“The president of the United States calls the shots”. So said Donald Trump during a remarkable – even by his standards – press conference in which he threatened to unilaterally lift Covid-19 restrictions and blamed the ‘fake news’ media for misportraying his administration’s response to the coronavirus crisis. This despite America being the new epicentre of the pandemic, with over 23,000 dead from the illness and more than 190,000 cases in New York alone.
It is not a desperate stretch to say that the world is at war – we are, after all, fighting a brutal foe with considerable momentum behind it – and yet Trump is hardly acting like a wartime president. He seems more concerned with protecting his reputation, attempting to sully the name of others whilst endeavouring to hide his own ineptitude. He has made no attempt to bring the country together, let alone take a lead in mustering a global response to the outbreak.
This is, of course, an election year and in the past incumbent presidents at war (albeit in a more conventional sense) have used the crises engulfing America and the wider world to bolster their position and secure another term in office. Trump would do well to remember some of these examples.
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson won re-election on an ‘anti-war’ platform, as a heated debate rose over whether America should become involved in World War One. That Wilson subsequently committed US troops overseas no doubt dented his popularity in some quarters, but it also boosted America’s global standing. Either way, Wilson played the game sufficiently deftly to remain in office.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt secured unprecedented third and fourth terms in office during World War Two, with the global conflict unsurprisingly dominating both campaigns. In the 1940 election, he gauged the public’s isolationist and non-interventionist bent to promise that America would not enter another ‘European’ war. By the 1944 election America was deeply involved in the war – public opinion having been swayed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour – and Roosevelt won another victory by playing on the public’s patriotic fervour, spurred on by American battlefield successes.
Even the Vietnam War – probably the most controversial in American history – was the key for Richard Nixon’s campaigns in the 1968 and 1972 elections. Having won in 1968 after promising to restore law and order on US soil amidst vicious anti-war protests, whilst simultaneously offering fresh direction in Vietnam itself, he won a thumping re-election in 1972 based on a commitment to end the war with American dignity intact.
Wars have often been used skillfully by incumbent presidents – taking advantage of their monopoly over the tools of office – to extend their periods in power. After all, during such testing times the public is likely to be inclined to choose continuity in the hope of stability. As with any election, the campaign promises may not be turned into policy outcomes but it’s all about winning power in the first place.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, looks foolish, paranoid and lost. Whilst governments around the world have rallied to unite their citizens and promote stability, Trump’s has sown division and chaos. Indeed, every unusual aspect of his bizarre presidency has been brought into sharp focus recently; the Twitter rants, the dictatorial actions, the abandoning of allies, the refusal to cooperate with perceived rivals even for the common good.
The so-called ‘ordinary Americans’ that Trump claims to represent are dying in their thousands and the picture threatens to get bleaker still, with the failure to put in place reasonable measures to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus now reaping its tragic dividends.
It should not be forgotten, though, that Trump has created an effective narrative of ‘Us vs Them’ and that his castigation of the media outlets, in particular, is part of a crude but successful plan to tighten his support base. Whether the glaring flaws in his governance will outweigh the loyalty shown to him by his grass-roots supporters as more people die remains to be seen.
The Democrats could hardly have wished for more ammunition to throw at an incumbent president facing re-election. That they have an arguably weak candidate in Joe Biden – who at 77 is hardly an ambitious pick for a two-term presidency and is very much tied to the Washington establishment that people voted so overwhelmingly against in 2016 – should not matter…in theory.
If Trump wins re-election this year it is a travesty for American democracy and global leadership. Who knows what perils he may unleash given four more years during which he will not have to consider another election campaign? Victory will further cement the bipartisan divide that has rendered American politics farcical, opening the door for revisionist powers such as China and Russia to silently spread their nefarious influence across the globe.
By failing to mobilise the considerable resources of the world’s most powerful nation – both soft and hard – and allowing tens of thousands of his own people to needlessly die, Donald Trump’s response to Covid-19 has to rank as one of the worst political actions in American history.
Yet he may still get re-elected…Scary times indeed.