The world and an ailing American president

On virtually every front Trump has embraced “denialism” as if wishing problems away was a substitute for policy action

Shahid Javed Burki October 12, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

I have written before on how economic and political developments in the United States affect the rest of the world. This is the case in particular for countries such as Pakistan because of their geographic location. Pakistan is located in an area that is in extreme turmoil. This is not just in Afghanistan but also in India and the Middle East. Under Donald J Trump, America’s 45th president, Washington has moved itself in a position from which it resents and opposes the rise of China as a major economic, political and military power. First, his open hostility towards Pakistan and now indifference towards the country has pushed Islamabad into China’s orbit. But there are other developments. I write this as the Afghan government headed by President Ashraf Ghani is engaged in negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban. The aim of this deal would be to decide on a power-sharing system of governance that would bring together the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups.

But the uncertainties surrounding these events were compounded by the handling of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic by the US President. The US moves closer to the elections scheduled to be held on November 3, at which the voters will decide whether to give another term to the incumbent Donald Trump or reject him and elect Joseph Biden, the Democrat. It is difficult to say how the outcome would be influenced by Trump’s three-day stay at the Walter Reed Hospital, an army-operated facility, about a dozen miles from the White House. He was helicoptered to the facility on October 2. He had then tested positive for Covid-19, a disease caused by coronavirus that by then had claimed more than 210,000 American lives and infected well over a million people in the country.

In the campaign to-date, Trump has moved further to the right embracing white extremist groups such as QAnon and Proud Boys. His government had issued orders that officials should not undertake racial-sensitivity training that, he said at the first debate with the Democrat Biden, teaches people to “hate our country” and he is “not going to allow that”. He seemed to have overruled his doctors and ordered that he should be released from the hospital. That happened on the evening of October 5. His first action on re-entering the White House was to remove his face mask and start mingling with the staff that was waiting for his return. His behaviour was erratic. He wanted to work from the Oval Office but his handlers prevented him from leaving the living area. He also sent a tweet, one of the 50 he wrote, telling his lieutenants not to negotiate a deal with the Democrats to provide fiscal stimulus to the economy. That should be done when “I win in November”. The financial markets were worried about the way the President was acting. Dow Jones Industrial average lost 600 points upon reading Trump’s tweets.

On virtually every front Trump has embraced “denialism” as if wishing problems away was a substitute for policy action, said Richard Hass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who had served several Republican presidents. “The denialism is a pattern. It is pervasive. And also the fear that all this is not limited to Trump but reflects how this country has not just changed, but changed for the worse.” The American people “have put their security in our hands and they are questioning that wisdom, at the same moment that our adversaries see us divided and distracted,” wrote Hass. He had arrived at these conclusions after Trump won the presidency in November 2016 and expressed them in a book, The World: A Brief Introduction.

On October 7, The New York Times wrote a long editorial endorsing Biden for the presidency. “When they go to the polls this year, voters aren’t just choosing a president. They are deciding what America will be,” wrote the editorial board of the newspaper in its endorsement of Biden. The voters will be “deciding whether they favour the rule of law, how the government will help them weather the greatest economic calamity in generations, whether they want government to enable everyone to have access to healthcare, whether they consider global warming a serious threat, whether they believe that racism should be treated as a public policy problem”. The editorial implied that all this would not happen if voters sent Trump back to the White House.

There were several other commentators who had serious reservations about the way Trump had governed. They were worried about what the November elections might produce for the US. One of them was Bret Stephens, a columnist for The New York Times. The day the President returned to the White House, the newspaper carried a powerful and angry column authored by him. “We wish him well because doing otherwise would bring us down to his level — the victory that, among his fervent loyalists and angriest critics, he has largely gained. The goal of the Trump project is the diminishment of moral expectations and the debasement of public norms. For his enemies to wish him dead would be his ultimate vindication.”

Back in the living quarters of the White House, he seemed to have spent most of October 6 producing a spate of tweets, 50 in all. A number of these defied rationality. One of them was labeled “Not Correct” by Twitter, in which he had suggested that Covid-19 as a disease was not more serious than the annual flu. Several people who watched Trump behaving in the day he came back from the military hospital wondered whether he was acting under the influence of a powerful steroid he had been administered. The virus continued to take its toll on including those who were close to Trump.

The day the President came back to the White House it was announced that Stephen Miller, his senior advisor, had tested positive for Covid-19. Miller was responsible for a number of moves by the Trump presidency aimed at “Making America Great Again” by keeping the country white and Christian. He had drafted the presidential order that banned the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries. He was behind the move to keep out Central Americans from coming into the US to escape violence in their own countries. He had adopted the policy of separating children from their parents while the long process of granting asylum worked its way through the complicated system. He had Trump reduce the number of refugees allowed into the country even when they had risked their lives to help American troops in places such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Under Trump, America had become less caring and more unkind. It is clear that the world would need to hold its breadth while the US approaches November 3, 2020. Even the loyal Republican Party seemed to be unraveling. According to presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, the members of the party are “seeking to rid themselves of Trump at this juncture but realize they can’t quite yet. But they know that his name is no longer kinetic on the campaign trail”.



Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2020.

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