The Good, the Bad, and the Contagious

How the Outbreak May Affect our Democracy

The pandemic has so far killed 209,000 Americans and rapidly counting. We’ve stopped shaking hands, Americans who can telecommute do so, and there are continual political fights over whether or not the country as a whole is ready to “open,” or not. The idea that it would not eventually make its ways into the halls of government is absurd. In fact not only have members of Congress and the Senate had to quarantine due to exposure or infection but, Herman Cain who worked in a senior position on the Trump 2020 Presidential campaign died from COVID-19.

Shortly after his death Cain’s repurposed twitter account suggested, “looks like the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be.” And as insidious as that little tale may itself be it was somewhat inevitable that Donald Trump who categorically refuses to take any of this seriously and craves attention would catch it.

Regardless, COVID-19 in general and Trump catching it in particular are gamechangers. This pandemic and this particular set of infections is going to change what may have otherwise occurred and possibly the structure of our democracy.

The Judiciary

When Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away only a few weeks ago her dying wish was that she not be replaced on the court until the next Presidential term. Had she passed in April that may have been problematic, but she died in mid September during an election. I received my ballot the same day she died and cast it the day after. I received confirmation that my ballot had been accepted by my county clerk only ten days after RBG departed. It is true that my vote is one of the first to have been cast in this election and that this election is unlike any other, but RBG’s dying wish is entirely reasonable. Especially given the historical precedent of Abraham Lincoln who waited to nominate a justice to an empty seat until he was re-elected and the behaviour of certain Republican Senators when Scalia passed in February 2016 nearly eight months before the election, there is no cause for RBG’s final wish to be denied.

Sen. Mitch McConnell seems to be making a late stage bid to Lucifer for prime real estate in hell just generally, but his ghoulishness in pushing forward with Amy Coney Barret was particularly galling. And he might have gotten away with it too if not for that pesky virus.

Any public figure particularly one who meets with people in person on a daily basis will have multiple vectors of infection, but it seems that the recent outbreak of high profile infections may largely be traced back to the Rose Garden announcement of Amy Coney Barret as Trump’s nominee for Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s seat. (And isn’t it just like Trump to use another woman to make a spectacle out of violating the wishes of an accomplished lady?) The event was crowded with only sporadic mask wearing and one of the individuals who later tested positive was pictured hugging other guests.

The Rose Garden announcement of Barret’s nomination to the Supreme Court seems like it was designed as a master class on cosmic irony. Trump disregarded Ginsberg’s wishes, ignored science and the recommendations of epidemiologists, chose a nominee diametrically opposed to Ginsberg’s legacy of the advancement of civil rights, and likely, as a result Barret’s hearing and confirmation are in jeopardy.

And the reason for all that brings us to …

The Legislative

So far there are three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US Senate those being Senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Senator Rick Scott communicated earlier today that he had also tested positive but his office has since said he misspoke and is not infected. All of these individuals are Republicans and Sens. Lee and Tillis are both on the Judiciary committee.

Graham can hold Judiciary Committee meetings remotely or have Lee and Tillis attend remotely, but he cannot proceed if he does not have a quorum. If Democrats decide to boycott the hearing with the absence of either Lee or Tillis Graham cannot proceed. It is technically possible for McConnell to hold a vote on the nomination even without committee approval but Lee and Tillis may not vote unless they are physically present.

With Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski promising “no” votes should the Senate attempt to confirm Barret before January 20th and without Lee and Tillis, McConnell no longer has the numbers. Even with a 53–47 majority he does not have it and the fact that that is the case may encourage other Republican Senators who may have otherwise been concerned about the results to vote in the negative.

Additionally there’s the quorum on the Senate floor as well. The Senate quorum is simply a majority and under normal circumstances a quorum is assumed even when the Senate is clearly empty unless a roll call is held. This, is for example, why it is quite difficult for a President to appoint a recess appointment anymore. Even when there is only one Senator present, as long as that Senator does not ask for a roll call a quorum is assumed. This does mean that if the Republicans are all super savvy they can mostly conduct their business. But they can’t have a vote without a quorum and if they have other business and a lone Democrat sneaks in and calls for a roll call they would have to stop.

While Collins and Murkowski simply indicating that they will not vote tow the Party line does not mean that they will be absent, this close to an election and with a pandemic ongoing, absences for Senators is routine. Democratic Senators have already used this technique and it may actually succeed in forestalling the vote until the next Presidential term.

What’s problematic about this is that the Senate under Mitch McConnell did not honour the precedent he himself set and because of that Democrats are essentially resorting to rules lawyering. If the pandemic continues or becomes cyclical it may be necessary to see a relaxation of in person attendance at the Senate, and if the Republicans hold onto their majority we may see an alteration in other Senate rules particularly those surrounding quorums and filibusters.

And all of this has to do with the Senate’s relationship with …

The Executive

If RBG had passed away months earlier then Trump would have simply and literally been doing his job in nominating whoever he chose to fill that seat. Even as it stands in this one instance although he acted improperly he was still technically doing his job. Sort of.

Unfortunately, for some 209k and rising Americans that may have been the only instance where Trump has ever fulfilled the duties of his office. In the case of the Executive Branch the changes which may occur are not strictly due to the impact of the pandemic so much as they are due to the damage Trump has done to the office whilst occupying it. I rather hope there were no vases in the Oval.

