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Recognizing that he is losing the demographics he needs to win reelection, Trump has clearly decided that his best bet is to spur his base to turn out in vast numbers and vote. To that end, he has given up any pretense of appealing to voters outside his base. At the same time, he and members of his administration are pretending the coronavirus pandemic is ending.
Sunday night in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Trump held a rally — not in front of an American flag, but in front of a thin blue line flag. This flag reflects the old saying that law enforcement officers constitute the boundary — the thin blue line– between chaos and order. It is a black and white American flag, with a blue stripe running across its middle. The creator of the new flag, Andrew Jacob, insists “the flag has no association with racism, hatred, bigotry…. It’s a flag to show support for law enforcement—no politics involved.” But white supremacists waved it at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and it has come to symbolize opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement. Its adherents talk about “socialism” and “law & order” and “illegals.” According to Jacob, “The black above represents citizens… and the black below represents criminals.”
Flags matter. They are the tangible symbol of a people united for a cause. That Trump replaced the American flag with the Thin Blue Line flag as the centerpiece of his rally is a rejection of the nation itself in favor of his role as the leader of the alt-right. And it was not inadvertent. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called attention to the prominence of the flag, tweeting: “The Thin Blue Line flag is flying HIGH at President [Trump’s] rally in Wisconsin!”
The Trump administration is playing to his religious base as well. Last Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar made the United States a co-sponsor of an international declaration opposing abortion. While United Nations human rights bodies, as well as most of our former allies, seek to protect access to reproductive rights including abortion, Trump has now signed onto the Geneva Consensus Declaration declaring that “there is no international right to abortion, nor any international obligation on the part of States to finance or facilitate abortion.” The declaration also reaffirms that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State,” a sentiment that appears to undermine same-sex couples.
The declaration claims that the goal of the signers is to “Ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights and equal opportunity for women at all levels of political, economic, and public life; [and to] Improve and secure access to health and development gains for women, including sexual and reproductive health, which must always promote optimal health, the highest attainable standard of health, without including abortion.”
But women’s rights and health are hardly a priority for the other sponsors, Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, and especially Uganda, where women die in high numbers from complications related to pregnancy, and where gay sex is punishable by death. Saudi Arabia, where men can sue their daughters or wives for “disobedience,” also signed the declaration.
The administration is also talking about identifying Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Oxfam—all groups that protect human rights—as anti-Semitic because they have criticized Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical who has used US support for Israel as a way to fire up Christian support for the president, is backing the proposal, but career officials at the State Department and lawmakers from both parties are alarmed. Such a declaration would give authoritarian governments a way to ban the work of these human rights organizations altogether.
And then, of course, there is the confirmation of Trump’s appointee to the Supreme Court to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Nominee Amy Coney Barrett is an originalist who excites evangelicals because of her expressed opposition to abortion rights and excites corporate leaders by her views on the limits of federal power, including her likely opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has rushed her confirmation through, possibly because he has reason to fear that Trump will lose the election. In a rare Sunday session, after the Senate voted to limit debate on the nomination, McConnell noted: “A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election. They won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”
While the administration is working to fire up Trump’s base, it is also working to downplay the coronavirus, even as infections continue to rip across the nation. Daily infection numbers are the highest they have ever been during this crisis, with 78,702 new cases reported on Saturday and more than 20 states at record levels of infection. We have had more than 8.5 million infections in the country and have lost almost 225,000 Americans in the official count to Covid-19. Wisconsin has opened a field hospital; Utah is so overwhelmed it is preparing to ration care.
We learned Sunday night that at least five people on the staff of Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive for the coronavirus, including Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short. Nonetheless, the vice president is not going to quarantine; he is going to continue to campaign. According to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Pence can travel because he is working and he is “essential personnel.” According to other officials, Meadows was hoping to keep the outbreak out of the news.
On Monday morning, Meadows told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the administration was “not going to control the pandemic.” Instead, he said, “What we need to do is make sure that we have the proper mitigation factors, whether it’s therapies or vaccines or treatments to make sure that people don’t die from this.”
Other countries have managed to bring their numbers of infection and death downward, but the White House plan seems to be simply to let the disease take its course. South Korea, with 55 million people, got the disease at the same time we did. It has had fewer than 500 deaths. With our population of about six times theirs– 331 million— we have almost 225,000.
But Trump is trying to demonstrate that all is well by rejecting mask use, holding rallies, and telling people repeatedly: “It is going away.” He has held nearly three dozen rallies since August, usually at airport hangars, appearing to revel in speaking before crowds. In an investigation, USA Today discovered that, in at least five counties, Covid-19 cases rose after Trump’s rallies. “We are coming around, we’re rounding the turn, we have the vaccines, we have everything,” Trump said in New Hampshire on Sunday. “Even without the vaccines, we’re rounding the turn. It’s going to be over.”
The staunchly conservative New Hampshire Union Leader, from Manchester, New Hampshire, isn’t buying it. Objecting to the president’s dramatic expansion of the national debt by more than “7 TRILLION dollars” (their capital letters), as well as his weaponizing of social media, the editors note that “We may be turning a corner with this virus, but the corner we turned is down a dark alley of record infections and deaths.”
The Union Leader is backing Joe Biden. “We have found Mr. Biden to be a caring, compassionate, and professional public servant. He has repeatedly expressed his desire to be a president for all of America, and we take him at his word. Joe Biden may not be the president we want, but in 2020 he is the president we desperately need. He will be a president to bring people together and right the ship of state.”
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: get your free subscription here