This past week in the New York Times, the columnist Frank Bruni wrote:
When the direness of this global health crisis began to be apparent, I was braced for the falsehoods and misinformation that are Trump’s trademarks. I was girded for the incompetence that defines an administration with such contempt for proper procedure and for true expertise. But what has taken me by surprise and torn me up inside are the aloofness, arrogance, pettiness, meanness, narcissism and solipsism that persist in Trump—that flourish in him—even during a once-in-a-lifetime emergency that demands something nobler.
Under normal circumstances, these traits are galling. Under the current ones, they’re gutting.
He’s quite right of course. Except for the part about being surprised.
Did anyone really think Trump would rise to the occasion of this crisis? Far from drawing forth some latent leadership ability that lay dormant for 73 years (or even an iota of previously undetected humanity), the sheer extremity of the crisis has brought out the worst in him, which is really saying something.
For even with our Marianas Trench-low expectations, Trump’s behavior has been jawdroppingly appalling.
We all know the litany of absolutely unconscionable things our Dear Leader has done to make this pandemic worse than it had to be—what the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent called “one of the most monumental and destructive leadership failures in modern times”:
His ignorant refusal to heed all the many, dire warnings of the coming catastrophe.
His lies about how we had the virus “controlled,”about how one day it would just miraculously disappear, about the availability of testing.
His dallying not only in invoking the Defense Production Act, but his complicity in the profitable export of crucial medical supplies, including PPE and ventilators, at a time when the best medical experts were beseeching him to stockpile them.
His pitting of state against state in a Darwinian economic battle for those desperately needed supplies, part of his general, abject failure to provide even the charade of national leadership.
His refusal to take responsibility, and eagerness to blame anyone and everyone else, no matter how absurd.
His laughable call for non-partisanship while daily attacking various Democrats and the press with his trademark adolescent invective, his questioning of whether various states really need help, and his suggestion that they didn’t plan properly.
His empowering of his arrogant, entitled, idiot son-in-law, whose world-beating embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger effect is a whole blog post of its own.
His repeated contradiction and even stifling the medical experts within his own administration, not to mention his personal modeling of the worst possible social distancing behavior.
His reckless speculation about re-opening the country prematurely.
His consistent hawking of an unproven cure, manufactured by a company in which he has a financial stake, amplified by his handmaidens in the right wing media like Hannity and Ingraham and Limbaugh. (Alex Jones was so bad the FCC had to tell him to stop promoting his own fake cure. Which raises the question: have they seen Jim Baaker’s show?) It goes without saying, or should, that this behavior is not just a conflict of interest at a level no previous president of either party would dream, not even Nixon, but absolutely immoral, criminal behavior of the lowest order. From the President of the United States.
I could go on, but I know that I long ago disappeared into a tedious form of journalism that my friend Matt Bardin describes as nothing more than “Donald Trump Bad Man.” But if the wingtip fits.
(On Saturday the New York Times published an exhaustive account of the administration’s negligence and failure to act, and Trump’s own personal culpability. A few days earlier the Washington Post had run a similar piece.)
As a result of these and other actions and inactions, tens of thousands of Americans thus far have needlessly died due to his criminal negligence, and still counting, to say nothing of the punishing economic pain that has come along with the public health crisis.
It can’t be said enough, for those right wingers who insist upon making the false accusation: No one blames Trump for the coronavirus. But we correctly blame him for his pathetic, murderous failure to adequately respond to it, which has made it much more devastating than it had to be.
One need only look at a graph of the virus’s spread to see the grisly consequences of his botched response. The US now has almost a third of all confirmed coronavirus cases in the world, and that number is surely underreported, given the unforgivable lack of testing. This weekend passed Spain to lead the world, as it were, in total deaths, topping 20,000. (In my blog post of two weeks ago it was just 2000.)
Trump has, to my knowledge, still not offered a word of sympathy for the virus’s victims or their families, perhaps because he is too busy bragging about his own (mythical) efforts in combatting it, complaining about an insufficiently worshipful press, spreading harmful disinformation, and demanding praise and tribute from governors before he will release federal assistance to them. With characteristic rapciousness, Trump treats taxpayer-funded federal resources as his personal stash that he has the right to dispense or withhold at his regal whim, and for which Republican officials are all too eager to bow down and grovel. (Looking at you, Martha McSally). It’s no coincidence that he has doled those precious resources to states like Florida, with Republican governors and electoral votes he craves, while sadistically withholding it from blue states like New York and California.
