At Your Home Without Me with Leah Pisar
Donald Trump, Ambushed or Unmasked?
[Translated from French]
Over the last few weeks, the health crisis has morphed into a full-fledged socio-political crisis within the United States. An inevitable explosion in unemployment, resulting from these extra-ordinary circumstances, paired with the anti-racist protests and riots sweeping not only the nation, but the world, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, are proof that this is a turbulent period indeed.
In addition to the pandemic and the protests, the White House’s reaction to the upheaval has set the tone for the upcoming presidential election–it is a climate with which the American people have become very familiar over the past three months of quarantine. That is: utterly out of the ordinary.
It still remains difficult to determine whether Donald Trump has cannily taken advantage of a violent political situation mirroring a divided America, one which he does not seem interested in reconciling; or if he has gone too far and, finally, crossed a line. With declining approval ratings, some cracks in the heretofore seamless Republican support he used to enjoy, and disagreement seeping within his own administration, has Donald Trump begun to jeopardize his chances for re-election on Nov. 3rd? The 2020 presidential election will offer voters a stark choice between a divided, individualistic society; and a united America that is open to the world.
It is a struggle between “two visions of America,” in which “the soul of this country and the balance of the world” are at stake, explains Franco-American writer and former advisor to President Clinton Leah Pisar. Current President of the Aladdin Project—a NGO that works for intercultural rapprochement and the rejection of Holocaust denial, racism and anti-Semitism, Leah Pisar naturally sides with openness, humanity, and a shared world.
I would have come to see you at home, Leah, but confinement and a week of curfews in New York—for the first time since 1943—make that impossible at the moment. Peaceful demonstrations across the United States and around the world are sending a clear message: the desire for non-racist policing and fair justice. Are we witnessing an historic moment as the world did in 1963 during Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech I Have a Dream?
What we experienced last week is unlike anything I have ever seen before in the United States. Daily alerts on our cell phones indicating the beginning of curfews in New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis of course, and in most major American cities. Over Manhattan, there was the incessant buzz of helicopters and, in the streets, the sounds of sirens and demonstrations. Though I must add that the few marches I saw from my window seemed very peaceful and organized.
The images we saw on television of looters, mingling with peaceful protesters who were mourning the tragic death of George Floyd and believing that America can always strive to be “a more perfect” nation, were disconcerting. Yes, this first week of June 2020 has already marked the history of the United States and one must hope that, despite the tragic circumstances, it is a turning point the struggle for a more inclusive and fair society.
Just a few days ago, we witnessed riots and looting that seemed alarmingly violent. Donald Trump then threatened to call in the army and presented himself as the president of Law and Order. How should we interpret his reaction?
Instead of calming things down, of trying to bring Americans together, to reconcile them—which should be the normal desire of a Head of State—Trump wants to set a match to the powder keg and foment discord, with the main objective of consolidating his power.
We all saw the images of a group of peaceful protesters being violently dispersed with tear gas and flash grenades, so as to clear a path for him to walk to St John’s Church, which sits just behind the White House, across Lafayette Park. In front of the cameras, he brandished a Bible, without even opening it, in a seeming attempt to appeal to his conservative base. He has also issued repeated threats to use force, in an obvious appeal to people’s sense of insecurity, an old method often used by demagogues and fascists.
But the looters? They are very real.
Of course, they’re real. Organized looters joined the crowds of demonstrators, as they often do, along with political agitators, and the police couldn’t intercept them in time. Without allowing local law enforcement to do its job, Trump acted like the wanted to play sheriff and seemed poised to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 so as to deploy active duty forces to quash the demonstrations. The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who unwittingly got caught up in the St John’s Church photo-op, were forced to react. Both made clear that they were not ready to support this approach. Indeed, calling in Federal troops to quash peaceful and constitutionally-grounded protests is contrary to the spirit of American democracy, and jars with the very principles of the Posse Comitatus Law of 1878, according to which military troops can only be deployed on the national territory in extreme and unusual circumstance. Prominent Republican figures—such as President George W. Bush, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and General Colin Powell—have now indicated that they will not support Trump in November.
Trump would therefore have isolated himself more than he would have rallied around his candidacy for a second term. Did he act desperately or opportunistically?
Both. This is most likely a very cynical political calculation that must be seen through the prism of the upcoming election. Trump is an opportunist. While he probably hasn’t read Machiavelli, he is implementing Charles Quint’s motto, ‘divide and conquer’. He actually wants to foment chaos and division. At the moment, his aggressive strategy isn’t paying off. A recent CNN poll shows a mere 41% support in his favor, versus 55% for Biden. Trump is paying a dear price for his handling of the health crisis, rampant unemployment and a plummeting economy. But it is above all his reaction to the death of George Floyd, and the national uprising that followed, that has shocked the nation.
There is a “trumpization” of news, much of which is becoming erroneous, not to say “fake.”
Don’t the scenes of looting also illustrate the human impact of the economic situation and record unemployment in the United States in the context of the Covid? Isn’t there a moment, a tipping point, when the solution to the problem might create more serious challenges than the one it originally wanted to address?
That’s the whole point. We have to find the right balance: do everything possible to stop the pandemic, while trying to avoid an economic cataclysm.
In the United States, the Executive waited too long to respond. The human and economic toll are all the more serious. We have a leader in Washington who fears that an economic disaster could cost him his re-election and for whom health and medical considerations seem almost like and afterthought. It is plausible that Trump has discouraged widespread testing precisely because he fears that this would reveal that the disease is far more prevalent than current figures indicate.
To many, containment is not only an opportunity to help stop the pandemic but also an obligation that others may not have the luxury to observe.
Of course, it is a luxury. That is why those of us who can stay at home, without losing our jobs or risking our lives, really have no business complaining.
For others, the priority may be different, and the economic imperative is, for most people, vital. Look at how the unemployment rate is exploding. It is therefore essential that the authorities help and guide the economic players so that work can restart without a spike in the infection rate. French President Emmanuel Macron is doing this intelligently, even if he does not yet have all the answers. His American counterpart is on the other hand tilting between the most abject cruelty and utter incompetence.
You are a specialist in Franco-American relations. What is the difference between the Americans and the French attitude?
For this, we must turn to a very wise and prescient Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville!
In The Old Régime and the Revolution, Tocqueville described a centralized France with a strong executive power. Today’s crisis confirms that, more than 160 years after the publication of this book, this is still the case. The impression I have had of France’s lockdown, when speaking to friends lately and following the news, is that of a united people who adapted to the confinement and understood that it was for the good of the country. There was a striking sense of solidarity. Most French people followed the rules, good-naturedly, with resignation and good humor. The recent decline in contagion rates demonstrates that this attitude was effective. In France containment was also mandatory, which was not the case here – where many people chose not to play along.
On the other side of the ocean, where his most famous work is set, Democracy in America, Tocqueville recounts his journey through a totally unique country. This contrasts greatly with 19th Century France… and still with today’s Fifth Republic! Here we have a federal, decentralized system, where the 50 States must take their responsibilities, and try as best they can to coordinate with the Federal administration. This is a good thing, because today many Governors, Democrats and Republicans, are showing real leadership and not letting themselves be intimidated by Washington. This is a vital component of the checks and balances upon which the American political system was built, even though local authorities must be very careful not to offend a president who likes to punish those who do not support him.
You’re a Democrat and you’re openly supporting Joe Biden’s candidacy. Your lack of enthusiasm for the Trump administration makes a lot of sense.
There is a “trumpization” of news, much of which is becoming erroneous, not to say “fake.” In dealing with this medical crisis, there is a lack of transparency and a baffling lack of medical supplies, especially for the world’s leading power. Above all, American society has grown very divided. And Trump exploits this division. Some of his supporters go out on a daily basis, mingle with outers without wearing masks. This is seen as an act of defiance. When Donald Trump himself visits a mask factory without wearing one, it is not just to act like a cowboy, but to show that he and his Vice-President think they are above the law – like a signal to his followers that they too can flout the rules. The American President is so impatient to reopen the economy that he seems prepared to sacrifice a great number of human lives.
Across the Atlantic, Emmanuel Macron wears a mask, tries to be reasonable, talks to the French people, communicates, meets and speaks with doctors. Trump is in denial of the problem and is working neither in a thoughtful nor in a constructive way to get out of the crisis.
There is another essential difference between France and the United States: we will have a presidential election in the United States in a few months—next November 3rd. Everything Trump does must be seen through this prism.
Barack Obama, who supports the candidacy of his former Vice-President, has clearly criticized Donald Trump, describing his management of the crisis as ‘an absolute chaotic disaster.’ This is an unusual public position for a former American President, who is moreover the predecessor of the current tenant of the White House?
Obama described Donald Trump’s management of the crisis as absolute chaos in a semi-private context. However, he surely anticipated that this statement could leak.
We are going through a singular, unique period during which Trump constantly attacks Obama by inventing an ‘Obamagate’ that does not exist. He even had the nerve to accuse Obama of creating faulty tests for a virus that has only been around, biologically, since… late 2019 (and, as we know, Obama left the White House in January 2017). It would be funny if it were not so serious.
It is therefore normal that Obama defends himself. Trump is trying to blame Obama, and claims that his administration did not have any kind of a strategy for a pandemic. That is simply false. To the point where Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell finally had to apologize and admit that Obama had indeed developed a strategy.
Let’s do some little political fiction. How would a Biden administration have handled the current crisis?
Biden would have handled things completely differently. He would have brought experts together —real experts. And he would have let them speak up, and listened to them, even if their recommendations were not simple. He would not have put someone like Mike Pence at the head of the Coronivarus Task Force – remember, Pence refused to distribute needles and condoms when he was Governor of Indiana, during a significant outbreak of HIV/AIDS.
Biden would have set up a transparent information system; he would have communicated with other leaders, particularly the Chinese, who have a great deal of experience in observing this disease. He would have worked with all 50 States. He would have coordinated resources—and, yes, there would have been enough masks and ventilators. And he would have of course been a more compassionate and intelligent leader. Scientific projections have shown that if a more responsible and proactive President than Trump had been in power, there would already have been far fewer deaths.
When my father—Samuel Pisar—was imprisoned in Auschwitz during the war, he dreamed only of the United States. This country represented for him the values of democracy and freedom — values that were of course invented in France during the Enlightenment.
You mention the lack of communication with the Chinese authorities. What about international cooperation?
It hardly exists anymore. That is very troubling. Under Trump, America has completely rejected its international position, its voice, its leadership. For more than a century, since it abandoned isolationism and went into World War I, and when the concurrent Russian revolution gave birth to a Manichean world of “us versus them,” America has represented something in the world. This is known as American Exceptionalism, or what Ronald Reagan described as ‘the shining city on a hill‘.
A City Upon on a Hill, a ray of hope. This expression was also used by Obama and Kennedy… It echoes the 1630 speech of an American puritan, John Winthrop, for whom his community was to represent ‘a city on a hill and the eyes of the people will be directed to us.’
This is American exceptionalism, liberty. When my father—Samuel Pisar—was imprisoned in Auschwitz during the war, he dreamed only of the United States. This country represented for him the values of democracy and freedom — values that were of course invented in France during the Enlightenment. Those values seem to be dissipating. Or rather, they are no longer visible, because I find it hard to imagine that they have suddenly vanished into thin air. This country can no longer count on its current President to behave like the “Leader of the Free World.” It is an abdication. The United States has always had a vocation to set an example. This has disappeared and is opening a rift, of which China can only take advantage. That frightens me, even more than the Covid-19 crisis itself. I fear for the future of democracy and international cooperation.
The possible end, then, of American influence as the world’s leading power?
If undemocratic powers establish a new balance in the world and if the United States remains on an isolationist and unilateralist course, what will remain of international cooperation? But let’s not be fatalistic. We still have the ability to bounce back. It will all come down to the November election.
So, Joe Biden would start by reviving this cooperation?
Of course, and he would call for renewed cooperation at all levels: within states, among states, between governors and the executive branch, and at the international level. The United States needs to exchange with France, China, Germany and so many other countries. We must work together. Especially under current circumstances, since we are all threatened by the same scourge.
It is finally time to give women a greater voice in politics. A woman will bring a different experience and perspective.
Joe Biden has promised to choose a woman as a candidate for Vice President. Why?
Biden made this decision before the crisis began, but this nomination will be all the more important as women are directly and indirectly targeted by the pandemic. I see it myself, as the mother of a young child. My life is totally disrupted by this situation, and my friends who also have children are taking on far more responsibility than their male partners. This is not a criticism; it is just a fact.
And I am not talking about women who are really, profoundly and durably affected by this crisis: Women who are raising children on their own, who are accumulating jobs to make ends meet, who are paralyzed by the fact that schools are closed.
It is finally time to give women a greater voice in politics. A woman will bring a different experience and perspective. This complementarity can only be constructive.
New York, where we live, is a Democratic state. This is obviously not the case everywhere, especially in the famous “swing states” that Donald Trump managed to win four years ago. What must be the determining factors for Trump not to be re-elected in the current context?
Let’s put aside Trump’s ideological differences and his style of governing, his management of America’s international reputation, his domestic politics, and his way of harming the American people. We will have to see objectively in November where unemployment stands, how the economy is behaving in general, what the state of the pandemic is, make an assessment of the number of victims, and finally analyze the adaptation of Americans to this new societal environment. If these results are negative, I fear we will be able to say – and to deplore — that Trump has managed this crisis in a destructive way.
Yet, that does not mean that he will not be re-elected. Already, under normal circumstances, the outgoing president has a better chance of being re-elected than his challenger. This is what we call ‘the incumbent advantage.’
Will it be a campaign against Donald Trump or a campaign to convince the undecided that the Democratic agenda is better than the Republican one?
This will have to be a campaign against Donald Trump because he poses a clear and present danger to the future of our Republic. It is not just a competition between two visions of America. As Trump succumbs to totalitarian, almost fascistic behavior, the soul of this country and the balance of the world are at stake.
Is there a risk of constitutional and political derailment, especially if Donald Trump’s re-election is not assured?
There is a very great risk of derailment, and the signs are already showing. Jared Kushner recently mentioned the possibility of changing the election date. This was a shocking statement, even if they would have trouble pulling it off. It has never been done, even in the middle of a war. But these people seem capable of anything.
Another example: Donald Trump has been sharply critical of the U.S. postal system for some time. Is it because he wishes to undermine his great rival, Jeff Bezos, by limiting the reach of Amazon? Maybe. But there is probably also a much deeper electoral motivation. When people can’t vote in person in the United States, they can mail in their ballots. If Trump managed to paralyze the postal system, it would prevent millions of Americans from voting, which could make a crucial difference if Covid-19 remains an issue at the time of the election. Trump knows that a lower turnout is generally an advantage for Republicans.
Trump will say—and has already said—that mail-in ballots are unreliable, even though he himself voted by mail a few months ago in the Florida presidential primary.
What if he cannot get reelected?
If Trump can’t tamper with the election before it occurs, and if he does not fare well, he is likely to challenge the results. He could initiate proceedings and, if necessary, go as far as the Supreme Court—where the majority of Justices are conservative. He may even be able to invoke secret emergency powers, in the event of a very serious crisis. Some great legal and constitutional scholars are looking into that. Not to mention his capacity to generate a national emergency, a nuclear conflagration or who knows what the most imaginative screenwriter could probably not fathom all the scenarios. In short, we don’t know what he is capable of doing and what resources he has at his disposal. So we must prepare as best we can.
Nevertheless, let us not succumb to pessimism. This is not constructive. The American people have a voice, and it is growing louder and louder. The causes of this awareness – the death of George Floyd – are tragic and heartbreaking. But perhaps there is now an energy and a mobilization that may be able to carry the country forward. For, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, in a phrase often cited by Barack Obama, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
More about Leah Pisar and The Aladdin Project, click here