EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nation believes that helping readers stay informed about the impact of the coronavirus crisis is a form of public service. For that reason, this article, and all of our coronavirus coverage, is now free. Please subscribe to support our writers and staff, and stay healthy.
The Signal? This week, with the media and public’s attention focused on the pandemic, Trump’s Orwellian EPA announced an extraordinary rollback of Obama-era air quality controls. In particular, it allowed coal plants to send skyward vastly increased amounts of mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals, despite all the evidence suggesting that this will increase the number of heart attacks, acute asthma episodes, and other potentially fatal health consequences.
The new rules replace strict quality standards with a nebulously calculated cost-benefit analysis that, critics argue, will essentially give the fossil fuel industry a green light to simply say that any regulations it doesn’t like are too expensive to be feasibly implemented. That’s a clear example of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
The EPA’s own in-house experts believe that the rules Trump’s team has gutted were saving 11,000 premature deaths per year. Now that progress is being put at risk.
At the same time, the Agriculture Department is working on ways to lower the pay of foreign farmworkers, despite the fact that their back-breaking work, deemed “essential” by the government, is vital to the already-at-risk food security of the country.
These measures are on a par with the rest of the administration’s haphazard and cruel response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Time and again Trump has shown that he cares far more about the headline economic numbers than the body count, and he’s using the pandemic as cover to expand the administration’s anti-immigrant policies. Last week, the Washington Office on Latin America released a report on continuing deportation flights to Central American countries whose airspace was otherwise largely closed to incoming traffic, as well as plans to ratchet up the number of deportations to Haiti, Colombia, and other countries.
Since ICE is only doing basic temperature-checks of detainees on these flights, there is great risk, as I noted in last week’s column, that these deportations will spread the contagion into desperately poor countries whose health systems will be unable to cope with large numbers of sick Covid-19 patients. Indeed, advocacy groups have documented instances in which Haitians potentially exposed to the disease have nonetheless been deported to Port-au-Prince.
That same callousness seems to hold for the administration’s response to the rising number of lives lost. Since early April, somewhere in the region of 2,000 Americans have died per day. By mid-afternoon on Sunday, the US death toll had crossed the 40,000 threshold. In a country with rational leadership, the president would be hewing closely to advice from public health and infectious diseases experts. In Trumpland, however, rationality doesn’t hold. Instead, we get Noise: The president tweets out “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” and LIBERATE VIRGINIA”—not because any of these states is under foreign occupation or because the military has carried out a coup, but because duly elected governors have chosen to follow the advice of their public health specialists and the federal Centers for Disease Control and issued temporary shelter-in-place orders for nonessential workers.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s response summed it all up. The president’s messages, he said, in inciting violence were “unhinged rantings.”
A solid majority of the public disapproves of Trump’s performance and opposes most of his signature policies. Now, with Great Depression–era levels of unemployment, his only hope for reelection is to play the blame game—to position himself as being on the side of angry, frustrated, scared people worried about both their health and their finances, and against allegedly out-of-touch liberal governors, do-gooder public health experts, and purportedly China-friendly international agencies such as the World Health Organization.
The most powerful man on earth isn’t just fiddling while Rome burns; he’s now throwing matches and oil onto the blaze.