On May 26, as the U.S. coronavirus death toll passed 100,000, former Bush speechwriter and NeverTrumper David Frum appeared on a cable news show and made a stunning pronouncement about Donald Trump and his handling of the pandemic.
If correct, Frum didn’t merely echo all the armchair psychiatry we’ve heard about Trump—that he’s a compulsive con artist, a sociopath, or a malignant narcissist—but rather, that the president is engaged in something that can best be described as calculated murder for electoral advantage.
First, Frum said the incessant drumbeat from Trump and his circle about reopening the economy is not just an obvious attempt to change the subject from the COVID-19 deaths and focus on his perceived strength, but an effort to lay the groundwork, should he lose the election, for a “stab in the back” narrative to delegitimize the winner.
The stab in the back legend derives from Germany’s loss of World War I. General Erich Ludendorff and the general staff knew the war was lost as early as August 8, 1918, and Ludendorff appealed to the Kaiser several times for armistice talks. But once these were set for November, the general staff absconded from all participation, saddling civilians with the responsibility, and onus, for submitting to the Allies.
It was a neat trick: the military, and all the militaristic elements in Germany who cheered on the war, then claimed the boys at the front were stabbed in the back by “the November criminals,” that is, they said, the politicians, abetted by Jews, socialists, and anyone who had doubts about the conflict.
"The virus strikes urban areas, minorities, nursing homes, and industries like meat-packing plants more severely, so Trump and his retinue figure that they can 'take the punch' of 100,000 to 200,000 deaths, because they may fall disproportionately on people who don’t vote Republican."
The army leadership’s own bungled 1918 offensive, which threw away Germany’s last reserves, and even the fact that they were the ones who asked for terms from the Allies, was deftly erased. The stab-in-the-back legend was key to poisoning the Weimar Republic and propelling the rise of Hitler.
Trump, in Frum’s telling, is concocting his own stab in the back myth. The Trump fairy tale will claim that if it wasn’t for all those egg-headed scientists and worthless governors, the economy already would have recovered by November, and he would have sailed to victory. Scientists, governors, and treacherous Democrats will be the new November criminals who hamstrung the economy and sank Trump’s reelection.
As a kind of preemptive victimization narrative, this complements Trump’s— and other Republicans’—relentless braying about mail-in and absentee voting being election fraud. Some Republicans are going to extraordinary lengths to prevent voting by any means except in person. Both the stab in the back myth and the election fraud myth—which Trump has already used to excuse his three million popular vote loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016—are methods to inoculate himself against defeat and reinforce the notion that the winning candidate is illegitimate.
This is significant in two ways. Trump may hope to head off any soul-searching by the Republican establishment as to whether turning the party into a Jonestown cult was a good idea. Preventing an after-action critique will both ensure the GOP remains a pseudo-populist authoritarian movement and guarantee future roles for Trump as a revered elder statesman, as well as for Don, Jr., Eric, and the rest of his spawn and inner circle.
Should Trump lose, he also will claim that his victorious opponent was illegitimate, because “shutting down the economy” was tantamount to election fraud. Given that Trump already said in 2016 that he would not necessarily accept the results of the election if he lost, the election fraud charge is par for his usual behavior. It could make a post-election America as ungovernable as the Weimar Republic.
In an even more startling allegation, Frum further described how despite the headwinds, Republicans will still try to win. COVID-19 is not, in Frum’s words, “an equal-opportunity killer.” The virus strikes urban areas, minorities, nursing homes, and industries like meat-packing plants more severely, so Trump and his retinue figure that they can “take the punch” of 100,000 to 200,000 deaths, because they may fall disproportionately on people who don’t vote Republican.
On the other hand, as long as the economy reopens, typical Trump voters will disproportionately be the beneficiaries, and accordingly will reward him at the polls. Frum called this a “calculated decision” to prioritize the economy over human life. Put the way he did, this sounds more like calculated genocide, much like Stalin’s sacrifice of Ukrainian peasants for the sake of his five-year economic plan.
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How plausible is it? At least based on what Trump says, the president, engaged as he is in a mutually reinforcing relationship with his violence-fantasizing base, revels in death. Just the other day, he re-tweeted to his followers that the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat. Following the first disturbances in Minneapolis, he daydreamed on Twitter about mass shooting. Whatever his own physical cowardice, his entire rhetoric, from “fire and fury” to “super-duper missiles,” is drenched in violence.
