A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
There has been much talk of late, not least from the estimable David Frum, of America as a failed state. It ill behooves those who, like Frum, within living memory, counted themselves Republicans, to make such claims without a very large dose of mea culpa. The pandemic has indeed revealed America’s government to be sclerotic and its social fabric to be tissue thin, undermined by grotesque levels of inequality and poverty, structured by generations of institutional racism, and exacerbated by a patchy and wholly inadequate ‘safety net.’ The health care system, it emerges, is not a ‘system’ at all but an economic sector, made up of individual profit centers, hard to co-ordinate at the best of times, let alone under Trump; parts of that system are going bankrupt because they can’t perform the elective surgeries that alone keep them going. The Federal government is made up of rival bureaucracies and centers of power created over decades, always been devilishly hard to co-ordinate. The division of functions and powers between the states and the Federal Government is entirely unclear, bedeviled by decades of politically divisive debates about states’ rights.
But rickety, broken even, as American government and society in many ways are, they have not, until of late, been simply failed. Rather they have been, and are being, failed by the Trump administration and the Republican Party. What makes Governor Cuomo’s serial performances of competence and grasp simultaneously so compelling and so mournful is that we are watching, on a daily basis, someone who has spent a lifetime manipulating the levers of power inside government, in Washington, and at both the state and local levels; someone committed to the belief that, however ramshackle and dysfunctional, the system as it is can be made to work; that the state is not ‘failed.’ Over the years, the intensity of that conviction has won Cuomo a reputation for ruthlessness, charmless-ness, even thuggery, aroused various accusations of ‘corruption,’ and limited his political vision to a sort of stripped down pragmatism that has infuriated and alienated many people on the left. But now—along with his distinctive style of death’s head gravitas—that sheer determination to be competent, to grasp the situation at hand, and to bend the system to an urgent and beneficent purpose comes across as something extraordinary. And yet for all Cuomo’s, and Newsom’s, and Inslee’s, and other governors’ many virtues, the impact of their competence is a tragic comment on where we are now.
For the Federal Government has been decapitated by the serial refusal of its notional head of state even to try to make the government function. The tragic consequences of having government run by people who do not believe in it, or understand, what it is for, still less how it works, is not a new experience for this country. Hurricane Katrina, which combined a feckless Bush Administration and a hopelessly corrupt and inept local government springs to mind. So does the disastrous mismanagement of Iraq immediately after the collapse of the Saddam regime. Michael Brown, George Bush’s equestrian FEMA administrator—“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”—and Paul Bremer, the short-lived Iraq supremo, meet Donald Trump’s labradoodle breeder. Again, this dysfunction is not an exclusively Trumpian, but a pervasively Republican syndrome. While the first Bush mess happened in just one place, and the other in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little, the current situation is rather closer to home for most of us.
Trump has turned the Federal Government into a slush fund that he can use to reward his friends and allies and punish his enemies. This distortion applies to the half-trillion-dollar give away to corporate interests and to the distribution of tests and PPE. Hence the absurd Federal effort to seize such materials from the states so they can be given back again as political favors. That is what the idiot Kushner meant when he talked about ‘our’ stocks of material; ‘our’ referred not to the Federal Government but rather to the Trump faction within the White House, of which (ludicrously) Kushner appears to be the eminence grise. I am not surprised that young Jarrod is only let out on his own every few months, since he spends nearly all of his time in the public eye with his foot jammed firmly in his mouth. After all, in this same briefing he opined that this crisis would soon sort out the competent elected public officials from the fools and charlatans. Well, out of the mouths of babes and grafters.
These machinations are designed to allow Trump to treat the state governors the way he treated the President of the Ukraine: dangling stuff the governors need in front of them, until they give him the approval and co-operation he demands. And if not, not. Cuomo has to deal with Trump, because Trump has things he needs, so Cuomo has intermittently to stroke Trump’s ego. Since he has to do that on television otherwise it does not count in Trump-world, Trump then gets to edit the Cuomo highlights into what is in effect a campaign ad, funded by tax payer money and distributed free of charge on all the major networks though the daily White House press briefings.
In short, having tried to turn American foreign policy into a sort of protection racket, Trump is doing the same thing to domestic policy in a time of national crisis. I am tempted to go off on a tangent about all those so-called ‘moderate’ Republicans who agreed that Trump was sort of guilty as charged over the Ukraine but who argued that these peccadilloes did not rise anywhere near the level of unfitness for office or impeachment, but I see no real point either in stating the obvious or in pursuing the likes of Lamar Alexander or Susan Collins into what one hopes will be a well-deserved political and reputational oblivion.
As we have learned, Trump’s aim is to minimize blame and to take whatever credit is available. There is surely a good case to be made that he currently resists mass testing because it would reveal how bad things are – remember the classic Trumpian line “I like the numbers where they are.” No doubt Trump wants to keep the number of reported cases down to enhance the rationale for ‘reopening the economy’ and therefore his chances of re-election. But since that strategy is doomed to fail unless and until the pandemic is brought under control, there is a sub-text here, if possibly not fully realized by Trump, now sunk in bleach-drinking magical thinking, and obsessed by the polls, then certainly known to the more sentient members of his clique and to bought-in leaders of the Republican Party.
