In his first week in office Trump tried to ban all travel from a set of scapegoated Muslim countries. Courts quickly shredded the effort and it gradually disintegrated. His wall didn’t get built. Tariffs and trade wars directed at China didn’t merely fail, they actually increased our dependence on imports. By 2020, none of the stated elements of Trump’s agenda had materialized. He was trailing in virtually every early election poll and needed a miracle.
News out of China in January 2020 offered Republicans the opportunity of a lifetime. A competent response to the pandemic would have justified almost every measure Trump said he wanted to implement in his bid to remake America. In January 2020, COVID-19 was still very much a Chinese problem. This was Republicans’ opportunity to cash in, whaling on Trump’s favorite pinata till the political candy poured out.
Travel ban? Absolutely! In fact, Trump could have gotten support from leading scientists for closing the border entirely, something he’d long threatened to do. Emergency powers? Bring it! COVID-19 could have been Trump’s Reichstag fire, and no one could have stopped him. Contact tracing and quarantines would have given the Administration unprecedented power while giving Trump a wartime popularity boost. Even in countries where the response was poor and the government was unpopular, like in France and the UK, leaders enjoyed a bounce in popularity despite the pain of pandemic response measures.
Had the Administration embraced these measures, moves which they had claimed to want all along, the US and likely NATO would have benefited enormously. Trump would have sailed into the fall election as the head of country barely touched by a global pandemic thanks to his vision of a fortress America.
What Trump had to do to halt this pandemic in its tracks was carry out measures he had long threatened to do anyway. He didn’t do it. In fact, he did virtually nothing, lying to the public about the threat until the morgues filled, then lying some more. Then he kept blaming and evading right up to a historic election loss. Why?
In the first week of the Trump Administration, while the news was jammed with images of airport protests over Trump’s travel ban, the new Republican Congress got to work on its real agenda. One the new Congress’ first acts was HJ Res 41, repealing the Cardin-Lugar Act which would have required oil companies to disclose foreign bribes. The resolution cruised through the Senate and the President signed it in March. One hand draws the eye while the other grabs the wallet.
Why didn’t Trump capitalize on the Reichstag fire moment offered by the pandemic to enact his nativist agenda? Make America Great Again was entertainment for the rubes. Like the phony Foxconn deal, the mythical new aluminum plant in McConnell’s Kentucky, jobs “saved” at the Carrier plant, the revival of Lordstown, and all the other stage-managed accomplishments of this Administration, the Fascist MAGA rhetoric was just cover for a grift.
Despite claims to the contrary, the Administration never shut down travel to and from China. You can still book a flight from Beijing to San Francisco today. Why?
John Bolton made the reasons clear in his book. As late as June 2019 Trump was still lobbying the Chinese to interfere in the US elections to support him, while congratulating them on the wisdom of their Uighur persecution. Trump had no intention of taking any actions that might genuinely upset the Chinese regime. His kids depended on the regime for valuable trademarks and other business interests there. Thanks to the leak of his tax returns to the IRS, we even discovered that Trump maintained secret financial interests in China, enough to result in paying more than 30x as much tax there as he paid in the US.
When Republican Senators got their earliest national security briefings on the pandemic did they rush to close the borders? Did they insist on establishing capable test and trace infrastructure? Did they run to the CDC offices to get advice on a response? No. At least three of them, David Perdue, Kelly Loeffler and Richard Burr, used that information to make highly lucrative illegal stock trades. Then they went on TV telling people not to worry about it.
COVID-19 would have let Trump implement all of the ugliest racist goals of the MAGA agenda while becoming a national hero. He didn’t do it. A President who makes his only semi-legitimate income through hotels and golf courses, and makes his less-legitimate income from secret foreign sources, won’t be enthusiastic about responding to a pandemic. Trump used his power in the White House to make money instead of guaranteeing his own re-election.
When America faced a global crisis with millions of lives at stake, Republicans responded by piling into the available lifeboats and sailing away. They used the additional trust required by the emergency to cut wildly corrupt deals for themselves while lying to us about the danger.
Why did Republicans fail to capitalize on their COVID-19 opportunity? They didn’t fail. They just failed us. Republicans used the emergency to pursue their real priorities while Americans died.
MAGA was a lethal scam. At the end, more than 70 million marks were still clamoring for more. In the weeks after his election loss, Trump has raked in more than $150m in donations from supporters with phony promises to challenge the results. Donations are being directed to the “Official Election Fund,” but there is no such legal entity. Very little of the money fleeced from his marks will be wasted paying lawyers, as no legitimate law firms are participating in the recount fights. Like his campaign donations, this money will just buy more gold toilets.
On the surface, COVID-19 looks like the political gift of a lifetime which Trump and the GOP wasted. In fact, Trump may make more money losing this election than he earned legitimately in his four years in office. Republicans didn’t take the obvious, politically advantageous steps available to respond to the pandemic because their real interests were elsewhere. In the end, lining their pockets while Americans died cost Republicans almost none of their power, so you can bet they’ll do it again.