It is shocking to see just how low the Trump Administration has brought American democracy in a few short years. Holding aid to an ally to invent dirt on a Democratic opponent was alarming enough to force the hand of Democratic leaders to impeach the president, even though it was clear they didn’t actually want to. And conservative policy has always been generally hostile to the lives, health, and voting rights of people it doesn’t consider part of the Republican coalition.
But the prospect of an American president using vital resources in a pandemic to curry political favor, keep his supporters alive and let his opponents die in the thousands is something unprecedented in all of American history. And the Trump administration is rapidly approaching that point, if it has not done so already:
Anecdotally, there are wide differences, and they do not appear to follow discernible political or geographic lines. Democratic-leaning Massachusetts, which has had a serious outbreak in Boston, has received 17 percent of the protective gear it requested, according to state leaders. Maine requested a half-million N95 specialized protective masks and received 25,558 — about 5 percent of what it sought. The shipment delivered to Colorado — 49,000 N95 masks, 115,000 surgical masks and other supplies — would be “enough for only one full day of statewide operations,” Rep. Scott R. Tipton (R-Colo.) told the White House in a letter several days ago.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency inherited control of the stockpile barely a week ago from HHS. Lizzie Litzow, a FEMA spokeswoman, acknowledged the agency maintains a spreadsheet tracking each state’s request and shipments. Litzow declined repeated requests to release the details, saying the numbers are in flux.
Florida has been an exception in its dealings with the stockpile: The state submitted a request on March 11 for 430,000 surgical masks, 180,000 N95 respirators, 82,000 face shields and 238,000 gloves, among other supplies — and received a shipment with everything three days later, according to figures from the state’s Division of Emergency Management. It received an identical shipment on March 23, according to the division, and is awaiting a third.
With all due respect to the reporters who worked hard on this story, the phrase “they do not appear to follow discernible political or geographic lines” seems comically wrong. Massachusetts, Maine, and Colorado are blue states getting severely shafted. Florida is a swing state that leans red, and it is getting everything it asks for and more. If these figures are part of a larger pattern, it looks very much like political favor currying for some, and vindictive neglect for others.
It looks especially bad in light of the days-long campaign of not-so-subtle extortion of Democratic governors to praise Trump more and take more of the blame themselves if they want their citizens to receive direly needed medical supplies from the same federal government that is outbidding them. The president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani even went on Fox News to tell infuriated governors that they should “Take the blame when you have to … when you play with your boss, sometimes it’s better when you don’t win the golf game. He’s the boss, he’s got all the resources.”
Right now, Republicans are less concerned about coronavirus than Democrats because the virus is mostly impacting urban areas so far. Many Democrats have been expecting that once red states and rural areas start feeling the heat of the pandemic, the conservative movement and the White House will start to take matters more seriously and the ground will shift.
But what do we do if they only start taking it seriously on behalf of their constituents. What if the White House simply gives all the masks and ventilators to red states and counties, leaving blue ones to struggle? What mechanisms of accountability are left?
U.S. democracy wasn’t set up to deal with a president openly behaving like a James Bond villain while being protected by a political party behaving more like a mafia than a civic institution. There weren’t 67 Senators to convict after an impeachment. If the president’s cabinet is aligned with such a plan, what recourse remains to people who live in places that the president doesn’t consider to be part of “his” America?
One thing is clear: It’s not just the American economy and healthcare that needs to be radically revamped once we get past this medical crisis and this kakistocratic maladministration. We also need to look at re-envisioning our system of governance. Its design flaws cannot survive a political culture in which one side stops caring if the other lives or dies—and that sees democracy itself as a threat to its own long-term survival.