The Diaries of the British politician Alan Clark are unusually frank. As a wealthy man, he had less financial need to play it safe – and he was extraordinarily reckless in his personal life, too, conducting affairs with a married woman as well as her two daughters. The trial of a British firm over exporting arms to Iraq collapsed when he blithely admitted he had been “economical with the actualité” – in other words, withholding the truth, if not outright lying.
Mike Cormack is a writer, editor and reviewer mostly focusing on China, where he lived from 2007 to 2014. He edited Agenda Beijing and is a regular book reviewer for the South China Morning Post. The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.
Usually politicians are caught up in the role demanded of them: helping constituents and contributing to public life, though Clark frankly admits it’s mostly about his ego. But he also records several useful political maxims, one of the best being: “When receiving advice, always consider how following it would affect the person dispensing it.” Only saints are without self-interest. Everyone else has some selfish reasons for what they advise, though any good politician will be adept at concealing them.
Donald Trump is not a good politician. His political manoeuvres and strategies are transparent, and always in keeping with his previously observed methods. So while his apparent espousal of the right of states to open their economies after coronavirus might on the surface be in the best tradition of American federalism – under which all powers not explicitly given to the U.S. federal government reside with the states – this is not the game Trump is playing.
Of course, he knows that advocating for “states rights” has a long tradition in the Republican party. But what it meant then was essentially that the southern states would be able to continue their racist traditions without interference from the federal government in Washington D.C. The game Trump is playing now is even more cynical, and far more dangerous to the lives of voters. I literally cannot ever remember any politician, ever, behaving in such a cavalier with the health and well-being of the population.
The game Trump is playing is that he wants to claim credit for the economy opening up again after the coronavirus, and to blame state governors for dragging their feet and keeping things shut. So, during his press conference on April 17, he claimed that the orders in place in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia were “too tough.” In this way he wants to take credit with voters who desperately want to get back to work, and act as though the lockdown across the nation is not what he wants. Never mind that the medical advice is for everyone to minimize contact, that the states are following federal advice, and that Trump knows that to stop the lockdown would be to cause coronavirus deaths to surge. He simply does not care.
On April 17, Trump further fanned the flames, tweeting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and then “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.” The game is all too obvious. These states all have Democratic governors and Trump wants to cause trouble for them. (There have been protests in states with Republican governors, but he declined to mention them). He is encouraging people (and usually his own supporters) to risk their very lives by rebelling against the lockdown, simply so he can pose as the champion of freedom. A more grotesquely cynical political manoeuvre is hard to imagine.
Yet some took him at his word. On April 19, demonstrators gathered in Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Washington state to protest against the lockdown following previous protests in Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Utah, Virginia and Kentucky.
Almost unbelievably, even at this stage in the pandemic, some claimed that the entire thing is a hoax, while others criticized the media for hyping the coronavirus and so blaming Trump. (Unsurprisingly, the governors were apoplectic. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state expressed his disbelief at seeing the president “basically encourage insubordination,” while Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota said reopening would “probably take longer than a two-word tweet.”)
Even in this strategy Trump is playing a familiar game. It’s been repeatedly noted that he enjoys watching others bicker and argue in front of him, seeking his favor while he withholds approval. His White House has been not so much a Team of Rivals as a Confederacy of Backstabbers. No presidency in living memory has had such a turnover of staff, reflecting Trump’s refusal to offer or foster loyalty.
Further back, his stint as host of The Apprentice was exactly the same, with contestants engaging in verbal pacts of mutual destruction as they sought to avoid Trump’s “You’re fired!” catchphrase. As flies to wanton boys are underlings to Trump; he kills them for his sport.
The presidency ought, of course, to be about uniting the nation, not only rhetorically (even Trump has managed to read out boilerplate statements of national unity on occasion, though he appears utterly uninterested when doing so), but literally in times of national emergency. The coronavirus pandemic is one such instance.
States, agencies and corporations desperately need to be brought together under a national plan. But this is too much like hard work for Trump, who is far happier setting people against each other and absolving himself of responsibility as things go wrong.
That he should do so during normal times would already mark him out as a failure as president. Doing so during a pandemic is worse than criminally negligent. It will likely prove lethal to some who take him at his word. To do so for electoral advantage is one of the gravest stains ever committed upon the American presidency.