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Political Commentary: Virus


I have not read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel Love in the Time of Cholera and it appears the plot doesn’t have much to do with disease, but it certainly has a memorable title and one that is going through my head now, especially “love,” which I’m feeling in abundance toward my family even though, or maybe especially because, we are all isolated from each other in strange and, for us, extremely rare and unfamiliar ways.

I have been working from home since March 16.  Columbia College has made all its courses virtual.  I miss terribly the face-to-face interaction with my students, but we all soldier on.

I was remembering February, which feels like ancient history in politics.  It was a terrible month for Democrats – first the Iowa caucus disaster, then the Trump acquittal.

Then on Super Tuesday Democrats decided to vote in huge numbers for the candidate best positioned to beat Trump in November, Joe Biden.  Looking better for Democrats.

Then the virus came ashore in terrifying waves and you would think politics would take a back seat but President Trump and his enablers in the media politicized it and he and they took far too long to address it seriously, with consequences that will reverberate for years.

As I write the U.S. economy is shutting down – more than three million Americans have filed for unemployment – and the stock market plunged to a level lower than when Trump took office.  The two-trillion-dollar rescue package will not address the main problem: a chaotic and inept response by the federal government that will lead to much unnecessary suffering and many unnecessary deaths.

Trump is finding the daily briefings a reasonable temporary substitute for rallies – it’s free media, he’s the center of the world once a day, and people actually tune in (not necessarily to hear what he has to say, but what someone who knows what they’re talking about has to say). 

There may be a method to Trump’s false optimism, misinformation, and hints that social distancing may not need to last much longer.  I will admit that my theory is deeply cynical, but here it is: He needs the outbreak to be prolonged for personal and political reasons.  The longer it goes on, the longer he gets to keep center stage on the cheap.  And should it go into fall, and as he continues to cast himself as a “wartime president”, millions of Americans might decide the country “should not change horses in the middle of the stream,” as Abraham Lincoln famously and successfully argued in 1864, regardless of what they think of Trump as president.  My late father is exhibit A: He was a lifelong Republican but voted Democratic for president in 1944 – I’m pretty sure the only time he did – for that reason.  He was clearing German minefields in northern France at the time, and changing his commander-in-chief held no appeal.

I just finished grading tests – it’s what we college professors do.   On his big test President Trump earns an F.  When you don’t prepare and don’t do your homework, it usually doesn’t work out well for you.  But he you can be sure he’ll appeal his grade to the American people.

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and regular commentator for KBIA's Talking Politics.