But exactly how this happened and exactly how the American public reacted to it is indicative of the many fractious cracks which Trump has opened in our country and our democracy.

The legal operation and impact of the Presidency is based primarily on process law which requires an abundance of reasonableness and transparency. Neither of these things exist in the Trump administration. If Trump were said to have a doctrine it would be “Insanity and Opacity.” And for that reason a lot of what I am about to say is based on leaks and rumours rather than confirmed fact. And this is really quite terrible because it destabilizes both the all important markets and democracy itself.

Firstly, the likely reason Trump contracted COVID-19 is because he’s trying to campaign in a pandemic without taking any safety precautions. Or rather, he is taking precautions for himself, but not anyone around him. Secret Service agents especially have to do their job but are not tested and have to protect the President and his family even when the President is out doing something clearly both stupid and campaign related. A real leader would instituted precautions and safety measures for everyone around her simply because she recognizes their humanity, cares for them, and understands her role and responsibility towards those she leads. But even if we walk back a bit from Sun Tzu in a pandemic if those who work closely with you or even in just one degree of separation get sick, you will soon also get sick. Trump put his own people and even the people willing to take a bullet for him at risk simply because he did not care.

Secondly, there was a clear attempt to keep Trump’s diagnosis secret. At this point it is unclear how early the PCR test results were known, but based on his personal physician’s statement — which is currently being covered up and walked back — he’s been diagnosed since at least Wednesday morning. It appears he and members of his family also knew before the debate on Tuesday and were deliberately late to avoid testing. If true Melania’s refusal to wear her mask is particularly nefarious. It means she was deliberately trying to infect others. And even if they didn’t know for sure they had good reason to suspect because Hope Hicks was symptomatic by this point and had been in close contact.

Now, Hope Hicks probably wasn’t the vector. Probably, she and Trump shared a vector. But there’s only two reasons Trump’s diagnosis would have been made clear to the public. Either it’s so bad that he may soon die and they just can’t reasonably hide it anymore unless they try to hide it with something worse like a stroke or the public basically figured it out as a result of Hope Hicks’ diagnosis and that required the Trumps to come clean.

And this brings me to my third point. I think it’s both. I think they were hoping they could just hide his illness and he’d magically get better but were outed by Hicks and I think it’s so bad that he may soon die. The doctor came out and gave a press conference and while he didn’t really lie he prevaricated his way through it. My initial thought in seeing that press conference was that Trump was already dead because it reminded me of The Death of Stalin.

With all this going on some members of the public have suggested that the entire thing may be staged to distract either from Trump’s terrible debate performance or Melania’s leaked tapes in which she disparages Christmas and complains about the outcry over immigrant children being separated from their parents. While I am of the opinion that Trump would not participate in a scheme that made him look “weak,” and he believes victims of COVID-19 are weak, the mere fact that so many people disbelieve the White House is reminiscent of and exceeds the “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” debacle that caused Tony Blair to leave office and arguably contributed to the wide margins by which Obama won the US Presidency in 2008.

While obfuscation is central to an autocratic regime it has no place in democracy. In the history of democracy where democracy persists mendacity is always castigated. Of course the flip side of this is where mendacity goes unpunished autocracy may swiftly follow.

There has been a suggestion that Biden should or even might suspend his campaigning for — depending on the severity of delusions for the given commentator — anywhere from two weeks to a year. This is absurd. For one votes are already cast, for another many Presidents have been sick in office with some even dying or being very near death and none of them got extra time, and lastly even if the Constitution didn’t apply and the voters were actually okay with such a scheme it would leave the United States leaderless.

But my impression is that that’s generally the point. Even if Trump hadn’t gotten sick, at the moment it looks like Biden will handily win this election. That is, assuming people don’t read rosy predictions like the above and take that as an excuse not to vote. The only means for Trump to win is if he doesn’t have an opponent full stop. Trump probably thinks he would do better against a different Democrat and it was rumoured he said he wanted to change who the nominee was or face Kamala Harris. That simply shows his level of delusion, because Harris would rhetorically skewer him, but he does seem at least aware that he is likely to lose and probably just doesn’t understand why. His and Melania’s refusal to wear his mask on Tuesday may have been in the hopes of infecting specifically Joe Biden.

Trump’s failures in leadership are so severe and so extensive that this may be the end of the Republican Party. As a result of Trump’s malfeasance the Legislature will at some point in the near future be passing law to reign in the powers of the Presidency and there will necessarily be more oversight of the office. While these are good things and arguably what at least some of the founders intended, other Presidents were able to occupy the office without nearly destroying the country and ending their own Party.

Trump and the Republicans have laid waste to our three branches of government and as Trump lies possibly dying and certainly fighting for his life it is important to remember that he was never elected to office. He is illegitimate and had Republicans operated with the ideals of liberty and justice and even just had a bit of self-respect we would not be in this predicament. We would not be on the precipice of fascism.

Trump may not survive his own Presidency, but it is also questionable whether or not the Republican Party will survive it. But America will. Everything’s going to change. It may change for better, but it could change for worse. And it all depends on how and how many Americans vote.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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