So I’m with Frank Bruni on this: It is hard to envision any grown adult less equipped to lead the country during a crisis like this, or one who would have behaved in a more damnable manner than Donald J. Trump. A navy blue suit filled with steaming horse feces would do no worse, and probably better, since at least it would not actively do harm and try to line its pockets in the process.
Truly, a special circle of Hell awaits this monster. For my money he cannot take up residence soon enough.
Trump’s horrific handling of the pandemic, and the extent to which he and his administration bear the blame for how lethally it has played out, is all bad enough. But with Trump, whenever you think he’s hit rock bottom, he somehow finds a way to dig.
Let’s start with the Purge of the Inspectors General.
In trying to contain the economic damage the of the virus, the GOP first tried to ram through a “stimulus package” that little more than a slush fund for its own use. When Congressional Democrats partially succeeding in inserting some mechanisms for oversight, Trump immediately announced that he had no intention of complying with the mandated measures.
True to his, uh, word, he has since fired the Inspector General responsible for overseeing the package.
But the firing of that IG, Glenn Fine, of the Defense Department, is just part of a broader slow motion Saturday Night Massacre in progress. He also vindictively fired the Intelligence Community IG Michael Atkinson who forwarded the Ukrainegate whistleblower complaint last winter, part of the White House’s ongoing post-impeachment purge, and attacked the DHS IG for honestly reporting the government’s egregious and manifold failures in the coronavirus crisis—i.e., for doing his job. (Bill Barr went on Fox to applaud, and to praise Trump’s “statesmanlike handling” of the crisis.)
Trump has also signaled that he wants to fire several more IGs. In a way, it makes perfect sense, as an Inspector General is the very definition of everything Trump abhors: an independent watchdog charged with rooting out corruption, fraud, waste, and malfeasance.
In a piece for USA Today, Kurt Bardella, formerly a senior advisor to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, writes:
Trump feels empowered to obliterate the guardrails of checks and balances. Bit by bit, he has stripped away the levers of oversight until there’s nothing left. It started by ignoring congressional subpoenas for his financial records. It continued as Trump refused to cooperate with the House impeachment investigation, stonewalling Congress’ attempts to hear witness testimony and conduct depositions with administration officials close to the president. And now he is leading a purge of the final remaining frontier of oversight—the inspectors general.
And that’s not from some bleeding heart liberal: Bardella was a Republican until 2017, and worked for the House Oversight Committee’s then-chairman Darrell Issa, the longtime congressman from California (now retired) who in the pre-Trump era represented one of the most hardline conservative factions in the GOP.
The purge of the IGs is just the latest and most visible of Trump’s attempts to use the pandemic as cover to advance his autocratic agenda while our attention is focused elsewhere, like on the corpses piling up in New York City. The Washington Post notes that the Trump administration has also “moved to weaken federal gas mileage standards, nominated a young conservative for a powerful appeals court and sent scores of migrants back across the southern border without a customary hearing.” (Stephen Miller, call your physician about that permanent hard-on.)
It’s a whirlwind of activity taking place away from the spotlight that highlights how the twin crises of a viral outbreak and an economic slowdown have not slowed Trump’s aggressive push to advance his broader agenda in the months before he faces voters.
In some cases, Trump is continuing to do what he had been doing, pushing policies that have won him plaudits among his conservative supporters. In others, he is using the broad powers granted to the executive branch amid a national crisis to pursue policy goals he has long sought and in some cases struggled to achieve.
That piece was titled, “Trump Forges Ahead With Broader Agenda Even As Coronavirus Upends The Country. It should have been titled, “Trump Makes Shameless Power Grab During Public Health Crisis He Fomented.”
But as Rahm Emanuel used to say, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
This, of course, is par for the course for authoritarian rulers, whose ranks Trump has openly pined to join. Here’s Richard North Patterson in the Never Trump conservative website The Bulwark:
COVID-19 has metastasized his authoritarian pathologies. Trump’s nightly press briefings pervert a president’s obligation to inform and unify Americans in crisis —commingling grandiosity, lying, blame-shifting, and disinformation with attacks on our principal defense against untruth: an independent media. “The LameStream Media,” Trump recently tweeted, “is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope it will be detrimental to my election success.”
