Donald Trump is bored of the coronavirus and already has his sights on the forthcoming US election

Can you really blame Trump for being bored of governing a country paralysed by an 'invisible enemy', as he so succinctly put it, and being unable to keep the engines of the US economy running?

Karan Pradhan April 23, 2020 15:38:41 IST
Donald Trump is bored of the coronavirus and already has his sights on the forthcoming US election

Immigration, China and Iran.

It wouldn't be an election year in the US — particularly one in which Donald Trump is an active participant — if these three topics were not being discussed or in the news, at the very least. Over the course of this week, Trump has broached all three topics in one manner or another. The common thread being that all three topics were tackled with the president's trademark aggression and political tone-deafness.

It all began on Monday when he announced that he would be signing an Executive Order to "temporarily suspend immigration" into the US — a threat on which he made good two days later. News then trickled in on Wednesday that US warships had entered disputed waters in the South China Sea — a move whose purpose, never mind efficacy, must be questioned under present circumstances. A few hours later came Trump's orders to the US Navy "to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea".

In 2016, Trump would use each pillar of his election campaign to hit out at Hillary Clinton. But this is 2020 and 'Crooked Hillary' has long since fallen by the wayside. Accordingly, and in her stead, there's 'Sleepy' Joe Biden at whom Trump can lash out.

On Iran:

And on China:

To go into the merits (or lack thereof) of Trump's decisions and related criticisms of Biden would take far too long, and more pertinently, be counterproductive to the broader point, so let's move on.

Coronavirus fatigue

After initially underestimating the coronavirus and even going as far as to call it a 'hoax' on a number of occasions, Trump claimed China had it under control towards the end of January. Over a fortnight later he expressed an equal amount of confidence that the April heat would kill off COVID-19 . It became apparent soon into the US outbreak of COVID-19 that the president wasn't overly enthusiastic about tackling the pandemic himself — handing, as he did, the reins of the coronavirus task force to Vice-President Mike Pence towards the end of February.

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File image of Donald Trump. AP

Shortly after, the president went off in search of a quick solution to this predicament. Reports emerged in mid-March of the Trump administration trying to get a German pharmaceutical firm to sell the US a vaccine that would be used exclusively by Americans. A few weeks later, and in search of another ready fix, Trump attempted to muscle India into lifting its ban on exports of certain medical equipment and drugs, and export hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to the US or "there may be retaliation; why wouldn't there be?".

The president even tried to resort to his trusty 'When in doubt, blame Barack Obama' tactic, but in vain. As this Washington Post piece points out, he didn't stop at Obama, blaming China, past presidents, governors, the media, hospitals and General Motors for the mess in which the US presently finds itself. Yet, COVID-19 remains far from cured. What's a guy to do when he's run out of people to blame? Cut funding to world bodies, that's what. And that's precisely what Trump did when he announced that the US would no longer be contributing money to the World Health Organisation.

The president's also been busy launching a programme to 'reopen' America, casting aspersions on the need for the US to be locked down and even sacking the director of the Department of Health and Human Services' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) Dr Rick Bright for critiquing the administration's decision to pursue HCQ without rigorous vetting. Incidentally, Bright — who was also removed as deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response — had referred to HCQ as one of those "potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections".

Now, with Trump supporters losing their patience and protesting the lockdown across the US, it appears even the president is weary of all this COVID-19 business and keen to look ahead to the election.

Anything but this

And can you really blame Trump for being bored of governing a country paralysed by an 'invisible enemy', as he so succinctly put it, and being unable to keep the engines of the US economy running? Some might even say it's an attack on him and his country. In fact, never mind 'some', because that's exactly what Trump said on Wednesday. "We were attacked. This was an attack. This wasn't just the flu by the way. Nobody has ever seen anything like this, 1917 was the last time," said the president at his daily briefing.

What a difference roughly six weeks make. On 9 March, at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, he was quoted as saying, "I like this stuff [medical science]. I really get it... People are really surprised I understand this stuff... Every one of these doctors said, 'How do you know so much about this?' Maybe I have a natural ability." The US had then reported just over 300 confirmed cases. At the time of writing, the US is staring at over 850,000 COVID-19 cases (with 77,210 recoveries) and 47,750 deaths.

No world leader enjoys dealing with a pandemic, but Trump appears more unwilling than most to engage with it. That he is calling for the states of Virginia, Minnesota and Michigan to be 'liberated' and defending people inexplicably protesting the lockdown makes one wonder if he 'really gets it' at all. The real estate tycoon-turned-politician is happiest when dealing with a human adversary — cracking a deal here, walking out of another there, a bit of sabre-rattling today, power handshakes and reconciliation tomorrow, and a bit of name-calling every now and then. But how do you do that to a virus?

In fact, it appears he's willing to do anything, even threaten to engage with Beijing and Tehran militarily, just to break the monotony. It's a different issue entirely that the US will not fire on Iranian gunboats unless hostile intent is perceived and that its warships will most certainly not taken on aggressive postures in waters claimed by China.

A keen eye on November... or later

It is as-yet-unclear whether the US election will, in fact, be held on 3 November. CDC director Robert Redfield told The Washington Post, "There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through... We're going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time." Unwilling or unable to fathom having to deal with this COVID-19 stuff for that long, Trump ordered Redfield to clarify (Read: walk back) his remarks — something the CDC director did not do, at least to the extent the president wanted.

The timing of the coronavirus outbreak meant that the Biden-Bernie Sanders showdown for top billing on the Democrat ticket ended in a damp squib, with the latter pulling out of the race and later, throwing his support behind the former vice-president. It also meant that neither he nor Trump has been able to embark on rallies across the nation. And now it looks like the campaign trail might find itself further compromised by the pesky pandemic. However, this week's developments show that this hasn't hampered the president's reelection efforts as much as one would imagine.

By bringing the topics of immigration, China and Iran into the conversation, Trump is keeping his key voter base well-fed with the sort of rhetoric that prompted it to opt for him four years ago. Aside from positioning his recklessness on social distancing as a virtuous effort to rebuild what he describes as "the greatest economy in the history of the world... Better than China, better than any place", Trump is using coronavirus -induced unemployment as an excellent reason to keep out immigrants. While China has never really dropped out of the picture — mostly because it's impossible to keep it out anymore, he's also resuscitating the old boogeyman Iran that had briefly dropped off the radar.

It's hard to rule out Trump going after India on trade, Japan and NATO on protection money and even Kim Jong-un, should the North Korean leader re-emerge, to ratchet up more support for the eventual election. But, just what sort of country (and in what shape) he'll be courting for votes come November remains to be seen, particularly if he doesn't snap out of his coronavirus ennui.

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