Letters From an American

No Big Deal? 213,000 and Counting

No Big Deal? 213,000 and Counting

QUEENS, NY- MAY 11: A funeral home in the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic deals with an excess of recent deaths because of the virus by storing bodies in the chapel and loading them up into a truck to ship to crematoriums and cemeteries on May 11, 2020 in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

October 9, 2020

The major, obvious, in-your-face story of the day is that the president is melting down. He has spent much of the last two days calling in to the Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and ranting in a manic way that suggests he is having trouble with the steroids he is taking for his illness.

In an interview with Rush Limbaugh today, Trump boasted that “our nuclear is all tippy top now,” and said about Iran, “If you f*** around with us, if you do something bad to us, we’re gonna do things to you that have never been done before.” He tweeted that “Obama, Biden, Crooked Hillary and many others got caught in a Treasonous Act of Spying and Government Overthrow, a Criminal Act. How is Biden now allowed to run for President?” This is pure fiction, of course, but his campaign later put it in a fundraising email.

The repercussions from the September 26 event in the Rose Garden celebrating Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court continue to pile up. Today, news broke that a teacher and two students from the school some of Barrett’s children attend have tested positive for coronavirus. This may or may not be related to the White House event, of course, but it increases attention to the irresponsibility of the organizers and attendees of that event.

It doesn’t help that, when interviewed on MSNBC, White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern refused six times to say when Trump had last tested negative for coronavirus, indicating that either he was not regularly being tested — contrary to what the White House said — or he tested positive earlier than the public knows. Today, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged that September 26 White House celebration was a superspreader event.

Trump has backed out of the scheduled October 15 presidential debate because the Commission on Presidential Debates decided to hold it virtually out of concerns about coronavirus. Biden, who was fine with doing the debate virtually, will appear alone in a town hall event on same night.

Although Trump has not yet been cleared for interactions with people again, today the White House announced that Trump has invited 2000 people for a rally on the South Lawn of the White House Saturday — another violation of the Hatch Act, which still matters for all that it seems to be taking a back seat to the issue of the administration’s disregard for public safety. The president will speak to the crowd from a balcony. This “peaceful protest for law & order” is supposed to be the precursor to him returning next week to full-time campaigning.

The president insists he is fine, and that the danger of the coronavirus has been overblown. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention drafted an order for masks on all public transportation, but Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House Coronavirus Task Force, refused even to discuss it. Trump’s reelection pitch is that the coronavirus is not a big deal, and we should just live with it. He told Limbaugh: “People are going to get immediately better like I did. I mean, I feel better now than I did two weeks ago. It’s crazy…. And I recovered immediately, almost immediately.” Today more than 850 Americans died of Covid-19, bringing our official total to more than 213,000.

As their chief is imploding, lots of key Republican players are silent. A number of people who were at the September 26 event have gone off the radar screen, including Attorney General William Barr.

Barr has, though, told top Republicans that the review of the origins of the Russia probe by his own, hand-picked investigator after the Inspector General for the Department of Justice determined the investigation had been begun legitimately and conducted without political bias, will not be out before the election. Barr had been promising the release of the report by US Attorney for the District of Connecticut John Durham in time to sway voters, although such a release ran contrary to DOJ policies.

Last month, top aide to Durham Nora Dannehy resigned from the investigation, allegedly out of concerns about political pressure. The comments of a Republican congressional aide to Axios confirm that this “investigation” was about politics: “This is the nightmare scenario. Essentially, the year and a half of arguably the number one issue for the Republican base is virtually meaningless if this doesn’t happen before the election.”

Congressional Republicans are also wildly silent about the president’s behavior, except for inklings they are distancing themselves from him and focusing on the confirmation of Barrett to the Supreme Court. Even this, though, does not suggest great support for Trump. To the contrary, Republicans appear to be determined to jam her through because they expect Trump to lose the election. Although 59% of Americans think the next president should fill the seat, and although the Senate is ignoring a desperately needed coronavirus relief bill, they are planning to shepherd her through to a seat on the court before November 3.

Today, the second debate between Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was cancelled when Graham refused to take a coronavirus test despite the fact he was exposed to the virus on October 1 at a meeting that included Mike Lee (R-UT) who has since tested positive. Graham is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a positive test would delay the start of the Barrett hearings, slated for Monday.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have asked Graham to postpone the hearing in light of the positive tests of two Republican committee members, Mike Lee (R-UT) and Thom Tillis (R-NC). Concerns about the spread of the disease have made Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recess the Senate until October 19, and the Democrats have noted that “no plausible public health or scientific rationale justifies proceeding with Senate Judiciary Committee hearings next week.”

Americans were already upset over the administration’s handling of the coronavirus and the resulting recession, but the superspreader event and Trump’s manic behavior since have made his polls crumble further. Republican strategist Ken Spain told Sahil Kapur of NBCNews, “The president has had possibly the worst two-week stretch that a candidate could have going in to the final month of an election.”

He appears to be planning to combat his low numbers by spurring his supporters to violence and by rigging the system. Yesterday, he told Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity that Pence’s “best answer” at the vice presidential debate was when he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in January. He is now saying that Biden committed “treason” and “shouldn’t be allowed to run.” His rhetoric is stoking radical fires, as extremists hear his advice to “Stand back and stand by” as a rallying cry.

The president is pushing the idea that, unless he is reelected, the election will be fraudulent, and that he will not accept the results. His campaign says it has recruited 50,000 volunteer poll watchers —polls already have certified watchers from both parties—who seem likely to try to disrupt the election in swing states. Republican leaders have tried to limit voting, with varied success: Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered all Texas counties to have a single ballot drop box (Democratic-leaning Harris County is bigger than the state of Rhode Island), but today, a federal judge ruled against him.

The Trump campaign is also looking the other way as Russia again interferes on his behalf.

In all of this — except the Russia part — Trump looks oddly like President Andrew Johnson, who took over the White House after Abraham Lincoln’s death at the hands of an assassin. Johnson was a former Democrat, and could not stand the idea of the Republican government ending systemic Black enslavement and leveling the playing field among races. He wanted to reclaim the nation for white men. Convinced he was defending America from a mob and that his supporters must retake control of the government in the midterm election of 1866 or the nation was finished, Johnson became increasingly unhinged until he began to compare himself to both the martyred Lincoln and Jesus Christ. He called his congressional opponents traitors who should be executed.

Egged on by the president, white supremacist gangs attacked Black Americans and their white allies, convincing Johnson that his party would sweep the midterms and he would gain control of the government to end Black rights.

Voters heard Johnson, all right. They were horrified by his attacks on the government and the violence he urged. It was an era in which only white men could vote, but even so, they elected to office not Johnson’s white supremacists, but Johnson’s opponents. And they didn’t just elect enough of those reasonable men to control Congress… voters gave them a supermajority.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.