President Donald Trump addresses his remarks during the coronavirus update briefing April 8, 2020, in the White House. Image: D. Myles Cullen/The White House/Flickr

Here in Canada, we can breathe a sigh of relief that our federal political system is, for the most part, rising to the occasion of the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

That is not so much the case in the great (and constantly self-aggrandizing) republic to our south. 

There, the political dialogue is dominated by a person who not only openly aspires to be an absolute dictator, but who appears, more and more each day, to suffer from an actual, clinically diagnosable personality disorder: infantile narcissism.  

On Wednesday, April 15, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced new economic measures to assist workers. These are aimed at boosting the incomes of people still working, but whose hours and incomes have been drastically cut back. 

In this, as in many of his other recent moves, Trudeau is heeding the suggestions of labour and small business groups, and of opposition parties, especially the left-of-centre NDP and its leader Jagmeet Singh. 

For their part, opposition parties have, for the most part, taken to heart one of the mottos of late NDP leader Jack Layton. They are providing “proposition not opposition.” 

Canadian provincial premiers have also been providing the same sort of collaborative, evidence-based leadership — with the exception, at least in one instance, of Alberta’s Jason Kenney. On Tuesday, April 14, Kenney launched a fairly gratuitous attack on Canada’s chief medical officer and her staff of experts. 

But that is a small, singular exception, and it pales by comparison to the utter madness emanating from the White House in the U.S. capital.

Boasting, claiming powers of a dictator, acting without reason

Over the past few days, the dangerous, mentally ill person who upwards of 44 per cent of Americans say they would re-elect, has: 

  • claimed he is all-powerful and can dictate to state governors — the U.S. Constitution be damned; 

  • vigorously touted an unproven treatment for COVID-19, based on no more evidence than his own innate “genius”; 

  • derided journalists who dare to ask him simple, straightforward questions; 

  • boasted about the television ratings for his daily briefings; 

  • complained that some state governors have not declared with sufficient enthusiasm how grateful they are for federal government aid; 

  • and then, in what might be his most reckless move of all, decided, without warning or any kind of consultation, to de-fund the only global entity capable of providing any coordination in worldwide efforts to contain COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO), a United Nations entity. 

Now, like all other international, multilateral bodies, the WHO is far from perfect. 

It is a complex bureaucracy that has to juggle the demands of many masters with diverging priorities. No doubt, it does not always manage to successfully keep all of its medical and political balls in the air. But, as Churchill said of democracy, the WHO is the worst international health organization — except for all the others.

More to the point, the middle of a fearsome global pandemic is hardly a time to be looking for scapegoats and knee-capping the international public health system. 

If the WHO could use reform — which might or might not be the case, depending on one’s point of view — a sane perspective would dictate that such a process must await the end of the current crisis.  

In the U.S., hardcore conservative ideologues and polemicists such as former White House strategist Steve Bannon, and a chorus of voices on Fox News have been pushing for their government to cut funding for the WHO for a long time, claiming the UN health agency is “too close” to China.

Other, more reasonable U.S. voices, such as that of Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a U.S. government agency, point out that the U.S., in fact, desperately needs the WHO right now, more than ever, because of the crucial support it provides to many countries — especially less-developed countries — in the current battle against the novel coronavirus. 

The U.S. Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, but not the Senate, decry the president’s unilateral move. Indeed, they say it is illegal, because both houses of Congress have already voted the monies appropriated for the WHO.

Legalities do not mean anything to Donald Trump, however. He frequently says, quite openly, he believes he has the right to rule as a dictator or absolute monarch. The governor of New York even tried to call him to order the other day. Governor Andrew Cuomo said the U.S. has an elected president limited by a constitution, and not a king. He was wasting his breath — his words had no effect. 

U.S. conservatives will have a lot to answer for

The tragedy of the current state of affairs in the U.S. is the attitude of the notionally reasonable, mainstream, respectable conservatives, especially those who control the U.S. Senate. They are not out of their minds and cannot fail to understand that much of what is going on down the street, in the White House, is borderline, or actual madness. 

But they go along to get along, fearful of Trump’s mystical connection with what they call his “base.” 

Of late, respectable conservatives in the U.S. are reminding some of us more and more of their counterparts in Germany, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. 

The German conservatives — big business-men, religious conservatives, Prussian aristocrats, disgruntled senior military officers — all thought the leader of the upstart NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) was a ridiculous buffoon, given to childish rants and inflammatory, over-the-top rhetoric. But they also noticed that this same buffoon had some sort of ephemeral, inexplicable connection to the rabble, the “people,” who might otherwise be attracted to the even scarier Communists. 

The respectable conservatives helped boost the NSDAP leader into power, as head of what was supposed to be a coalition government, in 1933. They thought they could control him, and, ultimately, push him aside. 

It was a fatal mistake. It was the conservatives who got pushed aside — and a good many of them ended up with bullets in their heads. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: D. Myles Cullen/The White House/Flickr


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...