In my last article, I suggested that America was the Titanic, already with a gash in its side. One might consider the iceberg that had struck it the COVID-19 virus, Donald Trump or some combination of both. The virus has affected at least 10 million people and likely a good many more who have been asymptomatic but still vulnerable to its ravages. It has also killed a quarter of a million more. At the same time, it would not have succeeded nearly as well in its lethality without Donald Trump, its master spreader.
Trump first dismissed the virus as a non-starter, although he was well aware of its danger from the beginning. When he finally ordered a lockdown, he sabotaged it almost from the beginning and pushed to end it far too early. He left the 50 states to fend for themselves, denying them vital resources within his power to provide. He undermined and corrupted our premier health agencies, scoffed at science itself, promoted bizarre remedies and finally walked away from the whole business just as the country was entering the most dangerous phase of its pandemic. A spreader in his own right, he turned the White House itself into a laboratory of death. He is and forever will be the human face of the virus itself.
Of course, the Trump presidency was a disaster in itself and needed no flourish from a microbe to have created the worst threat to American democracy since the Civil War. But, COVID-19 has exacerbated the very problems that brought Trump to power in the first place. As will be recalled, he masqueraded as a populist who promised to reverse the decline of the middle and working classes after half a century’s battering. In office, he handed a trillion-dollar gift to Wall Street instead. Covid has handed it a far bigger one. Our wealthiest banks, corporations and hedge funds have seen their assets soar, in part from the looting of relief funds theoretically designed to assist small businesses and furloughed workers. When the real Titanic sank, the code of the sea was honored: women and children first. When disaster strikes on land, however, particularly economic disaster, the reverse occurs: the most vulnerable suffer first, hardest and most lastingly. The pandemic depression has been no exception. And it hurt all the harder because, for four months and counting, there has been no further relief from Washington — even relief that makes the rich richer.
When I wrote on the eve of the election last week, I envisioned three scenarios: that Trump or Biden would win narrowly or that Biden would win decisively. We now know the outcome. Biden’s victory was narrow, and appears at the moment not to include a Senate majority. It is also apparent that Trump was prepared for this, intellectually at least, and had mapped out a strategy to meet it. His relentless disparagement of mail-in ballots was meant to encourage Democrats to use them, and in this he succeeded. The result was the largely Republican in-person vote on Election Day, which was recorded as it was cast, gave the illusion of a Trump victory. At that point, Trump claimed re-election, only to caution in the same breath that it was being stolen from him by fraud and that the counting of mail ballots should stop at once in blue states. How do you win despite losing? Trump was about to give the country a master class on the subject. To understand the demonstration, you had to understand the meaning of “victory” in Trump’s vocabulary. In a sporting event or an election, victory is clear-cut: you get more goals, points or votes than your opponent. The result is conclusive. In Trump’s world, the world of business, you lose one day only to fight again the next, by fair means or foul. Defeat is only a setback; bankruptcy — a specialty of Trump’s — merely a tactic. You never lose unless you quit; you go to court instead.
And this, even while claiming victory, was what Trump announced he would do — in his case, to the Supreme Court, whose impregnable conservative majority he had just confirmed. Oh, but the Supreme Court, the ultimate guardian of our law? Yes, that court, the same one that had handed the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000 on the basis of a single vote, that of the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had openly proclaimed that the election of Al Gore would be a disaster for the nation. Trump may or may not get to the Supreme Court, and the Court may or may not give him the presidency. That wouldn’t be his last throw, though. Truth, in Trump-world, is not what the facts show or what others believe, but what you can persuade them to accept. Trump continues to hold an extraordinary grip on his base of support, and he will attempt to maintain it out of office.
The immediate issue, however, is what he might do while still in it. Here, we are at a moment of Constitutional peril. We will be dealing for the next 10 weeks with a warped and narcissistic personality, without a shred of decency or concern for the common good, reeling daily from a humiliation he cannot accept or avoid and yet still fully vested with powers enjoyed by no one else on earth. It is impossible to predict where such a situation might lead such a man. We have once before faced such a crisis, and though we survived it we dare not forget it. When Richard Nixon, facing the inevitability of removal from office, was plainly in the throes of emotional and physical collapse, his Defense Secretary, James Schlesinger, gave secret instructions to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that no presidential order to the military was to be obeyed unless countersigned by Schlesinger himself. It was true then, and true now that the president has the sole authority to initiate a nuclear strike.
The issue arose most recently when Trump came out of Walter Reed Hospital after treatment for his own case of COVID-19 with dexamethasone still in his system, a drug whose effects can include paranoia and delusion that may lead to manic behavior. Given the general instability of Trump’s personality, any further dislocation of it could, patently, be fatal. I might add that Trump has just fired his own Defense Secretary, Mark Esper. The military has, more or less, pledged to stay out of the current political crisis, but one must assume that these matters are under serious discussion and that contingency plans have been made. If the Commander-in-Chief issues an illegal or irrational order, it will be the generals’ decision how to respond.
There are many other things of course that Trump might attempt short of Armageddon that could do immense harm. He could hold rallies of the faithful and foment domestic violence. He could declare emergencies and rule by decree. He could try to declare the presidential election void. Our final crisis with Richard Nixon lasted about ten days. Donald Trump has ten weeks in office. It is that time that will truly test our democracy.