Donald Trump’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the irresponsibility and malevolence of his administration, as well as the challenge his very political existence poses to public health and to democracy itself. Trump is a menace and blaming him, and then removing him from office, is the only way to get a government capable of dealing with the virus and its effects in a way that is just, competent, and simply humane.
This shouldn’t be a controversial point. Everyone from presumptive Democratic nominee former vice president Joe Biden to prominent columnists like Michelle Goldberg believes it. But it’s proved harder to do than it would seem. Even as Trump lies, promotes unproven cures, and continues to carry out petty personal vendettas at the expense of saving lives, the opposition to Trump has been profoundly hamstrung by its inability to effectively hold him to account.
We face a bitter paradox: the more necessary it is to hold Trump responsible for the crisis, the more difficult it is to hold him responsible. Governors are trying to govern, legislators are trying to legislate, health care workers and other “essential personnel” are working hard at their jobs at great risk, while everyone else is trying to get by “sheltering in place. ” But Trump alone – through his daily press conferences, though his mastery of Twitter — dominates the public sphere.
As Trump’s bullying and less than truthful voice has been magnified, all others have been diminished. Competing personalities, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — and to a lesser extent, his counterparts in Ohio, Washington state, and elsewhere — are the exceptions that prove the rule. Even with major media attention, their need for assistance from the federal government means they need to moderate their criticisms of Trump and play along as if he were the responsible and competent president that he manifestly is not.
All roads lead to Trump. It is impossible for any local municipal or state elected official to effectively address the pandemic without the assistance of the federal government. That requires either the cooperation of the White House or the approval of the Republican Senate majority and the signature of Trump himself.
As a result, most Democratic members of Congress talk about how important it is to “work across the aisle” and say they “look forward” to what can be done rather than “look backward” at who is responsible. Even as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has come out with some strong and entirely legitimate attacks on Trump, she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have been compelled by circumstances to work closely with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, one of Trump’s closest confidants, to finalize deals with the White House.
Moreover, the pandemic, by shutting down all forms of public gathering and virtually eliminating all forms of face-to-face interaction, has essentially ended not only the Democratic primary campaign but all forms of public campaigning and all public assemblies, demonstrations, “town halls,” and events where people can come together to be politically mobilized.
The enforced social distancing, however, necessary, is not just emotionally wrenching, but profoundly politically enervating. One result of the all but complete closure of public life? The only form of mass politics and political mobilization that currently exists is Trump’s monopolization and manipulation of the mass media. He dominates the political scene.
The purpose of the Democratic primary contest was to select the Democratic candidate best suited to challenging Trump’s dominance, something now desperately needed. Instead, we face a void. After claiming “victory” after his strong Super Tuesday results, Biden’s more or less vanished from the public sphere. To be fair, he has attempted to speak out, appearing regularly on cable news shows, making announcements, and even organizing a few video “events.” But his appearances are frequently subpar, technologically challenged, and meandering.
What should Biden do? There is no easy answer. But it is clear he needs to be proactively in the public eye, and do everything he can to gain positive media attention every single day.
If Governor Cuomo can venture out in public and hold a makeshift press conference every day, surrounded (at a distance) by his advisers and in the presence of a small group of reporters who question him, why can’t Joe Biden do something similar? Yes, he is a much older man, more susceptible to the virus. But he is running to hold the most powerful position in the country. If he is too frail to do what Cuomo is doing, and if he has no alternative way of performing leadership, then it is hard to see how he can effectively run against Trump in November.
While Biden has been uninspired and uninspiring, I remain unconvinced by both those on the left now believe that COVID-19 can revitalize Sanders’s bid for the nomination and the Democratic centrists who are now denouncing Sanders’s refusal to leave the race. Even if Sanders cannot win, he’s needed. Now is not the time for the presumptive Democratic nominee to rest on his laurels. If Biden is going to lead us forward, he needs to be awakened and energized. And if he can’t now compete with Sanders, how is he going to compete with Trump six months from now?
If Biden continues to remain in his basement, then this will be telling indeed. But, again, even if Biden were an utterly electrifying and media-savvy personality, the defeat of Trump and his Republican enablers in November still requires an energetic grass-roots campaign and sustained voter mobilization. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, such an effort was an urgent challenge. Now it’s a significantly greater one.
Until Democrats can compete, Trump’s bullying, bloviating and lying tweets, press conferences and impromptu announcements will continue to spread like the virus itself. The very real crisis gives Trump, always the master of mass media attention-getting, the perfect platform for his unique brand of daily reality TV.
Until a few weeks ago, we faced only one plague—Trump. Now we face two plagues, working together to eviscerate public life. Can we save ourselves, from the plague that is COVID-19 and the plague that is Trump? The challenge could not be greater. Let us hope we can rise to the occasion.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.