Donald Trump’s traveling vaudeville presidency

Dying for Trump and the attack of the Branch Covidians

April 2020

Donald Trump’s incomparable, grandiose, tremendous, special, incredible, magnificent and ‘yuge’ Traveling Vaudeville Presidency is enough to make Buffalo Bill Cody turn green with envy in his grave. After all, his favourite U.S. president is the infamous slave-owning ‘Indian killer,’ Andrew Jackson, who once had a female slave whipped in public for ‘putting on airs’ and offered an extra 10 dollars for every 100 lashes administered to Tom, a thirty-year-old runaway slave, to a total of 300. He was responsible for the intergenerational trauma of countless Native Americans through his Indian Removal Act—just ask surviving members of the Cherokee Nation about the Trail of Tears. When in 2017 Trump honored a group of WWII veterans, Navajo code talkers, at a ceremony at the White House, speaking to them under a portrait of Andrew Jackson, he refered to Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren as ‘Pocahontas’ in an all too commin racial slur.

Racial slurs, hypocrisy and contempt for the poor continue to pour from the spigots of Trump’s Washington, D.C. cesspool… bigly… since the plague of Covid-19 arrived in the United States. As John Whitlow points out, in this world-historical juncture dominated by finance capital, real estate investment, financialization and provisions for creditors to exercise more power to expand private debt, millions of Americans are filing for unemployment benefits and are unable to seek medical assistance in our profit-driven healthcare system. And for those lucky enough to afford medical insurance, it is obvious that our public health infrastructure is woefully under-resourced. Years of raptorial and extortionist business practices have made fortunes for the business class—financiers, hedge fund slime masters, slum landlords and real estate developers—whose epiphanic dream of financializing real estate the world over – thanks, in part, to the entrenched bureaucracy of the government that works mightily in their favor.  Now they are being rescued from financial collapse through generous tax incentives and regulatory loopholes by the crapulous federal government and Trump’s own exercises in despotism, while the bodies of workers in the mill towns and crumbling city centres where industry has vanished, and in the rural South and Southwest where industry never even started up, are piling up in the plague cart, wrapped in Confederate flags.

The coronavirus has only added to the changing industrial landscapes of the country, where long abandoned factories appear like rotting corpses slowly imploding behind chain link fences. Roots and vines and hard-hat memories weave through the crumbling remnants of metal plating factories, barrel warehouses and distribution facilities, rust-splotched yard-switcher locomotive plants, egg hatcheries, grain silos, auto manufacturers, textile fabric mills, steel production and food processing plants, cut-and-sew apparel mills, paper mills, power stations, clothing factories, foundries, hand tool manufacturers, appliance manufacturing plants, machine shops, meatpacking plants, automobile factories and rundown housing. Vats of copper cyanide, nickel sulphate, nitric acid, polychlorinated biphenyls and sodium cyanide sit cheek-by-jowl in paint-flecked rooms flooded with turbid green water.

Today, approximately 46.2 million Americans are considered impoverished, which represents 15 percent of the country’s population. Approximately 16.4 American children—22 percent of the population younger than 18—live in poverty. For those 65 and older, the rate is 8.7 percent. Among those considered the most impoverished are those living in female-headed households with no husband present (31.2 percent); young adults without a high school diploma (31 percent overall; 43 percent for blacks); those living in a family whose head is unemployed (32.9 percent); and minority populations (27.6 for blacks). Do these statistics point to the poor—many of whom are front-line workers—whom we expect to die so that short-term value can be maximized to save capitalism; so that the pockets of the $7,000 designer suits sported by landlords—who are benefitting most from government bailouts and thus set the metrics for who is to live and who is to die—remain flush with money? Are the poor not the most vulnerable citizens who are currently facing eviction, hunger and illness during this pandemic? Trump’s business class prefer at-will employment arrangements and to extend unemployment benefits, rather than maintain worker attachment during the pandemic. Being able to fire workers after the economy crashes is the preferred option, so that unskilled workers can be hired at minimum wages. At-will employment means an employee can be fired by an employer for any reason (as long as the reason is not illegal) and without a warning or any notice of termination. In Europe, by contrast, contract employment prevails in most cases, and there are more unions to protect the employee.

Consider the recent coronavirus relief package whose secret architecture has been exposed as bolstering the country’s financial oligarchy. Hidden away in the document is a tax loophole that is unavailable to the middle class and that assists ultra-rich beneficiaries—those earning $1 million annually. Igor Derysh notes that its total cost exceeds the total new funding for all hospitals in America and the total among provided to all state and local governments. Bryan Dyne (2020) writes that Trump’s tax break ‘will provide the millionaires in the U.S. with $73.8 billion, more than 100 times what WHO has asked for to fight the coronavirus.’

