Over the next few months, the United States will be tested by a reality that moves much faster than our imaginations. Things are already changing in ways that seemed impossible months ago: Unemployment claims are spiking beyond the point where a graph can adequately convey the carnage. If things go well, deaths will be limited to somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 people. That’s the “good” outcome. As we come to terms with what it means to live through this historical crisis, we must also get our heads around the fact that the president is making it all worse, not better. If we had a functioning political system, which we do not, this president’s missteps would be grounds for impeachment and removal. The fact that this is not even in the conversation, even while commentators acknowledge that Trump’s actions will lead to a death toll with few precedents outside of war, is a frightening indictment of our politics.
The lack of widespread testing and the excruciating delays in issuing stay-at-home orders are clear evidence of the administration’s immediate inability to grapple with this crisis, but this administration’s failures of planning began years ago. In 2018, the Trump administration cut the Centers for Disease Control’s pandemic prevention budget by 80 percent and pushed out the top official in charge of coordinating the nation’s pandemic response in a reorganization that also disbanded the entire National Security Council global health team. An administration official explained the decision to The Washington Post at the time: “In a world of limited resources, you have to pick and choose.” Even as recently as January, the Trump administration failed to heed intelligence reports warning of a likely pandemic. Can you impeach a president for failing to plan for a pandemic? Legal scholars will no doubt spend many long hours debating the matter. In the meanwhile, maybe we should just give it a whirl.
Until only a couple weeks ago, Trump continued to downplay the severity of the pandemic, comparing it to the flu and saying it would “miraculously” disappear as the weather warmed. He has refused to use the Defense Production Act to require companies to manufacture medical equipment, despite invoking it for hundreds of thousands of orders for military equipment. Perhaps the most screamingly impeachable act committed by Trump has been the uneven distribution of necessary equipment to states from the federal stockpile, seemingly dependent on whether the governor of that state has been particularly mean to him. He claimed that governors are asking for equipment they don’t need, like Andrew Cuomo of New York, the clear epicenter of the outbreak: “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” the president said, on television. Some Republican states are receiving more equipment than they requested, while California received 170 broken ventilators from the federal government.
This equipment is needed to keep Americans alive, to keep them breathing when their lungs fill with fluid, or to protect doctors and nurses from catching the virus themselves. This is not some abstract question of corrupted interests or a dodgy investigation into a political foe; it is Trump standing directly in the way of human lives being lived, of people getting to attend their grandchild’s next birthday party, of future children being born at all. Does this not warrant at least investigation from Democrats, who could request documents and emails to find out whether Trump really did direct supplies away from dying patients in blue states?
It is crucial not to think of Trump’s mistakes as purely failures of competence, though they are that too. They are, just as importantly, failures of ideology. So it would be ideal for Democrats to use this moment to make the case against conservatism itself, instead of acting like this would all be basically fine if the Republicans of a decade ago were in charge. Joe Biden’s much-praised TV ad about Trump’s poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic flashed an image of George W. Bush standing on the wreckage of 9/11. Bush’s “handling” of that crisis included starting the Iraq War, to say nothing of his government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. There would be nothing to stop Democrats from painting Trump’s failed response to the pandemic as both a natural result of his revolting personality and incompetence, and in tune with a party propped up by the sorts of corporate monsters who would rather send you to work in a pandemic than hurt profits—other than their steadfast commitment to playing by the rules of a politics that never existed anywhere other than in Aaron Sorkin’s addled imagination.
If anyone did not already know that impeachment is a political process, the experience of this year should have clarified things for them. This means that, yes, the same problems that prevented Trump being convicted for corruption—most importantly, a Republican majority in the Senate with no interest in giving up power—would likely prevent Trump being convicted on this issue. Early as it is, the fact that Trump’s approval ratings are going up does not bode well for the prospects of marshaling the political will to remove him. Yet it is hard not to think that the political calculus could look a little different once the hundred thousand body bags that the federal government has sought start to fill up; that this would have a far greater political effect than a story in which the major practical impacts were some withheld military aid for a foreign country and lost jobs for Beltway diplomats. Over time, more and more of us will know someone who has become gravely ill or died because of this disease. It is impossible to imagine the damage this will do to an already broken country, and what that damage might do to our politics.
But perhaps the best argument against impeaching Trump for his handling of the coronavirus is simply the way the Democrats handled it last time around, and their handling so far of the current crisis. Pelosi pushed for a quick impeachment on a limited number of charges, and got what she wanted. The story came and went. It’s almost funny, now, to remember it even happened; just another one of those “Ah! Nevertheless,” moments in the long story of Democrats’ cries of protest about Trump misconduct leading to nothing; not even a dent in his approval ratings. This is a party that cannot find its way to proposing adequate measures to help poor and middle-class Americans who are about to go through the most violent economic shock in decades, perhaps in the country’s entire history, but can find their way to floating a repeal of a tax on the rich. It cannot even bring itself, as millions lose their health coverage, to acknowledge the stupidity of employer-sponsored insurance.
In a sensible world, where the actions of the president have some consequences, Trump would have been impeached a month into his term; in a less-sensible but still vaguely understandable world, there would be some feasible way to remove a president whose actions are causing thousands of preventable deaths. The plain fact that there isn’t, and that the party tasked with running this opposition is still struggling to tie its shoelaces, is just another glimpse of the truth that this crisis has revealed from the beginning: America is very, very bad at being a country.