A Better Performance than Prior Presidents?: Trump and the Pandemic
By August H. Nimtz
Historian Allen Guelzo argues (that Donald Trump has done “substantially more than [George] Washington, [Andrew] Jackson or [Woodrow] Wilson did in the hour of a health crisis.” But is Guelzo guilty of comparing apples and oranges, contexts that are radically different? Perhaps true for the first two presidents. But the Wilson administration was only a century ago. Is it unfair to subject the most academically credentialled of all White House occupants to a comparison with the current one? Who on the face of it ought to have been more open to the best science of his day? And whose Presbyterian certitude ought to have been superior to arguably one of the most morally challenged U.S. presidents?
Maybe it is Trump who is being unfairly treated in making such a comparison. Except for a fact about Wilson that is all so tellingly on display today, all but ignored by his hagiographers. “President Wilson,” Guelzo recognizes, “made no public statements about the [1918–1919] Spanish flu.” Incredibly, just a century ago, the deaths of 675,000 U.S. citizens—let alone the 50 million more elsewhere in the world—could go unacknowledged by a U.S. president! Trump, even if he wanted, could not get away with such a travesty. But why? To understand is to understand how—Trump notwithstanding—the democratic quest advances.
Most instructive is how the Wilson presidency began. Elected and re-elected, respectively, in 1912 and 1916, but with less than half of the population eligible to vote; almost exclusively white males. Neither women nor African Americans for the most part could vote. Wilson, therefore, was under no obligation to be accountable to the majority of the country’s citizens—why he could make “no public statements about the Spanish flu.”
In the last year or two of Wilson’s tenure, the women’s suffrage movement took to the streets to demand the right to vote from the president. Not until the 1924 election did women, who disproportionately were burdened with the influenza pandemic, realize their quest, white women specifically. Andrew Jackson and George Washington became presidents on the basis of an even smaller percentage of the population and, thus, less accountable to the majority.
A decade after the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, the U.S. stock market crashed, the beginning of the Great Depression that lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. If U.S. presidents could ignore pandemics, that was impossible when it came to the unprecedented economic catastrophe of the Depression. Herbert Hoover, in office at the time, was penalized for contending that the Constitution didn’t grant him any powers to address the crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated him in a landslide victory in 1932. The Socialist and Communist Party candidates got a million votes between them.
Not only was the Depression the backdrop to FDR’s election but in the summer of that year impoverished and jobless First World War veterans occupied the streets of Washington, D.C. to demand relief—the Bonus Marchers.The 1944 G.I. Bill had its origins in that unprecedented event—how to avoid, for the ruling class, a repeat.
FDR’s inaugural address in March 1933 spoke to the seriousness of the crisis. He proposed that if Congress didn’t cooperate in helping to solve the emergency, he was prepared to ask it “for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Never before or since has a U.S. president publicly raised the possibility of effectively suspending the Constitution.
Having campaigned on a “new deal” for working people, FDR was forced to act on his promises after organized workers took to the streets, especially in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo, in 1934 to demand better wages and the right to form unions. The very next year FDR proposed to Congress the three key pillars of what would come to be known as the New Deal—unemployment insurance, social security, and aid to families of dependent children. Not since the Civil War had the federal government taken such an activist stance in support of domestic programs. Elected four times to the presidency, FDR’s tenure inaugurated Democratic Party rule for almost a half-century.
Just as the mass working class upheavals of the Great Depression forced the ruling class concessions of the New Deal, the mainly black and proletarian-composed marches between 1962 and 1965, the Civil Rights Movement, also won broad social gains. They included key additions to the social safety net, Medicaid and Medicare. Though tattered—particularly, the Clinton’s administration’s end of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) in 1996—the net is still largely intact.
A profound change in public expectations is the outcome of this turbulent history. “Many Americans,” Guelzo correctly points out—without explanation—“seem to believe the president should be the country’s Principal Public Health Officer, or even Oracle in Chief.” Nothing in the Constitution, he also correctly notes, so empowers the president. A real constitution, the young Marx concluded—not on Guelzo’s radar—registers the actual distribution of power in a society, in constant motion and, therefore, not set in stone or on paper.
The history distilled here is what Trump and ruling elites in Washington and in state governments have inherited. Deep in their memory banks—even in Trump’s brain—is the specter of the masses in the streets. Why they can’t, as much as some of them might like to—think Mitch McConnell—return to the ‘good ole days’ of Hoover, Wilson, Jackson and Washington. That would require a fight they’re not confident—as least so far—they could win.
Trump’s decision to give approval—yes, at times wavering—to the lockdown and all its costs, including his re-election prospects, speaks volumes about ruling class fears of the “mobs in the streets.” They—even hard-ass Steve Bannon—have no stomach for what the images of bodies in morgues and hospital emergency rooms piled on top of one another in the age of social media might provoke. In 1918–1919 they could ignore; not today. Neither does the ruling class want to see the kinds of mobilizations in 1934 that spurred the institution of unemployment insurance; why they so quickly signed on to the US$600 per month addition to state unemployment benefits until the end of July. How long they’ll extend them depends on the willingness of the unemployed to threaten or actually take to the streets as the crisis deepens.
The outcome of the unfolding skirmishes over safety in the workplace to counter the pandemic, such as at Amazon, Whole Foods, meatpacking plants and elsewhere, will determine how much the bosses and their governments think that they can get away with. Key in that development is whether workers fighting together will be able to establish a new labour movement, such as what emerged in the 1930s. And, most importantly, unlike then, their own political party.
The Trump side show is just that. How small it compares to the big tent of history. Stay tuned.
August H. Nimtz is Professor of Political Science and African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota.