As a world-wide pandemic silently sulks its way across the globe pulling the international economy into recession or worse, it has become increasingly clear that Americans are facing a political, societal and economic crisis unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes.
And for better or worse, it’s going to be up to individuals, a few insightful business leaders and a relative handful of courageous political leaders to chart the course forward. Our politics is broken, perhaps fatally. Half of the political leadership class is captive to willful misinformation, conspiracy theories, disdain for science and expertise of every kind and devoted to the kind of government that shutdown the White House office responsible for coordinating the response to what we now call COVID-19.
The Republican Party has been fighting a “war on government” since Ronald Reagan infamously labeled government the cause of our problems, not the answer. Whether he intended to or not, and Reagan was less ideological than almost anyone in the GOP today, at his 1981 inaugural the heir of Barry Goldwater heralded the establishment of a new Republican philosophy that continues. There are essentially two Republican policies: tax cuts for the wealthy and unlimited spending on the military. Everything else, perfectly highlighted by Donald Trump’s incomprehensible inability to anticipate and counter a killer pandemic, is expendable, or unnecessary.
When in 2018 our blustering incompetent president shuttered the National Security Council office devoted to preparing for the next pandemic there was nary a ripple of concern. Trump has been lying this week, as every week, saying he had nothing to do with the decision, but videotape has now surfaced where he brags about this epic leadership failure.
“Some of the people we’ve cut they haven’t been used for many, many years and if we ever need them we can get them very quickly and rather than spending the money,” Trump said at the time. How has that been working out?
Some astute observers of American politics can remember all the way back to the early days of the Trump regime when Steve Bannon, Trump’s government hating senior strategist, boasted that his job was the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” meaning, as Fortune magazine pointed out, “weakening regulatory agencies and other bureaucratic entities.” Bannon’s bombast and stupidity doesn’t look so good these days.
Indeed, as Beth Cameron, a leader in the White House pandemic office that is no more, wrote recently “it is clear that eliminating the office has contributed to the federal government’s sluggish domestic response. What’s especially concerning about the absence of this office today is that it was originally set up because a previous epidemic made the need for it quite clear.”
Put another way, Barack Obama created the office in 2014 to combat Ebola and did so effectively, so Trump did away with it four years later because he could.
This utter disdain for expertise and common sense has become the defining feature of the Republican Party and you can see it from Washington, DC to Boise. Congressman Russ Fulcher defaulted to the GOP playbook that tax cuts will cure a pandemic when he was one of 40 House Republicans who voted against emergency legislation to address sick leave for the millions of Americans who are without it, a move considered by health experts as a key strategy to contain the spread of the virus.
“First of all, government shouldn’t be mandating to businesses how they pay their employees, in my view,” Fulcher said in explaining his inexplicable vote. “And secondly, that’s going to put some small businesses out of business.”
Fulcher advocated tax incentives, not “hard mandates” from the government. The rookie congressman will soon enough discover that “hard mandates” are precisely what is required along with massive government spending that preserves jobs and enhances the ability of health care providers to meet the crisis.
Fulcher is the perfect embodiment of a head in the sand political Neanderthal, a dim partisan functionary tethered to right wing ideology rather than real world realities. The same can be said of the Republican dominated Idaho Legislature that is stumbling to adjournment worried not about strategies to protect the sick and those who will be, but devoting its closing hours to passing legislation to prevent transgender females from participating in athletics, making sure Idaho can outlaw abortion when the Supreme Court makes that possible and twice defeating an already inadequate higher education budget.
Legislators debated how many ideologues fit on the head of a pin. Local school boards and mayors got to work.
As the Washington Post noted earlier this week: “For weeks, many on the right, including Trump, minimized the virus, if they considered it at all. Even in recent days, as much of the world shuts down to try to stop its spread, some Republicans mocked what they saw as a media-generated frenzy.
“Their reaction reflected how the American right has evolved under Trump, moving from a bloc of small-government advocates to a grievance coalition highly skeptical of government, science, the news and federal warnings.”
It is so transparently telling that Trump’s Oval Office speech last week where he made his first faltering effort to get in front of the danger the pandemic represents to all Americans was written by two incompetent ideologues – Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller – guys with no experience whatsoever in the subject at hand. Trump and his speechwriters were practicing public relations, and badly to boot, not engaging in crisis management or presidential leadership.
There are so many mileposts over the last three years that might have flattened his unique curve of presidential malfeasance – the GOP dismissal of Russian election interference and the investigation that exposed it, Trump’s gross mismanagement of foreign policy and ignorant, heartless approach to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, the kids in cages on the southern border, the hate filled tweets and ugly insults, the Senate Republican willingness to ignore the president’s clear efforts at Ukrainian blackmail – but all now fade into our collective rearview mirror.
We are left staring straight ahead at what will likely prove to be the worst American crisis since World War II, coupled with the worst economy since the Great Depression all presided over by a man no serious Republican would hire to manage a car wash.
Trump and Republicans didn’t create the pandemic and the economic meltdown. They merely furthered a notion of government and political irresponsibility that made such a nightmare possible and they labeled it all “American exceptionalism.” But, of course, the only thing exceptional is the ignorance and selfishness. As the writer Howard Bryant says, “We replace destruction with exceptionalism: it could never happen here.” Yet, it has.
There are tough days ahead. We’re in unchartered seas. Personal and mostly non-governmental institutional initiative coupled with charity, decency and honesty will be essential. When we emerge on the other side America will be a different place.
We’ll be either a stronger, better, more decent people without Trump and a lot of his enabling Republicans, or we won’t. America will begin to get well, or our sickness will deepen. No one will save us but us.