Letters From an American

The Milestone that Nobody Wanted to Reach

The Milestone that Nobody Wanted to Reach

A family walks wearing masks in Downtown Los Angeles on March 22, 2020, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. (Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)

Today, America passed 150,000 deaths from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Covid-19.

America has suffered more than a fifth of the world’s recorded deaths. At TalkingPointsMemo, Josh Marshall likened the US to an abuse victim, its citizens unable to see just how badly we are suffering from the virus because we have come to think “catastrophe feels normal without grasping that in most other countries with a similar set of tools to the United States things really are close to normal.”

Scholars at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security warned that the US “is not currently on course to get control of this epidemic…. It is time to reset.” They call for testing, stay at home orders in places where the disease is spreading, and the mandatory use of masks. The Association of American Medical Colleges warns that if we do not take such steps, deaths could soar “well into the multiple hundreds of thousands.”

And yet, various Republican leaders continue to resist wearing a mask. Today, Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) tested positive for the coronavirus before a flight he was scheduled to take with the president. He assembled his staff members, who are forbidden from wearing a mask, in person, to tell them he had tested positive. He returned to his office at the Capitol, where he lives rather than having accommodations in Washington, D.C., prompting a colleague to demand he find somewhere else to quarantine.

Gohmert was present at yesterday’s House Judiciary Committee meeting, where Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) reprimanded a number of other Republicans for taking off their masks. After Gohmert tested positive, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mandated mask wearing in the House chamber, but a number of Republicans ignored the order.

Against the backdrop of this health catastrophe, the president is running a reelection campaign openly based on racism. This morning, he tweeted “I am happy to inform all the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood…. Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!” This is no longer even coded racial language: the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (AFFH) was explicitly intended to end racial segregation in housing.

Other members of the Republican Party are following Trump’s lead on race, manipulating the images of their Democratic opponents to make them look more stereotypically racialized. Yesterday, Georgia Republican Senator David Perdue had to pull a Facebook advertisement that featured his Jewish opponent, Democrat Ossoff, with a digitally altered face. Tapping into old anti-Semitic tropes, the ad lengthened and widened Ossoff’s nose in an image of him shown over the caption “DEMOCRATS ARE TRYING TO BUY GEORGIA.” Perdue’s campaign spokesman called the ad “an unfortunate and inadvertent error” and blamed it on “an outside vendor.”

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison, is doing something similar, running a Facebook ad in which Harrison’s face has been digitally altered to make his skin appear darker than it is (Harrison is Black). When called on the manipulation, Graham’s campaign accused Harrison of “manufacturing a fake controversy to inject race into this campaign at a time of great turbulence in our country.” Like the Nazi-themed ads from the Trump campaign, the backlash against such an ad provides free news coverage for the Graham campaign. Graham is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in charge of overseeing the appointments of America’s judges.

But for all that Trump seems eager to win reelection, he appears to have little interest in governing. Emergency federal unemployment benefits of $600 a week, designed to help people tossed out of work as the pandemic closed businesses, are running out just as a moratorium on evictions ends. Currently, 31.8 million US workers are collecting those unemployment benefits. The country is on the edge of a catastrophe, but Republican leaders in the Senate have been unable to agree to a new package of aid even amongst themselves, let alone with Democrats.

Apparently frustrated that even Republicans did not want to put $1.75 billion into the package to fund the construction of a new FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., which would keep the site from becoming a hotel that could rival his own, Trump appears to have abandoned the whole process of negotiating a new bill.

As he left Washington for an event in Texas, Trump told reporters that he wants to “send payments to the people,” but as for “the rest of it, we’re so far apart, we don’t care…. We really don’t care.” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters that it seems likely the federal unemployment benefits will lapse. “We’re nowhere close to a deal,” he said.

Instead of focusing on the looming economic crisis, Trump upset members of both parties today when he announced that he would be withdrawing 12,000 troops from Germany. This will remove the troops from a European hub with a sophisticated transportation system that enables them to move quickly, thus countering Russian aggression. Trump claims the removal is retaliation because he says Germany is not paying enough into NATO, but the removal will waste billions of dollars spent recently on upgrading US military installations, and will further weaken NATO, which is a key goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Both the top Democrat and the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee criticized the plan, and almost two dozen Republican members of the committee sent an open letter to the president warning that the step will “significantly damage US national security as well as strengthen the position of Russia to our detriment.” They warned that “signs of a weakened US commitment to NATO will encourage further Russian aggression and opportunism.” They urged him to reject the idea.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commanded the US Army in Europe, said he was “sickened by this decision and explanation. It is not tied to any strategic advantage and in fact is counterproductive to showing strength in Europe.” Admiral Jim Stravidis, the former top military commander in Europe and NATO for the US Navy, said “abruptly pulling 12,500 troops out of Germany (to put half of them in countries who spend LESS on defense) doesn’t make sense financially, hurts NATO solidarity overall, and is a gift to Putin.”

Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), a former Republican presidential nominee agreed: “The plan outlined by the Administration today to remove thousands of US  troops from Germany is a grave error. It is a slap in the face at a friend and ally… and it is a gift to Russia coming at a time when we just have learned of its support for the Taliban and reports of bounties on killing American troops.” Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “champagne must be flowing freely this evening at the Kremlin.”

Trump has spoken at least eight times with Putin since news from US intelligence broke the story that Moscow offered bounties to Taliban-linked fighters to kill U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan. Trump and Putin spoke most recently on Friday; Trump told reporters they did not discuss the Russian bounty scandal. Indeed, the patter of Trump’s favoritism to Russia is so marked that CNN today ran a story listing “37 times Trump was soft on Russia.”

And there is now news of another Russian attack on the US: yesterday US officials said that two people from Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, are behind an effort to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

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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.