The White House has announced that everyone coming into range of President Trump will be tested for COVID-19. Trump, meanwhile, insists that he won’t wear a mask when meeting other leaders — or, as he put it in order of reverse dignity, ‘presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens’.
Unfortunately the worst-case scenario — that a 73-year-old might catch a dose and get seriously ill — no longer seems outlandish. On Sunday night, Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized after falling sick 10 days ago. Today he went into critical care. What if someone sneezes and Trump catches a cold?
Welcome to the nasty, brutish and short Pence presidency. The machinery of federal government wasn’t exactly working smoothly before the coronacrisis. The emergency response has been high on personal interventions — Robert Kraft testing the loyalty of New Yorkers by buying masks from China and getting the Patriots to deliver them — and low and slow on federal competence. Pence has the charisma of a plank and all the appeal of yesterday’s oatmeal. Public anger will stick to him in ways it doesn’t to Teflon Don.
The Democrats will call ‘coup’. They’ll be right — sort of. The coup won’t be in the White House, though, or against democracy and what remains of the rule of law. It’ll be in the Republican party. Trump came late to the party, and he spoilt it for the established names who, until he ruined everything, thought they had a shot at the nomination in 2016. His ratings are high, but if he’s laid low by the virus, he’ll lose his invulnerability.
If Trump is too sick to govern for an extended period, or if, like many COVID-19 sufferers in his age bracket, he were to die, he’d also lose the almost unanimous primary votes that nominated him as the party’s 2020 presidential candidate. The 2024 succession battle would move forward to a delayed conference, some time in late 2020, or whenever the party is able to reconstitute itself virtually.
There is no Trumpism, only Trumpismo, the cult of the leader. The only possible heir to this kind of charismatic rule is by a blood relative who carries the magic by association, as Raúl Castro carried the spirit of Fidel or Baby Doc Duvalier the voodoo of Papa Doc. The Trump equivalent would be the candidacies of Don Jr or Ivanka — better yet, or worse yet, as a double ticket. It never turns out well — consider the genocidal Bashar al-Assad — and it usually turns out short.
But the United States isn’t that kind of national security state. And anyway, the party won’t let that kind of succession happen. For there is no Trump Republican party, only the rump of the Tea Party faction and some symbolic concessions to popular disgust.
The eminence of Ronna Romney McDaniel as chair of the RNC resembles the compromise selection of Keith Ellison in sorry second place on the DNC. The chair is a symbol of power first, a mechanism second. The symbol here being the reconciliation of Mitt Romney Republicanism with Trumpish populism, the mechanism one of neutralizing the base.
The Republican party, like any patriotic American party, still belongs to its donors and its star turns. Don Jr and Ivanka, the unloved children of the cuckoo-in-the-nest president, will be out of the nest. The first female president is more likely to be Nikki Haley than Ivanka Trump.
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, not Josh Hawley and Matt Gaetz, will emerge as the keepers of the Trump flame, as Mark Antony buries Caesar by praising him. Those who have confused the ideal of isolation with retrenchment before expensive failures will be disappointed. The greatness of America, or the American conviction of greatness, condemns it to imperial self-assertion. The hacks and flacks, though, will be delighted.
After Trump, power will return to the political class, because the primary purpose of modern politics is to keep the political class in power. As 9/11 exposed the security liabilities of that approach to government and the Great Recession exposed its economic liabilities, so the unreal irruptions of COVID-19 expose its healthcare liabilities. But the exposure of liabilities does not guarantee their repair. Stability also means the endurance of habits and systems past their utility.
Trump’s presidency was supposed to perform a ‘disruption’ akin to those caused by digitization. The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted freedom of commerce and association. The failures of bureaucratic rule are evident, but the crisis also demonstrates the limits of charismatic rule. In this sense, COVID-19 has figuratively unmasked Donald Trump. His job now is to be a symbol of stability amid a national crisis. The president should take a deep breath and put a real mask on. Or just hope his luck holds.