It appears we are in the chaos that churns in between more stable eras.
The coronavirus is grabbing the headlines, and it is a huge story in its own right, but it also lays bare the rot in the Republican Party that has put Trump in the White House. The coronavirus is a pandemic now, meaning it is a disease that has appeared on a number of continents, and it is killing people, although the numbers of infections and the death rate is so premature that I would not draw any conclusions yet. We know it’s not good, but just how not good it might turn out to be is still unclear.
But the coronavirus and the subsequent selling-off in the stock market of the last several days reveals what feels to me like an endpoint of a political era.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the White House by arguing that the activist government of the New Deal, the laws that regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and promoted infrastructure was destroying American liberty. “Government is not the solution to our problem;” Reagan said in his inaugural address, “government is the problem.”
After 1981, America entered a period when we turned for solutions not to educated experts informing government policy, but rather to individuals who claimed to be outside that sphere of government expertise: men of the people. As we celebrated those “self-made” individualists—usually men– Congress cut taxes and regulation to free them to run their businesses as they saw fit. After 1981, wealth began to move upward, and yet the Republican Party continued to howl about socialism and insist that we would not have true freedom until all regulations, all taxes, and most government programs were abolished. In their place, we would have businessmen who had proven their worth by creating successful businesses. They would run our country in the best way for all of us.
That this system worked well for everyone was a fiction, of course. Republican leaders stayed in power not because a majority of voters agreed with their ideology, but because as their policies moved wealth upward and hurt most Americans, they blamed those economic hardships on people of color, women, and other minorities: “special interests” who were demanding government policies paid for by the taxes of hardworking white men. They also increasingly jiggered the political system to make sure they stayed in power. They disenfranchised Democratic voters and carved up districts so that in 2012, for example, Democrats won a majority of 1.4 million votes for candidates to the House of Representatives, and yet Republicans came away with a 33-seat majority.
The election of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016 was the high watermark of this political mindset. He was an outsider who posed as a successful businessman, disdainful of politics, who promised to gut government bureaucrats—the swamp– and put into office only the best people, people known for their business acumen or their family connections to others with that skill. Expertise and loyalty to the American government was unimportant—even undesirable. What mattered was the ability to make money and be loyal to the president.
Following in his predecessors’ footsteps, Trump slashed regulations, opened up resources to businessmen, and passed a huge tax cut for the wealthy, a tax cut that was supposed to stimulate investment in the economy and promote economic growth. In the midst of growing administration scandals, Trump banked on the fact that a strong economy would keep him in office for a second term and insisted that those opposing his administration, regardless of party, were hostile Democrats who wanted big government “socialism.”
Now, a virus from China is exposing the hollowness of a generation of relying on businessmen to manage our government. The administration’s response to the coronavirus has been shockingly bad. In 2018, it got rid of the government leadership for handling a pandemic, so we have no one in charge who is trained to handle such a crisis. Then, when the virus broke out, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention insisted on developing its own test, rather than using the guidelines established by the World Health Organization. Their test didn’t work, making health officials unable to test people in danger before they got sick. Then, over the advice of the CDC, administration officials decided to evacuate 14 infected patients who had been stranded on a cruise ship in Japan along with healthy travelers. We learned today from a whistleblower that, once landed in the U.S., workers came and went from the facility that housed the patients with no precautions. Now, we have our first case of the coronavirus that appears to have appeared here on its own, and it happened in the same place where these workers came and went (although it is too early to say if there is definitely a connection).
Trump has excused his dismissal of all the experts by saying that they were easy to rehire when necessary, but it has not turned out to be that easy. Today, he appointed a third person to be in charge of the response in addition to the two others he has already named, and, angry at the CDC official who warned Americans that the virus would arrive here sooner or later, he arranged for all statements about the disease to be cleared through Vice President Mike Pence’s office. He also revealed his key interest in protecting the stock markets today when he named two new members to the coronavirus task force: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, who has insisted on television that the virus is “contained.”
In a moment that perfectly encapsulated the problem of handling a public health crisis of this magnitude when you are equipped only to promote business, today Secretary of Health and Human Services Alexander Azar, a former drug company executive and pharmaceutical lobbyist, told Congress that when scientists manage to make a vaccine for the coronavirus (12 to 18 months out, by all accounts), not everyone will be able to afford it. “We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price, because we need the private sector to invest. Price controls won’t get us there.”
This is the modern Republican Party laid bare. Profits before lives, because only businessmen, not government policy, can manage the country.
This moment makes it really clear what happens when the Republicans’ ideology comes up against reality. While GOP leaders over the years, and Trump of late, have managed to silence opponents by calling them socialists or making sure they cannot vote, the virus is not going to stop simply by changing the narrative or the body politic. Investors know this, and the dropping stock market shows their realization that you cannot shut down entire countries and keep supply chains and consumer goods moving. The stock market has fallen 11.13% in the past four days, erasing a third of the gains it has made since Trump was elected. We are facing an economic downturn, one that will strain an economy that was excellent indeed for those at the very top, but not good for those who now will be vital to keep consumption levels up… but those very people will be hard-pressed to come up with extra income in an economic downturn. It is a problem that the markets are acknowledging their biggest drops since the 2008 crisis.
This is a crisis that demands expertise and coordinated government health programs, but we no longer have those things. Instead, Trump and his surrogates on the Fox News Channel are falling back on the old arguments that have worked so well for GOP leaders in the past: Democrats are hyping the coronavirus and spooking the markets to hurt the president.
Trump, and Americans in general, are about to discover that there comes a point when image can no longer override reality. We are in the churn of that chaos now. But on the other side of it, we have the potential to rebuild a government that operates in reality, and that works for all of us.
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter on January 17, 2020. Subscribe for free here.