the national circus

Frank Rich: Trump’s War on the States

He has somehow hit a new level of instability. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the multistate coronavirus recovery plans, and Trump’s decision to put his name on stimulus checks. 

After weeks of disappointment with the White House’s pandemic response, a group of governors in the Northeast and one on the West Coast have announced plans to coordinate the reopening of businesses and schools regionally. Could this bring an escape from Trump’s policy shortcomings, or will it simply escalate his attempts to grab power?

Nothing will stop Trump’s attempts to grab power. His novel theory of presidential governance, as he himself has defined it, is to seize “total” authority while bearing no responsibility. He will throw any power move against the wall to see if it sticks. When the coastal coalitions of governors chose to flatly ignore or, in Andrew Cuomo’s case, mock his bid to set himself up as a king, he pivoted in a blink to his dead-on-arrival push to adjourn Congress so he could staff governmental vacancies with a new round of C-list hacks who wouldn’t be subject to Senate approval. Every day a new tantrum, a new search for scapegoats for his catastrophic mismanagement of America’s public-health catastrophe, and a new attempted end run around the rule of law. The daily Trump show is the most predictable daytime television series since Romper Room.

Yesterday Trump again threatened to use his power to wreak vengeance against states who don’t do his bidding: “If we’re not happy, we’ll take very strong action against a state or a governor … As you know we have very strong action we can take, including a close down.” What “a close down” means is unclear; perhaps Trump will ask Bill Barr for authorization to put Cuomo under house arrest in Albany. But many governors — and not exclusively those in the coastal coalitions — will refuse to obey Trump’s much-hyped decision to “open” America by May 1. (For the first time, May Day may prove synonymous with Mayday.) Already, some of the Wall Street tycoons he strong-armed into White House conference calls yesterday told him that most Americans won’t return to work without a wholesale testing regimen to assure them their lives are not at risk. Since Trump continues to claim that America now has “the most expansive testing system anywhere,” a desperately needed federal testing initiative will continue not to happen and much of the country will continue not to reopen.

But while Trump doesn’t have the power to “close down” states that defy him or to force private businesses to open with a “big bang,” he does have one kind of power — political power. And he will wield it. Not with the goal of defeating the coronavirus — he’s convinced himself that war is won — but with the goal of arousing his base to a red-hot pitch of rage that will guarantee its massive turnout in November. As we have seen in recent days, this strategy has a strong ideological and cultural component that in form and content is redolent of the tea party movement of 2009, which in turn led to the “shellacking” (Barack Obama’s term) of the Democrats in the 2010 midterms.

You see it in the internet fever swamps, where Anthony Fauci is a deep state traitor and #FireFauci is a battle cry that Trump retweeted for a reason, despite his subsequent claim that he won’t fire Fauci. You see it in the pronouncements of Republican politicians like the Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, the Indiana congressman Trey Hollingsworth, and the Louisiana senator John Kennedy, who have prioritized a reopened economy over the lives of their constituents. “The shutdown did not stop the spread of the virus,” Kennedy explained yesterday. “I wish it had, but it’s too late for that.” You see it in the protest at the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, where demonstrators decried Governor Gretchen Whitmer for stomping on their “freedom” with stringent anti-corona restrictions. (Predictably enough, this tea party–esque circus is underwritten by a group linked to the right-wing billionaire DeVos family.) And of course you see it on Fox News, where the prime-time lineup is trying to foment this street theater into a national phenomenon, social distancing be damned. “The American spirit is too strong and Americans are not going to take it,” declared Jeanine Pirro, attempting to portray Howard Beale in drag. “And what happened in Lansing today, God bless them, it’s going to happen all over the country.”

Where will this lead? There’s no way to predict what will happen on Election Day. But unless you choose to ignore what’s already happening in other nations that lifted restrictions too early, there will be new waves of the virus, including in rural America, among religious congregations that abandon social distancing, and at MAGA venues where Trump hopes to rekindle his rallies. Even now, we are seeing a rise in hot spots in states like Florida, governed by mini-Trumps who were tardy in shutting down as the virus hit — and are, in Trump’s language, “chomping at the bit” to reopen. The No. 1 hot spot in the country is in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the mini-Trump governor, Kristi Noem, remains steadfast in her refusal to impose tough public-health measure even as a Smithfield food-processing plant has shut down in the wake of a cluster of more than 600 infections.

It’s been clear this week that Trump has hit a new level of berserk since last weekend’s epic Times report documenting in meticulous detail that he squandered at least six weeks to inaction, as the virus cut its lethal swath across America. He even used a coronavirus press briefing to unveil a Goebbels-esque propaganda video (produced at taxpayers’ expense) to try to rewrite that history. Wait until he sees the sequel coming from the “fake news”: The timeline of how he squandered the weeks between May 1 and the arrival this summer or fall of the next wave of infection, panic, re-shutdowns, and mass death.

Trump has ordered that his own name appear on the Treasury’s stimulus checks, an addition that will likely delay payment for many recipients who need it most. Is there a benefit for him in putting his name on this crisis?

Wait — are you really saying it was Trump’s idea to put his name on these $1,200 checks? He has told us it was all a surprise to him! In any event, the notion that a plague could be another beneficial branding opportunity for Trump makes sense only if you think it was Herbert Hoover’s own brainchild to coin the name Hooverville for the impoverished shanty towns that sprang up during the Great Depression. At least we can be grateful that though Trump’s name is printed on the checks, he didn’t, in the end, insist on signing them. Under the law, only a civil servant, not the president, can sign IRS disbursements. Had Trump insisted on his signature, these checks would have bounced like those in his pre–White House business career.

The benefits of this stunt will be short-lived in any case. The Washington Post reports today that the IRS’s first distribution of these payments, by direct deposit, is another major screwup that has affected millions of Americans. Whenever the cash arrives, with or without Trump’s signature, it won’t last long for the struggling recipients. Trump’s refusal to endorse any emergency aid for an already challenged postal system — as of last weekend 19 employees had died, and roughly 1,000 had tested positive or were presumed positive for the virus — could further slow the checks’ arrival even as it achieves his goal of shutting off voting by mail in November. (The postal service is projected to run out of money in late September.) As an added insult, the federal relief program to shore up small businesses that retain their employees has now run out of money altogether.

But like that proverbial rooster who would take credit for the sunrise, Trump can always be counted on to take credit for any good news, even if he had little or nothing to do with it. And to blame everything that goes wrong on someone else. If Americans don’t get their $1,200 promptly, that will be Nancy Pelosi’s fault. The immediate crisis for Trump is that the failures are rapidly outpacing the list of handy scapegoats as this pandemic marches on. He’s run through China, Obama, the Democrats, the media, and the World Health Organization, among others. Who’s next? Hillary, Hunter Biden, Robert Mueller, and James Comey, of course. Jeff Sessions? New “caravans” on the march from Latin America? NFL players? “Shifty Schiff”? “Pocahontas”? It’s truly only a matter of time before we learn that it was John McCain who brought the coronavirus back from Vietnam.

Frank Rich: Trump’s War on the States