by François-Vergniolle de Chantal, Professor in American civilization at the University of Paris and member of the organizational committee for the 2021 IdA conference
There is a certain irony in seeing Trump - who personalizes everything, whether concerns or problems, while looking for scapegoats - bump against an ennemi that has no face, a virus that, though called "Chinese", still remains inevitably anonymous.
Yet, the prognostic of Trump's reelection campaign was good. Not only is it rare for a candidate seeking a second term to be beat, but the economy was doing well, especially in terms of employment, and the stock market's performances were playing in his favor. The failure of the impeachment procedure started by the democrates in December 2019 had mobilized his electoral base and showed the unity of the Republican camp. Finally, the rise of Bernie Sanders among the Democrates was a boon: the parti leaning more to the left gave Trump the opportunity to organize a campaign of "capitalisme" versus "socialism", which would have given him an open electoral field.
Unfortunately for him, the Covid health crisis reshuffled the deck. And so the Democrats have realized an exploit in unity, rallying around a consensual and moderate figure in the person of Joe Biden. The economy's collapse and the rapid move toward an "emergency social democracy" with a collosal stimulus plan (2.2 trillion dollars) deprive the outgoing administration from its choice campaign topics. Especially since Covid-19 is exposing all of the American healthcare system limits, its racial, social and geographic inequalities, thus validating post factum the projets carried by the Democrats since the beginning of Obama's presidency.
In this new context, Trump is spinning despite his continued search for scapegoats, from China to the WHO with Democrats and the media in the middle. Trump's approval ratings are low, unlike many others who are in charge, and his personalized and controversial communications, as the media personality he never stopped being, don't profit from his public omnipresence through his daily press conferences. On the contrary, public opinion seems to be weary of a president that probably imagines himself as Captain America, but whose reckless statements show his ignorance, his hesitations and the limits of his vision: the injection of disinfectant to beat the virus, mentioned by Trump during his press conference, is likely to remain the most regrettably revealing symbol.
The difference is troublesome, with efforts made by governors such as Andrew Cuomp (New York), Gavin Newsom (California), and Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan), who made of transparency their key word when dealing with the epidemic, and who did not hesitate to impose strict measures of confinement. Though the administration did call for these as soon as March 16, it was after a solid month of equivocations, for the president had been notified of the risks of a pandemic as soon as February 14 in a document co-written by the National Security Council and the Department of Health. Incidently, the administration's commitment only lasted one month. Trump proposed a plan to "reopen America" as soon as April 16, coupled with incendiary Tweets asking for the "liberation" of some states, Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota, all three governed by Democrats. Federalism thus shows how much, faced with this crisis, the governance of the country is above all played out at the state level and not at the national level. The federal government is second in line in this fight and its jurisdiction is limited to that of agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), that intervenes occasionally. In this situation, the federal government can even become a competitor to state and local echelons, for example the purchase of ventilators and masks.
Will the coronavirus cost Trump his re-election? The Democrats will, of course, play with the presidential hesitations, the resulting inconsistencies, as well as American society's awful worsening inequalities and vulnerabilities, in order to make of Trump the powerless Hoover of the 21st century. To be sure, Joe Biden, confined in his house in Delaware, is not in a position to get much media attention. And yet, he offers to the nation a more peaceful and reassuring option than a president who, buffeted by a worldwide pandemic, went from a 2016 campaign based on "America First" to "TrumpFirst" in 2020. Nothing is played out at this point, but instrumentalizing the so-called "Chinese virus" by Captain Trump could really have a boomerang effect and implode his campaign.
The continued search for a scapegoat has reached its limit here. The health crisis throws a blunt light on the vacuity of a presidential leadership reduced to its electoral survival.
François Vergniolle de Chantal is a Professor in American Civilization at the University of Paris (LARCA - UMR 8225) and a member of the organizational committee for the 2021 IdA conference. Former co-Director for the journal Politique Américaine, he published L’impossible présidence impériale (CNRS Editions, 2016) and coordinated a collective book that will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2020, Obama’s Fractured Legacy. The Politics and Policies of an Embattled Presidency.