The Atlantic/Lawfare writing team of Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes coined the phrase “malevolence tempered by incompetence” in January 2017 to describe the beginnings of the Trump administration. Malevolence in the form of racism, xenophobia, and greed formed the basis of Trump’s policies, but fortunately the incompetence of his White House team blunted much of the damage that could have been done.
What might loosely be called Trump’s “response” to the pandemic is likely shot through with the same malevolence. But the incompetence is exacerbating the the malevolence.
The incompetence is vast, and deep, and nearly inexplicable. Every day brings new evidence. For example, the Washington Post just reported that in the early days of the pandemic the administration turned down an offer from an American medical supplies company to manufacture N95 masks. And this was a company already manufacturing N95 masks, filling order from overseas.
“We are the last major domestic mask company,” he [the business owner] wrote on Jan. 23. “My phones are ringing now, so I don’t ‘need’ government business. I’m just letting you know that I can help you preserve our infrastructure if things ever get really bad. I’m a patriot first, businessman second.”
In the end, the government did not take Bowen up on his offer. Even today, production lines that could be making more than 7 million masks a month sit dormant.
Trump himself ignored the virus even after a Washington state man was diagnosed with covid-19 on January 20. After, apparently, some nagging from public health professionals, Trump imposed partial and porous restrictions on travel from China on January 31. These were particularly Trumpian restrictions that allowed U.S. citizens to re-enter the country from China. Only non-U.S. citizens who had recently been in China were blocked from entering the country, as if only foreigners carried infection. Notice that the guy diagnosed in Washington eleven days earlier was a citizen recently returned from China.
And then Trump and his administration did pretty much nothing about the pandemic until it began to mess with the stock market on February 21. That was a Friday; the following Monday, noises about appropriating money to do something about pandemic response began to emanate from the White House. This was followed by a lot of haggling in Washington about what exactly they should be doing and how much money they would have to spend to do it.
The issue of testing came up a lot. On March 4, Mike Pence promised that 1.5 million test kits would be shipped to whoever needed them “this week.” By March 6, he had upped the promise to 4 million. These tests failed to materialize anywhere, as far as I can tell. Private labs picked up the pace somewhat, but as you know we still are falling far short of tests.
On March 3 the White House issued the first of its social distancing guidelines. By mid-March professional and college sports were cancelling the remainder of their seasons, or postponing the beginning of seasons. Cities and states closed schools and churches and turned restaurants into carryout-only operations. Finally, we were getting serious, many weeks later than we should have gotten serious.
And now, as the deaths keep coming faster and faster — we’ll be at 80,000 by tomorrow — Trump is apparently bored with the whole thing and wants to end the restrictions. This is partly, I think, coming from his justifiable fear that the ruined economy will kill his re-election chances. He also possibly resents the virus for making him look stupid, especially after the train wreck ending of The Trump Show, so he wants to go back to ignoring it.
But another reason is coming vividly into view, especially after many reports that black and brown Americans are being disproportionately hit hard by the pandemic.
Over the weeks that followed the declaration of an emergency, the pandemic worsened and the death toll mounted. Yet by mid-April, conservative broadcasters were decrying the restrictions, small bands of armed protesters were descending on state capitols, and the president was pressing to lift the constraints.
In the interim, data about the demographics of COVID-19 victims began to trickle out. On April 7, major outlets began reporting that preliminary data showed that black and Latino Americans were being disproportionately felled by the coronavirus. That afternoon, Rush Limbaugh complained, “If you dare criticize the mobilization to deal with this, you’re going to be immediately tagged as a racist.” That night, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson announced, “It hasn’t been the disaster that we feared.” His colleague Brit Hume mused that “the disease turned out not to be quite as dangerous as we thought.” The nationwide death toll that day was just 13,000 people; it now stands above 70,000, a mere month later.
But if you’re white and/or have a white-collar sort of job that allows you to work at home or in a reasonably secluded studio, there’s a better chance the virus hasn’t touched you or anyone you know, than if you are non-white and/or at work processing meat or checking out groceries. There are exceptions, of course.
The pandemic is starting to remind me of the early days of the spread of HIV, when Reagan administration officials dismissed it as a “gay plague.” Research into AIDS was conducted at a snail’s pace. According to ACT UP, Reagan himself didn’t say the word “AIDS” publicly until 1987, and that was in the context of denying the need for sex education in schools.
In other words, as long as the disease is only speading among those other people, we don’t need to bother ourselves about it.
Back to Serwer:
That more and more Americans were dying was less important than who was dying.
The disease is now “infecting people who cannot afford to miss work or telecommute—grocery store employees, delivery drivers and construction workers,” The Washington Post reported. Air travel has largely shut down, and many of the new clusters are in nursing homes, jails and prisons, and factories tied to essential industries. Containing the outbreak was no longer a question of social responsibility, but of personal responsibility. From the White House podium, Surgeon General Jerome Adams told “communities of color” that “we need you to step up and help stop the spread.”
Public-health restrictions designed to contain the outbreak were deemed absurd. They seemed, in Carlson’s words, “mindless and authoritarian,” a “weird kind of arbitrary fascism.” To restrict the freedom of white Americans, just because nonwhite Americans are dying, is an egregious violation of the racial contract. The wealthy luminaries of conservative media have sought to couch their opposition to restrictions as advocacy on behalf of workers, but polling shows that those most vulnerable to both the disease and economic catastrophe want the outbreak contained before they return to work.
The business with meat-packing workers is especially egregious. These are low-wage jobs with notoriously bad working conditions. In many plants immigrants make up a large part of the workforce. And in many states meat-packing plants have turned into coronavirus hot spots. No one seems to be keeping a count of how many have died. Trump’s ordering meat-packers back to work without mandating better and safer working conditions is one of the most callous things a president has done in my lifetime.
It’s not just Trump. Last week the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard a challenge to the state’s pandemic restrictions. Chief Justice Patience Roggensack interrupted oral arguments about infections in Brown County and said, “Due to the meatpacking, though, that’s where the Brown County got the flare. It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.” I guess if the virus spread is emanating from the meat packing plant it doesn’t count.
It gets worse. This past week the governor of Nebraska issued a “gag order” that prohibits release of information on the infection in Nebraska meat packing plants.
Trump probably figures the immigrant and nonwhite workers he’s putting at risk aren’t going to vote for him, anyway. But rural poor whites are a big part of his voter base, also, and these “regular folks” work in risky jobs. Polls tell us that college-educated whites — more of whom can work from home — tend to prefer Biden by about a 15 percentage point margin. Trump needs to take care he doesn’t kill part of his own base.