Trump is using the pandemic to wage partisan civil war — but red states will suffer too

Trump has changed his tone, for the moment — but the damage he's done to American unity will be lasting

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published March 31, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | An Infographic of the Electoral vote breakdown from the 2016 Presidential Election (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Donald Trump | An Infographic of the Electoral vote breakdown from the 2016 Presidential Election (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

The number of deaths in the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. will soon exceed the number killed in the 9/11 attacks, and we're just past 10 weeks since the nation's first confirmed case of the new virus. This deadly pathogen is one of the gravest national threats in a century, and it is now clear that Donald Trump is not only ill-equipped to handle the crisis — he's gone out of his way to exacerbate its devastation. 

While the president has recently assumed a warlike stance in his rhetoric about the coronavirus, when identifying the enemy he seems to have confused it for his countrymen. From his continued partisan sniping with Democratic governors in need of life-saving assistance to his off-the-cuff suggestion that medical health professionals who risk their lives to save others are thieves, Trump has declared war on us — or at least on some of us. 

At first blush, it appeared that Trump was simply applying his petty politics of revenge to the pandemic. A week later, there is little doubt. 

"When they disrespect me, they're disrespecting our government," Trump said Sunday of governors who had been critical of his lagging response. "I want them to be appreciative," he said days earlier, explaining why some states had gone ignored by the White House, potentially endangering the lives of millions of people, because their governors failed to adequately grovel. 

Thursday night, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called for tens of thousands of ventilators, Trump dismissed his request in an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity. "I don't believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators," Trump claimed. He repeated his baseless assurance on "Fox & Friends" Monday morning. "New York should be fine. Based on the numbers that we see, they have more than enough," he said.

By contrast, after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, complained in a call to Trump that a company based in the swing state had invented a machine to sterilize up to 160,000 N95 masks per day but was only approved by the FDA to handle 10,000 per day, Trump vowed on Sunday to cut the bureaucratic red tape. 

Trump's pattern of ignoring blue-state Democrats who complain but making promises to GOP governors in swing states is not only a matter of picking winners and losers in the middle of a pandemic, it threatens the very concept of what it means to be the United States of America. 

More than merely making a pandemic innumerably worse to "own the libs," we have a president for whom withholding life-saving ventilators to help win an election is within the realm of possibility. He is already threatening the power of the federal government as leverage to consolidate his own power and enforcing policies, like bidding wars for medical necessities, that promote the dissolution of unity between the states. So much for being at war. Imagine a modern general making the front line divisions bid against each other for supplies.

Yet Trump maintains support from his troops. Ultimately, their fidelity may prove most deadly. 

Although 21 governors across the country have issued some form of stay-at-home order, several Republican governors are abdicating their duties to protect their citizens, going so far as to force municipal leaders to make dangerous decisions so as not to risk scorn from Trump — and to endanger corporate contributions to their campaigns.

After South Carolina's Republican Gov. Henry McMaster declined to impose stay-at-home regulations statewide, the state's attorney general issued an opinion stating that "local government cannot exercise the emergency powers delegated to the Governor by the General Assembly." The move effectively overturned local measures meant to delay the spread of the virus. 

Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued some of the lightest restrictions in the country and overtly pushed back against a broad shelter-in-place order, all while imposing a half-baked travel ban on people from the New York area, a move replicated by Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. 

"Y'all, we are not Louisiana, we are not New York State, we are not California," Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said on Thursday, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. "Right now is not the time to order people to shelter in place." Less than 24 hours later, Ivey backtracked on her resistance as the rate of infection soared in her state by an average of 32%. 

Trump appears to be backtracking as well, and that's the good news. After first severely downplaying the threat by calling it a Democratic "hoax" then spreading deadly misinformation about it — as when he falsely claimed to have the virus under "control" and said the number of U.S. cases would go "down, not up" — Trump appears to have finally come to grips with the grim reality. He walked back his suggestion that the U.S. will be free from social distancing guidelines by Easter Sunday, extending the lockdown guidance until the end of April instead, and dropped his idea to quarantine on a county-by-county basis. 

"We felt that if we prematurely pulled back, we would only form an acceleration or rebound ... which would put you behind where you were before, and that's a reason why we argued strongly with the president that he not withdraw those guidelines," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN's "New Day."

"And he did listen," Fauci added.

So it comes to this: Hoping that an actual expert is the last voice in the room left with Donald Trump. 

It's worth noting that while the president is prematurely congratulating himself for only 200,000 potential deaths, the overall death toll is far below the rate of hospitalization, primarily because of aggressive medical care. What happens when Mississippi, Alabama or South Carolina, all cash-strapped red states that have seen rural hospitals decimated in recent years, inevitably receive defective machines from the stockpile meant for less gracious blue states? Right now many of those states are willfully ignoring social distancing restrictions that would slow the disease. That just reinforces the need for outside help — for instance, the kind of coordinated federal response that the United States of America can provide. Those Republican governors can return to non-ironic screaming about welfare and big government after this pandemic passes.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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