They are gambling, it seems to me, that, over time, the fear and anxiety caused by the pandemic will be eclipsed by the fear, anxiety, anger, and desperation caused by the lock down. That pervasive panic will enable a populist campaign to be run against the purveyors of said lock down now identified with certain Democratic governors and various denizens of the ‘deep state,’ i.e. anybody who knows what they are talking about.
This desperate strategy gives Republicans an interest in sustaining the economic misery of most Americans, which their campaign to minimize relief efforts at the Federal level is well on the way to furthering. As are the dysfunctional unemployment programs created by Republicans in many states (for example, the system currently in place in Florida was recently described by a Republican as having been ‘designed to fail’). Even the localized ‘reopening’ of the economy will actually serve to stop many people from claiming unemployment, and small businesses from claiming the already inadequate financial aid available to them. It’s a safe prediction that Americans will refuse to flock back to cinemas, restaurants, gyms, barbershops, massage parlors, and bars in sufficient numbers to sustain those businesses. Many of them, deprived of government aid by the very fact that they are open, will slowly go bankrupt.
A related hope is that the Republicans can diminish the Democratic vote not only by the means they’ve used to such effect in past elections, but also by relying on the virus to keep some voters away from the polls on Election Day, and on the closure of various DMV and other government offices to prevent people either from registering to vote or gaining the sort of ID many states now require to vote. Think about a mixture of Georgia under Kemp, Florida first under Scott and then DeSantis, and most recently Wisconsin under a Republican legislature superintended by a Republican judiciary.
All of the above is accompanied by an assault on the financial stability of the states. Mitch McConnell, having made sure to pay out vast sums to the corporate interests that fund his party, now urges bankruptcy on states and municipalities. Presumably many of these statements are posturing –‘Blue state bail out,’ anyone? After all what would any serious politician do, in the midst of a depression and a pandemic but troll his political opponents and fire up his base? But his invective is not merely rhetoric. Forcing certain states into bankruptcy has been a Republican goal for decades (not a default on bonds, but a default on state workers and their pension benefits). What is certain is that, having inflated the Federal deficit with a tax cut targeted to benefit the very rich, Republicans will now revert to type, deploying the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility to ensure, at the very least, that the states remain in fiscal jeopardy, and consequently that the capacities of wealthy blue states like New York and California deteriorate, while also blaming those same states for the consequences.
We are now seeing active collusion between the “populist” demonstrations in the states and the workings of high politics, collusion partly constituted through the activities, influence, and money of various billionaire Trump supporters and Republican donors, and the agit-prop organizations they fund. This alliance is busily bussing people to the demos, while boasting that the re-run of the Tea Party will get Trump over the line in November. A great deal of this business is being transacted in plain sight, not merely by the ever tweeting, ever briefing Trump and by the trolling McConnell, but, God save us, by the Attorney General of the United States. The egregious Barr has recently brought his performance of owl-faced, jowl-wobbling, lawyerly gravitas and bottom – a sort of Rumpole-of-the-Bailey meets Lee Attwater tribute act – to bear on the protest movement, which, like some of the protestors themselves, he has now chosen to frame in terms of ‘liberty,’ rather than of public health. Barr has promised to add the weight of the Justice Department to private suits brought against governors he deems to have gone too far in supporting stay-at-home measures. This stance will incite the same groups who are behind the protests to go to law against governors seeking to protect the public in the midst of the greatest heath crisis in a century; those groups will be able to do so safe in the knowledge that the Justice Department will have their back. Barr may come off like an establishment lawyer, but he is, in fact, playing a cross between a partisan spin doctor and a Jacobin demagogue, and he has been doing so almost from the moment he took office.
One might add in passing that this would be a good moment for those Democrats who voted to confirm Barr because he was an ‘institutionalist’ to consider some form of, if not public penance, then at least private reflection. The same goes for those members of the commentariat who, until recently, kept expressing surprise and dismay about what had happened to the Bill Barr they once knew. Barr was never someone who just loves the Justice Department and the rule of law, but rather a religious fanatic with views on Presidential prerogative and church and state so extreme that they would not have withstood public scrutiny, had he been subjected to any. Since Barr’s opinions on such topics were a matter of public record at the time of his confirmation, none of this is surprising.
For Barr is an ‘institutionalist’ in precisely the same way that McConnell is; that is to say, they both know their way around the institutions they currently lead well enough to be able fundamentally to subvert them from within, while bending them to their own wholly partisan purposes. For both of them, that process of subversion represents the height of their personal and political ambitions, and a fitting (and entirely logical) end to their wholly destructive careers in public life. All of which, plus the tax cut and a generation’s worth of judges, makes enduring the clammily corrupting embrace of Trump, with whom, in normal circumstances, neither of them would presumably want anything to do, a price worth paying.
