Common Dreams - November 20, 2020

The US presidential election of 2020 is now behind us—or is it? President Trump has yet to concede his defeat, and many Republican lawmakers have demanded recounts and backed lawsuits. Some commentators fear that the current administration is laying the groundwork for a coup d’état by preventing the peaceful transfer of power, but—given the extraordinary incompetence displayed by the President and his minions during the past four years—that hardly seems to be a realistic prospect.

Trump & Co. can nevertheless salt the earth with disinformation and with resentment among the Republican voting base, making it impossible for the incoming Biden team to accomplish much. Claims of election fraudulence may prove highly effective to that end: up to 70 percent of Republicans apparently think the vote was hacked by Democrats. There’s no evidence of widespread malfeasance, and Republican lawsuits related to the election are being thrown out by judges in state after state for lack of proof. Still, Trump has spent four years training his followers to regard “evidence” as something you make up on the spot to suit the needs of the moment; for the faithful, mere accusations are sufficiently convincing. 

In calm and carefree years, such nasty political infighting would just be grist for late-night comedic TV commentary. However, 2021 promises to be anything but calm and carefree. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is now entering the most virulent stage since its onset, with over 150,000 Americans testing positive for the disease each day. The first million COVID-19 cases in the US took 100 days to accumulate; getting from 10 million to 11 million took just six days. Death counts are also rising, and hospitals are filling up. Health care workers are beyond exhausted, the nation faces a rapidly worsening nursing shortage. While effective vaccines are now on the horizon, they won’t be widely available until spring at the earliest.

Meanwhile, the general public is tired of complying with masking and physical distancing orders. The holidays are looming, and people are hungry for social contact. Political polarization has seriously hampered the nation’s response to the disease, with households choosing to adopt either pro-mask or anti-mask beliefs and behavior. On November 15, a member of the Trump Coronavirus Taskforce called for the people of Michigan to “rise up” against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown orders, which had been triggered by a steep increase in cases and hospitalizations. If the nation is to make it through the winter without sustaining a grievous toll, perhaps rivaling that of the 1918 influenza pandemic, it needs both leadership and social cohesion.

Is This a Depression?

Compounding the alarming pandemic risk is the specter of worsening economic conditions. Congress has so far failed to pass a renewed and expanded stimulus bill; if one isn’t quickly forthcoming, the bending economy may break. Businesses—including hundreds of thousands of restaurants, hotels, bars, movie theaters, and retail outlets—that were barely holding on are now starting to give up and shutter for good. Households that are behind on mortgage and rent payments are facing foreclosure and eviction, with up to 40 million Americans at risk of homelessness in the coming months. Food banks are already overstretched. If something doesn’t change, we may be headed toward a depression the likes of which hasn’t been seen in nearly a century.

The Republican-dominated Senate’s unwillingness to back a robust stimulus bill may be part of a longer-range political strategy. Without help from Congress, states are in desperate financial shape because, unlike the federal government, state governments (with the exception of Vermont) must balance their budgets. Since the start of the pandemic, state tax revenues have fallen off dramatically. Without a federal subsidy, states may be forced to go to court to restructure their debt—and many federal judges are now far-right Trump appointees who could demand that blue states like New York cut back on safety-net spending programs. Such cutbacks would undermine popular support for leaders of those states while bailing out wealthy bond holders, many of whom are big Republican donors. Democrats’ best short-term chance at defeating this strategy would be to win control of the Senate by taking both Georgia Senate seats up for a runoff vote in January; longer-term, states may have to set up their own banks and/or issue their own currencies.

But stimulus shenanigans are merely a side show in what is shaping up to be an extended period of map-shifting political, economic, and environmental turmoil. ...
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