Source: Financial Times

Many Republicans are valuing the economy over life – a suicidal course with no European equivalent

By SIMON KUPER

Donald Trump’s handling of this crisis wasn’t merely predictable. It was predicted. In March 2016, Art Caplan, bioethicist at New York University, published a blog about an imaginary pandemic under the then almost unimaginable Trump presidency.

Caplan got many details right. He has the virus jumping from animals in Chinese markets to humans with a “lethality [not] seen since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918”. People are urged to “stay home, wear masks”.

Then President Trump leaps into action, closing borders and screening passengers on international flights. “Many pointed out that these measures did not work and that the mutated virus was already in the US,” writes Caplan.

But Trump “noted that immigrants often brought disease”, and suggested the pandemic was “part of a conspiracy”. A “political battle [erupts] between Trump, recalcitrant governors in many states, [and] his own CDC amidst catcalls from the international community”.

Eventually, Trump gets distracted by a “trade war with China to punish them for allowing an epidemic”.

In a crisis, you discover who people are, and what countries are. We already knew who Trump was, but what does the current situation reveal about the half of the US that he represents, and about Europe?

Both regions start with a sad set of similarities. Neither the US nor Europe (except arguably Germany) could tame this pandemic through early tracking and testing, as South Korea and Singapore did.

Both Europe and the US are wrecking the planet to enrich their people, yet cannot even enrich most of them.

Only this winter did British average wages briefly regain their pre-crisis level of 2007. Now other European countries may drop below that bar.

The average income of the bottom half of Americans had stagnated at about $15,000 for 40 years even before the pandemic, calculates Thomas Piketty in his new book Capital and Ideology.

Neither region is now showing much cross-country solidarity. Trump stopped flights from Europe without warning Europeans; northern European countries continue to block proposals for shared Eurobonds, pushing grieving Spain and Italy into a new era of depression and austerity.

Donations of masks and protective kits, and Germany treating a few dozen French and Italian patients, can’t disguise that failure. Brexiters needn’t have worried: there is no European superstate.

But on other life-and-death matters, Europe and American Republicans diverge. The latter are sticking with Trump in a suicidal course that has no European equivalent. Until this pandemic, there was an “only joking” quality to Trumpism.

Many Republicans used it as a way to stick it to coastal elites rather than a practical ideology. They could dismiss climate scientists and other experts without suffering immediate harm. Yet even now that their own lives may depend on it, most Trumpists continue to believe the leader, disbelieve experts, value the economy over life and regard blue states as the enemy.

Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans remain above 90 per cent. If he becomes the new Thabo Mbeki — the former South African president whose denialism during the Aids epidemic made him culpable for 365,000 unnecessary deaths, according to a Harvard study — Republicans will be complicit.

France and Italy in normal times are packed with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. But almost everyone in these countries is now listening to health experts and staying home. By contrast, in US polls, far more Republicans than Democrats dismissed the pandemic as a hoax and said they wouldn’t change behaviour, even while medical experts warned that Covid-19 was heading for red states too.

Still, it’s no wonder these Americans distrust medical science when it has given them (at great expense) the opioid crisis and, in 13 Trump-voting states, average life expectancy below 78, lower than any country in the EU.

Many Republicans are also following Trump in endorsing a choice unimaginable in Europe: risking death for the Dow. Several Republican state governors refused to order lockdowns on time, and were supported by rightwing groups such as Americans for Prosperity.

Authorities often prioritised business over life in long-ago pandemics, Richard J Evans, history professor at Cambridge, told the Talking Politics podcast. He cites the example of Hamburg’s merchants trying to hush up the cholera outbreak of 1892.

It’s just surprising this tradition coexists with modern medical knowledge. The common Republican argument that people die in recessions is only true because the US makes it so. US companies have already sacked millions of workers, many of whom have lost their health insurance.

By contrast, many European governments — including Britain’s rightwing Conservatives and the supposedly “neoliberal” Emmanuel Macron — are paying workers’ wages to prevent redundancies. European states have learnt from their mistakes of 2008: this time they aim to bail out ordinary people, not banks.

Once European countries emerge from lockdown, they may have to block flights from the pandemic’s next epicentre, the US. A travel ban between these two floundering regions would symbolise a split in world views that probably won’t be bridgeable even after Trump.