COVID-19 and Trump’s Racism
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How is it that in Australia, it’s 3 out of every 100,000 people, and in New Zealand it’s 1 out of every 200,000 people, but here in America we’re dropping like flies?
Chalk it up to Republican racism and a libertarian indifference to the notion of society.
Trump’s official national emergency declaration came on March 13, and most of the country shut down or at least went partway toward that outcome. The Dow collapsed and millions of Americans were laid off, but saving lives was, after all, the number one consideration.
Trump put medical doctors on TV daily, the media was freaking out about refrigerated trucks carrying bodies away from New York hospitals, and doctors and nurses were our new national heroes.
And then came April 7.
I remember that week vividly; it was as if a light switch had been flipped, and I commented on it on my radio show at the time (and many times since).
April 7 was the day that America learned that the majority of the people who were dying from COVID-19 were Black or Hispanic.
Exactly one month earlier, on March 7, Trump had played golf at his club in West Palm Beach, met with Brazilian strongman Jair Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago, and visited the CDC headquarters in Atlanta. Over the previous week, U.S. deaths had risen from single digits to more than 20.
In March, Jared Kushner even put together an all-volunteer task force of mostly preppie 20-something white men to coordinate getting PPE to hospitals.
Then came April 7, when the New York Times ran a front-page story with the headline: “Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States.” Across the American media landscape, similar headlines appeared at other outlets, and the story was heavily reported on cable news and the network news that night.
As the New York Times noted that day: “In Illinois, 43 percent of people who have died from the disease and 28 percent of those who have tested positive are African-Americans, a group that makes up just 15 percent of the state’s population. African-Americans, who account for a third of positive tests in Michigan, represent 40 percent of deaths in that state even though they make up 14 percent of the population. In Louisiana, about 70 percent of the people who have died are black, though only a third of that state’s population is.”
American conservatives responded with a collective, “What the hell?!?”
Rush Limbaugh declared that afternoon that “with the coronavirus, I have been waiting for the racial component.” And here it was. “The coronavirus now hits African Americans harder—harder than illegal aliens, harder than women. It hits African Americans harder than anybody, disproportionate representation.”
Claiming that he knew this was coming as if he were some sort of a medical savant, Limbaugh said, “But now these—here’s Fauxcahontas, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris demanding the federal government release daily race and ethnicity data on coronavirus testing, patients, and their health outcomes. So they want a database to prove we are not caring enough about African Americans…”
It didn’t take a medical savant, of course. African Americans die disproportionately from everything, from heart disease to strokes to cancer to childbirth. It’s a symptom of a racially rigged economy and a health care system that only responds to money, which America has conspired to keep from African Americans for more than 400 years. Of course they’re going to die more frequently from coronavirus.
But the New York Times and the Washington Post simultaneously publishing front-page articles about that disparity with regard to COVID-19, both on April 7, echoed across the right-wing media landscape like a Fourth of July fireworks display.
Tucker Carlson, the only primetime Fox News host who’d previously expressed serious concerns about the death toll, changed his tune the same day, as documented by Media Matters for America.
Now, he said, “we can begin to consider how to improve the lives of the rest, the countless Americans who have been grievously hurt by this, by our response to this. How do we get 17 million of our most vulnerable citizens back to work? That’s our task.”
White people were out of work, and Black people were most of the casualties, outside of the extremely elderly. And those white people need their jobs back.
Brit Hume joined Tucker’s show and, using his gravitas as a “real news guy,” intoned, “The disease turned out not to be quite as dangerous as we thought.”
Left unsaid was the issue of to whom it was not “quite as dangerous,” but Limbaugh listeners and Fox viewers are anything but unsophisticated when it comes to hearing dog-whistles on behalf of white supremacy.
More than 12,000 Americans had died from coronavirus by April 7, but once we knew that most of the non-elderly victims were Black, things were suddenly very, very different. Now it was time to quit talking about people dying and start talking about getting people back to work.
It took less than a week for Trump to get the memo, presumably through Fox and Stephen Miller. On April 12, he retweeted a call to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci and declared, in another tweet, that he had the sole authority to open the United States back up, and that he’d be announcing a specific plan to do just that “shortly.”
On April 13, the ultra-right-wing, nearly-entirely-white-managed U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a policy paper titled “Implementing a National Return to Work Plan.”
Unspoken but big on the agenda of corporate America was the desire to get the states to rescind their stay-home-from-work orders so that companies could cut their unemployment tax costs.
When people file unemployment claims, those claims are ultimately paid for by the companies themselves, and with a high number of claims, a company will see a substantial future increase in their unemployment insurance premiums/taxes. If the “stay home” orders were repealed, workers could no longer, in most states, file for or keep receiving unemployment compensation.
On April 14, Freedomworks, the billionaire-founded and -funded group that animated the Tea Party against Obamacare a decade earlier, published an op-ed on their website calling for an “economic recovery” program including an end to the capital gains tax and a new law to “shield” businesses from lawsuits.
Three days after that, Freedomworks and the House Freedom Caucus issued a joint statement declaring that “it’s time to re-open the economy.”
Freedomworks published their “#ReopenAmerica Rally Planning Guide” encouraging conservatives to show up “[i]n-person” at their state capitols and governors’ mansions, and, for signage, to “Keep it short: ‘I’m essential,’ ‘Let me work,’ ‘Let Me Feed My Family’” and to “Keep [the signs looking] homemade.”
One of the first #ReopenAmerica rallies to get widespread national attention was April 18 in New Hampshire. Over the next several weeks, rallies had metastasized across the nation, from Oregon to Arizona, Delaware, North Carolina, Virginia, Illinois and elsewhere.
One that drew particularly high levels of media attention, complete with swastikas, Confederate flags and assault rifles, was directed against the governor of Michigan, rising Democratic star Gretchen Whitmer.
When Rachel Maddow reported on meatpacking plants that were epicenters of mass infection, the conservative Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court pointed out that the virus flare wasn’t coming from the “regular folks” of the surrounding community; they were mostly Hispanic and Black.
The conservative meme was now well established.
About a third of the people the virus killed were old folks in nursing homes. Which, right-wing commentators said, could be a good thing for the economy because they’re just “useless eaters” who spend our Medicaid and Social Security money but are on death’s door anyway.
For example, Texas’s Republican Lt. Governor Dan Patrick told Fox News, “Let’s get back to living… And those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.”
A conservative town commissioner in Antioch, California, noted that losing “many elderly [people]… would reduce burdens in our defunct Social Security System” and “free up housing.” He added, “We would lose a large portion of the people with immune and other health complications. I know it would be loved ones as well. But that would once again reduce our impact on medical, jobs and housing.”
It came to Trump’s attention that the biggest outbreaks were happening in prisons and meatpacking plants, places with few white people (and the few whites in them were largely poor and thus seen as disposable). Trump’s response to this was to issue an executive order using the Defense Production Act (which he had hesitated to use to order the production of testing or PPE equipment) on April 28 to order the largely Hispanic and Black workforce back into the slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.
African Americans were dying in our cities, Hispanics were dying in meatpacking plants, the elderly were dying in nursing homes.
But the death toll among white people—particularly affluent white people in corporate management who were less likely to be obese, have hypertension or struggle with diabetes, and who were more likely to work from home—was relatively low. And those who came through the infection were presumed to be immune to subsequent bouts, so we could issue them “COVID Passports” and give them hiring priority.
As a “public health expert in frequent contact with the White House’s official coronavirus task force”—Jared Kushner’s team of young, unqualified volunteers supervising the administration’s PPE response to the virus—noted to Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban, “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”
It was, after all, exclusively blue states that were then hit hard by the virus: Washington, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson Max Kennedy Jr., 26, was one of the volunteers on Kushner’s task force, and he blew the whistle to Congress on Kushner and Trump. As Jane Mayer wrote for the New Yorker, “Kennedy was disgusted to see that the political appointees who supervised him were hailing Trump as ‘a marketing genius,’ because, Kennedy said they’d told him, ‘he personally came up with the strategy of blaming the states.’”
So the answer to the question of why, at year’s end, the United States has about 20 percent of the world’s COVID-19 deaths, but only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, is pretty straightforward: Republicans were just fine with Black people dying back in April, particularly since they could blame it on Democratic blue-state governors.
And once they put that strategy into place in April, it became politically impossible to back away from it, even as more and more red-state white people became infected.
Everything since then—right down to Trump’s December 26 tweet (“The lockdowns in Democrat run states are absolutely ruining the lives of so many people – Far more than the damage that would be caused by the China Virus”)—has been a double-down on death and destruction, now regardless of race. Z
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Thom Hartmann is America’s number one progressive talk-show host and the New York Times bestselling author of The Hidden History of American Oligarchy and more than 30 other books in print. His online writings are compiled at HartmannReport.com. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.