A Dangerous Turning Point

Donald Trump’s erratic, dangerous response to the coronavirus crisis has sent an unmistakable message: better thousands die than I lose in November.

US president Donald Trump speaks from the Truman Balcony during a Rolling to Remember Ceremony: Honoring Our Nation’s Veterans and POW/MIA at the White House May 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty

As the COVID-19 crisis has deepened, the American political landscape has changed. Donald Trump and his enablers look at the crisis solely through the lens of politics: How does it affect prospects for Trump’s reelection and further entrenchment of their racist, reactionary, minority rule? After an initial crisis bump, Trump’s approval rating has gone back down. GOP strategists are reported to be gripped by “mounting concern . . . about the threat the economic meltdown triggered by the lockdowns poses to the president’s re-election prospects.” Even the Wall Street Journal writes that the crisis “could complicate his path” in key battleground states.

As a result, the president and his team are moving in ever more extreme ways to energize their base, try to pull more people onto their side, and suppress and intimidate the opposition.

In mid-April, Trump went from winking at to egging on armed militias in anti-lockdown protests funded and organized by top GOP donors and lawyers. On May 7, the Justice Department, now led by Trump’s top consigliere, dropped all charges against Michael Flynn. These two moves sent an unmistakable message: acts of violence and lies in defense of Trump get the green light — and if you are caught, the White House has your back.

Simultaneously, Trump’s narrative that all COVID-19-related problems are the result of a Chinese attack on this country — abetted by people (specifically people of color) who are not real Americans, as well as traitorous Democrats at home — has hardened. Trump, Mike Pompeo, and others have implanted the idea that the “Wuhan Virus” was created in a Chinese lab. But even if it wasn’t, they insist that China must be held accountable.

Another unambiguous message: this is a “Pearl Harbor” moment, the appropriate response is confrontation if not outright war, and all who demur or think this country’s problems are “made in the USA” are un-American and traitorous.

As for the crisis itself, Trump has signaled that he wants to move quickly to “reopen the economy” and relegate COVID-19 to just another normal cost of doing business, like the flu or the weather. Continuing majority concern about reopening too soon has so far prevented him from being able to fully forge ahead. But his preferred direction is clear, as is the GOP’s stance toward public health and well-being.

As people starve, Republicans support cutting food stamps. As people get sick and die, the administration presses to end Obamacare. As millions face immiseration and eviction, Trump proposes tax cuts. As the pandemic raises issues about another, if slower-moving, public health emergency — climate change — Trump’s henchmen continue their rollback of environmental protections.

Regarding COVID-19 testing, necessary to save lives and shape a safe reopening, Trump says, “In a way, by doing all this testing, we make ourselves look bad.” He is sending a third unmistakable message: better thousands die than I lose in November.

All this builds on threads present since Trump’s first presidential campaign. Each strand has escalated in fits and starts; one outrage has followed another so regularly that all seems to fade into a general blur. But in the context of COVID-19’s threat to Trump’s reelection prospects, with Trump having succeeded in gaining total control of the Justice Department and being on the verge of the same with the National Intelligence Service and the important-for-the-election Post Office, a tipping point has been reached.

This is not just his racism and reaction as usual. Keeping power “by any means necessary” has gone from a just-over-the-horizon threat to the operational program of the administration and the thoroughly Trumpified Republican Party.

The COVID-19 crisis is going to get worse on both the public health and economic survival fronts. This will further bring out all the worst tendencies in the Trumpist camp. There is no bottom to where they will go if they are not stopped by a political force large enough, clear-eyed enough, and determined enough to stop them.

A victory over Trump and the GOP in November does not translate by itself into the kind of change we need. Nor does it provide any guarantee that advocates of a racist authoritarian state cannot roar back down the road. But only by preventing a Trump second term can the immediate threat Trumpism poses be averted. Only a Left that brings its determination and its vision of structural change to the fight that millions believe is priority number one — beating Trump — can come out of 2020 with sufficient strength and alliances to drive further toward our long-range goals.