Is this just play-acting? Is Frum luridly speculating? We already have seen evidence of his jeopardizing lives for blatantly political purposes in the deliberate maldistribution of medical protective equipment to areas representing his supporters rather than regions in deeper need. He has used federal personnel to confiscate shipments of equipment that was appropriately authorized by state governments that desperately had to have it. How many already have died because of these actions?
In truth, all of his actions, when judged by their clearly foreseeable consequences rather than the mainstream media’s intimation of ham-fisted good faith, take on a darker interpretation. In American law and in what passes for American “common sense,” there is far too much insistence upon the convoluted hunt for an elusive “motive” that is detached from the act itself, as if we still believed in Cartesian mind-body dualism. But an action usually lays bare the motive for all to see: every criminal may have a catalogue of self-justifying “motives” (meaning excuses) for his behavior, but his crimes reify his true motives, and suffice to judge him.
"In truth, all of his actions, when judged by their clearly foreseeable consequences rather than the mainstream media’s intimation of ham-fisted good faith, take on a darker interpretation."
Has Trump’s record of handling the pandemic simply constituted bungling and stupidity? Granted, in the face of a new disease with no vaccine, it would be difficult for even the best-qualified epidemiologist always to make the right decision. On the other hand, the president’s every action invariably has been wrong, and not just a little bit wrong: Dismissing early intelligence reports, delaying life-saving measures, censoring or suppressing guidance manuals, firing scientists trying to do their job, touting patently phony or dangerous “cures,” deriding masks, and doing his worst to foment division and hatred at a time when social trust is most needed. The stupidest leader imaginable randomly might have gotten something right; Trump has a one hundred-percent perfect record of failure.
In his lust for chaos and destruction, did the president devise these malfeasances on his own? Was there some individual or cabal of White House advisers who suggested them? Did his great friend Vladimir Putin whisper them in his ear during one of their discussions? It is for future historians to unearth whether it is high treason or “mere” electoral calculation, but there is no question that since mid-January, every one of Trump’s actions on coronavirus has served to sabotage an effective response that would have saved tens of thousands of lives.
The “calculated” strategy Frum has proposed, that Trump and his coterie are deliberately letting COVID-19 burn through the country in a way that has a greater negative effect on Democrats, may—at least for now—be based on fact. The virus established itself first in areas that are international travel and trade hubs, like New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, then spread quickly in those densely populated areas. These areas are heavily Democratic.
That said, the highest rates of increase now are in predominantly rural Red states. This spread is exacerbated by Republican governors and legislatures who act like Trump Mini-Me’s, compounding every destructive pronouncement from Washington. And now that mask-wearing and social distancing are at the top of the culture-wars agenda, Trump’s base is gleefully behaving like suicide bombers, as the ludicrous scenes from Lake of the Ozarks and the Alabama shore make evident.
What’s more, however much the death rates are disproportionate among minorities, the Republicans’ most reliable base of support for decades has been the elderly. Fifty-eight percent of those over 65 said they voted for Trump in 2016. But according to polling in early May, there is now an 18-percent drop in support from that group. That may erode further: seniors are among those most vulnerable to the virus, a condition compounded by the fact that Republicans are doing their utmost to force them to vote in person.
Of course, pundits can, as usual, callously game out political winners and losers, as if this were an ordinary election, but Frum’s warning remains shocking. We can only hope against expectation that it will not be absorbed and debased into the conventional wisdom of horse race politics, so that by Labor Day, the media might report, in their serious, grown-up, and “objective” but non-judgmental voices, whether Trump’s electoral culling strategy is a loser, or a stroke of political genius—of “throwing away the rule book.”
What has happened will submit to posterity’s judgment regardless of what we or the pundits think. It’s been roughly 100 days since the serious onset of the pandemic, yielding 100,000 deaths: 1,000 deaths per day, double the daily rate of the Civil War, the bloodiest war in US history when Americans died on both sides.
Most Americans haven’t yet fully grasped the implications. But the ongoing protests, ostensibly about a longstanding abuse unrelated to coronavirus, may tell us that a growing number of people subliminally sense that they face a far more existential threat than losing their jobs or the inconvenience of social distancing. Police brutality was the spark, but the tinder is the half-conscious awareness that lives are expendable, not just in ones or twos, but in tens of thousands.
Many of the greatest crimes in history miscarried for their perpetrators, at least in terms of their stated objective, which usually was political power. But what if the actual motive was embodied in the deed itself: death and destruction for its own sake?