Health, Neo-liberalism, Politics, Populism

The Coronavirus, Trump and the American Dream

Mar 27 2020

By Pietro Garau*

The Democratic establishment has concentrated political warfare on one goal: the removal of Donald J, Trump. It is an obsessive fixation, and a convenient one. The latter aspect resides in the reassuring narrative that once Trump is removed everything will be fine again.

Therefore, the issue is not change or reform, but simply the restoration of the old order existing before the advent of the current ruler. And indeed, the imminent endorsement of president Obama’s former vice president is the perfect embodiment of this fairy tale.

Democrats have so far tried two strategies to get  rid of Donald J. Trump. The first one has been an incessant media campaign to denounce his personality and his behaviour: his locker-room crassness; his lack of respect for women; his chest beating; his arrogance; his dedication to telling blatant lies; his contempt for minorities; his obvious hatred for people who are not white and not American; and so on.

The second strategy was impeachment. Knowing that the Republican majority in the Senate would have prevented an actual trial, the hope was that the accusations against him might unleash a national uproar capable of breaking the united Republican front. But not being able to use personality and behaviour for the purpose, the Democratic establishment chose to impeach him for trying to damage a political rival by fishing for skeletons in his closet in a distant country nobody cares about;  a dubious strategy given that this is the daily activity of most political campaigns. And in fact, the Republican block remained united and unchallenged and the strategy failed.

The only option left, therefore, is the next presidential elections. Hence the choice of Joe Biden, the “most electable candidate” and one that is seen to be able to beat Trump just by convincing voters he is so decent and amiable as opposed to his rude adversary.                                                                                                                                                                                                

This strategy ignores one fundamental element: the fact that Trump was elected because he made himself the standard bearer of the American Dream.

So far, the democratic establishment has clanged to the narrative that Trump won because he managed to appeal to a base of voters who are white, uneducated, fanatical, and racist. This is indeed true; but fortunately, these traits do not quite embody the American Dream. And they would have not been sufficient to ensure his victory.

The Dream is, instead, the aspiration to become a successful capitalist. Deep beneath, the vast majority of Americans nurture the ambition of becoming independently wealthy. This is a given, of course, for the ones who already achieved this status. But it is also true for the waiter who dreams of having a restaurant of his own, the clerk who dreams of becoming a storeowner, for the factory worker who dreams of setting up a workshop of his own. This does not merit reproach, given the dire and worsening predicament of being an underpaid, exploited and disposable salaried worker in today’s United States of America. However, this attitude implies embracing individualism as a primary quality as well as contempt for any form of social solidarity or public assistance, starting from welfare programs.  The only main difference between today’s capitalist giants, China and the United States, is that the former has one party only, while the latter has two. And indeed, both American parties, starting with Ronald Reagan and with Bill Clinton following his footsteps, have historically moved in the same direction. Today, welfare hardly exists in America; higher education is increasing expensive; access to health care depends on the ability to buy health insurance and is increasingly expensive; and the financial world is on a rampage, totally oblivious of the consequences of its actions on the most vulnerable segments of society. 

Biden’s announced victory over Sanders means that the Democratic Party has given up appealing to the minority of Americans who don’t care about joining the ranks of capitalism and simply demand universal access to decent public health and education in exchange for their labour. The fight is over the American Dream, i.e. the dream of becoming a successful capitalist.

But the problem is that Biden is a vicarious capitalist: a senator who has collected a salary for his whole life in exchange for his untiring support for the business establishment. Trump, or rather his image, is made of different stuff. He is, or viewed as, a self-made billionaire who entered politics to make America great again. So, whom would aspiring capitalists choose: the accessory or the real thing? 

To paraphrase our hero, the coronavirus crisis could indeed be a “game changer”. Establishment Democrats hope, of course, that Trump will do so badly that Americans, in disgust, will not support him this time. We shall see. Gaining the presidency on the shoulders of a modern Black Death is not the most glorious of prospects, but it is indeed possible that the crisis might evolve into disaster.

But this is not the topic of this brief piece. It is, instead, the thesis that even in this crisis Trump revealed a stubborn coherence in impersonating the American Dream.

In the beginning, he did everything a CEO would have done: put disturbing rumours to rest and reassure his stakeholders. He limited himself to play to his favourite corporate strategy – blame foreigners and deny them access to the Firm. Later on, when the crisis was undeniable, he decided to give a sign of vigorous assertiveness. He made it clear he was at the helm. He set up task forces. He surrounded himself with the best experts (the scientists). He resurrected White House press conferences by running personally each of them, every day. At the same time, he cheered the Firm on. He had put together the best talent in the world. Everybody could have a coronavirus test that wanted to. Magical cures, including a vaccine, were around the corner.

But from the very beginning, he made sure that business, and not government, would be seen as America’s saviour from this dire predicament. His most vibrant press conference was, indeed, the one when he paraded dumbfounded CEOs of major companies to illustrate the great contributions they were about to provide, be it surgical masks or parking lots. It was the press conference of the famous, and non-existent, Google on line coronavirus symptomatic testing.

On the sly, of course, his conduct was different. America the Only or not, his people started scrambling for everything they could import from abroad, including half a million swabs from plague-infested Italy. But in public, and in practice, his actions were coherent with the CEO press conference model.

First, and only because strongly urged on by “his scientists”, he issued “White House Guidelines”. They were far blander than the ordinances given at the local level; think, for example, of the risible idea of allowing aggregations of up to ten people. Yet, they were simply guidelines. The White House could not afford to force anybody to take precautions, and least of all, the so-called “business community”.

In no other occasion, albeit a relatively minor one, did Trump’s ideology surface in stark clarity than his refusal to recur to the Defense Production Act. Here, the decision was ideologically pure. No company should be forced to do what they do not want to do, and least of all by the government. They would indeed help greatly on their own, and in doing so they would do it by serving their raison-d’être – profit. If there were a market for surgical masks, the market would produce surgical masks. If there were a market for testing kits, the market would produce testing kits.

Latest of all is Trump’s announcement that the 15-day White House Guidelines shall be reviewed. This is, arguably, a message to the market in the hope that the stock values descent into hell might be slightly reversed. But one would be wise not to put a relaxation of the guidelines out of the realm of possibility, in the quest for a nationwide business revival – with the Virus Reaper evermore on the rampage.

Finally, there’s the One Thing that Was Never Done Before: the “Stimulus Package” being discussed at the Senate. In its present form, the Republican version is considered by many as a huge subsidy to business, and preferably Big Business, with no strings attached. No matter what shape it will be approved in, do expect a string of press conferences by president Trump on how he is saving America and its Dream by saving its business, which is, after all, business.

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*Italian architect and urbanist who spent most of his professional career working for the United Nations in a developing country. He also served the UN in Geneva and New York. His academic career  took place at the Sapienza Universita’ di Roma where he directed for several years its Urban Studies Center for the Developing Countries. Due to his research and normative work for the United Nations he developed a special interest for the influence that the United States has on the rest of the world and reinforced his conviction that no major international development can be explained fully without a good understanding of the evolution of  political and ideological processes in that country. Article offered to Other News by the author.

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Annex:

Europeans and the coronavirus crisis: Voices from the confinement

VoxEurop Notebook

We asked our readers to tell us how they live through the COVID-19 epidemic, their experience of this crisis, what it tells us about Europe in the broadest sense, and what they hope for its future. The contributions are presented from the most recent to the oldest. You want to share yours? Write to us, and make your voice heard!


EU has ceased to exist

Mihai Bodea, Bucharest (Romania)

26 March

I am from Romania. The outbreak caught me in Nürenberg and I had trouble going back home by car as the borders were closed. I tried twice to enter Hungary and wasted around 15 hours just waiting on highways to cross borders (photo). I was not allowed to stop for sleep and food and only allowed to drive through Hungary by night. Also my country suspended European Convention on Human Rights for the occasion.

At the moment I really regret my decision to return to Romania and face the arbitrary of the eastern states. Going through check points together with thousands of other people only exposed me (and everybody else) to dangers (getting sick, accidents). I still haven’t touched my wallet since five days ago when I got home, as my ID was in the hands of border officers that held thousands of other IDs.

For the moment I am isolated at home for two weeks, and armed men enforce the lockdown. Since March 17th I haven’t had contact with anybody except on the phone or from the other side of a protective glass. The only thing that I find scarier is getting to jail for real if I can’t keep staying inside for another nine days. Voluntary testing for Covid-19 is not an option.

At the moment EU ceased to exist.

The reaction to the pandemic will cost a lot more than it has to.


