United States: Pandemic and politics

Lack of clarity among US leaders about how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic has led to some rallies calling for the end of quarantine measures. Photo: Becker1999/CC BY 2.0

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a marked impact on the 2020 election campaign in the United States.

Democratic Presidential nominee Bernie Sanders was forced to stop campaigning when large mass rallies — his main campaign vehicles — could not be held.

Sanders had hoped to win more delegates to the Democratic convention in the remaining primaries, even though his competitor Joe Biden had moved decisively ahead in early March with the party establishment's backing.

But the remaining primaries were postponed by the Democratic establishment to June due to the virus. It remains to be seen if they will even be held then. The Democratic Convention was postponed from July to August.

There was one exception, Wisconsin, where there was a bizarre development. The state Democrats wanted to postpone their primary to June. But the state Republicans, who have a majority in the state legislature, ruled that the primary had to be held as scheduled.

The Democrats appealed to the state Supreme Court where they were overruled by the Republican majority. They then appealed to the national Supreme Court, where the Trumpist majority overruled them again.

After cancelling his campaign, Sanders endorsed Biden, who is now the presumed Democratic candidate to oppose Donald Trump in November.

Biden, however, is now looking very weak. As the pandemic has taken centre stage and is severely impacting on the economy, Biden has scarcely been heard of. Trump, on the other hand, is conducting daily TV shows, which are ostensibly about the virus, but are in reality campaign events, where he rants and lies. Biden doesn’t have much to say in reply.

Biden’s racism

Biden carries much negative political baggage, going back to the 1970s.

In the mid-1970s, a court ordered that Black and white students be taken by bus to schools in different neighbourhoods in Boston to achieve school integration and in an attempt to provide equal education. Schools for Black students were significantly underfunded and inferior to those for whites.

This decision resulted in a major war which pitted the Black community and its supporters against racists in the city government and in white neighbourhoods in the segregated city.

The racists launched violent attacks against Black students going to “white” schools, as well as other random attacks on Blacks. These were met by organised resistance. There were also a series of major demonstrations defending school desegregation.

It was the most important anti-racist struggle in the country at the time.

In 1975, in the midst of this battle, then-Senator Biden supported a sweeping anti-busing bill, offered by North Carolina segregationist Senator Jesse Helms. Biden also submitted his own anti-busing amendment to an appropriations bill.

In an interview in the same year, Biden said: “I oppose busing. It’s an asinine concept.” He said busing to achieve integration was racist. He then went on to reveal his own racism by saying that integration of schools means “in order for your child with curly black hair, brown eyes and dark skin to be able to learn anything, he needs to be able to sit next to my blonde-haired, blue-eyed son”.

In one of his speeches during the primaries, he recalled this incident proudly, claiming it showed his ability to “work with” Republicans. When Black candidate Kamala Harris called him out on this, he tried to make a hasty, garbled retreat.

Biden supported former president Bill Clinton’s legislation that intensified the “War on Drugs”, which led to the mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinos. Their felony convictions bar them from many jobs, following release from prison, and deprives them of many rights. This affects their families and the whole Black community, creating what Michele Alexander correctly calls “the new Jim Crow” — a new form of oppression.

Biden supported legislation that makes it impossible for people who are burdened with large student debt to use bankruptcy laws to gain relief, unlike corporations that routinely use those laws to minimise their debts. Trump’s corporations have done this at least six times.

Despite his denials, Biden has repeatedly supported cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (and was caught on video saying so). He claims that he visited Nelson Mandela in South Africa and participated in the civil rights movement, but these are both lies.

He says his vote to approve the Iraq War was a “mistake”. Others who voted for that war have said the same thing, because it turned out badly for the US, not because it was wrong.

Biden’s sexism

Biden has a history of behaving inappropriately towards women. In the early 1990s, then-president George Bush nominated far-right African American Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Biden was the chair of the Judiciary Committee that held confirmation hearings on the nomination.

Anita Hill, an African American woman who had worked for Thomas, testified at the televised hearings that Thomas had sexually harassed her. Hill’s cool and collected testimony contrasted sharply with many Senators on the committee, who derided and defamed her. Biden led the attack, and rammed through Thomas’ nomination.

Biden has now apologised to Hill — three decades too late.

New allegations of sexual harassment and even assault have now been made against Biden, paralleling similar accusations against Trump.

Biden supports the Democratic Party right-wing establishment positions. One example is his opposition to “Medicare for All” even in the face of the pandemic, where millions of workers have lost employer-provided health insurance because they have been sacked. Biden is also short on proposals concerning climate change.

This is the creep that Sanders now says his followers should vote for.

A discussion has developed among Sanders’ supporters over this. An April 19 New York Times article was headlined: “The army of Sanders supporters isn’t ready to stand up for Biden — Sanders’ primary voters say Biden doesn’t inspire them”.

The article quotes some Sanders supporters who said they will “hold their nose” and vote for Biden. Others said they will support a third party candidate and a few said they will not vote at all. In polls, 15% say they will vote for Trump.

“A challenge for Mr Biden in the fall,” the article said, “is that even if he has the support of Sanders voters, many may not go out of their way to vote, either by applying for absentee ballots or by travelling home if they are students [there are restrictions on students voting where their schools are located]”.

According to the article, younger voters, who overwhelmingly backed Sanders in the primaries, said that Biden “seemed just like another politician with wishy-washy positions on climate change and healthcare”.

Another indication of this disquiet is that after Sanders endorsed Biden, the Green Party national office was swamped with calls expressing interest in the Greens.

The NYT article raised questions about how many Sanders supporters would “show up” for Biden in November, “including their likelihood to volunteer and organise for him — an important measure of enthusiasm”.

Many in the pro-Democratic media, who fear the Democrats need the youthful enthusiasm and organising of Sanders’ people to win in November, are asking whether the party will look for a more acceptable establishment candidate than Biden at the convention.

Trump

On the Republican side, there is unanimity around Trump. His response to the pandemic has weakened him. At first he pooh-poohed the danger. In the first 70 days after the virus reached US shores, he did nothing to prepare and organise to fight against it, even as cases mushroomed and deaths mounted.

Up until April 21, Trump had gone back and forth on proposals to shut down and quarantine — sometimes advocating and other times demanding such measures be halted and the economy be opened up. At the time of writing, most states are shut down, which he wants ended soon.

Consistent throughout Trump’s denials, evasions and lies, is his opposition to the federal government taking responsibility for providing the equipment for mass testing. This is the only way to begin to open the economy, in a gradual way, with medical experts leading the way, so that it won’t lead to another mass outbreak.

At the time of writing, only about 1% of the population has been tested.

Only one conclusion can be drawn from Trump’s response. He does not want testing done on a mass scale (which is what is required) because he does not want the full extent of the pandemic to be known. That would get in the way of his quixotic drive to get the economy returned — soon — to what it was before the pandemic, to improve his electoral prospects.

This is the madness of an autocratic narcissist, who claims he “has absolute power” and “can do whatever he wants”, and could lead to disaster.

Trump has also taken no responsibility for the federal government to make sure that there are adequate supplies of personal protective equipment for medical personnel, many of whom are contracting the virus and dying from it.

Trump’s deliberate failure to deal adequately with the pandemic, to further his electoral prospects, is causing a drop in his poll numbers. He and the Republicans are fighting back, by charging that the real cause of the health and economic crises is “the Chinese”, “the Democrats” or “the media”, and that Trump has done everything “perfectly”.

This will go over well with his hardcore supporters, about 30% of the population, but it remains to be seen if it will be as successful with a broader section.

Trump’s daily contradictory TV rants and tweets combined with the state governors each saying what they want, means there is no coherent message from the government on what to do to fight the virus. Despite this, polls show about 80% of people are wisely following the medical experts.

With attention on the pandemic, Trump has stepped up his attack on environmental regulations.

Right wingers in some states have also declared that providing abortions is not an “essential” medical procedure and have banned them for the duration.

This is of a piece with autocrats in other countries who are using their own national pandemic emergencies to further consolidate their power.

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