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Will the riots that swept the country following the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police enable Donald Trump’s reelection?
No one must have been more upset by the Covid-19 pandemic than Trump. His concern for the fate of the 100,000 people who have lost their lives and the 1.65 million Americans infected seems minimal, for victims are expendable. However, his possible lose in the upcoming November 2020 presidential election is a very different story, one that would likely not have happened had not the U.S – and the world – faced the Covid-19 pandemic or had he acted more decisively.
The new year of 2020 brought a sense of invincibility to Trump and his political machine. He weathered the Russia election scandal, neutralizing the Mueller report, and laughed at the House’s impeachment campaign. In January, ABC News chortled, “Economic prosperity is boosting Donald Trump’s political prospects, helping the relatively unpopular president to a competitive position against his potential Democratic opponents in the fall election.”
On January 27th, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that “one year before he [Trump] took office, 63% of Americans said they were worried about maintaining their standard of living. Today, 43% say so, a broad 20-point drop in personal economic uncertainty.” On February 11th, the Monmouth University Poll announced: “Most Expect Trump Will Be Reelected.”
In November 2019, amidst the bubbling enthusiasm for Trump’s likely reelection, the military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) began to report about the existence of a novel virus in China. “Analysts concluded it could be a cataclysmic event,” one of the sources said of the NCMI’s report. “It was then briefed multiple times to” the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the White House.
ABC News detailed how the story then played out.
From that warning in November, the sources described repeated briefings through December for policy-makers and decision-makers across the federal government as well as the National Security Council at the White House. All of that culminated with a detailed explanation of the problem that appeared in the President’s Daily Brief of intelligence matters in early January, the sources said. For something to have appeared in the PDB, it would have had to go through weeks of vetting and analysis, according to people who have worked on presidential briefings in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
A report in New York magazine confirms the account:
The White House was aware of a contagion which is now known to be COVID-19 as early as November. According to ABC News, the report, made up of data intercepts and satellite imagery, determined that the coronavirus was a potential threat to U.S. troops in the region. “Analysts concluded it could be a cataclysmic event,” a source told ABC News. “It was then briefed multiple times to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the White House.”
However, in the face of the mounting warnings about the new virus, the Trump administration sought to deny, then minimalize, its significance. Col. R. Shane Day, the director of the NCMI, initially claimed, “No such NCMI product exists.” He added:
As a matter of practice, the National Center for Medical Intelligence does not comment publicly on specific intelligence matters. However, in the interest of transparency during this current public health crisis, we can confirm that media reporting about the existence/release of a National Center for Medical Intelligence Coronavirus-related product/assessment in November of 2019 is not correct.
Robert Redfield, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control, declared, “If we just social distance, we will see this virus and this outbreak basically decline, decline, decline. And I think that’s what you’re seeing … I think you’re going to see the numbers are, in fact, going to be much less than what would have been predicted by the models,” he said.
Trade advisor Peter Navarro alerted the Trump administration to the dangers of the coronavirus in a memo on January 29 that recapped the various warnings issued by intelligence community throughout January and February.
Trump appears to have made his first public comments on January 22, telling CNBC that “we have it totally under control … it’s going to be just fine.”
However, the White House did not announce public health guidelines until March 16th and then basically left it up to states to decide the level of restriction to put on its citizens.
VP Mike Pence jumped into the fracas. “I will be very candid with you,” he explained, “and say that in mid-January the CDC was still assessing that the risk of the coronavirus to the American people was low. … The reality is that we could’ve been better off if China had been more forthcoming.”
This set the stage for Trump administration’s “blame China” policy. “This is worse than Pearl Harbor, this is worse than the World Trade Center. There’s never been an attack like this,” Trump declared. “And it should have never happened. Could’ve been stopped at the source. Could’ve been stopped in China. It should’ve been stopped right at the source. And it wasn’t.”
Trump’s first mentioning coronavirus in January 2020; four months later, the Covid-19 death count had skyrocketed to over 100,000 deaths and his likelihood of reelection steadily slipped. This is indicated in the decline in his job approval rating.