One nation

Jean-Marc Salvanès, Businessman, Paris (France)

25 March

What is it that makes this small geographical extremity, wedged between the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, so unique that it became a major political reality for centuries and is still a major political reality today? Political will. The emergence of Europe as a power is not dictated by the laws of geography. It is first and foremost a political, intellectual, spiritual and cultural construction. This will and this ambition have had their ups and downs but they have gone through extreme crises. Are they threatened today by the upheavals and tensions of the world that are knocking at our door?

Sure they are. The development of the coronavirus, which came from China, will probably amplify the resurgence of nationalism, the refusal to open borders, the desire for de-globalisation. The friendly foreigner becomes before our eyes a threatening stranger who seems to carry a total threat: military, economic, cultural and now medical.

Although we are one people, the current crisis may well sound the death knell for a unified world view. In the vast geopolitical recomposition taking place before our eyes, we can bet that, for a few decades at least, globalisation will turn into regionalisation, and that coherent and natural geographical groupings will go back to business as usual and possibly reform. They will replace the links forged by economic exchanges, colonial histories and cultural proximities. Brexit can also be interpreted as the British desire to remain global, as opposed to a Europe that will favour continentality.

The partial de-globalisation that we are about to witness will bring Europeans closer to one another and enable them to understand that they form a single nation.

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The indifference of the privileged

Stefania Pelleriti, Messina (Italy)

24 March

My concern is divided between relatives living in the north of Italy, my brother living in London, and the prospects of my city, Messina, which along with the rest of the province, does not reach a hundred beds in intensive care. The episode that has been holding the city in suspense for a week now concerns some groups that in late March went skiing in the northern regions of Italy. After returning home, they continued to lead their lives without worrying about spreading the contagion.

Beyond any moral judgment on the behavior of these people, including many doctors and other members of the city’s bourgeoisie, the reflection that comes to mind concerns the tenacity, even unconsciousness, with which many people until very recently refused to believe that the situation was really serious and that it was possible to have to take on behaviors different from those we have always had. They were so accustomed to live in a wealthy society that they did not believe that it could happen to have to live in a state of emergency even here, and were not able to give up even one of the possibilities offered by that welfare.

I wonder, then, if the story of the wealthy skiers of Messina does not reflect in small measure the indifference of the privileged Europeans with regards to those emergencies that in recent years have flocked to their borders, determined to prevent those who were in difficulty to even disturb their well-being, to bring the war in their mental frame. The COVID-19 has undoubtedly created a crack in the frame, which may result in awareness and empathy.


Diunited Europe

Giovanni Caruselli, former history and philosophy teacher, Seregno (Italy)

24 March

What does this epidemic tell us about the European Union? Perhaps nothing that was not already clear to those who have observed its behaviour over the last…ten years. A political reality that holds the title of the Union and that in its treaties attaches primary value to the social needs of its citizens, should first of all lay the foundations for a unified healthcare system to protect them, perhaps headed by a Commissioner for Public Health ready to monitor and intervene in every situation.

Instead, we were faced with a terrible warning on what was happening in China, without the Commission drawing up a unified plan to deal with the epidemic. Some borders remained open and other borders were closed, air travel was banned or going on, different and contradictory scientific assessments were made, and no coordinating body in sight. Factories of medical devices that had emigrated to China, which nobody had bothered about, medicines packaged in India on which we now depend. And so on.

Does it take a lot to realise that the European Union has always been the result of economic agreements at the service of the continent’s big banks and multinationals, who couldn’t care less about public health? Does it take much to understand that here, if the foundations are not laid for a social Europe that redistributes wealth, Europe will break down (as is already happening) and we will return to old borders, customs duties, nationalistic competition, just as Trump wants to do for the USA?


Everyone at home

Stefano Nicoletti, Pisa

23 March

Everyone at home: me because my company has reduced the number of people in the office and is preparing for a more extensive smart working, my wife who has closed her B&B, and the children. We’re good together and the anxiety doesn’t come from the risks of the coronavirus, which are scarce for us and which we may have faced twenty days ago when the children had a very high fever, with no other symptoms.

The anxiety comes from the media bombardment of useless news, of alarmist data that deliberately do not include an estimate of mild cases and asymptomatic, of news aimed only to scare to trigger the desired behavior. We have thus reduced the consumption of information to a minimum (zero TV).

We are both conforted by and fail to grasp the role of Europe: after being unjustifiably absent in the mediatc management of the crisis, it will have to do what it has not been able to do in recent years, now that the Stability Pact is over: work for true transnational justice and solidarity.

These texts have been translated with help of DeepL machine translation, as part of test. Feedback (and patience) is appreciated.

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