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Trump’s presidency led straight to America’s epic coronavirus failure

In her influential analysis of totalitarian regimes “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that the key to mass propaganda was the propensity of its audience to believe the worst, “no matter how absurd.” Totalitarian mass leaders understood that they could make people believe “the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism… and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Alex Zeldin | artist: Noah Lubin

Alex Zeldin | artist: Noah Lubin

Arendt’s words, published in 1951, are shockingly resonant in 2020. For over three years, Americans have been subjected to a president who uses his bully pulpit not to advance ideas or policies but to advance his own power and wealth — more often than not, through lies.

Through the demonization of the media, scientists, and various experts, Trump has contributed to the erosion of shared knowledge. In the drive to degrade the value of expertise so that his supporters distrust all information, Trump has driven moderate critics in the Republican Party out of congress and gutted federal agencies of non-partisan experts.

The result of Trump’s slow motion assault on reality and its proponents has been a reshaped Republican Party and reconstituted government agencies, each led by someone whose chief characteristic is his or her loyalty to Trump over the truth. The cost to the American people, hidden in plain sight for much of Trump’s presidency, will become impossible to ignore as the government’s lies and lack of preparation in the face of the coronavirus disrupts daily life on a national level.

Despite obvious shortcomings from day one, beginning with who Trump appointed to various cabinet positions, the coalition that brought him into power looked the other way. After all, for white voters consumed by their racism and xenophobia, there was a Muslim ban and cruel deportation policies for Latin Americans seeking refuge in the United States.

For corporations and plutocrats, Trump happily signed a tax cut which produced a huge windfall for the few. For the minority of Jews who voted Republican on pro-Israel grounds and the many more numerous pro-Israel evangelicals, there was Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognition of the Golan Heights, and a lopsided “peace” deal which gives Israel the green light to begin annexing the West Bank piecemeal.

But beneath the window dressing that could satisfy core policy-motivated constituencies in the Republican coalition was the acceleration of the Republican party’s grassroots move towards a politics of open bigotry, resentment of liberals, and a desire for someone to lead them in the fight against those they hated.

And Trump’s supporters could get away with the politics of hate at the expense of everything else because of the many structural advantages America enjoys. The U.S. has two friendly countries and two vast oceans for neighbors. Our system of universities attracts the best and brightest from around the world. The most valuable corporations in the world, many of them founded by immigrants or their children, call America home. And our economy has been growing and adding jobs at a steady pace since mid-2009 under the Obama administration.

To his supporters, it proved difficult to understand how Trump could jeopardize such seemingly invulnerable strategic advantages. Still, the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, which left nearly 3,000 Americans dead in Puerto Rico while Trump concerned himself with a photo op involving throwing paper towels to needy survivors, should have been a wake up call.

But it was not. Nor was Trump presiding over the gutting of the government, which began as soon as Trump came into office and continued unabated. In 2018, the Trump administration cut funding to the CDC, NSC, HHS, and DHS, totaling $15 billion in national health funding. The consequences of those funding cuts have begun to accumulate.

But the real world results of Trump hiring lackeys to staff the government, seeking enemies to fight, and promoting conspiracies is a government that is entirely unprepared to deal with a pandemic. Coronavirus has laid bare what Trump’s supporters refused to recognize. As Italy announces that it is closing all travel and as Israel declares all arrivals from abroad must self-quarantine for two weeks, the Trump administration and its supporters continue to promote the idea that the virus’s spread is a media conspiracy.

The Jewish community, among others, is already paying the price for the resentment politics which today makes the fantastic claim that the media is exaggerating the coronavirus crisis and will, when Trump can no longer deny the spread of the virus, confidently shift to insisting the spread is the fault of a hated group, such as immigrants, rather than a government that was and is unprepared.

Committed supporters will admire Trump for his tactical cleverness. Whether there are enough Americans left who are still capable of seeing and believing the truth when it coughs in their face will be revealed this November.

Alex Zeldin is a contributing columnist with the Forward.

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