Throughout the summer, as anxieties over the pandemic mixed with resurgent anger over racial injustice, Trump worked to make white people feel like victims. He used the Black Lives Matter protests to declare that Black people were actually the aggressors. By hiding in the White House bunker and using force to disperse a peaceful protest in nearby Lafayette Square on June 1, Trump defined himself as the real victim. He tried (and failed) to persuade the armed forces to view protesters as enemies. By issuing an executive order to protect monuments on June 26, he claimed that the real issue was the innocence of (white) American history. By sending unidentified federal agents to Portland, Oregon, he tried to create the impression that defenders of the rights of Black Americans were threats to American cities. The problem was not the shooting of civilians by police; it was that Black people were making trouble in cities for no good reason.
In the real world, Americans have been dying from the pandemic all summer and fall, in ever greater numbers in states with Republican governors. The whole time, COVID-19 has been the real danger to everyone involved. More police officers have been dying of coronavirus exposure while on duty than from all other causes combined. At the very moment when the disease is reaching those whom Trump calls “my people,” the White House admits that it has no plan to stop it.
This is America’s basic problem: Health care is not a promise for all, but rather an expectation of the rich that they will do relatively better than the poor, and of white people that they will do relatively better than Black people. Suffering can seem meaningful if it affirms this basic order, even if that suffering is one’s own. This is a posture of submission. Letting a disease play itself out is not the attitude of a free people. Nor is resentment against those who take the initiative.
Our politics were supposed to be about the pursuit of happiness; and, as the author of that phrase knew, happiness is impossible without health. Yet a democracy can become suffused with suffering, to the point where many voters do not even expect that policy might help them or loved ones stay well. An aspiring authoritarian such as Trump knows what to do: provide the emotional jolts of pleasure that distract from the general decline. “Winning” is no longer about gaining something for oneself, such as a healthier or longer life, but about taking pleasure in the suffering of others. This is a sensibility—the strong survive; the weak get what they deserve—that favors authoritarianism over democracy. Those who endorse it cannot win this year’s election for Trump, but they can wreak havoc in November.
When Trump stands on a balcony after receiving treatment that is out of reach for others, he is asking not just for submission but for sacrifice. After all, he looks strong in the foreground only if others die in the background. That Trump would maximize pain, divide people, and create emergencies should not surprise anyone. It is just the authoritarian alchemy that one should expect. The unpredictable part is how we choose to react. In this election, Americans face a choice not between individuals, but between regimes: between tyranny and a republic as forms of government, and between suffering and happiness as its aims. If Trump is defeated, our democracy should be reinforced by universal health care. Health and freedom collapse together, and they can be recovered together. We would be much freer as a people if we accorded ourselves health care as a right.
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