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Larry Donnelly: An erratic Trump now leads a US further divided by Covid-19

Donnelly says voters this year will believe in Trump the straight-shooter or Trump the perpetually offended narcissist.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

“I HAPPEN TO be taking it.  A lot of good things have come out. You’d be surprised at how many people are taking it, especially the frontline workers. Before you catch it. The frontline workers, many, many are taking it.”

“I’m taking it, hydroxychloroquine. Right now, yeah. A couple of weeks ago, I starting taking it. ‘Cause I think it’s good, I’ve heard a lot of good stories.”

As startling as President Donald Trump’s words appear in print, the video of these astonishing remarks he made to assembled media after a roundtable discussion on re-opening the United States last Monday is more stunning. Trump’s facial expressions demonstrated how much he was relishing the shock that was palpable in the room.

Doubling down in a spat

A White House doctor wrote in a memorandum later on that the potential benefits from treatment outweighed the relative risks in this instance. Accordingly, speculation then focused on administration staffers who had recently tested positive for Covid-19 and continued to the effect that the president had to be in jeopardy of contracting the virus for this treatment to be prescribed.

Of course, while Trump has been touting the benefits of hydroxychloroquine, the vast majority of experts have warned of its broad inefficacy and detrimental side effects. The political reaction to his announcement was swift and severe.

Trump’s putative Democratic rival, Joe Biden, said: “Just like saying maybe if you injected Clorox into your blood, it may cure you. Come on. What is he doing? What in God’s name is he doing?”

The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, perhaps in an attempt to provoke the thin-skinned billionaire, said “as far as the president is concerned, he’s our president and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and in his, shall we say, weight group: morbidly obese, they say.  So, I think it’s not a good idea.”

This was possibly an unfair, unnecessary and quite “Trumpesque” cheap shot from Pelosi. Naturally, the president did not hold back when he heard what she had said. “I think she’s a waste of time…Pelosi is a sick woman.  She’s got a lot of problems, a lot of mental problems. We’re dealing with people that have to get their act together for the good of the country.”

Given the age of these three politicians – cumulatively, they have been on the planet for 230 years – and notwithstanding the danger of sounding ageist, one is tempted to liken this exchange to an awkward family squabble among disgruntled older relatives.

Covid-19 further divides

Regardless, the citizenry is entitled to more from their political leaders at a time of extraordinary crisis. Although he needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and cannot credibly make the point himself, Trump’s riposte to Pelosi is correct in that sole respect.

This political discord nationally is echoed locally throughout the US. For example, the centrist Republican governor of my home state of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has been very cautious in his management of the coronavirus and in establishing a timetable for getting back to business. His prudence is appropriate because Massachusetts has the fourth-largest number of cases in the US.

mlb-oct-31-red-sox-world-series-victory-parade Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. Source: Richard Cashin

Nonetheless, on learning of the protracted schedule for restoring some semblance of normality, the Trump-loving chairman of Governor Baker’s own state party tweeted that he had “just put in place the most restrictive business requirements in history. These regulations potentially will crush our economy. As I watch this press conference, I feel so sad for the small struggling businesses in our state. Keep America Great!”

This is objectively bizarre. Try to fathom the chair of an Irish political party mounting a similar attack on one of its democratically elected leaders, particularly in such a fraught period. It shows that the division that Trump has sown, even at intraparty level, has only heightened during the pandemic.

Trump and a second wave

A CNBC/Change Research poll this week reveals that Americans who oppose the president are far more inclined to believe that there will be a “second wave” of the virus.  99% of them think it has a better than 50-50 chance of happening; a paltry 41% of Republicans concur. The latter group are also less willing to wear facemasks and to take other preventative steps than Democrat-leaning men and women.

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas has argued cogently on Today FM’s The Last Word with Matt Cooper radio programme that combating Covid-19 should be outside the realm of politics. The data, regrettably, suggests that the fight against it in the US is hyper-partisan.

This poll provides good news for the Biden campaign in that independent voters are closer to Democrats’ negative view on the key question of how the administration has handled things, as has a Quinnipiac University opinion survey indicating that the former vice-president has an 11 percentage point lead over Trump nationally.

That said, this week’s poll has the president holding on to a narrow lead in the crucial battlegrounds. Moreover, it also places him well ahead of Biden in terms of who is better placed to orchestrate an economic recovery: 51% to 40%.  It is foolish to put a lot of stock in a single poll, yet the importance of this final finding cannot be overstated.

In this context, I expect Trump to turn more fire on the World Health Organization and China as November approaches. His threat to permanently cut funding for the WHO will go down well with that considerable constituency of Americans who think their tax dollars pay for the rest of the world’s welfare and they get next to nothing in return. 

His anti-China rhetoric – its government is responsible for a “mass worldwide killing” – appeals to those who are seriously frightened of the future and the inexorable rise of the east. Each is a useful bogeyman.

Obamagate?

However, the other enemy Trump has identified, Barack Obama, is not a good target, politically speaking. Obama’s approval ratings are pretty high and he has assumed something of a senior statesman status. Trump’s rants about “Obamagate” will accomplish precious little. Indeed, most people have no clue what he is talking about.

That Trump persists on this last manifestly counterproductive tack is additional evidence, to me anyway, that his typically outlandish rhetoric, braggadocio and lies are not a vital cog in some master plan to distract from scandals and to disarm his foes. 

Instead, they are the hallmarks of an individual who, looked at favourably, shoots from the hip and says what he thinks or who, evaluated in another light, is perpetually offended and incredibly narcissistic.

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This persona of President Trump’s, and how Americans judge it, will be a central determinant in whether he wins a second term. It could matter more than how the human tragedy unfolding around us plays out.   

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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