Maxime Chervaux explains why U.S. President Donald Trump, not the American institutional system, is to blame for the poor management of the crisis brought on by COVID-19.
The American institutional system is complex for two reasons. First, it was born of a need to ensure the balance of power in the former British colony made up of very distinct political cultures. Second, it was necessary to balance the different levels of American federalism; the local and, especially, between the states and the federal government, as well as the different branches of political power at every level — legislative, executive, judicial — to respect the separation of powers theorized by John Locke, among others. It was crucial to prevent one of the branches, or levels, from taking precedence over the others.
These same institutions expanded as the American state took on a growing number of economic and social challenges. The New Deal was especially successful and equipped the federal government with an alphabetical list of administrative agencies, many of whom, in one form or another, exist today.
For these two reasons, one can genuinely speak to an institutional “system,” even if more critical voices, like that of journalist Nicolas Rauline, refer to an “administrative layer cake,” and a political system at an “impasse.” But if the American government appears to have reached its limits in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, this system, 230 years old, even if it has profoundly changed in practice, could have avoided this disaster.
An Evolved System
The political and governmental response to COVID-19 suffers, in fact, from the inconsistency of the White House. From the beginning of the 20th century, the president of the United States was given an uncontested mandate in times of crisis. This is based on his constitutional role as commander in chief of the armed forces and, later, under an administration strengthened by Congress over the course of economic and social crises including the Great Depression, 1960s social movements, oil shocks and the financial crisis of 2009; or military and security ones such as World War I and II, the Cold War and 9/11. Today, the president is universally perceived as the institutional and political senior officer during a crisis. He has the means, and his position allows him to bypass the length and complexity of a purely legislative response and the incoherence and inconsistency of differing responses from every state and city. American institutions have, little by little, reshaped themselves around a strong leader who uses his central position, powers and visibility to guide the United States in times of crisis.
Catastrophic Government Management
The management of the crisis by the Trump administration has been disastrous. The Trump presidency has been built upon a brutal reassessment of the legitimacy of the American government. Even though Trump possesses all the tools necessary to centralize the response to the crisis by managing the stock of masks and medical supplies, mandating the wearing of masks or even deciding on a full or partial nationwide lockdown; he simply has refused to take any such measures.
On the contrary, he has questioned the role of government in the crisis and even the existence of such presidential powers, even though they have been used by his predecessors. He has committed to a policy of dismantling government agencies, and a proactive stance against COVID-19 would call into question the validity of his four years in office and one of his chief campaign claims.
The current presidency signals the apex of hyper-partisan politics at the highest level. Every public policy question becomes a political issue and a campaign theme. The pandemic is, consequently, a means to differentiate from the Democratic Party during what has become a permanent election season — Trump launched his reelection campaign during a meeting in Feb. 2017, a few weeks after the start of his term.
For this reason, to doubt the reality of COVID-19, as Trump has done multiple times, and then question the pandemic numbers while still minimizing its severity in a July 19 Fox News interview with journalist Chris Wallace, is a means of playing to the anti-government ideology of a segment of his electoral base, and set himself apart from the Democrats — and certain Republicans — openly critical of the president, such as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, or Senator Mitt Romney of Utah.
One better understands this sometimes surreal state of affairs by a president who, since February, continually changes his mind on COVID-19, alternating between strong moments where he gives the impression of taking control of things, seeking even to poach researchers from foreign pharmaceutical companies in the race for a vaccine; and others where he outright refuses to come to the aid of states, putting them in competition with one another to buy medical equipment; and refusing, at times, to even acknowledge the existence of the pandemic or the need to wear a mask. Lately, he has simply sought to pin the blame on China.
Here, the president can count on a fringe of the Republican Party, especially in the South, that utterly refuses to be subjected to government mandates on behavior. The PBS television network showed, for example, a Texan who refused to wear a mask because he was sure that he “woke up in a free country” that very morning. It also feeds his rhetoric on conspiracy theories that proliferate on his Twitter feed and are routinely repeated by his aides as well as by himself.
Therefore, the problem is not institutional. If the president had adopted a clear perspective on the issue and used all the force of the federal government to confront the pandemic, we would not be witness to this game of endless confrontations between elected officials, judges, law enforcement and themselves. The history of American politics reveals that judges avoid intervening against the president in moments such as these and that states generally line up behind him, at least until the end of the crisis.
The problem is very much human. Donald Trump has refused to intervene; in a political space where everything is questionable, even a virus, the institutional and political system attempts, somehow, to learn again to act without and even against, a presidency which has become both imperial and indispensable over the course of preceding crises.