It is all very well for various liberal commentators to happy talk their way through poll evidence that shows extraordinarily high support for the lock down, and going on and on about the ‘chaos’ and confusion at the heart of the Trump administration. Those observations are true enough. But the poll evidence shows emerging differences between Republicans and Democrats on these issues, and the Republicans are playing the long game. If the demonstrations remain restricted to Confederate-flag-wearing gun nuts, wide eyed libertarians committed to their inalienable right to go fishing or get their hair done in the midst of a pandemic, those protests will not matter much. But the current round of demonstrations are intended to lay a seed. If and when people, confronted by ever deeper debt, hunger, and destitution, get desperate and join in in ever greater numbers, which, if the lock down goes on over the summer, as it must and will, might well happen, then we will be in a very different place. And that is the calculation currently in place on the Republican side.
As for the chaos of the Trump regime, that is undeniable. Trump’s latest attempt to turn his following into a literal suicide cult through his ‘cup of disinfectant a day keeps the virus away’ wheeze is only the latest and worst example of a volatility rendered chronic by the impact of a crisis he cannot understand. Indeed his current melt down represents the best hope we have that he will not be re-elected. But beneath the usual U-turns and the stream of contradictory, self-serving bilge, there is a pattern emerging, across the Administration and among its Republican allies in the country, the Congress and on the extreme and not so extreme right.
This convergence is not the result of a conspiracy; I very much doubt that there is a Trump Central in which Kushner, or Meadows, or whoever, pulls the levers of power and patronage, and everyone jumps. After all, this is the Trump administration we are talking about. But there is a Trumpian agenda and a mode of communication, that is now well established, and what we are seeing is different political actors, already connected through various ideological affinities and institutional and personal links, reacting to the same situation in terms of that same agenda. In writing about the Third Reich, the historian Ian Kershaw coined the term ‘working towards the Fuhrer’ to evoke a situation in which the central regime had been reduced to a ruck of warring factions, bureaucratic interests, and ambitious ideologues and parasites, all of whom were engaged in a struggle to win the favor of the Leader by anticipating and gratifying his desires. It is well known that Trump has reduced the White House and the upper reaches of the Federal Government to just such a bear pit, and staffed it, as far as he can, with sycophants and careerists committed to giving him at least a version of what he wants. In this situation even the likes of doctors Birx and Fauci have (occasionally) to genuflect to the great leader’s pronouncements, even in Birx’s case going on Fox News to produce an indulgent den-mother apologia for his latest farcical excursion into medical science. (He is so interested and cares so much, etc. etc.) What we see here is a prime example of working towards Trump. (Let me add that I am NOT comparing Trump to Hitler, merely adopting Kershaw’s useful phrase to characterize a certain style of rule, a mode of policy- and decision-making that is clearly visible in Trump’s regime.)
There may be no centralized conspiracy, no commonly agreed plan, no single e-mail chain leading to the basement of the White House. Just as with the Russia ‘collusion’ business, I am sure that, while there is much incriminating material, much of it already in plain sight – remember “Russia, if you’re listening” – there may well be no evidence of a smoking gun sort. However, there is a pattern, even a strategy, emerging, and we would be well advised to acknowledge as much.
I am not saying that this approach is necessarily going to work. Far from it. Theirs is, in fact, a high risk strategy, but then the Republicans are desperate, and rightly so. They were going to run on the economy, and now that issue has gone south. Not only that, they now have the albatross of a disastrously mismanaged pandemic around their collective neck, a legacy they cannot wish away. The video clips for a thousand campaign ads are freely available on YouTube. Republicans are mired in a crisis that no administration led by Trump (or indeed McConnell) can seriously mitigate. The severity of that crisis may well be mitigated, but by others, and in spite, not because of, anything that Trump does or says. In this situation, Republicans have nowhere else to go but a return to Tea Party populism, now fueled by a chaos, confusion, and economic misery that their own policies, pursued over decades, have done a great deal to create, and which they are now in effect, and I think in intention, actively exacerbating. And after all, if they don’t win, the bigger the mess they leave to the Democrats, the more their successors’ hands will be tied and the more the Democrats can be blamed for whatever happens next. Again, remember the Republican stance after the 2008 Crash. First, hobble the recovery package, with cries of fiscal restraint, and then demand, “Where are the jobs, Mr. President?” And it is going to be far easier to make an ageing Biden a one term president than it was Obama.
The media have been painfully slow to adjust to Trump-world. Moralized wailing—the attempt to hold Trump to conventional norms and assumptions, and then to be disappointed, appalled, disgusted, rueful, when he fails to be ‘presidential’—is now just so much nostalgia. Ex-Republicans, desperate to persuade the public that this turn of affairs has nothing to do with them or their (former) party, or that George Bush was a nice man or Joe Biden the best way to get back to ‘normal’, have got a peculiarly severe case of this syndrome, but it is anything but exclusive to them.
Since this view of the matter all too often gets in the way of any clear analysis of what Trump and his allies are doing, it is not merely irritating, it is dangerous. Trump and the Republicans should not win, indeed they very well might not win, but it is clear how they are going to try to win. A public acknowledgement of what Trump and the Republicans are about is thus a crucial place to start – if, that is, we really want to stop them winning again.
Peter Lake is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University.
Copyright 2020 Peter Lake