This likely augurs a chilling politicization of pandemic relief: the misdirection of federal assistance to buttress red states, propitiate swing states, reward obeisant supplicants and punish governors who displease him. Already it is widely reported that Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, whose incompetent response mimicked Trump’s own, is getting everything he wants from the national stockpile. As to the future, Trump has floated this disturbing criteria: “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”
But the centerpiece of this crime spree is the all-hands-on-deck effort by Trump and the GOP to undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming election—something keen observers on both the left and the right have noted.
Here’s Elie Mystal of The Nation:
Three weeks ago, I wrote that the real threat to the 2020 election is not that Donald Trump will use the coronavirus to try to cancel it but that Republicans will try to steal it, state by state, county by county. In an election in which a record number of people may attempt to vote by absentee ballot, Republican state officials can choose simply to mail ballots to people in counties that traditionally vote for Republicans—and not mail enough ballots to the far more populous counties that traditionally vote for Democrats. In so doing, they can slant the general election toward Donald Trump and other Republicans running for election without Trump having to go through all the bother of declaring himself “dictator for life,” which might spook Mitt Romney.
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, the Bulwark’s Patterson agrees:
COVID-19 debilitates democracy: confining candidates, shutting legislatures, stifling peaceful assembly, curbing voter registration, and limiting personal engagement. As the pandemic proliferates, anxiety permeates an involuntarily passive populace. Donald Trump seems resolved to exploit this paralysis by squelching dissent, politicizing relief efforts, and corrupting the November election….
Trump’s most obvious subversion of democracy is his blatant resolve to suppress turnout in November—thereby increasing the electoral impact of his fervent supporters. To limit the public health dangers of voting during a pandemic, the House is proposing to give citizens the option of casting mail-in ballots in November 2020. To secure his own reelection, Trump means to quash this.
As Jelani Cobb writes, “the novel coronavirus pandemic dovetails exceptionally well with part of Trump’s agenda and that of the Republican party in some states: voter suppression.” For decades, Republicans have fought to suppress voting by minorities and the young. Trump’s campaign is spending millions to prevent Democrats in critical states from passing voting-by-mail. As Georgia House Speaker David Ralston explained, it “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia (because) it will certainly drive up turnout.”
Blood-boiling as it is, this too should come as no shock.
Many observers, myself included, have long been warning that the GOP has no intention of conducting a fair election in November, and has as much as openly said so: through the myth of voter fraud, gerrymandering, voter suppression, disinformation, dark money, and even solicitation of foreign interference through bribery and blackmail. But the pandemic has accelerated that process, given it myriad new angles, and lent fresh urgency to our need to stop it.
And of course, in that there is spectacular irony:
The GOP is using this crisis—which it arguably fomented with its inaction, incompetence, and venality—as cover to steal an election that it otherwise stands to lose because of that very crisis.
Nowhere has that brazen Republican scheme been more on prominent display than in Wisconsin last week.
A quick recap:
Because of the pandemic, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor very reasonably asked its Republican-controlled legislature to postpone the primary, as many states have done. The Republicans refused. Because of course.
He then asked them to send absentee ballots to every registered voter in the state. Again they refused.
At the national level, Democratic National Committee sued the Republican National Committee to extend by a week the deadline for the voters to receive absentee ballots. A district court granted the request, the GOP fought it (because of course), and the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court ruling. But the five Republican-nominated justices on the Supreme Court, in an unsigned opinion, reversed it, siding with the GOP. (Surprise!)
In a scathing dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: “The majority of this court declares that this case presents a ‘narrow, technical question.’ That is wrong. The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic.”
Kurt Bardella notes that the SCOTUS’s decision is part of a nauseating pattern:
For anyone hoping the Supreme Court will assert its role as the third branch of government, it has delayed hearing cases, including three lawsuits involving Trump’s tax returns and financial dealings. And yet, somehow, the Supreme Court managed to reverse a federal judge’s order to extend absentee voting by a week in Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday. The result was that voters had to choose between their health and their civic duty.
The court’s refusal to move forward with cases that impact the president, coupled with its willingness to interfere with the Wisconsin election, foreshadows a very dangerous path as we look ahead to the November elections. In essence, the court’s conservative majority is just another political instrument for Trump to wield.
It may be hard to see the forest through the trees in this time of social distancing, but make no mistake about it, our democracy is in the midst of a three-alarm fire. The highest court in the land has effectively been hijacked—serving only the interests of Donald Trump. Congress is no longer a co-equal branch of government, a result of Trump’s toxic brand of obstruction.
