TRUMP-20: The Other Pandemic

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me

–A. E. Housman

In the destructive wake of TRUMP-20, Americans should practice media-distancing. Daily reports that expose us to Trump, his lies, his racism, and the never-ending circus that surrounds him are detrimental to your health, particularly if you have a pre-existing condition such as high blood pressure. The toll it has taken on the nation’s health is immeasurable. The bloated orange man with the funny hair and Mussolini pout no longer amuses, if indeed he ever did.

He kills.

The false sense of security that began during the Obama years when many Americans felt the nation had begun to develop an immunity to racism has come to an end. The premature, self-congratulatory “post-racism” euphoria of those years has given way to bone-weary exhaustion, one of the early symptoms of TRUMP-20.

At the same time that COVID-19 has forced us to don masks to protect ourselves from the plague, TRUMP-20 has unmasked the plague of frustrated racists who fester among us. Recently, a “frustrated”1 San Diego man donned a KKK hood while shopping at a supermarket “to protest” the city’s mandatory mask law. A grocery-shopping couple in the same city affixed Nazi swastikas to their masks. In Colorado, another hooded KKK wannabe entered a grocery store to buy milk. Elsewhere across the nation, mask-less protesters, some armed, assembled to exercise their First Amendment-protected right to falsely shout “hoax” in a crowded pandemic.

Whites who violate social distancing rules and eschew masks are handed masks by police, who politely remind them to comply with guidelines; blacks are wrestled to the ground, pummeled, and arrested by roving packs of wilding cops, some of whom may not even wear masks themselves. In some cases, even wearing one can get you escorted out of Walmart. As The Nation’s Elie Mystal has pointed out, COVID-19 has become the latest justification for police brutality.

Both COVID-19 and TRUMP-20 impair our sense of taste. Consider the case of Michigan state senator Dale Zorn, who wore a face mask purportedly patterned on a confederate flag. When confronted, Zorn denied it, but admitted the mask “probably will raise some eyebrows” and ultimately decided to wear it anyway. Defending himself against accusations of racism, Zorn claimed his wife told him it was based on the “Kentucky or Tennessee flag.”

For the record, Kentucky’s state flag looks nothing like the pattern on the mask. However, according to Princeton vexillogist Stephen A. Knowlton, Tennessee’s does evoke the Confederate battle flag (and, some argue, the first flag of the Confederacy), and at times it has been modified to make its connect with the confederacy more explicit, as have a number southern “statement” flags.

Still, Zorn’s response begs an obvious question: Why would a mid-western state senator go out of his way to wear a mask that resembles the flags of southern states (though actually only one of them) located several hundred miles away? Perhaps, it was to blow a dog-whistle across those distances to signal his loyalty to a resurgent white supremist movement and its spray-tanned patron saint (who is himself a New Yorker, to the mortifying embarrassment of most of the city’s residents, and all the more proof that American racism knows no regional bounds). There is, however, more than enough evidence to suggest that Zorn’s appeal was directed at local racists, of which Michigan, judging from a Southern Poverty Law Center study and the number of the confederate flags unfurled by some anti-lockdown demonstrators in the state earlier this month, has its more than its fair share.

Asked why he decided to change to a drab blue protective mask after his choice of prophylactic pandemic apparel was criticized, Zorn replied it was because “I respect this institution [presumably the state senate and not the Michigan chapter of Klan] and didn’t want my actions to cause, um, um, a negative effect to the institution,” something that should have dawned on him when, by his own admission, he realized wearing it might raise eyebrows.

There’s a memorable line from HBO’s provocative “Watchmen” miniseries: “White men in masks are heroes. Black men in masks [are] scary.” In TRUMP-20-infected America, however, white men (and women) who refuse to wear masks are heroes. Black men (and women) are threats, whether they do or not.

Then again, some white men decline to wear masks at all or abide any restrictions on their behavior, without facing any consequences. Both the president and vice president visited mask-producing facilities without wearing one themselves. Recently, Trump announced that he is taking hydroxychloroquine despite potential health risks that include hallucinations and paranoia, side effects that should give us pause. (Oddly, much of the commentary on the issue has focused on Trump’s advanced age, heart condition, and obesity – putatively “morbid” or otherwise – but not the possible effect the drug might have on his already questionable mental state.)

Is any of this behavior surprising? Hardly. Remember, this is the “stable genius” who stared directed at the sun sans protective eyeware during a solar eclipse. Everyday Trump strives to convince us that he is no mere mortal, that his “superior genes” place him above the laws of Nature, God, and man. He will do whatever he wants, to whomever he wants, whenever he wants, and his enablers will make it so.

