[Information learned after posting has been added at end.]
During the run-up to the First Gulf War, when the U. S. led an international coalition to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in 1990, James Baker advised George H. W. Bush that he could ignore the disfavor his rescue of Kuwait might arouse among America’s Jews, because “they don’t vote for us anyway.” Although the Secretary of State’s cynical attitude addressed only Jewish Americans at that time, now, under Donald Trump, the Republican category of despised others has expanded to marginalize all minorities, especially when they tend to be Democrats.
It is interesting that Trump never or rarely refers to people of color as such, which is hardly remarkable for someone who made his reputation ridiculing political correctness. “People of color” (a term of art, it would seem, used only by academics, journalists, and other elites Trump scorns) belong to the groups Trump wants to send back to what he calls “the shithole countries.” They are brown and black, Muslim, and female. And opponents — those he terms “low IQ,” “horrible,” “weak,” “nasty.” They are “animals.”
President Trump and his supporters seek to diminish these people they despise. Exploiting the well worn dog whistles of populism, he charms his base using his and their racism to assure them that, being white, they are superior to these “others,” the people Trump calls “losers.” By this strategy, he seeks to boost the ego and consolidate the in-group bonding of stereotypical white Americans – especially those left unemployed by globalization (exporting jobs), affirmative action (they think), and every other current in the present culture they don’t like: women’s reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, religions other than their own (all religions but one being evil), and recipients of public funding, like everyone who receives food stamps or Medicaid or any other “handouts” to “parasites.” This is the classic strategy of the ruling class: divide and conquer. They flatter underpaid, under-educated whites, who also lack adequate medical insurance, with the illusion that they are superior to equally persecuted people of color to prevent an alliance that would be irresistible. It must be a thrill to hear them complain, as Arlie Hochschild reports (Strangers in Their Own Land, 221), “There are fewer and fewer white Christians like us.”
Because that strategy has worked so well, now the ruling class has only to prevent people of color and their liberal allies from voting. Trump made this goal explicit on March 30, when he said on Fox news that high levels of voting (not just mail in, but all voting) would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” This strategy builds on long-standing gimmicks dating back to the Jim Crow South that have now spread wherever Republicans control the statehouse: have fewer polling places in strategically chosen areas (inner-city zip codes), limit the hours polls are open, restrict early voting, enforce voter ID laws with abusive strictness. If citizens wish to vote from home, cripple the postal service to prevent voting by mail — or try to.
These measures are shocking enough because they so clearly attack democracy, but the appearance of the coronavirus gave this unscrupulous, vindictive, authoritarian bully of a president a new opportunity. He chose to downplay the virus and allowed it to hit those already exploited, vulnerable populations. As early as April 12, 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that in Michigan, “Some 14 percent of Michiganders are African-American, yet more than 40 percent of COVID-19 related deaths in Michigan are African Americans.” It was not only Democratic governors who made this analysis. A story in the Wall Street Journal of April 8, 2020, had already observed the problem as big-city mayors began to take action. In another Journal article of April 22, 2020, Dr. Lauren Weber of Meharry Medical College analyzes the causes of this situation: those people disproportionately dying from the virus live in multi-generational households, hold essential jobs that put them in close contact with many others. They are more prone than whites to have underlying conditions that derive from the environments in which their poverty forces them to live (in crowded, urban areas, near polluted, industrial zones, or, even in the country, near the open air lagoons of factory farms). The same holds for whites who live in similar circumstances, but Blacks live there in disproportionate numbers. If essential workers were paid a living wage, this situation would change. Given the erratic, state-by-state implementation of Medicaid, the availability of health insurance falls unevenly on people of color. The Kaiser Family Foundation has published a graph detailing the “Percent of Nonelderly Adults who are Uninsured, by Race/Ethnicity, 2014.” Of the nonelderly adults with no medical insurance, 11% are white, 16% are Black, and 27% are Hispanic. So, even if these patients recover from a bout of Covid-19, they will not be able to handle the resultant medical bills. The inequity that these figures make predictable continued for at least four months. As of August 8, 2020, adjusting for age difference in race groups, 3.6 times more Blacks and 3.2 times more Hispanics have died, nationwide, than whites. Moreover, the absolute numbers (as opposed to ratios) are astonishing. Between April 15 and August 15, 2020, Covid-19 infected 4,726,003 and killed 141,386 Americans. The chronology here is vital. By mid-April at the latest, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic was clear. If outsize harm, especially for the most vulnerable, was to be averted, immediate action was needed.
WHAT ACTION? TESTS!
The dangers deriving from the novelty of this unknown virus were apparent early on. Some early tests used in China were inaccurate up to 47% of the time, but even in this country, even now, the tests are inadequate in number, in reply time, and in accuracy. Supplies such as swabs for collecting samples have been in short supply. Chemical ingredients have been impure. Given the resulting disorder, only patients with symptoms could get tested. Tragically, though, infected people do not manifest symptoms until about the fourth day, so they could still transmit their disease before their illness manifested itself. In crowded conditions, these circumstances were a recipe for great suffering and, indeed, death. In July the CDC circulated a paper by Le Chang, et al., based in Beijing with this advice: “As more asymptomatic cases occur, screening donors for viral RNA with high-sensitivity assays, as we are doing in Hubei Province, will be critical to ensure blood safety.” That means testing even people with no symptoms. In China, they began that policy by January 25, according to these authors. Drawing on information from Johns Hopkins University, as early as March 9, the Wall Street Journal explained the problem of asymptomatic incubation periods and the need for quarantines. These facts make extensive testing imperative. The need was clear by mid-March at the latest. In this country it was not done.
The disadvantages people of color endure make them likely to vote Democratic. 83% of Blacks, 63% of Hispanic voters are or lean Democratic, whereas, among whites, 53% are or lean Republican and 42% Democratic. That is one reason President Trump has ordered the U. S. Census takers to end their data collection a month early. If there are “fewer” of them, they will have less representation. It would also follow that, as Reuters put it on August 13, Trump used (or tried to use) the new coronavirus relief bill to block “Democrats’ effort to include funds for the U.S. Postal Service and election infrastructure” and so “to block more Americans from voting by mail during the pandemic.” The two policies reinforce one another:
REDUCE THEIR VOTE, REDUCE THEIR NUMBER.
Given the evident inequity that afflicts our most vulnerable populations, Trump’s despised losers and Democrats, it is hardly surprising that he offered no comprehensive initiative to combat the infection’s spread. Neither Donald Trump nor Howard Baker is the first Republican strategist to aim at a given minority group. In 1981, when describing Richard Nixon’s famed “Southern Strategy,” Lee Atwater, an advisor to Ronald Reagan and chair of the RNC under George H. W. Bush, approved abandoning explicit use of the N-word in shaping policy and instead recommended more neutral-seeming measures such as cutting taxes: “economic things, and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Trump also had his own priorities. In order to allow business to continue as usual and avert the economic costs of sheltering in place, and because he thought its predictions were too negative and its scientific judgments contradicted his own intuitions, Trump purged scientists he considered disloyal to him and effectively crippled the CDC. In this weakened state, the CDC now proposes measures not as mandates but only as “recommendations” because they are contrary to Trump’s dream of a smoothly functioning economy not distracted by the health needs of the population. Besides, the racial minorities or ethnic groups disproportionately affected by the virus generally vote for his opponents. So Trump continued to ignore the virus or deliberately underestimate its impact. “It’s just like the flu.” “It will just disappear.” He offered no centralized, federal plan to distribute needed equipment (testing supplies, respirators, PPE). He allowed the pandemic to spread knowing it would disproportionately impact people of color, his target. This calculated policy of inaction during the first 6 months of the virus’s presence in the U. S. was achieving the desired result:
REDUCE THEIR VOTE, REDUCE THEIR NUMBER.
Here are the measures the Trump administration took or deliberately did not take with devastating disregard to the injury that would follow. He withdrew from international organizations, thus reducing the extent of global scientific cooperation. He left the American seat on the World Health Organization’s executive board vacant until May, 2020, when that “lapse” became too embarrassing. He removed “disloyal” staff from CDC. He dismantled “The Global Health Security and Biodefense Unit” in charge of national pandemic preparedness set up under Obama by Susan Rice as part of the National Security Council. And, as the keystone of his efforts to expose the very poor and unemployed to whatever illness might strike them, Trump dismantled Obamacare, as far as he was able. He has encouraged or pressured Republican governors (Abbot, DeSantis, Doucey, Edwards, Kemp, for example) not to order their states to wear masks, practice social distancing, and close businesses like bars and restaurants that involve close personal contact. He has actively opposed the expansion of diagnostic tests because he thinks tests embarrass him by revealing cases. Consistent with his xenophobia, Trump’s bans on immigration have deprived us of health caregivers. “The Trump administration’s policies have exacerbated the problem by reducing the influx of immigrants, who make up a quarter of long-term caregivers.” This goes with a neglect of public health administration because, as Ed Yong puts it, Americans view “health as a matter of personal responsibility rather than a collective good.” Indeed the Republican scorn for the word “public” feeds into this prejudice, as does the belief that the government should be as small as possible. These attitudes call for budget cuts and the reduction of staff responsible for public health. The reasons for these disparities follow from other policies favored by Trump and the Republicans. Don’t just scorn them, let them die. “They don’t vote for us anyway.”
How can people like those in Trump’s base, who object fiercely, on grounds of conscience, to being forced into complicity (through government payments for medical care that funds birth control and abortion) force us into complicity, against our conscience, with a policy that causes disease, suffering, unknown long-term consequences, and death for their living fellow citizens? Trump and his faithful accuse us of “cancel culture” for removing statues while he himself tries to cancel segments of our population. Our military proudly displays its promise to “leave no one behind” and heroically rescues those in trouble. We might expect this ethical system to spread and benefit all Americans, but rather than “leave no one behind,” we get efforts to “push them behind,” with the weight of the administration, like the knee of Derek Chauvin on the neck of George Floyd, to hold down persons of color, women, liberals, Democrats, and all those despised “others.” Some ascribe this indifference to Trump’s callousness, his lack of empathy. These results, they say, are indirect, collateral damage resulting from his obsession with the economy to the neglect, as the Constitution puts it, of “the general welfare.” That analysis is inadequate. We all navigate between the pursuit of health and wealth, but Trump places the wealth of a few over the health of the many. This is not just negligence. Remember how Trump advised police not to be “too nice” to suspects as they arrest them; not to bother shielding their heads as they put them into squad cars? In our country, arrestees, suspects, are innocent until proven guilty. No harm should come to them until sentenced by a jury of their peers. Given the racial makeup of police arrests in this country, winking at rough treatment encourages it. There is a word for this de facto, systematic mistreatment of large populations. I hate to pronounce or even write it, because it is happening in my own country. Before the coronavirus, it was “merely” persecution. Now, with widespread death in the picture, it is more than criminal neglect. It is genocide. OK, maybe only murder.
Update 1. August 23, 2020. As many as 215,000 more people than usual died in the U.S. during the first seven months of 2020, suggesting that the number of lives lost to the coronavirus is significantly higher than the official toll. And half the dead were people of color—Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and, to a marked degree unrecognized until now, Asian Americans. . . . People of color make up just under 40 percent of the U.S. population but accounted for approximately 52 percent of all the “excess deaths” above normal through July, according to an analysis by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press.
Update 2. August 29, 2020. In testimony first before the Senate and then the House, on August 21 and 24th respectively, Donald Trump’s new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, promised that changes he wishes to effectuate in running the USPS would not be implemented until after the election. Today, however, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Lauren Hernandez reports that 6 mailboxes have been removed from their accustomed places in downtown Oakland. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports even more systematically distributed issues in its metropolitan area.
Update 3. Sept. 5, 2020. Paul Weyrich, key political advisor to Republicans, founder of the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and, with Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, clearly understood the need for voter suppression. He had this to say: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down. ” Not “voters,” but “voting populace.”
Update 4. Sept. 9, 2020. Donald Trump’s taped interviews with Bob Woodward, revealed an hour ago, establish that, by February 4, the President was fully cognizant of the danger the virus posed. Already then he understood the implication of its being airborne. This shift in chronology is crucial. The longer he knew and the clearer his knowledge, the more deliberate his inaction and the more certainly he is guilty of murder by omission.