I will begin by speculating about the way coronavirus is likely to affect the United States political system. By January 2021, Donald J Trump would have completed four years as the 45th US president. During this period he has reduced America’s political and economic standing in the world. He has also proved that the sociologist Francis Fukuyama was wrong in asserting almost two decades ago that the demise of the Soviet Union meant the end of history. He thought that history was the story of conflicts among different ideologies — between democracy and authoritarianism; between nationalism and openness; between Islam and the West; between communism and Western liberalism; between systems that placed individuals at the centre as against those that gave all powers to the state.
The Second World War was fought to end the threat posed by nationalism to Europe and then to the rest of the world. The Cold War that followed was aimed at containing the Soviet system that put the state at the centre of all human activities. History may indeed have ended had a country with the size, wealth and authority to influence global events had taken charge. The US was one such country. That happened for a bit more than a quarter century — from 1991 when the USSR collapsed and 2017 when Donald J Trump on January 20 took the oath office and became the president of the United States.
Trump’s rise to the pinnacle of a system of beliefs and style of governance that was given the name of Trumpism has delivered a serious blow not only to democracy but the way the global order is structured. This is the reason why the November 3, 2020 contest in the US matters not only for America but for the rest of the world as well. That a pandemic would influence the outcome of the election would not have seemed possible in January 2020 when the coronavirus was found in circulation in Wuhan, an industrial city on the right bank of the Yangtze River in central China. While the virus spread to the rest of the world, in particular to the US, it effectively altered global history. At the time of this writing, the US with only 4% of the world population had one-fifth of the world’s cases of Covid-19 and about the same proportion of deaths caused by the disease. Donald Trump had a great deal to do with the fact that the US was to become the epicentre of the pandemic. It is important to devote some space to discuss the character, influence and style of governance of this individual and how it was viewed by the people who were close to him.
Trump demonstrated a number of character-weaknesses as he got closer to the November 2020 elections. By his actions and by his public statements he placed himself at the centre of at least half a dozen crises. Some of these were at home in the US and several were in the geographic space close to Pakistan. At home he mismanaged the Covid-19 pandemic first by insisting that it was a minor incident that did not warrant serious government attention. He famously predicted that a dozen or so people who had been affected by it will recover in a few days and the disease will disappear. When that did not happen and the number of people affected climbed to nearly 6.5 million and some 190,000 people in American had died, he passed on the management of the crisis to the governors of the 50 states that constituted the US. He refused to develop a national strategy for dealing with the pandemic.
Donald Trump worked hard to commit fissures in the American society. This effort included belittling the armed forces. In an article authored by Jeffrey Goldberg editor-in-chief of the news-monthly The Atlantic, he said that those in the military who got injured, died or were captured by the enemy were essentially suckers and losers and did not deserve the respect with which they were treated by the general public. The story created a real stir in the country and Trump used his usual tactics to respond to the crisis. He denied having ever used those words although he had repeatedly said that the late senator John McCain was not a war hero since he had been captured by the Vietnamese and kept in prison and tortured for six years.
Perhaps the most disturbing move he made was to encourage the extreme right of the American political society to get organised and challenge the extreme left. This resulted in street fights in several cities, in particular those that were led by Democrats.
There was a great deal of speculation in the US about the impact on the country of another four years of the Trump presidency. More than a dozen books had been written about the American President and his time in the White House. None of these was complimentary. The most damning one was by his niece, Mary Trump and his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen who was serving time in jail for having lied to Congress about his dealings with his employer. Michael S Schmidt, a Washington-based correspondent for The New York Times , devoted his 2020 book, Donald Trump v. The United States, to lawlessness and chaos brought to the White House. Two men in Schmidt’s account, then FBI-director James B Comey and then White House counsel Donald McGahn, attempted to stop what the author calls “madness in the White House”. They did not try to end Trump’s presidency although Comey provided detailed account to Robert Mueller’s team of the way the president tried to influence some of the investigations the bureau was conducting. However, according to Schmidt, the two were able to keep the democratic system functioning but barely.
In an editorial titled “Four More Years of Mr Trump’s Contempt for Competence would be Catastrophic”, The Washington Post worried about the likely consequences of the President being reelected on November 3. It gave the editorial a subtitle: “Our democracy in peril”. The editorial was published on September 8, the day after the Labour Day, the traditional beginning of the election campaign. The newspaper looked at Trump’s record since he was sworn in as President on January 20, 2017. It didn’t think the President would change his governing philosophy. “President Trump thinks that he knows better than anyone, but not because he actually knows very much. His 2016 campaign was run from the gut, under the explicit rationale that ‘experts are terrible’ and that whatever someone with a degree and years of experience could do in any area government, he could do better relying on instinct. His White House has conducted itself according to this philosophy, to devastating effect.”
How would Pakistan be affected if Trump makes it back to the White House in January 2021 when the man elected on November 3 would be sworn in? I will take up this question in a later article.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2020.
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