Updated May 7, 2020, 11:52 a.m.
The United States has grown into crises that it can overcome militarily or economically – Corona is therefore a unique opponent, says the American scientist Michael Hochgeschwender. A conversation about Donald Trump’s crisis management, the failure of the Democrats and who will be blamed for Corona in November.
Over a million confirmed corona infected, over 70,000 dead – and U.S. President Donald Trump recommends drinking live disinfectants on TV to fight Corona. How can this be explained?
Michael Hochgeschwender: He didn’t say that directly. Trump has publicly asked his advisor Deborah Birx whether disinfectant, if injected into the body, can have a cleansing effect from the inside.
The question, of course, is already idiotic, and it was not meant sarcastic, as he later tried to put into perspective. But it wasn’t a direct call to the Americans to drink lots of disinfectants now.
With such a statement, Donald Trump conveys the naive image of a nine-year-old who believes that one can fight this virus with a pathetic spell instead of with rational science. This simple worldview meets many followers in the USA, which is what makes them so dangerous.
“People don’t care about Donald Trump”
However, deaths are still increasing because, for example, people drink aquarium cleaners for fear of the virus. A political professional should have understood the fatal effect of this “question”. Is there a strategy behind Trump’s proposal?
Since the first news about Corona flared up, Trump has been sending the message every day that he has the situation under control. If you see that the United States is now mourning a quarter of all deaths, you have to conclude that he has long lost control.
But Donald Trump doesn’t care about people, he is primarily concerned with himself. Trump’s line is to stage himself, whatever it may be, as a doer who acts and thus sets a counterpoint to the scientists who hesitate and the right way wrestle.
He is in a cycle in which he conceals his own failure with increasingly shrill suggestions and claims in order to maintain his image as a doer.
Governors from New York or Maryland, for example, publicly criticize Trump and emancipate themselves from the government line, and parts of his own party also distance themselves. Who is currently leading the USA?
The United States is a federally organized state, crises are resolved at local and regional level. Governor Andrew Cuomo is acting very prudently in New York and is getting an increasingly better grip on the situation.
But the governors are also dependent on functioning institutions. It makes no sense if each country orders protective suits on its own account and thus drives up the market price.
Trump, on the other hand, is proving to be a beacon in this crisis. When he calls for the “liberation” of Michigan, Wisconsin and Virginia a few days after almost everyone, including many republican states, has shut down public life, it is fatal.
“Störfeuer” is almost an understatement. We saw the pictures of the queues in front of gun shops in the United States. What if someone takes the “liberation” literally and goes nuts? Can a president be held accountable for this?
No, because the United States has a very liberal definition of freedom of expression. As early as 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that the Ku Klux Klan’s hate speech against African Americans and Jews was protected by the constitution.
As long as you don’t call for a crime in the United States, you have the right to say almost anything. Of course, political responsibility is on a different page.
It is not the job of a president, not even in the election campaign, to rush to intensify the massive division in the country. But you have to deal with it politically, that’s not a question that can be clarified in courts.
Instead of presenting himself publicly as the voice of reason, Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, sends podcasts from his basement – and is barely perceptible. Why is the opposition failing right now?
Crises are the hour of the executive, which is no different in Washington than in Vienna or Bavaria. The Democrats can of course make suggestions. If these penetrate at all, they quickly appear to have ritualized criticism from the sidelines. This is a position in which the Democrats can almost only lose at the moment.
The situation is different for individual actors within the Democratic Party. For example, think of Andrew Cuomo from New York. Its approval ratings increase week by week because it assumes responsibility at a corona hotspot. If the Democrats manage to put such figures in the shop window, this crisis can also be an opportunity.
The United States has always been a country that was up to any problem in European perception. Corona seems to turn this principle, which we also count on from a military perspective, completely.
The United States can solve any problem that it is financially, economically, technologically, or militarily superior to. They are conventional and nuclear unbeatable. But the USA is reaching its limits in asymmetrical warfare. You can see that in the war with Iran, you can see that in the fight against the corona virus, which behaves like a guerrilla force.
In addition, the USA is also reaching its internal limits in this crisis. A country in which young, healthy, wealthy, white people can make enormous profits, but in which everyone who only lacks one of these aspects falls out of the social network, is no match for such a crisis.
“If the second wave hits America even harder, Trump is done”
When employees have publicly criticized Donald Trump in the past, it rarely ended well for them. Anthony Fauci, the medical government advisor, appears to be the first to successfully counter Trump’s proposals with impunity. How does he do that?
Fauci is very clever in his criticism of Trump, you can tell that he attended a Jesuit school. Instead of attacking Trump openly, he prefers to work with hints and thus does not give Trump a target.
At the same time, Trump is, to a certain extent, dependent on his experts, who have become the faces of this crisis and enjoy great trust among the population.
You could still be a pawn sacrifice if the US government’s corona strategy fails.
Trump’s re-election will certainly depend on whether he develops a narrative that allows him to postpone his failure to others. If I were Anthony Fauci, I would at least worry about the next few months.
Trump will absolutely knit a legend in which the evil medical experts are responsible for almost everything that went wrong, including economically. There will be a real war of interpretation in the next few months. And Trump is not in such a bad position so far.
Does that mean he may be re-elected president in November?
Until then, both parties will position their media guns so that the other is to blame for the mess. If the experts manage to keep the second wave low, Trump will surely play the cards.
Then he can stage himself as a great crisis manager. If the second wave hits America even harder than the first, Trump is done. Then even his biggest followers will start to think.
About the expert: Michael Hochgeschwender is professor of North American cultural history at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. His focus is the religious history of the United States. He recently published “The American Revolution: Birth of a Nation” (C.H. Beck).