The World Health Organization (WHO), the healthcare arm of the United Nations and a pivotal global institution in the fight against Covid-19 and other communicable diseases is hated by Trump and his fellow anti-globalists: (that name certainly has an anti-Semitic ring); coronavirus-truthers, America Firsters, Catholic radical traditionalists or “rad-trads” (who want to replace the Novus Ordo liturgy of Vatican II with the Tridentine Latin liturgy) and alt-right and alt-right adjacent groups who support Trump.  All of these groups are convinced that the establishment of the United Nations was the first step towards a one-world dictatorship of wealthy Jews (with George Soros as their favourite target) and the Chinese, leading to the inevitable loss of American sovereignty and America’s ability to rule the world.  (Don’t you remember the stories about UN rotorcraft –yes, the ‘Black Helicopters’—landing in Area 51, located within the Nevada Test and Training Range?  According to some conspiracy theorists, the UN was plotting with lizard-looking aliens from outer space to take over the greatest democracy in the world. For details on prominent politicians who possess reptilian-compatible bloodlines, you’ll have to check with David Icke).  This is part of Trump’s overall UN-hating, isolationist-nationalist plan to weaken international organizations and to heap suspicion on the United Nations, multiculturalism, feminism, multilateralism, civil rights and LGBTQ advocates, and religious ecumenism.  In fact, it is one of the pillars of his presidency.  Scapegoating the World Health Organization in the midst of a global pandemic and withdrawing much needed funding is an act of cowardice and amounts to political outlawry that is nothing less than criminal. The fact that Trump’s pulling out of the WHO comes as no surprise does not take precedence over our responsibility for condemning such a reckless act that some see as ‘a crime against humanity.’. Trump is worsening America’s already fractious partisan divide, and he is doing so to protect his reputation by deflecting attention from his egregious failures to contain the virus during the early days of its arrival on US soil.

Clearly, Trump’s inaction has profoundly exacerbated the Covid-19 crisis, regardless of what he says about where or how the coronavirus originated, further revealing to all with eyes to see the tragic nature of America’s public health care system (to which Trump has sorely contributed by wiping America clean of Obamacare). Why did the Trump administration disband two departments that were supposed to deal with pandemics within the White House National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security in 2018, intentionally atrophying government agencies responsible for protecting US citizens?   Why did President Donald Trump ignore very clear and present warnings from the intelligence community about a potential pandemic as early as January? And why have Trump and his quislings downplayed  the seriousness of the crisis and waffled on the urgent need to contain the epidemic until it is safe for the citizenry to resume their everyday lives (to the extent that this will be possible)? Witnessing Trump’s execrable breach of global solidarity—little that Trump says hews to reality—many of us are compelled to ask: How many people in developing countries—in particular Africa (which Trump regards as a ‘shithole country’) and the Middle East—will be impacted by Trump’s decision to defund the WHO?  Likely it will mean the deaths of thousands of people who desperately rely on assistance from that organization. Despite early warnings by the WHO (the National Security Council office responsible for tracking pandemics received reports from US intelligence agencies in early January 2020 predicting the spread of the virus to the United States), Trump failed to implement mass testing until mid-March. And even when scattershot testing began, the administration botched the rollout.  At the time of this writing, sufficient numbers of test kits remain unavailable. And of course he is deflecting blame onto the governors of the states, onto China, onto the media, onto the infrastructure designed for pandemics established by the Obama administration.  And now it is the fault of the WHO. With the exception of Trump’s assault-rifle-carrying base, the nation is growing weary of the virus being described as the ‘Chinese Virus’ or the ‘foreign virus,’ or the ‘Kung flu.’

To make things worse, Trump is working against his own administration’s pandemic plans. Armed Trump supporters calling for an end to shelter-at-home policies are sparking a ‘protest movement’ against social distancing restrictions aimed at forcing Democratic governors to reopen their economies by pushing a frightened population back to work at a time when tens of thousands of Americans have died from the virus in the span of just one month. And all the while Trump is skirting transparency laws by meeting privately with CEOs about how to reopen businesses. It’s one thing for Trumpsters to sacrifice their lives willingly in the cause of  opening up businesses and restoring the battered US economy, it’s quite another for them to ignore the simple logic that in doing so they are putting others at risk for infection—even when they claim that social distancing will still be put into practice during the transition back to work. But then, those ‘others’ are just old folk in the winter of their lives, no longer productive and ready to kick the bucket anyway, according to some Republican politicians.

Pushing for a herd immunity solution—forcing a majority of the population to become infected with Covid-19 and, if they survive, become immune to the virus—reveals just how slavish Trump and his corporate supporters are in their service of the God of Profit. Keeping workers at their places of employment during this time is further spreading the virus.  Contemplating such vile measures reveals the extreme level of fear that the bourgeoise share with respect to the idea of putting into effect a viable socialist alternative to capitalism.  Up to now they have been supremely successful at demonizing socialism as a political system.  Look what happened to the Bernie Sanders campaign, thanks to the card-clutching neoliberal capitalists at the Democratic National Committee. Claims by European propagandists that Covid-19 proves Western capitalist democracy superior to Chinese dictatorship, are right out of the Trump playbook: simply reverse what is the obvious truth and push that lie to its extreme among the general population.  That the mode of governance among capitalist democracies is grievously ill-suited to deal with Covid-19 is evidenced by the fact that the original epicenter in Wuhan had fewer deaths [even though figures have been revised up since the WHO independently confirmed China’s Covid-19 statistics]—than those of Europe or the United States. And, if you are Trump the only solution becomes—cut the funds of those dirty, scheming, Janus-faced reds! Anti-communism reloaded is a policy spawned by the White House to get King Donald reelected as Master of the Universe.  Yes, Mr. Trump, plan on opening the economy as soon as possible but be warned that if your panicked and irresponsible mitigation strategies fail—especially in the Rust Belt areas of the country—then pandemonium could ensue as outbreaks could result in major cities of the country.

And Trump also seems to be rallying his Freikorps in support of his attempts to open up the country prematurely to save his political career, as shameless and socially pernicious as that is. His recent series of tweets that read ‘LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege’; ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN’; ‘LIBERATE MINNESOTA’ could easily be mistaken as a call for violent uprisings. Is this his version of firing his pistol in the beer hall? Are his armed militia just one step away from becoming the Koreshians at Waco, Texas [becoming Branch-Covidians?], defending Trump as God’s ‘Chosen One’? His tweets represent a type of demagoguery that should make us all shudder.

While his attitudes have gone beyond the USA, Trump hasn’t gone full frontal fascist as much as Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro who made headlines for becoming one of the world’s most powerful social distancing denier, going out of his wa as Andrew Fishman explains:

to make highly publicized visits to supermarkets and bakeries, shaking hands and taking selfies without gloves or a mask. “Due to my history as an athlete, if I was infected by the virus, I wouldn’t have to worry,” said the 65-year-old Bolsonaro in a nationally televised address late last month. He has repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as “a little cold.”

Bolsonaro fired his health minister who disagreed with him, and as Diane Jeantet pointed out in 2019 has threatened to rid Brazil’s education system of all ‘Marxist rubbish’ and to use a political flamethrower’ to erase the historical memory of Paulo Freire throughout Brasil. Trump hasn’t directed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to go this far—yet. Watch for this move if he is reelected. Marxist educators, you are put on notice!  And that includes me.

However, our outrage over Trump’s actions cannot recapitulate that which is the object of our fury. We must not respond in kind. We must stand by those whom those communities who are already victims of epidemics of unemployment, underemployment, low-wage jobs and grinding poverty, and those who have been branded as ‘essential workers’ and are the ones who are delivering food, checking out supplies at supermarkets, driving the trucks that create our necessary supply chains. And we must stand by those who are warehoused in the prison system that has become little more than a death trap for Covid-19, and the homeless and migrant populations. These people don’t have the luxury of self-quarantining at home or in private yachts in the middle of the Mediterranean, drinking fine wine and being pampered by their retinue, like those who are the moral beneficiaries of a corrupt political system headed by a toxic narcissist strongman. We need to undermine the myths of American greatness that endow this carnival huckster’s actions with moral legitimacy and sanction his cultic generativity. Michel Foucault’s Preface to Anti-Oedipus, written by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze in 1977 reminds us that the gravest form of fascism is the one that is spawned inside our own brains:

the major enemy, the strategic adversary is fascism …. And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini — which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively — but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.

Marx’s famous lapidary reminder has perhaps never been as important as it is today:

‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’

This article has now been translated into Spanish.




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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2020) Donald Trump’s traveling vaudeville presidency: Dying for Trump and the attack of the Branch Covidians. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash