by Garry Kasparov
Last Thursday night, President Trump added a new entry to the long list of tests he has failed as the leader of the United States: a COVID-19 test. Trump’s news came as a shock, but not as a surprise. He and his administration have downplayed the seriousness of the virus from the beginning, flouting basic precautions. Even worse, this disregard for the safety of others was itself contagious and spread like wildfire through thousands of Republican officials and millions of supporters across the country. The catastrophic American response to the coronavirus has not been a technical matter, not a lack of expertise or resources. It has been an act of sabotage to pretend that a virus with no vaccine or cure could be bluffed and bullied and wished into submission.
Trump’s bravado has now reaped its consequences in the White House, and positive tests are coming back from all over the administration and among supporters who have been in close contact in recent days. This localized flare-up confirms that one serious preexisting condition for COVID can be foolishness. Perhaps Trump’s inner circle forwent an ambitious federal coronavirus response because they judged it to be worse for blue states and the cities that house the liberals, the poor and the people of color they deem expendable. But in the political demographic, Republican leadership suffers most. Trump will not repay any pity. Should he recover without a serious case, he will happily continue to downplay the disease that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. It’s hopeless to talk about worst-case scenarios in 2020 or with Trump — they both effortlessly surpass every attempt. That said, Trump leaving his sickbed to tout his invulnerability in the final weeks of a presidential campaign is a script that would terrify even Stephen King.
It will also overshadow the many consequential items we were all worried about before Trump announced his diagnosis. This is an effect of the “crisis every day” model of governance that I warned about when Trump was inaugurated. There is no need for a chess master’s strategy or planned distractions when the natural state of the environment around Trump is chaos. It will require tremendous strength to stay focused on what matters most in the coming month — and months, since Trump will stay in power until Jan. 20 even if he loses on Nov. 3. Tuesday’s presidential debate was several years ago at the speed of today’s news cycle, and that suits Trump fine. His blustering aggression was in keeping with his image, a performance that will only satisfy his most ardent fans. Anyone who liked Trump’s debate theatrics already loved him — and loved him for all the reasons he is such a terrible president and terrible person. The egocentricity, the personal attacks, the constant disruptions that even an experienced journalist like Chris Wallace felt helpless to prevent.
As he did throughout his business life and has with the U.S. government itself, Trump shredded the rules and defied anyone to stop him or make him pay a price for doing it. He didn’t care about the impression he made at the time, only to make a few clips that will play well in an endless loop on Fox News. We didn’t learn anything from the debate that we didn’t already know. This isn’t so unusual with modern political debates, but now the trenches are truly dug deeply, and Americans must begin the process of digging out. When political tribalism is so strong, the issues barely matter at all, only my side and your side. The first televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 are notable not just because they famously showcased JFK’s youthful vigor and Nixon’s sweaty makeup job. Their platforms were very different, but they spoke often of how they shared goals for American prosperity and leadership. They differed on the means, but the ends were not much in conflict. Today, that feeling of a shared mission that would include every American is gone. Trump won’t even agree to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose next month — something that coincides ominously with new polls showing more Americans see violence as an acceptable means to achieving political ends, a jump from 8% to 33% in just three years.
Flouting norms and laws is just business as usual for Trump, as his newly revealed tax returns prove. The real scandal wasn’t even the $750 he paid in taxes in 2017, it’s that he’s in so much debt he’s the ideal target of any kind of influence operation, as long suspected. Someone with that much leverage over him and his family shouldn’t be allowed to mow the White House lawn, let alone speak from the Rose Garden. Vladimir Putin, the Saudis and other dictatorships that work like mafias are always on the lookout for vulnerable companies and business owners they can use to launder their looted billions and to gain influence in the free world. Trump’s fawning over Putin and Mohammed bin Salman would make a lot more sense if they own more of his assets than he does.
Meanwhile, Putin is working hard to get Trump reelected, and Trump is, to quote his former national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, “aiding and abetting Putin’s efforts.” That would be a devastating bombshell in any other administration in U.S. history, but in Trumpworld it barely makes the top 10 scandals of the week. Speaking of aiding and abetting, the GOP, the “law and order” party, is content to ignore these daily outrages. They are now preparing to rush through the nomination and confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s choice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. The Republican control of the Senate means they may achieve this, despite their hypocrisy after blocking President Obama’s nominee in the last year of his presidency. The defense by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Ted Cruz and other Trump enablers is that pushing Barrett through at all speed is constitutional. Not that it will reflect the will of the American people, or the traditions surrounding the highest court in the land, but simply that it’s legal.
The Democrats can then counter with their own “constitutional” moves if they take back control of the Senate and the White House, like adding two more seats to the court and appointing liberal justices to restore the balance. As with rushing Barrett through now, this would be legal. And, as with McConnell’s power play, it would be bad for the government and the country, perpetuating a downward cycle of destroying norms in the pursuit of power. Trump is an incompetent buffoon, and could never make any progress without enablers like Cruz and Attorney General Bill Barr. They aren’t ignorant yes-men or brutish ideologues. They channel Trump’s base instincts and vile self-interest into a constitutional framework to suit their own interests. They understand the damage they are doing, and the risk Trump represents; they just don’t care as long as they can benefit from it in the meanwhile.
To avoid a retaliatory race to the bottom, the Democrats should stand on principle now. They should tell McConnell that they will pack the court if he goes through with ramming the Barrett nomination through. They have to say it now, and should boycott the confirmation hearings if McConnell goes forward. Barrett’s qualifications and background are not the issue; it is the legitimacy of the moment and the man nominating her. Senators may have a duty to attend hearings, but their foremost duty is to defend the Constitution to which they swore an oath, not to serve as props in a charade. They should remember what a liberal lion of the court, Justice Earl Warren, once wrote: “It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive.”
Integrity and the spirit of the law matter because you can never put everything in writing. You cannot predict every loophole, every legal angle and challenge to common sense. There must be a place for norms and precedent and the integrity to uphold them in the public interest or we are lost. Yes, we must patch up the cracks and codify the customs and standards Trump has trampled, but that is not enough. Even repudiating Trump overwhelmingly at the polls will not be enough unless we deter those who would follow in his demagogue’s footsteps. That this White House and its congressional GOP enablers don’t believe in science has now been verified beyond any doubt. But I’m even more concerned about their lack of belief in the rule of law and integrity in American government. The health of American democracy is of far greater consequence than the health of Donald Trump.
Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative.