Trust is key to a democracy. We must trust our leaders to act for the sake of the common good, especially in times of crisis. When a partner suddenly demands freedom from responsibility, what word describes that other than betrayal?
Nearly 50,000 Americans have died in the last five weeks from COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of the coronavirus. The death toll would almost certainly be higher had not good-faith governors (both Democrats and Republicans) taken aggressive measures to force people to isolate or distance themselves from each other in order to retard the disease’s spread. A major consequence, of course, has been an economy in near collapse. On April 23, the government reported another 4.4 million unemployment insurance claims, bringing the total number of official jobless to about 26 million.
Even Donald Trump’s most vocal critics don’t hold him entirely responsible for the damage done, but no reasonable person can say he did close to enough when it most mattered, or has done enough since. The president’s administration “delayed or bungled basic but crucial steps to contain the spread of infections and prepare the country for a pandemic,” according to a review of government documents by the Los Angeles Times. The investigation is just one of a host of reports showing the president privileging his television image over the health and well-being of the populace.
The president might be forgiven (politicians are self-interested, after all) if his Republicans had spared a thought for the 56 million northeasterners facing the worst. But they didn’t. Instead, in each of three relief bills passed so far (a fourth is pending in the House), the Republicans demonstrated concern for the health and well-being of corporations struggling with a near-total absence of consumer demand. To be sure, normal people are getting one-time checks, but big businesses are getting massive, cheap and forgivable loans. Meanwhile, the Fed is printing trillions to take over the bond market and provide virtually unlimited lending to Wall Street banking firms.
Even that, however, wouldn’t be so bad if major cities and blue states got a cut of the action. Fighting mass disease and death has strained their resources to the breaking point. Even the richest municipalities foresee the possibility of insolvency in the near term. If the airline, hospitality, banking, and oil industries can get bailouts, surely so can cities and states defending the country against the “invisible enemy” whose existence a Republican president refused to acknowledge for weeks and weeks.
Not so fast, said Mitch McConnell. The Senate majority leader said Wednesday that his conference was in no mood for more relief. The national debt is becoming a serious issue, he said. We can’t mortgage our children’s future on a “blue-state bailout.” “We’re not going to let them take advantage of this pandemic to solve a lot of problems that they created for themselves with bad decisions in the past,” he said. Instead, he said, he’d rather work to change current federal law so states can declare bankruptcy.
It’s hard to express the depths of betrayal here, but I’m going to try. First, future insolvencies are not a consequence of past decisions by the states, but instead recent inaction by a president whose gross negligence and incompetence forced cities and states to take matters into their own hands. Second, McConnell is suggesting the country does not owe these cities and states a debt of gratitude deserving of federal compensation even if the money ended up covering “bad decisions in the past.” Third, in not recognizing the debt owed, and instead offering the possibility of bankruptcy, he’s slapping the face of anyone who has sacrificed, which is to say everyone.
With respect to blue states, the betrayal goes even deeper. Blue states are richer, and they send more tax dollars to Washington than they get in return. That’s not so bad, given that blue states tend to believe in the common good, plus they used to keep some of the money thanks to a tax code allowing filers to deduct state and local taxes from their federal tax returns. In 2017, Trump, McConnell, and the Republicans capped SALT deductions, in effect raising taxes on rich states while cutting taxes for obscenely rich individuals. Blue states were already subsidizing red states. Now that went double.
Make it triple. McConnell is fine with extracting wealth from major cities and blue states, and redistributing it to red states and GOP-friendly corporations, while at the same time expressing concern for the national debt just when 56 million Americans, who collectively send Democrats to Washington, are in full need of assistance. McConnell is happy, in other words, to let a pandemic weaken and impoverish his political rivals. That’s not what you expect from a leader governing in the interest of all Americans.
It is, however, what you’d expect from a traitor.
John Stoehr is a journalist and a fellow at the Yale University Journalism Initiative.