Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s coronavirus plan, the wake of the South Carolina Democratic debate, and a looming shake-up at MSNBC.
With the CDC now asking Americans to prepare for the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak, White House and Cabinet officials seem unprepared — when they aren’t spreading misinformation or addressing the virus in terms of the stock market. If the CDC’s warnings are correct, will a public-health emergency become a political one?
As far as the White House is concerned, the coronavirus epidemic is solely a political emergency, not a public-health crisis. President Trump’s record speaks for itself. Last night he declared his efforts to date a “tremendous success” and the coronavirus risk to Americans “very low.” He said that the prospect of a Democratic president, not fears of a pandemic, was the main cause of the nearly 2,000 point two-day drop in the Dow. He said a vaccine would be coming in a “fairly quick manner.” He assigned management of the nation’s coronavirus response to his vice-president, who, as governor of Indiana, had accelerated HIV infection in his state by opposing needle-exchange programs and turning to prayer.
In other words, not a single thing Trump said or did last night — with the possible exception of advising the public to wash its hands — bore any real-world relation to the public-health emergency supposedly under discussion. The only reason he even held the press conference was political: not the number of known American coronavirus patients (which he understated by 75 percent) but the numbers of Wall Street. For Trump, the Dow is the second most important barometer for assessing his political standing after Fox News.
So, predictably enough, even before the press conference was over, the CDC announced that a new coronavirus patient had been discovered in California, with the cause of the infection unknown. The morning after, the market started to tumble again. And Trump tweeted out the “breaking news” that he would be holding a rally in Charleston on the eve of the Democratic primary.
Welcome to what Never Trump maestro George Conway has called “the first time” that Trump has had to “deal with a real crisis not of his own making.” How will he deal with it besides holding rallies to blame the Democrats? In 2018, his government fired the entire pandemic chain of command in the White House, and shut down the global-health-security unit both at the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security. The Homeland Security department is now run by an acting secretary who couldn’t cite the barest facts about the coronavirus when testifying before the Senate this week. The acting deputy secretary publicly complained on Twitter that he couldn’t consult a map showing the international spread of the virus because he didn’t have access to a Johns Hopkins website, apparently his only source for the information.
Though many thought Trump might blow up his country and himself with a war against Iran, he is now poised, if things don’t proceed as rosily as he claims, to blow up America with his war against science. Let us pray.
Both the moderators and the candidates took a lot of criticism in the wake of this week’s Democratic debate, which, in the opinion of at least one observer, had “a real last chances vibe.” Did this debate hurt the party’s chances overall?
Like almost everything else that’s happened in the Democratic primary, the debate was mismanaged and often counterproductive, with CBS News proving as incompetent as the stewards of the Iowa caucuses. Once again, the Democrats’ institutional failure as a party is exemplified by the fact that Tom Steyer, a billionaire with no achievements in public life or fresh ideas, is still qualifying for debates at this late date while Kamala Harris, Julián Castro, and Cory Booker have long since been knocked out.
But for all that, the debate was clarifying on several fronts, none of them much of a source of hope.
The debate confirmed that Mike Bloomberg’s poor performance in the previous debate was not a one-off. He still didn’t give an answer on stop and frisk suggesting that he had any understanding of the harm inflicted by his policy on black and Hispanic people; if anything, Pete Buttigieg subsequently gave the answer Bloomberg might have given. His answer to Elizabeth Warren’s complaint about the bone he threw since their last confrontation (offering to release just three Bloomberg victims from their NDAs) was as tone-deaf as the last time around. And his attempts to humanize himself — delivering poorly written, self-mocking comic “zingers” badly — were mortifying.
On the other hand, Warren, after her sterling previous debate, once again revealed the lack of political agility previously exhibited in her DNA fiasco. While she’s unstoppable at taking down Bloomberg, she couldn’t deliver on her key mission if she is to survive Super Tuesday: selling herself as a strong progressive alternative to the Bernie Sanders faithful. She just can’t bring herself to attack her friend and ideological soul mate, so instead tried to draw a contrast by saying she will “dig into the details” and “get something done” as opposed to her presumably lazy rival. Certainly Sanders is fuzzy on the details of his grand plans, but “details” and talk about governmental process don’t defeat a big, powerful message in a presidential campaign. And Warren’s argument that she, unlike Bernie, can get things done is rendered moot by her failure to get the primary done: She keeps losing and he keeps winning.
Sanders might be seriously challenged if there were an adept challenger on stage. His wielding of the word billionaires to fend off any attack is absurd (witness his preposterous claim that Bloomberg’s base is “all billionaires”). The most effective arguments against him by far were articulated by Buttigieg, but let’s get real: A candidate with close to zero African-American support cannot be nominated by the Democrats and shouldn’t be. The same goes for Amy Klobuchar, who, as this debate demonstrated, loses much of her vitality when not in direct combat with Mayor Pete.
That leaves Joe Biden, who, partially by more (if erratic) effort and partially by default, seemed the last non-Bernie standing. South Carolina’s results will indicate if that will hold up. Meanwhile, many non-Bernie Democrats I know are reconciling themselves to his nomination by some version of this argument: “Well, everyone said Trump couldn’t win either, and look what happened.”
Let us pray.
In the fallout of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews comparing Bernie Sanders’s surge to the Nazi occupation of France, the network is looking to bring in more pro-Sanders voices, according to a report in Vanity Fair. What will Establishment media have to do to fairly cover a primary with leading anti-Establishment candidates?
In a real sense, what’s happening at MSNBC in 2020 is the mirror image of what happened at Fox News in 2016. At Fox, the GOP base was proving itself at once pro-Trump and to the right of Fox. After some resistance, including to Trump’s anti-immigration nativism, Rupert Murdoch eventually made the flip wholeheartedly, ultimately to drum out even occasional Trump skeptics (most notably Megyn Kelly) while boosting the Trump true believers (starting with Sean Hannity) in prime time. It was a commercial decision most of all.
MSNBC’s dilemma is quite similar. Like Fox, its viewership is old (with a median age hovering in the mid-60s) — the one Democratic demographic that Sanders has failed to win over. And its programming, including its undercoverage of Sanders, reflects that fact. It’s more Buttigieg-ish in its leanings than Sanderista. That’s in keeping with other mainstream news organizations and the Democratic Establishment — at least up until this moment, when there’s a serious chance that, by the end of Super Tuesday, Sanders could be the presumptive nominee.
MSNBC viewers may no more reflect the current profile of the Democratic party than Mayor Pete does — or than Fox News reflected the GOP base before Murdoch belatedly went all-in for Trump in 2016. Should Sanders end up on top after Super Tuesday, will the center hold, whether at MSNBC or anywhere else in the liberal-center political ecosystem? Or will there be a massive crack-up? No one can say that this political year is lacking in suspense.