“Speaking of Mitch, what’s gotten into him?” Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, said on 24 April, in reference to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. “The president is asking people to inject Lysol into their lungs and Mitch is saying that states should go bankrupt.”
Remarkably, this was not an overstatement. In a press briefing on coronavirus the day before, Donald Trump said, “And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that. So you’re going to have to use medical doctors with – but it sounds interesting to me.” Trump claimed the next day that he was being sarcastic. Evidently, this sarcasm, which the president himself described as “clear”, was not apparent to everyone: in New York City there was a spike in residents ingesting cleaning fluids.
Some Republicans – such as Will Hurd of Texas, who is not running for re-election – gestured at rebutting Trump’s statement. “Nobody should drink disinfectant,” Hurd said on MSNBC. “I think that’s pretty clear, and we should be listening to doctors and scientists on this issue. I’m not listening to any politician on health-related issues.”
But for the most part, the Republican leadership did not appear to focus its energy on countering dangerous claims. Instead, Republicans largely did what they’ve spent the past four years doing, which is insisting that the problem is anything but Trump.
As Pelosi said, McConnell floated the idea that states should go bankrupt instead of receiving more federal money; a CNN report claimed that Republican senators are largely in agreement that there should be a pause on new state funding. McConnell is apparently concerned about the national debt, despite having been able to put aside such concerns when passing tax cuts for the wealthy earlier on in Trump’s tenure.
Other high-profile Republicans, such as Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, spent part of their weekend on television trying to draw attention to the threat of Chinese students.
“If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America. They don’t need to learn quantum computing,” Cotton said on Fox News, suggesting that US universities should not allow Chinese students to study science or technology. Leaving aside the fact Shakespeare wasn’t American, the reality remains that Cotton, in the midst of a global pandemic, was animated enough about the danger posed by Chinese students to discuss it on television networks. There are legitimate risks posed by US universities’ dependence on Chinese money – some have reportedly allowed Chinese students to be in effect surveilled on their campuses – but none of that was addressed by Cotton.
What Cotton’s argument does, however, is change the terms of the debate. Instead of focusing on the Trump administration and its various failures, we are debating the merits of barring Chinese students from coming to the US to study technology. McConnell’s comments do something similar; they put the onus back on the individual states. It creates an argument, a fight, and a reason to focus on something other than Trump’s incompetence and recklessness.
Perhaps one might think that now, with the US exceeding one million known cases of coronavirus, the urgency of focusing on the health and safety of Americans would snap Trump’s Republican allies and protectors back into reality, where the president himself is posing a danger to his citizens. We have people ingesting cleaning supplies, seemingly at the president’s suggestion. If that is not enough to inspire Republicans to attempt to stop him from running for a second term in office, what will be?
Yet to think that, one would have to pretend Trump’s first term went differently. That senior Republicans had intervened when the president initially spent weeks downplaying the danger of Covid-19, even after the World Health Organisation declared it to be a global emergency; and that they had spoken out when people were being kept on a cruise ship because Trump didn’t want the number of cases in the US to increase. Or that they hadn’t said that the problem was that Trump couldn’t properly prepare for the coronavirus pandemic because he was distracted by impeachment proceedings. Or that they hadn’t argued that it wasn’t impeachable conduct for Trump to attempt to withhold military aid to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden.
One would have to imagine that, after a pipe bomb was sent to CNN, or after the newsroom of the Capital Gazette was attacked in Maryland, Republican senators had made a principled stand to stop the president from calling on his supporters to attack the media as “fake news”. Or that, when faced with a riot featuring neo-Nazis and chants of “Jew will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a president who talked about the “very fine people on both sides”, Republicans had said that no number of conservative judges or tax cuts or elections won with the help of Trump supporters could justify this display of hate.
But they didn’t do any of that.
Some Republicans may privately remark, as McConnell reportedly has, that they are smarter than Trump, and some may publicly express disappointment before voting along Trump’s lines. But Republicans have not, in any meaningful way, stood up to Trump when he has repeatedly endangered Americans.
Why would they now? The reality of a spike in the ingestion of cleaning products is the truth that Republicans now hold to be self-evident: it’s Donald Trump’s party.
This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave