On January 22, after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was discovered in the U.S., Trump reassured the world that the outbreak was “totally under control.” On February 10, days after the first confirmed death, Trump told us that by April the virus would “miraculously go away.” In the first week of March, with the U.S. approaching 1,000 confirmed cases, Trump reminded us that the virus was “very mild” and that he “wasn’t concerned at all.”
While the sick continue to die and the dead overflow from morgues into refrigerated trucks, Trump has continued to willfully misinform the American people about the nature of this disease. The actions of his administration and the Republican Party have exacerbated ten-fold the scale of the crisis we are now saddled with.
New research from Columbia University found that if social distancing measures had been implemented just two weeks earlier, 84% of COVID-19 deaths and 82% of cases could have been prevented. This underlines the criminal role of this reactionary, anti-science president.
Trump’s Botch Job
As of the writing of this article, 94,629 Americans have died from coronavirus and over 1.5 million have been infected. 38.6 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, nearly 25% of the total workforce. 43% of Americans said they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a pay cut because of the pandemic. The food bank network Feeding America reports that demand has increased 70% since the pandemic began.
Working people are captives to a disaster of monstrous proportions. Trump’s complete mishandling of this crisis demonstrates not just his incompetence, but ultimately his die-hard allegiance to his cohorts in the billionaire class.
One example of this is scandalously detailed in a recent New York Times exposé on Trump’s bizarre, bumbling supply procurement task force run by his son-in-law Jared Kushner. The team was tasked with sifting through potential suppliers of masks, ventilators, and other crucial supplies. Reliable emergency planning experts were locked out of the process, replaced instead by transplants from venture capital and private equity firms. Trump and his allies were more concerned with pleasing their private sector associates than providing equipment to health care workers who had been forced to wear trash bags and re-used masks.
Trump’s criminal mishandling of this crisis puts a real question mark over his chances for reelection come November. He will likely build his campaign around a general anti-China approach and will ramp up xenophobia in an attempt to distract from the disaster he has exacerbated and to whip up his base leading up to the election. But if there are serious outbreaks of COVID-19 in Southern and Midwestern states that Trump won in 2016 and if mass unemployment is here to stay, this will give the Democrats a real opening in November.
How Do We Reopen Society?
Many working people across the country, some anxious about their ability to withstand another month without a paycheck and others reeling from the extreme loneliness brought on by long-term isolation, are desperate for society to open up again. But they are also concerned with the way reopenings are being carried out and fear a second wave.
While the overall rate of new infections in the U.S. is going down, if you exclude New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and a few other states, the rate is actually climbing. In smaller towns and rural communities in the Midwest and South, new hotspots are emerging. Shoddy reopening plans will only exacerbate these outbreaks. Additionally, contact tracing and testing numbers are nowhere near where they’d need to be in order to safely reopen in most places.
Millions are watching their bank accounts empty, and while the stimulus checks and $600-a-month unemployment top up have provided some temporary relief, 74% of Americans have already spent the $1,200 or expect it to last less than four weeks. Additionally, millions have still not seen a penny. Many are at a dire crossroads and there is no competent leadership pointing the way forward.
The “reopen fever” is being painted by the right wing corporate media as ordinary Americans fighting for their freedom, their right to work. However, even in states that have partially reopened, like Texas, business owners report few customers. A clothing store clerk in Texas reported to Reuters, “There’s absolutely no one coming around here.”
The ruling class itself is divided on the question of how to to reopen the economy. Right-wing politicians and a section of corporate CEOs are ferociously fighting for the country to reopen immediately no matter the consequences while another section of the ruling class urges caution and warns of the need for increased stimulus.
The real “reopen fever” is being supercharged by forces that have coalesced around the Save Our Country Coalition (SOCC) – a coalition which includes the Tea Party and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), both organizations thoroughly committed to pro-corporate, anti-worker causes. They are drooling over the opportunity to drive through their pro-corporate, anti-worker agenda in the wake of this crisis.
A reopening, as articulated by SOCC, would necessarily include tax cuts for the rich, dramatic cuts to social services, and an erasure of employers liability if their workers become sick or die. In addition to being motivated by opportunities to cut spending and ramp up privatization, these forces are also motivated by a desire to avoid a wave of bankruptcies and maintain a competitive edge over China.
