What would this pandemic be like if Donald Trump were not president? We could assume, easily enough, it would not be this horrific. A Clinton administration, like the Obama administration that preceded it, would have managed a coherent, coordinated federal response to COVID-19, pursuing rational, science-based policy like Canada, Germany, France, and a host of other countries that have begun to tame the virus and return to life resembling normalcy. Mistakes, of course, would have still happened. Italy’s response, at the outbreak, was disastrous, and otherwise sober-minded public health officials made blunders that had nothing to do with Trump. The most glaring was the discouraging of mask-wearing in the earliest days of COVID-19, which everyone from the revered Anthony Fauci on down did at some point, telling us masks wouldn’t do much and, anyway, you don’t want a run on masks when healthcare professionals need them first. This created a brief, strange period in which liberals were actually shaming others for wearing masks—save it for a nurse!—and various left-leaning websites expressed mild skepticism about their efficacy. All of that said, it’s inarguable the Trump government’s response has been catastrophic and it’s increasingly likely this failure will make the faux-mogul a one-term president. Joe Biden, basement dweller, now has a 15 point lead in the latest Quinnipiac poll. That’s staggering stuff.
Trump’s fatal incompetence has been a boon for inept executives across America. As Alex Pareene wrote, in a sane, rational society, the pandemic response being managed by individual states would lead to mass resignations from Republicans and Democrats alike. The executive strategy seems to be to appear on TV enough to deflect negative press and, when in doubt, contrast yourself with the failed federal response. But the United States of America, for better and for worse, has rarely had a powerful, unified federal government that can dictate policy to the states. We practice federalism; we are a loosely-knit republic of 50 states, with local governments that enjoy autonomy akin to small European nations. Some states, like New York, California, and Texas, are in fact larger than many prominent foreign nations, with higher populations and greater GDP’s. For four years, every governor has known the White House is home to a deranged fraud. The idea that governors should be excused from their failure because they waited patiently for guidance from the federal government and never got any is ludicrous. If any pandemic response was predicated on the Trump government asserting itself in a rational way, we were all doomed from the moment he took office.
No one has benefited more from Trump as a foil than Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has presided over the kind of carnage that would be an abject disaster for any foreign nation, let alone a single state. Thirty-two thousand people have died from COVID-19 in New York and instead of hanging his head in shame and vowing to do better, Cuomo is commissioning ever more absurd posters of his alleged conquest of the virus. I won’t dive into too much detail here over how, exactly, Cuomo failed the people of New York. There was the tragically slow shutdown order, the funding cuts to public hospitals, the bizarre lack of coordination between the city and state, the policies that endangered nursing home residents, and the overall lack of PPE for staff that desperately begged for it. New York has since flattened the curve, but did so following mass death. Any real celebration of this is borderline sociopathic.
What I’m more interested in right now is what comes next, in a world in which Trump is defeated and Democrats will be asked to govern. As Matt Stoller tweeted recently, it’s time to start thinking about this, as Trump’s re-election hopes dwindle. Democrats could emerge, in 2021, in a fascinating and disorienting place. If trends hold, they will have unified control of government for the first time since 2009. The Senate, an inherently anti-Democratic Party institution in the modern age, is favorable enough to flip, and gains should be protected in the House. Trump, in this scenario, will be vanquished, left to lord over Republican primaries and Fox News but no longer relevant on the scale of mass governance—at least until the next wave of Republicans take power. For Democratic elected officials and party activists, it will be a time when they are asked to formulate ideas independent of the Trump nightmare, to go off into the new world without such an antagonist who was, we were all told, ushering America into fascism. That cottage industry, thankfully, will slowly die out. The rule of thumb of a fascist state is that you can’t publish books and get six-figure advances calling the government fascist. Authoritarians don’t permit “blue waves”; they just ban political parties altogether. Trump never succeeded, or tried very hard truthfully, to usher in the very worst nightmares of the liberal commentariat. Real fascism is out there—take a visit to China, the most sophisticated authoritarian nation in human history, now attempting a genocide on an ethnic minority—and perhaps, tragically, we will trend further in that direction. As we move on from Trump, we will remember him as a catastrophic malcontent and a wannabe strongman, an accidental president who was deeply incompetent but farmed out enough governance to traditional conservatives to stack the federal judiciary for a lifetime and maybe, if Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health fails, appoint three Supreme Court justices.
Democrats, then, will have to govern out of Trump’s gamboge shadow. In one sense, they will be exposed. Andrew Cuomo without Donald Trump is another semi-competent local strongman, with the blood of tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths on his hands. It will be liberating to have a society in which all that is opposite to Donald Trump isn’t inherently good. This was Trump’s greatest magic trick, one he accomplished without ever intending to do so. Since Russians attempted some interference into the 2016 election—apparently the Clinton campaign never thought to pour more money into Facebook ads—and Trump clearly had an affinity for Vladimir Putin, American liberals experienced anti-Russian fervor not seen since the height of the Cold War. In 2012, it was Republican Mitt Romney mocking President Obama for attempting diplomacy with Putin’s Russia. By 2017, Democrats had transformed into unhinged Russia hawks, with conspiracy theories propagated nightly on MSNBC. The New Yorker, for reasons that will look unsettling in hindsight, rendered their cover, for one issue, in Russian. Many otherwise mundane liberals I knew were convinced Trump would be indicted and absolutely removed from office before the midterm elections. I would politely explain this was highly unlikely. Since Trump clashed with his intelligence agencies, Democrats invested faith in the security state not seen since conservatives valorized J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in the 1960s. Robert Mueller, a former FBI director under the deeply destructive George W. Bush, was recast as a resistance hero, with votive candles crafted in his likeness. When he predictably failed to drive Trump from office, Democrats were inconsolable. If Trump had come out and said he only drank Coke products, Democrats would have rushed supermarkets to drown themselves in Pepsi.
We will never have a sane country because we’ve probably never had one in the first place. This is, as Philip Roth called it, the “American berserk.” But Trump’s exit will inevitably hasten, at least momentarily, a more sober environment for debate. Democrats will be able to acknowledge that the Trump government didn’t invent the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants; Obama was once the “deporter-in-chief” and Bush literally invented Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They will need to recognize that diplomacy is preferable to war, even when practiced by Trump. A summit with North Korea didn’t yield tangible benefits but it beats nuclear annihilation. NATO, as Noam Chomsky has argued, really is a relic of the Cold War, and serves mostly as an excuse for America to exert its military might in more regions of the world it doesn’t have to. The most pernicious ills of American society—predatory housing and healthcare, racial discrimination—long predate the emergence of Trump. Rather than foam at the mouth every time Trump speaks, Democrats will need to imagine a country without him.
Democrats will be expected to offer solutions and, in 2021, we will be more desperate for them than at any time in modern history. A vaccine isn’t here yet and a pandemic rages. The American economy has cratered, despite what Wall Street says. We will need stimulus spending not seen since the Great Depression. There is an opportunity, if Joe Biden has it and seeks it, to lead the most transformative federal government since Franklin Roosevelt’s, or at least Lyndon Johnson’s. America can spend trillions on its public schools, public transit, housing, roadways, and healthcare, making this nation the true envy of the world. Democrats are no longer afraid of deficit spending like they were during the Obama years. Even the centrists acknowledge that major stimulus spending is good policy and politics; no voters will punish their representatives for showering more funding on their districts. In this world, perhaps, we will learn to hold our elected officials accountable again and stop measuring them by the Trump standard, which is like praising an adult for remembering to shower. Democrats will no longer be able to hide behind their resistance shields. They will be exposed, and asked to govern or get out.