What America needs is a political siesta

In the warm-up to the upcoming presidential campaign, President Trump has already fired salvos of his trademark insults and nicknames at his likely opponent, including calling Biden “Sleepy Joe.”

If I were Biden, I would welcome that as a campaign slogan: I, for one, am ready to take a little political siesta, a respite from the constant warfare over race, immigration and just about everything else, that has riven civic discourse during the past four years under Trump and, most recently, his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed about 140,000 Americans so far.

Although Trump did not invent slice-and-dice politics, he has raised it to the level of a daily horror show, by constantly using tribal divisions, rancor, insults and resentments for political advantage. 

Some mark Newt Gingrich’s tenure as House Speaker in 1994, as the beginning of the most recent chapter of “politics as a blood sport” in America. Even so, Trump is the one who has given the idea of compromise and bipartisan cooperation the final shove into the grave.

We all need a rest. 

As recently as 2005, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona worked together to forge a proposal for bipartisan immigration reform, which in the end was not enacted. Such cooperation, though, today sounds like ancient history.

Trump’s  idea of immigration reform instead has been a toxic brew of racist rhetoric—to cast Mexican migrants as criminals, rapists and drug traffickers—and his solution to build a 30-foot-high wall between Mexico and the U.S., a project which, by the way, will never be finished. Purportedly to reduce the threat of terrorism to the U.S., Trump has likewise used a meat cleaver approach, to demonize Muslims and cut off immigration from several Muslim countries.

The Covid-19 pandemic, an existential threat to America’s public health and economy, called for a leader who would propose a plan of attack and then rally the country behind it.

In rare televised address, Chancellor Angela Merkel looked straight at the camera and told her fellow Germans that “we face a serious problem that we all need to take seriously.” She may not have had all the solutions, but she was not afraid to tell the truth and get everyone to cooperate. Her forthright strategy not only brought the pandemic under control in the country, but also earned her wide public support in Germany, where she has an approval rating in the seventy-percent range, and also internationally.

From the beginning, Trump instead lied about or downplayed the seriousness of the threat, and then blamed the Chinese, the Democrats, the perfidious mainstream media out to torpedo his reelection, the Centers for Disease Control and most recently even Dr. [St.] Anthony Fauci, the country’s foremost epidemiologist, for the ensuing catastrophe.

St. Anthony, pray for us.

It’s hard to tell what drove this self-defeating strategy, whether it was Trump’s boundless narcissism to the effect that “only I can solve this problem,” or his inability to admit, at least in this case, that he didn’t know what the hell he was doing, despite his claims to be a polymath and a “stable genius,” and then pass the ball to experts who actually did know something. That’s what Merkel did, she who actually holds a doctorate in quantum chemistry and is considered a nerdy genius.

Even the seemingly innocuous, yet effective, strategy to get people to wear face masks, turned into a toxic partisan battle in Trump’s hands, and a test of his followers’ loyalty to him. People conspicuously not wearing masks, while waving Trump placards, and in a few cases even firearms, became a fixture of protests around the country.

Wearing a mask should have been sold to Americans not as a political act but as a civic obligation, a simple act of both self-preservation and a concern for people around you. We are all in this together.

“I don’t know how to tell you to care about other people,” is a quote misattributed to Fauci, but a potent slogan nonetheless, that could have been used to rally Americans behind the campaign to bring the coronavirus under control.

Yesterday, an uncharacteristically chastened Trump admitted during a press conference—to which Fauci was notably not invited—that the pandemic “is likely to get worse before it gets better,” and even recommended, after months of refusing to do so, that people ought to wear masks. This latest statement was a departure from previously upbeat posture, as recently as Sunday, during an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, that everything would miraculously sort itself out.

It’s most unlikely that overnight Trump had an epiphany that transformed him into a public-minded leader concerned about the health of rank-and-file Americans. Far more likely is that he’s been following opinion polls that show his reelection chances are melting like ice cream on a hot day, and has decided to change course.

Opinion polls do show Trump losing to Biden, in some cases by double-digit margins. I don’t want to reveal my voting preferences, except that, come next January, I fervently hope for a respite from the constant political warfare of the past four years, and the formulation of a coherent strategy to beat the Covid-19 pandemic, before more Americans die as a result.

In the meantime, I’m going to do something more than just sit here in Mexico, and grouse: I’m going to light a candle to the Virgin of Guadalupe right now, and see what she can do to help. And after that, I’ll take a nap.

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