Gallup polling found that in January 20th, Trump had a 49 percent approval rating. It reported, “63 percent of Americans now approve of the way Trump is handling the economy, up six points from the prior reading in November. It was the highest approval rating not only for Trump, but for any president since George W. Bush enjoyed stratospheric job approval ratings in the first few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Trump began calling for an end to social distancing measures in mid-April, insisting, “It’s going to be very very close. Maybe even before the date of May 1st.” By the end of May, every state had either suspended or limited onsite business restrictions or announced plans to do so. Trump even dubbed religious institutions like churches and mosques as “essential” business.
The most recent polling data of May 20-21 reflects Trump’s slippage in approval. One firm, YouGov, reports an approval rate of 43 percent and a disapproval rate of 50 percent; Rasmussen has an approval rate of 46 percent and a disapproval rate 53 percent. Perhaps more upsetting to the Trump team, popular polls show him falling behind his likely Democratic contender, Mr. Invisible, Joe Biden. For May 20-21, Public Policy Polling reports Biden ahead 59 percent to Trump’s 37 percent; the YouGov poll has Biden at 46 percent and Trump at 42 percent.
Reopening U.S. businesses was the lynchpin of Trump’s revised, post-coronavirus election campaign. In all likelihood, Trump will call the post-epidemic recovery in whatever form it takes, a “new prosperity” and will likely be the cornerstone of his 2020 reelection campaign – “Make America Great Again, Again.”
However, while the police killing of George Floyd was an unexpected and isolated act, it is part of a pattern of police (mis)conduct. For decades, there have been numerously repeated incidents of police killings of people of color along with little appropriate judicial response. This situation was compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the suffering overwhelmingly borne by people of color. Together, these and other factors fueled what led to nationwide riots and civil disturbances long in the making.
Trump seized not upon the killing of Floyd or other African Americans by the police or white racists but upon the resulting civil uprisings to add a new plank to his reelection campaign – use of the military to impose social order. Where his call to reopen business had a general appeal, Trump’s new appeal is targeted toward his most militant white nationalist followers.
In the magical thinking that guides Trump and his supporters, by election day the riots that followed Floyd’s death as well as the thousands of dead and the million-plus of those who suffered a Covid-19 infection will be forgotten, erased to history. Their suffering, our suffering, will be a small price to pay for a renewed economy.
But can – will — the U.S. really be back to “business as usual” by November? What of the 40 million Americans who lost their jobs? In early May, the nation’s unemployment rate was at 14.7 percent, the highest since at least the 1940s. In comparison, during the 2007-2009 “Great Recession,” the unemployment rate rose sharply, from about 5 percent to 10 percent so by late ‘09, with more than 15 million people unemployed. In 2010, the economy and labor market began to recover so that by December 2017, the unemployment rate had fallen to 4.1 percent – and Trump took full credit for the recovery.
Given the sudden and enormous increase in the unemployment rates that accompanied the coronavirus epidemic, state unemployment funds are drying up. According to some experts, California, New York and Ohio are running out of funds and Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois and Minnesota will shortly follow. Georgia epitomizes the plight on many states: “But because of provisions in the state constitution, they can’t borrow money and they can’t raise taxes.” This led the state’s governor, Brian Kemp, to relax regulations. It also led the state to limit unemployment compensation, forcing a growing number of state residents into the no-man’s-land of joblessness without subsistence support. This is a critical first step in the oldest of America’s immoral traditions – blame the victim.
If, as expected, mass joblessness persists and it is compounded by a shrinkage of benefits (e.g., unemployment compensation, welfare, housing subsidies, etc.) that drags on for a few years, then one can well expect to see a rise of homelessness, increase of malnutrition (especially among children) and an uptick in crime. The handwriting is on the wall.
A century ago, the U.S. confronted the great influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. It was endured during three waves – a mild first wave (May–August 1918), a severe second wave (September–November 1918) and a moderate third wave (December 1918 to mid-1919). Unfortunately, the memory of the epidemic was swallowed up in the memorialization of WW-I victory, its lessons lost to history until today’s coronavirus pandemic.
Few commentators, let alone Trump or his administration officials, are preparing for a second, to say nothing of a third, wave of the Covid-19 virus. If another virus outbreak takes place in the fall, just prior to the November election, Trump can kiss his reelection hopes good-by.