・Throw children in cages. Check.

・Waste taxpayers’ money on the construction of a pregnable border wall. No problem.

・Prematurely reopen the country. You betcha.

・Hand Joe Arpaio and Michael Flynn a get out of jail card. Damn right.

Expand warrantless surveillance of American citizens. Done.

・Idly twiddle his tiny thumbs and promote bogus conspiracy theories while tens of thousands American lives are consumed in a relentless pandemic. Of course. Did anyone really expect otherwise?

The Lancet reports that delirium and amnesia brought on by the stress of the pandemic may affect COVID-19 patients. The same holds true of Trump-20. This may explain why Trump still enjoys a 94% job approval rating among Republicans; why his continuous stream of contrafactual statements are uncritically accepted by his supporters, why an asylum of deluded conservative pundits continuously disremember or defend Trump’s indiscretions; and, most importantly, why the racial and socioeconomic inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic have never been seriously engaged by those in a position to do something about them.

Nonetheless, despite the ravages of TRUMP-20, things still go on very much as they had before. Trump replaces one lying press secretary with another, the latest, Kayleigh McEnany, pledging, like at least two of her predecessors – Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, both of whom, unlike Stephanie Grisham, actually held press briefings – that she will never lie to the American public, the first of what, inevitably, has turned out to be an unending torrent of lies.

The source of TRUMP-20, one Donald John Trump, has displayed his racism all along, diving repeatedly into his inexhaustible reservoir of lies, innuendoes, and slanders. Birther conspiracies have given way to his latest upper-case fixation, “OBAMAGATE.” Apparently retaining the same crackerjack team of investigators he reputedly sent to Hawaii to dig up proof that Obama was born in Kenya, Trump now claims he has information that Trump’s erstwhile friend and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might be a murderer. Or is this simply the hydroxychloroquine kicking in? Then again, Trump originally levelled the accusation against Scarborough in 2017. Or should we regard it as yet another in a long list of Trump’s “jokes,” a list that might have included his reality television presidency had it not proven so deadly.

Nothing ever changes.

Think about it. Forests are decimated to print newspapers that track Trump’s cornucopia of venomous deceits. Coltan is stripped mined for the computers and smartphones that we use to follow his endless Twitter tantrums. Yet despite this flood of information, the calculus of corruption continues unchanged. Accountability remains elusive. Obstruction of Justice? Trump’s impeachment ended with a whimper, not a bang. Violations of the emoluments clause? Not even addressed. Allegations of sexual assault? Banished to the cornfield.

In the Trump administration’s game of musical chair, seats are momentarily swapped but loyal heads never roll. One moment Flynn is out, the next he’s in like, well, Flynn. Those who cross the president, who expose his corruption and incompetence, meet with a different fate. A vaccine expert is demoted. A troublesome state department inspector general is fired. Yet no matter how egregious Trump’s behavior, nothing ever sticks, unless it’s that little bit of acid reflux residue – another symptom of TRUMP-20 – that clings to the esophagus whenever Trump’s titian visage appears on screen. Things go on as usual – or as unusual, which is now the new normal.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say with a fatalistic shrug.

This is the America of TRUMP-20.

As we have seen, TRUMP-20 worsens preexisting conditions. Like COVID-19, it has brought to the surface the persistent and fundamental inequalities that plague the American system. These issues have been festering for decades, even centuries; it just took a pandemic to expose them. Does it surprise anyone that the prison population is at risk, as well as black and Latino nursing home residents, the poor and the homeless, that detainees receive inadequate health care, that, given our government’s long trail of broken tribal treaties, the Navajo Nation and other Native American tribes have sued the federal government in order to receive coronavirus stimulus relief.

Sadly, the nation’s response to TRUMP-20 has been as lackadaisical as its response to the coronavirus. Did anyone not see this coming? Certainly, the symptoms were there for anyone to read. Of course, people of color are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and the response to it. In a racist system, laws and social policies will be enforced in ways that disproportionately and detrimentally affect people of color. It is not necessarily that these laws and polices be ill-conceived, just that the method of enforcement remains true to the deeply rooted biases, implicit and explicit, and aggressions, macro and micro, inherent in the system as a whole.

As The Guardian’s Alex Clark wrote in 2007 of Vonnegut’s view of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, the question was not whether it should have been bombed, but “how one behaved after that.” With TRUMP-20, Americans now have our own domestic Dresden. The question is not whether a deranged demagogue should reside in the White House, but how we behave now that he does.

Nothing ever changes…until we do.


1 Forget Ambien, TRUMP-20 has spawned an epidemic of “frustrationism” that is used to justify all manner of racist and incendiary behavior.