How Trump made Covid-19 an ally, and almost won the Presidency

3 weeks ago 11

In interviews to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward in the first quarter of this year, Donald Trump confided that he knew how dangerous Covid-19 was, but was downplaying the havoc the virus could cause so that people didn’t “panic”.

In his public statements, Trump projected optimism, hoping, not so secretly, that the virus would miraculously go away. By the time he realised that the miracle had decided to skip the appointment, about mid-year, it was too late to do anything about the virus without admitting, at least in part, that he needed to reverse course. That he had been wrong.

Donald Trump NEVER believes Donald Trump is wrong.

What Trump did realise is that the scale of the pandemic would profoundly affect his chances in the November elections that he so desperately wanted to win.

He decided to make Covid-19 an ally. Extract out of it the political juice that would, even at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, give him his best shot at re-election.

The plan was obvious:

>> Dismiss or downplay the novel coronavirus in all his messaging. This meant defying his best medical advisers, often science itself saying repeatedly that it was no worse than the common flu.

He stayed on his ‘no mask’ message till the very end of the campaign. At one rally in the final days, he gave a shout out to a friendly Fox News anchor saying he hardly recognised her because of her mask, and then inadvertently revealed his motivation: “You’re being politically correct,” he said.

“Politically” is the keyword. If Trump supporters could earlier be identified by the red MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats they wore, they could now just as easily spotted by their missing masks. Trump had made mask-wearing an issue of personal liberty, rather than public health. You need look no further than footage of his rallies for proof.

>> Step two broadened that theme. He began to characterise lockdowns, especially in democrat run states like Michigan (critical in his re-election bid), as attempts at a socialist coup. This entailed the forcible imprisonment of citizens in their homes, the shutting down of private enterprise, costing working class jobs because of a hoax. A “democrat hoax”, amplified by Trump’s sidekicks at Fox News—the channel that Trump’s half of America watches, at the exclusion of everything else.

>> China, with whom Trump had started a disastrous trade war, was increasingly being looked upon suspiciously by Americans—Republicans and democrats alike when Covid-19 crossed the oceans.

This offered Trump the twin opportunities of deflecting blame for his mishandling of the pandemic. Lay the blame on America’s latest enemy, and, more subtly, stoke the disdain/or fear of the “other” that rests in the recesses of a substantial section of American hearts and minds.

These feelings are almost as contagious as Covid-19. In normal times, they are kept in check by the vaccine of what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature”.

But these are not normal times. Besides, America has been here before.

Think of the internment camps that Japanese Americans (thousands of whom fought for America against the country of their ancestors) were forced to into during World War 2.

Think of the treatment of anyone wearing a turban in the period just post 9/11. Or the invention of the term ‘enhanced interrogation’ to describe what most of the civilised world calls torture.

At these times, America either cheers or shrugs. Reflection, followed occasionally by regret, comes decades later.

Trump-era America responds to a different kind of language. He speaks the tongue instinctively. Covid-19 was initially called “Kung Flu”, and later the “China virus.”

An Asian reporter, asking a question about the pandemic, was told: “Why don’t YOU ask CHINA?” The emphasis is Trump’s.

>> The groundwork was now laid for Trump’s calls to “liberate” democrat run states and push armed militia out on to the street as if a revolution was about to take place. The political lines were now drawn.

The country was now divided into people who wore masks, and people who didn’t; people who believed in myths rather than medicine; people who wanted freedom versus people who wanted lockdown. This split was almost down the middle.

>> There were things to do in the backrooms. To his credit, Trump understood very clearly that his half of America would turn up on election day without fear of fever. The opposition, however, put a much higher premium of personal and public health. They would vote by mail.

What he needed to do, was clear the roads and jam the post.

He ensured that Louis Dejoy, a campaign donor, was appointed postmaster general. This man took a wrecking ball to his office. Crucial infrastructure was dismantled, slowing mail down across the country.

His opponents could, and would, vote, figured Trump. It was his puppet’s job to ensure their vote wouldn’t count: their ballots wouldn’t arrive in time.

>> The final chapters of the playbook were to be read aloud. Mail-in ballots were fraudulent. Any election he didn’t win had to be rigged, said Trump. This narrative that threw shade on the process that made America great, albeit gradually. What Trump succeeded in doing was make about half of America unfollow and unsubscribe to democracy.

>> The best was reserved for the last. If none of the above worked, Trump realised, the courts would tip him back over the ‘non-scalable’ White House fence he’s just built. Over the last four years, Trump has stacked the judiciary with his appointees.

The death of the American icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg with just about two months to go, allowed him to appoint Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy. That court is now 6-3 in favour of Republicans, it is a majority that allows Barrett the casting vote even if the more centrist chief justice John Roberts sides with, well, justice.

This is why his first move after announcing ‘victory’ on the night of the election was to start litigating the vote in all key states. But winners don’t do that, losers do. Having set fire to America, he expects the Supreme Court to award him damages.

In an address to the nation on the eve of his expected loss, he said: “Judges will have to rule” on the theft of an election he believes he won.

In case they don’t side with him, Trump will take this grievance to the America that voted for him. If the streets turn violent, then you will know Donald Trump just launched his 2024 campaign.

(Avirook Sen is the author of 'Looking for America' and 'Aarushi')

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