Trump's bungling of coronavirus will reshape US politics

For Republicans to lead the way in saving America from a host of crises, they must save themselves from their present leader

epaselect epa08305249 US President Donald J. Trump speaks to reporters as he holds a meeting with nurses on the COVID-19 response at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 18 March 2020.  EPA/KEVIN DIETSCH / POOL
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March 2020 is the month the roof fell upon Donald Trump’s presidency.

The Democratic Party has declined to commit political suicide by avoiding the nomination of Senator Bernie Sanders. Mr Trump will instead face Joe Biden, the candidate he fears most - and got himself impeached trying to sabotage.

Then, even graver: March is the month in which Mr Trump's indifference to government finally had easily visible real-world consequences. The United States was given more than six weeks to prepare for coronavirus. Mr Trump squandered them. Now the country faces a pandemic without adequate testing kits or sufficient hospital facilities. Stock markets have collapsed. A recession is impending, if it has not already begun. Even after Mr Trump’s abrupt pivot away from “it’s a hoax” denial at his March 13 press conference, his administration continues to fail to plan for more hospital beds and medical equipment.

Mr Trump's own leadership is in crisis. His Wednesday-night Oval Office speech triggered the largest single-day drop in stocks since 1987, and stocks continue to zigzag with sickening velocity as they wait for the Trump administration to devise an economic plan.

Mid-March Gallup polls have found a four-point drop in Mr Trump’s support already – and that’s before mass job losses and before the hospitals are jammed by his refusal to act in time.

Observers should begin to assume that Mr Trump will lose, and probably take the Republican Party’s Senate majority with him.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 09, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan. Joe Biden won the Arizona Democratic primary over Bernie Sanders, giving him a sweep of the three US states which voted on March 17, 2020, TV networks said. With 56 percent of precincts reporting in Arizona, Biden led Sanders by 42.6 percent to 30.3 percent, according to New York Times figures.
Biden also won primaries in Florida and Illinois on Tuesday to open up a commanding lead over Sanders in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In this March 9, 2020 photo, Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden addresses a campaign rally in Detroit, Michigan. AFP

That loss will have huge consequences for the United States and the world. I wish here to focus on a narrower topic: the consequences for the Republican Party.

I write as a Republican myself. I served in a Republican administration. From his entry into politics, I rejected Donald Trump as a reactionary bigot who would discredit conservative causes and American leadership in the world. I rejected him as a lawless authoritarian – and as a crook strangely beholden to Vladimir Putin. I claim no credit for these insights. They were glaringly obvious from the start.

And now those insights will be undeniable to all. What happens next?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, exits a caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. The Senate cleared the second major bill responding to the coronavirus pandemic, with lawmakers rushing to follow up with an additional economic rescue package that President Donald Trump's administration estimates will cost $1.3 trillion. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, exits a meeting in Washington DC on March 18, 2020 in which the subject was how to address the coronavirus pandemic's spread in the United States. Bloomberg

Three possibilities beckon.

1. Trumpism without Trump.

What if Mr Trump had worked harder and understood government better? What if he been less needy and vain? What if he had hired more competent people? What if he had been less visibly crooked? Could the scheme have worked? There are Republicans who will answer that question, "yes".

They may even think: Mr Trump just got unlucky. He found a loyal base by running on ethno-nationalism. If the coronavirus had not struck when it did, he might have got away with it all. The message works; we just need a new messenger.

The trouble with this idea was that Trumpism did not work. The President fluked into office in 2016 with a lower share of the vote than many others who have tried and failed: Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Mitt Romney in 2012. Trumpism produced a shattering defeat in the congressional elections of 2018, driving formerly Republican-leaning suburbs into the Democratic column. A Trumpist party will be in the 21st century what the Democratic Party was after the American Civil War: a permanent minority party for those alienated from everything progressive and dynamic in American life.

People wearing MAGA hats listen as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) annual meeting at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, U.S., February 27, 2020.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
People wearing "Make America Great Again" hats listen as Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) annual meeting in Maryland, USA on February 27, 2020. Reuters

2. Back to the Tea Party

Pre-Trump, the dominant figure in the Republican party was Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. His "Ryan plan" provided the Republicans with their messaging from 2010 to 2015: unwavering opposition to Obamacare, big spending cuts to fund deficit reduction and tax cuts.

March is when Mr Trump's indifference to government had easily visible, real-world consequences

That message failed in the presidential election of 2012. But Republicans credited it with their congressional victories in 2010 and 2014. Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and others wanted to run on it in 2016. Mr Trump beat them by positioning himself as a "different kind of Republican" – one who would protect healthcare benefits and raise taxes on the rich. If he is beaten and discredited, the party elite may wish to revert to Ryanism.

But that's a losing plan too. The Republican Party of 2010 to 2015 had a lot to say about government finances. It had nothing to say about the everyday concerns of most American voters: health care, college costs, stagnant wages. It had nothing to say about climate change – also an increasingly urgent issue to many formerly Republican voters. Mr Trump's ethno-nationalist chauvinism was a wrong answer, politically and ethically. But his 2016 rivals lost because they offered an even less compelling answer: a politics that worked only for some, not for most.

A United States flag is reflected in the window of the Nasdaq studio, which displays indices and stocks down, in Times Square, New York, Monday, March 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
An American flag is reflected in the window of the Nasdaq studio, where displays show stocks and indices down, in Times Square, New York on March 16, 2020. AP Photo

It's time for Republicans to consider a third choice of reform and renewal: to listen to more moderate and pragmatic voices on issues of the environment and health care. Republicans fought for a decade to repeal the healthcare guarantee of Obamacare. It's time to accept that it is here to stay. Republicans called climate change a hoax as they called coronavirus a hoax. It is time to trust scientists rather than industry lobbyists. Republicans have wasted 20 years ignoring and defying the 21st century, offering xenophobia and nostalgia in place of sensible government from the centre-right.

Such a third choice would offer a more inclusive politics that is culturally modern and environmentally responsible. You can be a party of free enterprise while taxing carbon emissions. You can be a party of markets and private property while ensuring health insurance to all of your citizens. You can protect borders and manage immigration in the national interest while showing equal respect to all people of all backgrounds.

Trumpism failed not only because of Mr Trump, but because the whole Trump project was a dead end.

In an era when the Chinese economy is nearly as large and sophisticated as that of the United States, American leadership must be based on cooperation and alliances, not barking unilateralism and trade protectionism. Mr Trump thinks he can stand up to China by hurling insults at them. To counter Beijing, however, the US must resume building global institutions that can enforce rules: health and environmental rules as well as rules for trade and security.

But the answer for Republicans is not to revert to the rigid ideology of the Ryan era either. The answer is to evolve to a more practical politics of moderate conservatism, in tune with the multi-ethnic and secular American middle class of the 21st century.

David Frum is a writer at the Atlantic and author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy, to be published May 12 by HarperCollins