What Might Have Been

Running the World

This past weekend, for one of the first times since the quarantine began on March 13, my family and I ventured out of New York, down to the Atlantic City. AC is a grim place even in the best of times, and right now it is a pretty desolate and depressing wasteland. The hotels and casinos are closed and so are most other establishments, from chain stores to mom & pop shops to restaurants and bars that are heavily reliant on seasonal tourism, all of them anticipating a brutal summer that might drive many of them out of business.

While we were there, we went walking on the still-wintry boardwalk, amid a few other tentative beachcombers, most of them wearing masks and practicing social distancing. As we walked, a small plane flew over towing an advertising banner, not an uncommon sight in summertime. But instead of Budweiser or Coppertone or the Tropicana, the big red, white & blue banner read TRUMP 2020: KEEP AMERICA GREAT, buzzing slowly over the worst destruction this country has seen in over a hundred years, and with no discernible irony.


At a time like this, there isn’t much point in indulging in alternative histories (or torturing ourselves with them), except when there is.

Imagining how the current crisis might have unfolded under a competent head of state, or any kind of functioning adult, can help cast a clarifying, if brutal, light on how our actual head of state has miserably failed us.

I have some conservative friends who, you will be unsurprised to learn, absolutely loathed Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady and a US Senator. But once Barack Obama became president, they had no more bandwidth for that. In fact, they temporarily became vocal admirers of Hillary, particularly when she was Secretary of State, praising her as strong and smart, tough on our enemies, experienced, yada yada yada…..all in implicit contrast to Barack, of course, their contempt for whom—intense as it was—they could never convincingly explain.

It didn’t take Nostradamus to figure out what was going to happen next. This was in Obama’s first term, when an eventual Hillary candidacy for the White House was already presumed but still very far off. I told these guys explicitly at the time, mark-my-words-style, that they would surely do a 180 and start hating on Hillary again as soon as she ran for president.

Of course, it came true in spades.

I bring this up merely to point out that even conservatives gave (and still give) Hillary credit for being smart, tenacious, ruthless, and supremely competent, even if it’s in the service of goals they abhor. Indeed, her formidability is one of their chief complaints about her, super-villain wise, although it is also inherently a compliment. (See Nanette Burstein’s great four-part documentary series “Hillary,” on Hulu….and also Curtis Sittenfield’s new counterfactual novel, Rodham.)

Unless you’re a Kool-Aid drunk Trump supporter, it is impossible to deny that a President Hillary Clinton would have handled this crisis more competently. Even if you hate her, you can’t seriously argue that she would have refused to acknowledge the danger when presented by the most knowledgeable people in the field, gutted the federal government of desperately needed expertise, held medical equipment hostage in demand for praise, ranted about her ratings on Facebook, advised the American public to take unproven drugs, ignored basic science and objective reality itself, and just generally made a dog’s breakfast of the US response.

We know this in part because we know how the administration in which she served as Secretary of State was preparing for precisely this sort of disaster, and because of how she conducted herself in five decades of public life.

Don’t think so? Believe that’s just liberal fantasy? OK. Enjoy your hydroxychloroquine-and-Lysol cocktail.

The Never Trump conservative Max Boot put it very well in a Washington Post article from March 21 called, bluntly, “This Wouldn’t Have Happened If Hillary Clinton Had Won.”

I weep in anger and frustration imagining what might have been if Hillary Clinton—a sane, sensible adult—had won. We couldn’t have avoided the coronavirus, but we could have ameliorated its effects.

Picturing how Clinton might have handled the pandemic is apt to make a liberal unbearably wistful. When one observes how other countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Finland and (all led by women, I must note) managed to anticipate, respond to, and otherwise minimize the effects of the virus, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the American death toll could have been kept under 10,000—a tenth of what we have suffered, so far. A per capita comparison is even more instructive. Taiwan currently has 0.3 deaths per million, New Zealand 4, Finland 55, and Germany 97.

The US has 287.

