Coronavirus endangers our democracy

April 5, 2020 6:14 pm
President Trump Signs the Families First Coronavirus Response Act President Donald J. Trump is joined by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin as he displays his signature on H.R. 6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

President Trump Signs the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin as he displays his signature on H.R. 6201, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

There is now stirring another virulent illness that can, if we don’t take effective countermeasures, also course through our already plagued nation. It, too, has deadly potential — for our democracy.

It seems that the overtly partisan are putting up antibodies against accountability and doing it by essentially claiming – you guessed it – rank partisanship by others. Put another way, they claim blind Trump hatred from those with the temerity to question the administration’s strategies or lack thereof to combat the virus. It is, essentially, a broadside leveled at those seeking accountability.

Take it from Donald Trump himself, via Twitter. He was reacting to coverage of his response to the virus. “I watch and listen to the Fake News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, some of FOX (desperately & foolishly pleading to be politically correct), the [New York Times], & the [Washington Post], and all I see is hatred of me at any cost.”

His acolytes in the right-wing media and other enablers have labeled coverage of Trump’s fumbling response to the virus as a political effort by Democrats to weaponize the pandemic to deny the president reelection.

Every day brings another report of actions that should have been taken but weren’t — or done belatedly — as COVID-19 has continued to infect the nation. So, we now have the world’s largest confirmed case count and a U.S. death toll pushing past 7,000.

It will get worse, with perhaps as many as 200,000 deaths. Let’s hope not, but here is something worth remembering: whatever the number, it will be worse than it had to be.

This has come into stark relief in recent days. Armed with the same information at the same time as other nations, the Trump administration and its organs – principally the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and Health and Human Services — downplayed or falsified the severity of the threat and acted ineptly, inefficiently or tardily to provide testing. While those other countries rolled out tests to their residents to flatten their curves or come closer to it, the U.S. has continued to fly blind. We shelter in place not because we know who among us is infected, but because we substantively don’t know. There are not enough tests and to get one, it seems, you pretty much have to already be sick.

Alternatively, we might have tested early and massively, quarantined and treated  those infected, and tracked those they’ve exposed, isolating them in turn. And then repeated the process as much as necessary.

Don’t get me wrong. Given the circumstances, sheltering in place has been a necessity. But how much better would it be had we gotten ahead of the virus instead of blindly reacting to it? Meanwhile, President Trump dallied in tapping the Defense Production Act to require manufacturers — GM — to make ventilators and we now lack enough of these as well as other vital material to treat those with the virus and to protect health workers.

But to question all this is, to Trump, simply a case of hatred for him.

Each objection to every new Trump transgression has been met with the same response – all the outrage feigned, a matter of partisan Trump hatred.  Firing FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions after they refused to obstruct justice for Trump was not a flagrant violation of law and norms. Objecting to it was Trump hatred.

The Mueller report was not something to deservedly prompt wide condemnation for Trump’s actions. It was all a “witch hunt,” the report promptly whitewashed by the bootlick who Trump selected to replace Sessions.

Outrage at the caging of  immigrant children was just more Trump hatred.

Trump’s brazen coercion of  another head of state to intervene in the U.S. election by launching an investigation into Joe Biden and his son? The ensuing impeachment by the House was all part of a “witch hunt” and an attempt to subvert Trump’s election. And the Senate’s acquittal — its refusal to even call witnesses — was not a craven act to put the president above the law; it was a way of protecting the president from that “witch hunt.”

And, now, to question the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus is not just a matter of Trump hatred, it is a political ploy. Implicit: it is unpatriotic because it distracts from the battle against the virus. This claim will become more full-throated the more Trump claims victimhood.

Ask Dr. Anthony Fauci, who in contradicting Trump with medical expertise has become the target of the right.

This charge of undermining the nation is like the Vietnam War’s defenders saying “love it or leave it” to the war’s objectors.

In the runup to the Iraq invasion, to question the premise — weapons of mass destruction — was unpatriotic and revealed weak-kneed tolerance for a bloody dictator, undermining what was widely billed as a “good” war in the aftermath of 9/11.

Dismissing legitimate questions while the nation is undertaking some wrenching action has long afflicted us. COVID-19 is just the most recent example.

But we have the chance to nip this one in the bud. We should realize by now that our leaders have frequently used the nation’s instinct — its longing, even — to pull together in times of crisis as a means to evade transparency.

The Health and Human Services inspector general is launching inquiries into the agency’s and the Trump administration’s response to the virus. Bet on it, there will be administration pushback. This time let’s not tolerate it.

At Democratic insistence, the recently enacted and signed relief bill contains a mechanism to ensure there will be oversight of how the administration dispenses some $500 billion in aid for businesses. Trump signaled he will ignore this, recently putting a member of his own impeachment legal team in charge to manage the oversight.

Gee, I wonder how he might have gotten the idea he was immune from congressional oversight? But this time don’t let him use this gambit.

There must be congressional oversight into the U.S. response, if only because we must be ready for the next pandemic — and there will surely be another. And when such oversight occurs, if Trump remains in office, he will certainly resist such inquiries. We stop him from doing this by not making excuses for his behavior, nor tolerating the excuses made for him by others.

To ask questions early — even as the war against the virus still unfolds — is as necessary as the battle against the virus itself. This isn’t weaponizing the pandemic for political benefit. It is using the tools democracy gave us to preserve democracy.

Such questioning is, in fact, already bearing fruit. Some criticism seems

to be the driving force in Trump changes in direction. Downplaying or falsifying the seriousness of the threat has belatedly changed into acknowledgement that indicates Trump finally gets it, though this is still murky and we have to watch him day to day.

Not using the Defense Production Act? He finally did it after he was pressed. Open for business by Easter? This dangerously harebrained notion has given way to reality.

This is not Trump hatred. What should motivate us here is love of country and a never-ceasing will to make sure it is governed wisely and well, even in times of crisis. Perhaps, especially so at these times.

So, yes, even as we rally to keep ourselves and others safe, question. Democracy  demands it.

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O. Ricardo Pimentel
O. Ricardo Pimentel

O. Ricardo Pimentel has been a journalist for about 40 years. He was most recently the editorial page editor for the San Antonio Express-News in Texas; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before that. He has also worked in various editing and reporting positions in newspapers in California, Arizona, Texas and Washington D.C., where he covered Congress, federal agencies and the Supreme Court for McClatchy Newspapers. He is the author of two novels and lives in Wisconsin.