A different section of the ruling class is urging caution in the race to reopen. This section is represented partially by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell who warned that a rapid reopening could trigger a worse economic fallout down the line if it leads to a massive second wave of the virus. He has also advocated on multiple occasions for continued stimulus to keep the economy afloat. Unlike Trump who predicts a rapid economic recovery, Powell and most economists predict a longer-term crisis with the potential for a full scale depression.
What About the Democrats?
The depth of the current crisis has forced the Democratic Party leadership to squirm a bit more left than they’re comfortable with. They have been forced to accept that mammoth federal and state spending will be required to keep society running in the short term.
Nancy Pelosi and the leadership of the Democratic caucus in the House have proposed significant spending through their HEROES Act including a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks, $200 billion in hazard pay for essential workers, an extension of the $600 a week unemployment top up through January, as well as increased spending on SNAP benefits and direct aid to state and local governments. Of course, this legislation is being blocked by the Republicans in the Senate.
While more aid for working people would be welcome, we should also point out that the HEROES Act is full of half measures and is wholly inadequate. It does not do enough to protect the unemployed, it does not guarantee health care to millions of people who have lost their employer-provided insurance, and it does not set out public health guidelines for states requesting assistance. It also doesn’t change the fact that across the country Democratic politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are looking to cut funding for social services to offset the states massive loss of tax revenue. And to date the bulk of the stimulus that has been implemented has been to bail out corporations and banks not ordinary people.
Another example of the change in the Democrats’ thinking can be found in the changing tenor of Joe Biden’s campaign. Throughout the primary he appealed to voters as a reasonable, moderate choice. He banged on about the dramatic cost of Bernie’s proposals and advocated a far more conservative approach to federal spending.
However, New York Magazine recently published an article titled “Biden Is Planning an FDR-Size Presidency.” In the article, Biden is quoted as saying spending needs to be “A hell of a lot bigger” for the duration of this crisis and that the only solution is massive public investment.
While we should have a healthy skepticism of promises from the neoliberal leadership of the Democrats, it is the scale of the economic crisis which is forcing them to move in the direction of a “Keynesian” approach. This refers to the type of measures taken during the Great Depression by Roosevelt and others which aimed to prop up demand, restart the economy, and save capitalism. These measures did have a temporary effect but ultimately were not adequate to bring the economy out of the Depression which only happened with the war economy after 1940. The same will be true this time. Adopting such an approach, even partially, does not mean the Democrats are now our “friends”; they are just recognizing the scale of the threat to their system.
We Need Leadership
As the debate around what type of leadership we need in this moment rages on, references will continue to be made to FDR. The Democrats will likely invoke his legacy in articulating their vision for rebuilding the economy. But we must distinguish between short term measures to put money in people’s pockets to prop up the economy and restart the profit machine and real lasting gains for working people. Social Security, wage gains, and union rights in the 1930s were not the product of ruling class benevolence but of ferocious class struggle waged by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) including a large layer of socialist fighters.
The Democratic Party today fears, as Roosevelt did, the growing wrath of ordinary Americans. The scale of the concessions they grant to working families depends on the size of the working-class fightback. They will never concede the change we really need, including Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, without a massive struggle.
This crisis has exposed just how desperately working people need our own leadership to mount a real fight back. This makes Bernie’s capitulation to the establishment all the more devastating. He has urged his delegates to “turn down the volume” and has repeatedly shamed his supporters into lining up behind Biden.
Sadly, many union leaders have taken an even less combative approach than Bernie. One of the major hamstrings that has crippled the leadership of most major unions is their cozy relationship to Democratic Party bigwigs and their allergy to a genuine class struggle approach.
Alongside the strengthening and democratizing of existing unions and launching organizing drives, workers may in some instances need to consider forming new unions. Intimately tied in with this task is the project of working people coming together to fight for our own independent political voice.
In order to build a struggle to match the scale of this crisis, we need to begin now discussing what a new working-class political party could look like.
Figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have complained about the loneliness of being a sole democratic socialist voice in a sea of establishment politicians in both parties. However, this loneliness is not inevitable. There exists the immense potential for working people to begin constructing a democratic, mass organization that can be a political home to labor struggles, social movements, and the growing socialist left. It is in a political home like this that we can develop and build the working-class leadership needed to deal with the mounting crisis we face.