The economic damage might also have been greatly mitigated, belying the right wing screeching that we must choose between lives and dollars, and instead recognizing that they are inextricably connected. European countries that took swift action to prop up their economies, including protecting the paychecks of ordinary citizens, have suffered far less and are already beginning to rebuild. By contrast, using multi-trillion dollar stimulus legislation as a slush fund to funnel taxpayer dollars into the pockets of donors, cronies, and even one’s own businesses—while proposing cuts to unemployment benefits—has somehow been less helpful.

In the words of a certain US Marine: surprise surprise surprise.


Here’s the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson:

Only a handful of nations on Earth have arguably done a worse job of handling the coronavirus pandemic than the United States. What has happened to us? How did we become so dysfunctional? When did we become so incompetent?

I’ll tell you when: when we inexplicably entrusted the stewardship of this nation to a mentally deficient con artist and malignant imbecile named Donald John Trump.

(Although one could make a more sophisticated argument that we crossed that line when we became a nation that was even capable of doing such a thing—an acknowledgment that Trump is merely a symptom, not these disease itself. Sadly, that does not make it any better, and actually worse.)

As I’ve said ad nauseam, when history looks back on the Trump presidency, it will be appended with the initials SMDH. He will go down making Herbert Hoover look like a genius. It’s couldn’t happen to a nicer guy of course, but that is cold comfort right now.

PoliticsUSA’s Jason Easley makes the salient point that Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic is not just a matter of negligence or incompetence, but approaches active homicide in blocking measures that would have slowed the spread and saved lives, including the establishment of a national strategy, implementation of a national lockdown, encouragement of social distancing and mask-wearing, and efforts to ensure availability of sufficient PPE and adequate testing. As Easley notes, “Trump has routinely acted in bad faith out of self-interest, and now millions are sick, tens of thousands are dead, and 40 million are unemployed,” which is why “the US leads the world in coronavirus cases.”

As Harvard Law school professor Laurence Tribe tweeted, “This is worse than dereliction of duty; it’s getting close to active killing. Not quite murder, maybe, but getting close.” Gregg Gonsalves of the Yale School of Public Health has suggested that by doing so in the knowledge that the pandemic is disproportionately ravaging communities of color, Trump’s actions amount to crimes against humanity punishable under international law.

Show of hands: who’s surprised?

Max Boot again:

It was precisely because we were afraid of how Trump would mishandle his weighty responsibilities that some “Never Trump” conservatives supported Clinton in 2016. On May 8, 2016, I wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “There has never been a major party nominee in US history as unqualified for the presidency. The risk of Trump winning, however remote, represents the biggest national security threat that the United States faces today.”

I do not cite my earlier article—one of dozens I wrote in 2015 and 2016 warning in ever-more-urgent tones of the danger of electing Trump—as a way of patting myself on the back for prescience. It took no foresight to predict that Trump would be a catastrophe in a crisis. It was close to the conventional wisdom. Yet nearly 63 million voters chose to disregard such warnings.

For three years we were lucky enough not to have a major international crisis of the sort Boot describes, until we were hit with one much bigger and of a different variety than we ever imagined. And Trump failed that test even worse than his worst critics predicted. The Cessna with the Trump banner flying over Atlantic City is fitting, given that he has now done to the whole country what he did to that city as a deadbeat casino owner.

For all the people who hated HRC and thought Trump would shake up the system, or blithely looked past his manifold flaws and for some reason thought he was the better alternative, or talked themselves into some crazy conspiracy theory, or suffered from deep primeval reptile brain misogyny, I say: now look at us. Look upon the havoc that has been wreaked on this country in just over three years, look at the death, the economic devastation, the destruction of the rule of law, the beclowning of the judiciary, the quisling submission to a foreign power, the obliteration of truth as a common metric, the death of civility, the stoking of divisiveness, the resurgence of racism, and on and on…..

But her emails, amirite people?


Which bring us to the really bitter irony at the bottom of all this.

It wouldn’t have mattered how well a President Hillary Clinton handled a crisis like this. She would have been crucified regardless, and with a viciousness that Donald Trump has never had to contend, not even for a moment.

On Medium, Umair Haque writes:

Can you imagine Obama getting away with letting 90,000 Americans die? How about Hillary? How many Benghazis is that, exactly? They’d probably have ended up disgraced, if not imprisoned. But Trump? He’s not just getting away with it, as usual—he’s gotten away with it for so long that by now he knows he can count on America’s bottomless appetite to be mesmerized by his cheap conman’s tricks as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.

But forget 90,000. Any deaths or economic pain at all would’ve been gleefully seized upon by the Republicans as reason to attack any Democratic president. And those attacks would’ve found some purchase, no doubt about it.

Obviously, there would not be the utter catastrophe of Trump’s handling as a point of comparison. A President H.R. Clinton couldn’t point to him and say, “Hey, at least I didn’t behave like a petulant child, spew lies, and line the pockets of my cronies while the country burned!” Because before Trump no one could imagine that the US would ever allow a president to do anything like that. Don’t be ridiculous!

So, continuing down this counterfactual road, we can presume that if Hillary had won in 2016 and been president when covid hit, she would have been absolutely crushed in the 2020 election, because that is typically what would happen to a chief executive who presided over the twin nightmares of a historic pandemic and the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, let alone one who demonstrably made both worse than they had to be. (But again, that doesn’t mean that that’s what will happen to Trump, because, as Haque points out…..Bizarro World.)

It’s a jarring thought. Much as it hurt to lose in 2016, might the Democrats have suffered even more had they won and been in power when this nightmare struck?

It’s almost as if this fascist sickness was bubbling up in the American body politic and going to come out sooner or later, one way or another, if not with Trump in 2016 then maybe with Trump in 2020, or with an even worse figure , if that’s possible to imagine. If Trumpism hadn’t triumphed when it did, it was likely to raise its hideous head at some point. In any case, it’s a grievous mistake to think that we’re going to eradicate it now, or ever, not without a major re-evaluation of who we are as a people.

Eugene Robinson again: 

The covid-19 pandemic has exposed the depth of America’s fall from greatness. Ridding ourselves of Trump and his cronies in November will be just the beginning of our work to restore it.

Indeed, the crisis has laid bare some of our greatest weaknesses, weaknesses that numerous observers have been howling about for quite a long time: virulent racism, raging inequality, a Darwinian economic system, and the general hoax of the American Dream. The optimistic view is that the covid crisis might serve as a slap in the face that causes us to take stock and change those things for the better. More pessimistically, it may lead us into even blacker times and an even more authoritarian response. The ugly scenes on the steps of state capitals like Lansing, Michigan offer a preview of that latter road, and just how dark it is.

It’s not a uniquely American sickness of course. At various times, fascism and its kissing cousins have taken root all over the world, and in much more horrible forms than this. But the United States of the 21st Century does seem to possess some unique tendencies that make it susceptible to that disease.

We alone among the major industrialized nations are unable to provide healthcare for our citizens, instead insisting upon the most inefficient, sadistic, and ineffective employment-based system imaginable. We alone are awash in firearms and on a regular basis shoot each other up like characters in a Sam Peckinpah western, resisting any common sense efforts to staunch that bleeding, instead hysterically screeching about the Biblical sanctity of the Second Amendment. Ironically, we alone see ourselves as “exceptional” (and by some accounts, divinely selected) and justified in doing whatever the fuck we want on the global stage. And we alone among the major powers are so deeply steeped in Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” making us highly prone to conspiracy theory, demagoguery, suspicion of authority, and Know Nothing anti-intellectualism.

It’s a perfect recipe for a Trumplike figure, as H.L. Mencken predicted lo those many years ago. The real wonder is it took so long to come to pass.


Shortly after the inauguration in January 2017, I had a conversation with a friend—let’s call him Dustin. “How you doing?” he asked. “Not good,” I said. “Me either,” Dustin replied, “and the worst part is, I find myself hoping for bad things.” It was a brave admission, and something I felt too, though I wasn’t as courageous as him to volunteer it unbidden. But what we both wanted was for the rest of the country—the part that voted for Trump—to see just how bad the decision was that they had just made.

I guess we got our wish. It remains to be seen if even this crisis is enough to rouse some of our fellow Americans from their reverie.

Short of a nuclear war, this is about as bad a national nightmare as one could imagine, and I’m not sure we’ve seen the worst of it yet. Trump may or may not survive it, but it is certainly testing the limits of his shooting-someone-in-the-middle-of-Fifth-Avenue theory. A recent article in the Washington Post offered grim prediction of how bad the economic damage—never mind public health damage and loss of human life—will be, estimating it will take eight years for the economy to fully recover….and that is with competent leadership, which is by no means guaranteed. In fact quite the opposite, if the GOP remains in power in November.

Like many, I shudder to think what this country will look like if we have to endure four more years of this monstrous regime. In the words of the Lincoln Project’s much-praised “Mourning in America” spot, will there even be in America four years from now, at least as we once knew it?

If the Democrats do succeed in regaining power in November, you can bet that the Republicans will try to stymie them even at the cost of human life and further damage to the country, much as they did with their unconscionable obstructionism toward Obama after the 2008 crash. They will blame the Democrats for the economy not recovering fast enough, for every failure, for every death, eliding the fact that they were the ones who led us into that disaster and cravenly continue to make it worse.

Some think that process is already underway, with Moscow Mitch deliberately setting Biden up to take the blame. The Post’s Paul Waldman:

If you think Trump’s chances of reelection are dwindling, why would you try to save the economy now? Imagine if you passed measures that made the recovery easier but Trump lost anyway……Better to keep everyone miserable for a couple more years. McConnell can just confirm as many hard-right judges as possible between now and January, and consider his work done…..

Republicans are genuinely fearful that people will be too thankful if government helps them too much and that the crisis will make the passage of stronger safety-net programs more likely in the future. But if you thought Trump could still win, your best move would be to give the economy the biggest short-term boost possible with massive government spending, then worry about cutting it back later. Doing nothing now, even if you’re planning to promote cuts in a year or two, suggests only that you think the Trump presidency is all but a lost cause.

If we are lucky, Joe Biden and his successors may be able to pull us out of this. But like my fictional President Hillary, their reward, no doubt, will likely be ejection from office in 2028 by some firebreathing Republican challenger, or maybe even in 2024. (If Trump’s not too senile, or in prison, it might even be him. Or Ivanka. Or—shiver—Don Jr.) Recall that the Democrats held the White House for just four years after Watergate before the GOP took it back, making Carter’s term an island in a sea of twenty years of otherwise uninterrupted Republican rule, a period that included that historic scandal, the latter part of the Vietnam war, and Iran-contra, to name just a few highlights.

But let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. Job number one right now is was getting Trump out and giving the Democrats that chance in the first place.


In looking for the iconic Hillary-in-sunglasses photo to accompany this piece, I found it in what I believe was its original incarnation, a New York Times article from 2015 headlined, “Voters Unlikely to Care Much About the Hillary Clinton Email Furor.”

I’ll give you a minute to drink that in before filing under #Ironic AF.

Yes, voters probably were unlikely to care……until the Republican Disinformation Machine got hold of it. Said machine is currently hard at work making you think more about Burisma, Tara Reade, and “Terry and the Pirates” visions of China than the collapse of the United States into a failed state that Pakistan pities.

(Double irony: the photo was taken in 2011, while Hillary was en route from Malta to—wait for it—Libya.)

The Hillary Clinton presidency-that-never-was is a bitter lesson. But the really terrifying thing is that we may not have learned that lesson. Even now both the hard left and the repulsive right are shrieking that Joe Biden is just as bad as Trump, or worse. Trump meanwhile benefits from precisely the opposite effect, proving either that there is no God, or there is, but He’s a sadist.

Can Trump get away with this greatest gaslighting of all? If so, it will not be a testament to his alleged PT Barnum-style “genius” but to the absolute gullibility of the American people. And we will deserve what we get.



Photo by Kevin Lamarque of Reuters. A similar photo by Time’s Diana Walker is also associated with that meme.

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