couple of months ago, in the early days of the Great Shutdown, Republicans complained that Democrats’ impeachment of Donald Trump had distracted the President from taking more aggressive action to counter the spread of the coronavirus. Trump’s Senate trial, they pointed out, began in January, just as covid-19 was making its way out of China and the President was receiving his first briefings about it. “I think it diverted the attention of the government because everything every day was all about impeachment,” the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, told the radio host Hugh Hewitt in late March. Trump, when asked about McConnell’s comments at the time, first denied that he was distracted before allowing that the Senate trial “probably” did divert him. After all, he deadpanned, “I certainly devoted a little time to thinking about it.” The public did not buy the impeachment defense, however. Polls since then have shown that a majority of Americans hold Trump himself accountable for America’s halting, uncertain reaction to the pandemic. His belated response is all the more striking given a new model from epidemiologists at Columbia University, released this week, showing that tens of thousands of American lives might have been saved if major cities had closed down even one week earlier in March.
It’s no wonder that Trump and the Republicans are the ones trying to use impeachment as a distraction now. In recent days, the Republican-controlled Senate has not considered any major legislation related to the virus and the historic havoc it has wrought on the country’s public health and economy. Nor does it have any current plans to do so, leaving the fate of a three-trillion-dollar relief measure passed by the Democratic-controlled House last Friday uncertain. Meanwhile, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee voted along party lines to issue a subpoena that seeks to resurrect one of Trump’s main impeachment deflections—the canard that his scheme to extort Ukraine into investigating his election rival, Joe Biden, was based on criminal wrongdoing by Biden when his son Hunter was a board member at the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. At the same time, Trump, has continued his systematic post-impeachment purge of independent watchdogs across the federal government. When Trump fired the State Department’s inspector general, late last Friday, it was the fifth time an inspector general had been pushed out since the Senate trial ended, in early February. After Mitt Romney, the lone Senate Republican to vote in favor of Trump’s conviction at the trial, criticized the firing, Trump hit back with a trademark tweet. “Loser,” the tweet said, attached to a video revisiting Romney’s defeat in the 2012 Presidential election.
Trump lovers may find the return to the Ukraine impeachment story endlessly satisfying revenge drama played nightly on Fox. Still, riling up his base over impeachment, or retaliating for it, or whatever it is that the President is doing, is only part of Operation Obfuscation. Trump right now is mass-proliferating diversions, from last week’s spurious “Obamagate” to this week’s threat to withhold federal funds from Democratic-led states that make it easier for voters to cast ballots by mail this fall. If it seems as though Trump is generating more controversies than usual these days, that’s because he is. He is a superspreader of distraction. It’s an excellent way to make one forget, at least for a while, about the death and economic destruction currently rampaging across the country.
An added benefit of trolling, from the President’s perspective, is that it is also diverting the attention of the nation’s many Trump-haters, for whom his prolific stupidities and public feuds offer an endless supply of new outrage. Consider the predictable furor that ensued after Trump announced that he was taking hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug that he has publicly touted as a potential treatment for the coronavirus, despite studies showing that it may, in fact, be harmful. When the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said that a “morbidly obese” person like Trump should not be taking such a medically unadvisable risk, Trump kept the story alive by calling her a “sick” person. The two, it should be noted, have not spoken since she theatrically ripped up his State of the Union speech, on the day before his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial.
f course Trump is trying to distract. The emerging politics of the pandemic are not good for him, nor are they likely to get better. They have recast the fall election as a referendum on Trump’s basic competence to lead the country through a once-in-a-century convergence of crises. During the pre-pandemic impeachment era, Richard Nixon was the inescapable historical point of comparison for Trump’s corruption-ridden Presidency. Now it is Herbert Hoover. Running for reëlection after the stock market crash of 1929 and three failed years of trying to stop the Great Depression, Hoover promised Americans that “Prosperity Is Just Around the Corner.” Upbeat predictions amid bread lines didn’t cut it, and Hoover lost badly. The brutal political reality of running for another term while the country is experiencing mass unemployment is one that almost no President can overcome. In fact, the last time an American incumbent successfully won during a recession was in 1924.
Then again, Hoover’s campaign slogan seems like a winner today compared with the clunker Trump has been trying out in recent days: “Transition to Greatness!” On May 7th, Trump débuted the phrase, saying at a White House appearance with Texas Governor Greg Abbott that, while the economy was cratering now, he expected that late this year—preferably, right around the November election—it would begin to “transition into greatness.” A fantastic 2021 would follow. “I think next year we’re going to have a phenomenal year,” the President insisted.
The line stuck with him. By the next day, at an appearance with Republican members of Congress, Trump was calling it his new campaign mantra, claiming to have invented it on the spot (although he had used the same phrase just the day before), and insisting it was a more brilliant advertisement for his reëlection than anything the professionals could come up with. “It’s a great term. It just came out at this meeting,” he told the Republicans as reporters looked on. “That’s right. It came out by accident. It was a statement and it came out and you can’t get a better one. We can go to Madison Avenue and get the best, the greatest geniuses in the world to come up with a slogan, but that’s the slogan we’re going to use: ‘Transition to Greatness.’ And it’s starting right now.”
I suppose it’s not a surprise, more than three years into his Presidency, that Trump will lie about anything, even the coinage of a campaign slogan, but on simple grounds of political malfeasance alone this one seems to be an epic Presidential fail. It’s safe to say that nobody ever got reëlected to anything by promising a “transition.” You would think the guy whose 2016 success was aided by a catchy campaign slogan on a red baseball cap would know a dud when he sees one. Politicians win by attacking the other team, as Trump did so effectively four years ago, by ripping off Ronald Reagan’s 1980 promise to “Make America Great Again.” It is a lot harder to do that if you’re an incumbent, and harder still if you’re the incumbent at a time of epic death and economic suffering. If the record you’re running on is so bad that your own slogan vows to do better next time, it’s hard to envision winning. Yet that is exactly what Trump is selling these days. “TRANSITION TO GREATNESS,” Trump tweeted this Monday, at 4:39 a.m. On Tuesday, emerging from a lunch with Senate Republicans, he explained once again his theory of the case. “It’s a transition to greatness,” Trump said. “Above all, next year, you are going to have a tremendous year.” On Wednesday, he promised, on Twitter, a “normalization!” that somehow, miraculously, will take America out of this mess, “now that our country is Transitioning back to Greatness.” Madison Avenue is surely grateful that Trump is claiming responsibility for this at least.
If a return to normal isn’t really around the corner, Trump can at least offer distraction and denial. Diversion was and is the point. As if the coronavirus did not exist. As if more than a thousand Americans weren’t dying every day of this terrible virus without a cure. It was only a few weeks ago that the President was saying the United States might lose only fifty or sixty thousand Americans, or perhaps a hundred thousand total, to the disease. On April 10th, he predicted that covid-19 deaths in the United States would be “substantially below the one hundred thousand” figure, perhaps even as low as half of that. But now it is the start of the Memorial Day weekend, a time when the country traditionally pays tribute to its wartime fallen, and Trump’s “invisible enemy” is about to pass that awful milestone of a hundred thousand American deaths. The grim symbolism of this year’s holiday is not likely to be soon forgotten, no matter how hard the President tries.