the face of this need there is now an obvious void, as Joe Biden, having claimed “victory” after his strong Super Tuesday results, has more or less gone into quarantine.
To be fair, he has attempted to speak out, appearing regularly on cable news shows, making announcements, and even organizing a few video “events.” As Eugene Scott of the Washington Post’s “The Fix” has noted, “Joe Biden is Working From Home.” But, as The Hill’s Bernard Goldberg has also noted, “Joe Biden can’t lead the charge from his home in Delaware.” And while in recent months I have disagreed with much of Ryan Cooper’s relentless criticism of Biden, it is hard to argue with his recent assertion that “Joe Biden is the worst imaginable challenger to Trump right now.” What Cooper says seems true:
Indeed, Biden has barely been doing anything. As the outbreak became a full-blown crisis, Biden disappeared for almost an entire week. His campaign said it was trying to figure out how to do video livestreams, something any 12-year-old could set up in about 15 minutes. (Hey guys: Any smartphone with Twitter, YouTube, or Twitch installed can become a broadcasting device with the press of a single button.) When Biden did finally appear, he gave some scripted addresses that still had technical foul-ups, and did softball interviews where he still occasionally trailed off mid-sentence. . . .
Trump, meanwhile, is similarly out there on TV every day boasting about how what he’s doing is so smart and good. What he’s saying is insanely irresponsible and has already gotten people killed, but absent an effective response from the Democratic leadership, it can appear to casual news consumers as though he has the situation in hand. Democratic backbenchers and various journalists are screaming themselves hoarse, but it plainly isn’t working.
I am unconvinced by those on the left who have never reckoned with the real weaknesses of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and who now believe that COVID can revitalize Sanders’s bid for the nomination. (Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor declared on Monday that “Reality Has Endorsed Bernie Sanders.” But, as one Facebook friend put it, “Reality” has no Democratic delegates.) But I am equally unconvinced by those Democratic centrists who are now denouncing Sanders’s refusal to leave the race. And the reason is simple: while Biden acts like the nomination is his, and while almost everyone else acts like the nomination is his, and while in fact the nomination probably is his, Biden has allowed the COVID crisis to sideline him, and has allowed the momentum of his campaign to wane. And now is not the time for the presumptive Democratic nominee to rest on his laurels. If Biden is going to lead us forward, he needs to be woken up and energized. And if he can’t now compete with Sanders, how is he going to compete six months from now with Trump? While weeks ago it made sense for many, including some important left activists, to call for Sanders to leave the race in exchange for real concessions from Biden, now it is necessary to reignite some version of a Democratic campaign. If Sanders can light a fire under Biden’s ass, all the power to him. And if Biden continues to remain in his basement, then this will be telling indeed.
What should Biden do? There is no easy answer. But it is clear that he should get his act together. If he is going to run an effective social media campaign while temporarily in quarantine, then he needs to put together a real social media campaign. He needs to be proactively in the public eye, and do everything he can to gain positive media attention every single day. Indeed, if Andrew Cuomo can venture out in public and hold a makeshift press conference every day, surrounded (at a distance) by his advisers and in the presence of a small group of reporters who question him, why can’t Joe Biden do something similar? Yes, he is a much older man, more susceptible to the virus (but Cuomo, at age 62, is also in the at-risk age group). But he is running to hold the most powerful position in the country. If he is too frail to do what Cuomo is doing, and if he has no alternative way of performing leadership, then it is hard to see how he can effectively run against Trump in November.
So as we blame Trump, it is also appropriate to blame Biden, for not doing more to lead, visibly and publicly, at a time when leadership is needed now more than ever.
At the same time, even if Biden were an utterly electrifying and media savvy personality, the defeat of Trump and his Republican enablers in November would still require an energetic grass-roots campaign and sustained voter mobilization. And this is the work of campaign workers, activist groups, and engaged citizens. Even before COVID, such an effort was an urgent challenge. Both the urgency and the challenge are now greater. We know this. And yet we shelter in place, for at least the next two months. And in the best of circumstances, if something approaching “social normality” returns in mid-summer, it is likely to be disrupted again by the coming of flu season in late Fall. And in November we will confront a fragmented and inefficient election system that might well be unable to accommodate the needs of “social distancing.” And a president empowered by the exhaustion, alienation, and anxiety of the citizenry at large. Democracy itself is thus at grave risk.
Can the Democratic party get its act together, and reignite a real campaign animated by a real vision?
Can we save ourselves, from the plague that is COVID or the plague that is Trump?
The challenge could not be greater.
Let us hope we are up to the challenge.