Donald Trump's herd immunity: Who's the real "enemy of the people"?

It's clearer than ever that Trump was happy to see people die. His assault on public health can't be forgotten

By Chauncey DeVega
December 18, 2020 12:00PM (UTC)
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Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Coronavirus fascism has forced a new clarity of vision on the American people.

For those Americans who choose to see more clearly, the following truths cannot be reasonably denied: Today's Republican Party and the right-wing movement more generally are the greatest threat to America and the world's safety, security and survival today. In fact, Trump and the Republican Party do not care if the American people live or die.

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However horrible an authoritarian's public behavior is, what is revealed after their regime is removed from power will be even worse. In that light a new report from Politico about the Trump regime's philosophy of coronavirus "democide" — under the euphemism "herd immunity" — should not in any way be a surprise. Cruelty is the norm for authoritarians, autocrats and fascists.  

Dan Diamond reports for Politico on the Trump appointee at Health and Human Services who vigorously argued for allowing "millions of Americans to be infected" by the coronavirus:

"There is no other way, we need to establish herd [immunity], and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD," then-science adviser Paul Alexander wrote on July 4 to his boss, Health and Human Services assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo, and six other senior officials.

"Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk … so we use them to develop herd. … We want them infected …" Alexander added.

"[I]t may be that it will be best if we open up and flood the zone and let the kids and young folk get infected" in order to get "natural immunity … natural exposure," Alexander wrote on July 24 to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Caputo and eight other senior officials. Caputo subsequently asked Alexander to research the idea, according to emails obtained by the House Oversight Committee's select subcommittee on coronavirus.

Alexander was not a peripheral figure in the Trump regime. Diamond describes him as, "a top deputy of Caputo," personally installed by Trump in April to lead communications efforts at HHS. Officials told Politico they believed that Alexander had the backing of the White House: 

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"It was understood that he spoke for Michael Caputo, who spoke for the White House," said Kyle McGowan, a Trump appointee who was CDC chief of staff before leaving this summer. "That's how they wanted it to be perceived."

Of course, the Trump regime could not resist its racist compulsions, in this case a willingness to sacrifice the lives of nonwhite people in an effort to bolster Trump's re-election campaign. Alexander "spent months attacking government scientists and pushing to shape official statements" to favor Trump. In May, he reportedly described a CDC draft statement on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on nonwhite people as "very accurate," but then cautioned that "in this election cycle that is the kind of statement coming from CDC that the media and Democrat [sic] antagonists will use against the president."

What cannot be lost or forgotten is that Alexander's commands were part of a larger strategy motivated first and foremost by Trump's authoritarianism impulses, and by an associated desire to see his political enemies suffer and even die. The Trump regime also sabotaged and otherwise interfered with coronavirus relief efforts for major American cities with large populations of Democrats and nonwhite people.

On its own, the Trump regime's democidal attacks on the American people through "herd immunity," and the lies and machinations intended to conceal that policy, are a crime against humanity. Beyond the immediate outrage, the Trump regime's efforts must also be seen in the broader context of lethal behavior by Republicans and the right-wing movement as a whole.

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Across a range of issues, from gun safety to the environment, racism, the death penalty, the social safety net and public health, and worsening social and economic inequality, the Republican Party has for decades advanced policies that cause literal death and harm to the American people. Despite its hypocritical language about reproductive rights, the Republican Party is effectively anti-life.

Dr. James Gilligan details the partisan connections between public policy and violent deaths from suicide and murder in his book "Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others." Here is one striking passage:

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[E]ach party and each administration can be seen as a package containing many different ingredients, some toxic and some salubrious for public health, social and mental (as measured by rates of suicide and homicide), just as cigarettes are a package containing a variety of ingredients that add to their lethality, and regular exercise is a package containing a variety of ingredients that prolong life. The implications of the research reported here for American politics is rather stark: the Republican Party functions as a risk factor for lethal violence and the Democratic Party functions as a protective factor. … And since the two parties have diametrically opposed effects on the rates of lethal violence, the choice between electing Republicans and Democrats to the White House is a choice between life and death, and not just one death but thousands of them, year after year.

In the Trump era, the right-wing movement has taken this politics of death to the extreme. Trump and his allies repeatedly encourage lethal political violence against Democrats, liberals, progressives, nonwhite people, and others deemed to be their enemies. Trump's agents, allies, and supporters are nearly a literal death cult, willing to sacrifice the lives of the American people on the altar of capitalism and "the economy."

The Trump regime's economic policies during the pandemic have further siphoned resources away from the commons, the general welfare and the American people upward to the richest individuals and corporations. While the American people are enduring a wave of death, economic immiseration and human destruction, Trump and the rest of the plutocrat class have become wealthier and more powerful than they were before the pandemic began. As decades of research shows, wealth and income do not "trickle down" to the rest of society. Instead, extreme wealth and income inequality diminishes life opportunities — and the literal lives — of the American people.

With knowledge comes the ability to organize and resist, with the goal of holding elites responsible and making a more democratic, free and humane society. To that end, the American people must educate themselves about the vast scale of the right-wing movement's campaign against their health, safety, security and prosperity.

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The American people will need to internalize concepts such as "necropolitics" (the literal politics of death, in which the state decides which individuals and groups live or die); "pathocracy" (the idea that American culture is unhealthy on a fundamental level, which generates antisocial behavior among the public as a whole and empowers dangerous leaders like Donald Trump); "the culture of cruelty" (an interlocking system of institutional power relationships and norms that create human misery across society); and "gangster capitalism" (neoliberalism), which prioritizes profits over people.

In all, the American people need a vocabulary of resistance to take what they know instinctively to be wrong and then to translate that understanding and energy into collective action.

*  *  *

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President-elect Joe Biden is continuing with his pleas for "unity," urging Americans to "come together" and "move forward" as a nation after the Trump nightmare ends. Beyond the absurd demand that his voters and other decent Americans should embrace Trump's deplorables, Biden may even include some Republicans in his administration to show "middle America" that their concerns are being "heard." 

In too many ways, Biden is choosing to back away from the confrontation that is required to force a national reckoning with the evils of Trumpism and the harm it caused America. At a minimum, there should be a truth commission and public hearings to expose the Trump regime's crimes. If merited, Trump himself and other members of his regime should face criminal prosecution.

Unfortunately, if Donald Trump's misdeeds, and those of his inner circle, are never confronted directly, it is all but inevitable that a more dangerous American fascist will rise to power. Every era faces world-historical events, turning points in history. Joe Biden's presidency, at this intersection with the Age of Trump, is one such moment. Biden can choose to lead or choose to be dragged along by the toxic currents of our time. To behave as if Donald Trump's criminal regime should face no accountability is to choose the latter path — one that does not end well for Joe Biden's presidency or America's future.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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