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 insistence on reopening the economy, Joe Biden’s response to Tara Reade, and George W. Bush’s reemergence.
In the face of a climbing death toll and against warnings from some of his advisers, Donald Trump continues to value “reopening the economy” more than the nation’s public-health needs. Will this strategy bring him any political advantage?
Since Trump’s only motive for any action is to seize political or economic advantage, that’s certainly his hope. He’s willing to violate his own administration’s public-health guidelines and risk untold additional American carnage on the bet that some charade of “reopening” will rescue him in November. His calculation is as transparent as it is cruel. Many of those dying belong to demographic groups who are not going to vote for him anyway, starting with African-Americans. He seems willing to write off the elderly too, now that recent polls show older voters starting to drift toward Joe Biden.
But there is one complicating variable in the equation: more testing is now showing us how far the virus has spread in MAGA-land. If you exclude New York — now a distorting statistical outlier because of its decline in cases — COVID-19 infections nationwide are “slowly moving up,” the epidemiologist Andrew Noymer told the Times this week. (The daily rise is 2 to 4 percent.) In addition, William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, has calculated that 813 of the 1,103 counties that have achieved “high-COVID status” (100 or more cases per 100,000 residents) since March 29 went for Trump in 2016. Many of those counties are in battleground states like Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania. But if the past is any guide, COVID victims may remain loyal to him regardless and find any way they can to crawl to the polls, whatever the threat of contagion to their neighbors.
Still, at some point when he is up tweeting in the middle of the night, Trump is worried that this strategy might not work out. No matter how much he discounts models of the pathogen’s spread, he seems dimly aware that the actual death count keeps exceeding his repeated lowball predictions, which started at “close to zero” then rose to “around 60,000,” then to “substantially below 100,000,” and, as of Sunday, to “anywhere from 75, 80 to 100 thousand people.” His new plan to counter this reality, emerging this week, is to sow confusion among the electorate by attacking the death toll’s accuracy, no doubt to ultimately brand it as a Fake News Hoax. He will also continue to purge anyone in the government who might say otherwise — most recently, the vaccine scientist Rick Bright, who fought Trump’s attempt to promote hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure, and the Department of Health and Human Services official Christi Grimm, who dared release a report on the severe shortage of medical supplies in the nation’s hospitals. Trump’s handling of Anthony Fauci is slightly less blatant. His refusal to let the top doctor fighting the pandemic testify before the House will be followed by a continued downsizing of his center-stage appearances at the White House coronavirus-task-force reality show. My guess is that SNL casting Brad Pitt as Fauci was the final straw for Trump.
As economic devastation mounts — reaching Great Depression proportions even in advance of a possible second wave of virus in the fall — Trump will challenge the accuracy of unemployment figures and other numerical measures of the intense pain. But he will put zero effort into any federal initiatives that might actually ameliorate the medical and economic calamities. He and his White House are still not doing what they failed to do in March and April, most crucially financing and mobilizing the national testing regime that is essential to curbing COVID-19, and therefore essential to a reopening of American commerce. He remains convinced that he can continue to overwhelm reality with sheer bluster, whether he’s promising a “spectacular” fourth quarter or sending his son-in-law out to deliver the pipe dream that “by July, the country’s really rocking again.” But the Trump act may be getting old: The ludicrous Fox News “town hall” that soiled the Lincoln Memorial Sunday night drew only 3.8 million viewers. That’s the kind of number that, unlike the death count, should give him pause. The three network evening newscasts, trying to counterprogram him with real news, are drawing between 6.5 and 12 million viewers each, daily.
“We have no choice,” Trump has said. “We can’t stay closed as a country. We’re not going to have a country left.” No one can say that he isn’t doing everything he can to make that last sentence come true. His actions and inactions alike are fomenting an America in which the poorest and weakest citizens, many of them on the front lines of protecting their neighbors’ health, safety, and food supply, are wiped out.
Within days of Joe Biden’s long-awaited response to Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault, op-ed pieces in both the Washington Post and the New York Times argued that Democrats should begin looking for another nominee. Do Biden’s actions here doom his candidacy?
There is little fallout in his polling numbers, to be crass about it, and that’s perhaps not a surprise in a country that elected a president who has not only been accused persuasively of more than a dozen sexual assaults but has bragged about getting away with it.
We are unlikely to be able to resolve the accuracy of Tara Reade’s allegations even if every document bearing her name and Biden’s is unearthed in his senatorial archives, whether in Washington or at the University of Delaware, or, one hopes, both. In part that’s because Reade, who told others of the incident after it happened, has said herself that she didn’t describe it in detail or level the charge of sexual assault in the complaint she filed. So voters are going to have to come to their own judgment about the credibility and inexcusable tardiness of Biden’s denial, and their own view of his character versus Trump’s. As I have said many times, I have no illusions that Biden is a flawed candidate in many ways, and his treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings is arguably the most egregious stain on his record. But I have not a single qualm about voting for him at this existential moment for our country.
The notion of dropping him as the nominee is self-destructive and would play right into Trump’s hands by allowing him to portray the Democrats, however preposterously, as more chaotic than his own administration. The relitigating of the 2020 primary election and caucus results would toss the party’s voters and Biden’s former rivals into a civil war. And the fantasy that Andrew Cuomo, the year’s most exemplary political leader, would ride to the rescue is exactly that. Cuomo is close to Biden, loyal to him, and has unequivocally stated he’s staying put (for now) as New York’s governor. He would spend much of a compacted presidential campaign fending off the press’s requisite deep dives into his years in the swamps of Albany besides.
Earlier this week, former President George W. Bush broke a long silence on current events with a video calling for “empathy and simple kindness” in place of partisan differences, and noting that he “saw a great nation rise as one” after 9/11. Is he the right messenger for guidance on how to face a crisis?
The Bush video was no doubt heartfelt and should be applauded for getting under Trump’s skin. But it doesn’t erase the memory of Bush’s own lies as he recklessly sent the nation into a catastrophic and pointless war and sleepwalked as his unregulated donor base on Wall Street tanked the economy. And this kinder and gentler video is also too little, too late. We cannot forget that Establishment Republicans, including Bush, did little to stop the rise of Trumpism in their party for decades, giving a green light to such phenomena as the white-nationalist militia movement, its regeneration as the tea party, and its pre-Trump apotheosis in Sarah Palin. The small, welcome band of Never Trumpers notwithstanding, most of those same Establishment Republicans stand by Trump today, and if you have any doubts, read Evan Osnos’s new piece in The New Yorker on the unapologetic Trumpists of Greenwich, Connecticut, the Bush family’s ancestral home. It’s Vichy with golf.