As a result of this brazen and indefensible attack on democracy by the GOP and its judicial vassals, we all saw the outrageous images of Wisconsinites forced to stand in line for hours in order to vote, in masks, six feet apart, when they could easily have been given the opportunity to do so safely from home. We also saw the ridiculous, Onion-worthy image of the Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly Robin Vos in mask, rubber gloves, and a protective gown, insisting all was fine and it was “incredibly safe” to go vote.
This is an omen of the fiasco November promises to be nationwide—and nothing would please Trump and the Republican Party more. As Mystal writes:
The entire Democratic theory of overthrowing Trump has been to inspire massive voter turnout. Turnout led from the urban centers and their close suburbs. The “blue wave.” But it is in these densely packed communities that Covid-19 is hitting the hardest. And there is already evidence that the African American community, the base of the Democratic party, is being disproportionately killed by the virus.
Republicans can use all of this to their advantage. If people have to choose between risking their lives by going to vote, or staying home, most people will stay home—and who can really blame them? If Republicans can make it hard for people to vote absentee, particularly in high-population centers where there is going to be the most demand for absentee voting, Republicans can win.
Wisconsin shows them how.
Some, such as Sarah Kendizor, author of Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, have suggested that it was no accident that the administration let this virus run rampant. I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far; I don’t give them credit for that much foresight. But I do firmly believe that, per Rahm, Trump and the Republican Party know how to exploit an opportunity. And they need to, because the virus has damaged their chances to win fairly, not that they ever intended to fight that way.
Trump covers up crime with scandal and covers up malice with incompetence. His administration would like you to think that they’re inept, that they’re just stumbling into these situations. That’s not the case. And the key thing to remember is that it’s not Trump as some geopolitical mastermind; it’s an inner circle of Republican backers and ideological extremists, many of whom have massive financial interests and certainly their own agenda.
Is there any boundary beyond which Trump not go, any dirty trick that would be off limits?
Just kidding! Of course not.
Noting that “democracy is not self-executing,” elections expert Richard Hasen wonders:
What if Trump is ahead in Michigan and Pennsylvania on election night and he declares victory, but after millions of absentee ballots are processed ….Biden is declared the winner in those states and wins the election? Will Republicans believe Trump if he claimed the later count was the result of fraud, despite all the evidence to the contrary?
Of course they would.
Unconstrained by basic respect for democracy, Trump will attempt whatever he can. Who intervenes then? Our politicized Supreme Court?
This past week the comedian Kumail Nanjiani quipped: “Super cool to realize right now that our whole government has just been on the honor system for centuries.”
Lest we forget, it was just 20 years ago that a disputed presidential election had to be decided by nine judges in black robes, and even that was a partisan shitshow. Since then matters have only gotten worse. As Bardella reminds us, by turning the Supreme Court into just another partisan arm of the GOP, like Fox News or the US Senate, Trump has removed even what little was left of that institutional fail-safe:
By taking a wrecking ball to independent oversight, Trump has made the presidency into a dictatorship. At this point, the only recourse we will have left to save our democracy, repair the institutions of government, and restore accountability to the American people, is to vote in November to save “the soul of this nation.”
That is, assuming Trump, the Republicans and the Supreme Court let us.
ONE WAY TICKET ACROSS THE STYX
Let’s be clear: We are watching the criminal destruction of our republic by a sociopathic game show host-cum-con man, under the cover of a crisis helped bring about. Donald Trump and the Republican Party are exploiting the pandemic as an excuse for a further neo-fascist power grab and a permanent end to fair elections in favor of one-party rule.
That left open the possibility that James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding or some other nonentity would be judged more harshly. But in the past month, we have seen enough to take away the qualifier “in modern times.” With his catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus, Trump has established himself as the worst president in US history.
His one major competitor for that dubious distinction remains Buchanan, whose dithering helped lead us into the Civil War—the deadliest conflict in US history. Buchanan may still be the biggest loser. But there is good reason to think that the Civil War would have broken out no matter what. By contrast, there is nothing inevitable about the scale of the disaster we now confront.
Whatever happens in November, Trump cannot escape the pitiless judgment of history.
Somewhere, a relieved James Buchanan must be smiling.
And so is Satan, as he and his chambermaids get Donald’s room ready for him.
Illustration adapted from photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images