The coronavirus is undoubtedly taking its toll on the globe: around one million people have been infected and 30,000 have died in a pandemic that has affected at least 180 countries and territories.
In the United States, more than 120,000 persons are down with the virus and around 2,000 have died. Federal authorities are weighing on whether to impose a quarantine for the city of New York—a term that even Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, seems to not comprehend the exact scope of.
In the midst of all the hoopla going on in the fifty states of America and in the capital city of Washington D.C., there is a President who is playing it differently as it suits his moods, whims and fancies. US President Donald Trump wants to act Presidential, is in total denial or perhaps, as his critics are suspecting, looking for ways to postpone the November 2020 elections so that he can linger on in the White House.
First, the “wartime” President, from being in total denial of the seriousness of the virus, later started to give the impression that he was taking it head-on after the political opposition and media started hammering the administration for a response to the crisis mounting globally and in America.
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The “war” took place by way of Trump laying it on China that it was indeed responsible — from the coronavirus, it came to be known as the ‘Chinese virus’ and now as the ‘Wuhan virus’.
Trump conveniently forgot that only in January, in a tweet, he had heaped lavish praise on China’s leadership for the way in which they had handled the problem.
“China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American people, I want to thank President Xi,” President Trump said.
However, Trump changed his tune in March. “It could have been contained to that one area in China where it started and the world is certainly paying a very big price for what they did,” he maintained, going on to make the point that his reference to the “Chinese virus” was not racist.
“It comes from China. It is not racist at all. It comes from China and that’s why I want to be accurate,” Trump said. But the notion of war has a different meaning in the Republican political strategy playbook: China is the enemy through the coronavirus; and by attacking or criticizing the President, the Democrats and the media are “helping” the enemy — a theme that will undoubtedly be bandied about in the closing stages of the political campaigning of the November 3 election.
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The pattern of the right wing strategists, as some have pointed out, is quite similar to how the Republicans have portrayed Trump on the issue of immigration: here is a President trying to protect America from thugs, drug dealers, rapists, and gang warfare by sealing the borders with Mexico only for Democrats to be against it!
With President Trump railing against China and Mexico at different points of time, one of the WhatsApp messages that did the rounds when the crisis was picking up steam was to point out the supreme irony—Trump having to confront with a virus from China named after a beer from Mexico!
The drama of a “wartime” President may be paying off, at least in the short term. For a person who hates the media, especially the liberal establishment, Trump is enjoying every moment of the spotlight that the media gives him to say whatever he wants to about the coronavirus.
With the Vice President and other staffers on his side, the President does not seem to mind spewing information that health specialists see as bizarre and misleading. Adding to that, for a President who loathes press conferences, he is now seen in Town Hall setting on the lawns of the White House giving interviews to media houses that are to his liking, principally Fox News.
Then, suddenly, he is being passed off as a leader coming to grips with a problem by working with a difficult Congress on a USD two-trillion plus stimulus package that has something for everyone including corporate houses who are facing the wrath of the markets and for the lapses of an administration that refused to see the crisis as it unfolded.
The present stimulus package may be twice that of what was rolled out in 2009 at the time of the recession, but economists believe that one or even two more packages will have to be taken care of by the time the effects of this pandemic hopefully comes to a close by the end of 2021.
Second, in the midst of acting “Presidential”, Trump is also playing the game of being in total denial of a crisis, and at times giving the impression that there is nothing to worry about, for it is all the making of the media and ill-meaning Democrats who do not want him to succeed politically.
Trump, at one time, said that he will have America up and running by Easter which is on April 12, but in recent days has backtracked. What has baffled many in his country is that at a time when state health agencies are pleading for equipment, the President has promised foreign countries of all and any help to come to terms with the virus.
The ever-so-vibrant city of New York is now seen as the global epicenter of the deadly virus with one COVID infected person dying every 17 minutes. That is the internal severity of the problem that critics say that the administration has not understood.
America is said to be in for the long haul, much beyond the Trump-optimistic-cutoff date of April 12. After going back and forth and getting into a heated argument with Democratic governors, Trump is now issuing a serious travel advisory for the city of New York even as neighboring states have started enforcing their own unilateral blockades of vehicles bearing New York license tags.
That brings the third aspect of Trump and the coronavirus: The scenario that is being painted is not all that whacky given what the institution of the Presidency has meant to the incumbent by the account of insiders, outsiders, and senior administration officials who have spoken on condition of anonymity for known and obvious reasons. The picture that some have already started talking about is something like this: It is early fall (September), the coronavirus is still raging in America, unemployment is pegged at 20 per cent and every week a million or more Americans are filing for unemployment benefits; and the presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph Biden is posting a commanding lead over the incumbent Republican. Will Trump use the coronavirus as an excuse to cancel or postpone the November 3 election? After all the institution of the Presidency to Trump can be summarized in one sentence or a line: “What is in it for ME?”
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Legal and constitutional experts, along with their friends in the media have already started asking the question whether the Presidential elections could be postponed under the present circumstances. And the unqualified answer cutting across Liberal and Conservative thinkers is in the negative. President Trump has long believed in the supremacy of executive power. However, here is one area where the writ of an executive order will not extend.
Experts point out that issues of dates and timing of elections, according to the American Constitution, is the sole prerogative of the Congress. America has gone through with the process of elections in traumatic times such as the Civil War, the Spanish flu, and World Wars One and Two.
In fact, closer to the elections of 2004, a serious question was raised as to what would happen if terrorists chose to attack America again as they did on September 11, 2001. The answer to the question then and probably now will be: “The game will go on.” And this will be despite of every trick in the book that Trump could choose to employ to hang on.
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In 1864, it is said that some aides of Abraham Lincoln urged him to suspend the election that year, but he refused knowing full well he could lose. “The election is a necessity. We cannot have a free government without elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered us,” he is said to have remarked.
Again, in 2004, the then National Security Advisor to the Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice said, “We’ve had elections in this country when we were at war, even when we were in (a) civil war. And we should have the elections on time.”
How would you want it President Trump?
(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations.)