“A detrimental or calamitous situation… arising from the powerful combined effect of a unique set of circumstances”: a perfect storm.
Since the middle of March, 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, the world’s largest economy and oldest democracy has proved itself incapable of handling a unique set of circumstances: the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths worldwide; a lack or shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, testing equipment, and hospital beds; millions out of work; millions losing health insurance; increased homelessness; multitrillion dollar deficits to forestall a recession; a digital divide impacting virtual learning; a federal system of government that leaves major health and safety decisions to states put to the test; contradictory information from health officials and government leaders on how to address the pandemic; politicization of mask-wearing and social distancing; natural disasters from forest fires and tropical storms; and protests over a rash of killings of unarmed Black men and women that highlighted four hundred years of systemic racism (some leading to violence from both the Right and Left).
While other countries began to return to “normal” during the summer, COVID-19 cases continued to climb in the United States as the economy reopened. By October 14, over 215,000 had died and new cases increased over the previous two weeks. Two of the new cases were the president and first lady. Many Americans shake their heads wondering when locusts will blacken the skies or frogs will begin jumping in the streets. And, if the modern equivalent of the Biblical ten Egyptian plagues is not enough, all of this occurs during a presidential election year in a politically polarized America.
The world watched it all in amazement that there are so many cracks in the country’s foundation. In 2016, Donald Trump’s claim that America was no longer “great” merited a divided response, as did his averment immediately before the pandemic that the country was better off four years later. Today, it is clear that neither debate is relevant, as the United States struggles to contain a perfect storm for which it was unprepared. Some wonder if the country is capable of cleaning up the detritus and starting anew. Thus, these questions are posed: how does the world view the pandemic-challenged United States, and why did things go so wrong?
The U.S. Standing in the World
If a pandemic spreads by travel across a flat world, news of pandemic response failures and social unrest in a country travels equally fast in a technologically-connected world. Scenes of overworked and overwrought health care providers using makeshift PPE or peaceful and violent protests over the police killings of unarmed African-Americans flash across the globe in real time. Stories of foreign interference in U.S. elections and warnings by the U.S. president that elections are rife with fraud—and so voters should illegally vote twice to lay bare the system’s imperfections—circulate worldwide and tarnish the archetypal image of the model Western democracy. Images of armed protestors challenging governors’ pandemic orders or vigilantes confronting and even killing those protesting for racial justice suggest that the Wild West of 1950s American television still exists—with weapons far more lethal than a trusty six-shooter. Two individuals were even arrested recently in a plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer and try her for “violating the Constitution” (i.e. refusing to fully reopen the state of Michigan). Unemployment statistics, forced evictions, long lines at food pantries, and hundreds of thousands without utilities after storms reveal a country without a social safety net or adequate infrastructure. In seven months, the world’s image of the United States dramatically changed, and its world standing continued its downward spiral.
Favorable external views of the United States have dropped since Donald Trump took office. A Pew Research Center report on U.S. favorability in October 2018 noted that, among twenty-four countries, only three—Israel, Kenya, and Russia—reported positive changes since the end of the Obama presidency. Twelve of the remaining twenty-one had double-digit drops, including neighbors Mexico (a thirty-four point slump) and Canada (twenty-six). The writers attributed the decline to “the widespread perception that the United States does not consider the interests of other countries when making foreign policy decisions.”
A more recent Pew study released on September 15, 2020, shows further decline: the number of countries “with a favorable view of the United States is as low as it has been at any point since the Center began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago.” Among the thirteen countries surveyed, a median of 15 percent approved of the way the United States handled the pandemic.
President Trump’s decision to cut funding to the World Health Organization during a pandemic and not participate in their vaccine research underscores that perception. Yet, even in January, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, a Pew study noted that “opinions of the U.S. vary substantially across the globe,” with “a median of 53 percent of adults” in the twenty-four countries having a favorable view. This was a decrease from the “64 percent who had a positive view at the end of the Obama administration.” The report also noted that “confidence in U.S. President Donald Trump is low, though not as low as it was shortly after he took office.” By September 2020 the Pew survey showed even lower confidence in the U.S. president, with ratings between a low of 9 percent in Belgium and a high of 25 percent in Japan. In a report released in April 2020 from 2019 data, Pew noted: “Overall, both Canadians and Mexicans use mostly negative or neutral words to describe the United States, and only a small portion mention a positive word.” The report concluded that events since the pandemic have “potentially affected the lens through which people view the United States,” and the September Pew report echoed that conclusion.
The word “potentially” is an understatement. Multiple international newspapers have taken the United States’ failures in its crosshairs. One of the articles most commented on in the U.S. press and widely shared on social media came from Irish opinion writer Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times, who wrote: “The country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful.” An April headline in The Guardian under a photo of President Trump—hands outstretched, mouth open in what appears to be a cry for help, and eyes looking terrified—exclaimed, “US’s global reputation hits rock-bottom over Trump’s coronavirus response”. The article opined that “Trump’s ineptitude and dishonesty in handling the pandemic, which has left foreign observers as well as Americans gasping in disbelief, is proving a bridge too far. Erratic behavior, tolerated in the past, is now seen as downright dangerous. It’s long been plain to many in Europe, that Trump could not be trusted. Now he is seen as a threat.” And this was before Trump declared, upon his release from the hospital after being treated for COVID-19: “Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Public health experts, journalists, survivors, and those who lost family to the virus swiftly and emphatically denounced the irresponsible nature of the statement coming from a man who had treatment no other American could access.
A poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) released in June showed that eleven thousand respondents across nine European countries had a negative perception of the United States. Perceptions become reality; experts have pointed out that the United States’ declining stature has economic and political consequences. Key U.S. allies cited China as taking on a larger role on the world scene. The ECFR poll found that “25 percent of people polled in Italy saw China as the most useful ally in the crisis, a result which could be due to China sending ventilators, medical experts and personal protective equipment to Italy.” At the same time, the United States was in no position to assist any other country, as it couldn’t satisfy its own pandemic needs. Trump’s attempts to redirect blame by dubbing COVID-19 the “China Virus” didn’t resonate outside the United States; and, it is doubtful that it resonates much beyond his conservative base, since the source is now less important than the response.
But, it is not just the pandemic response that has the world reassessing its views of the United States. Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the upcoming election put the United States in need of international election-watchers rather than being a leader in observing elections worldwide. The Guardian reported on an Organisation for Security and Cooperation’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ (ODIHR) recommendation that five hundred monitors be sent to the United States. The monitors began arriving on September 25 to “closely follow fundamental components of the election”. ODIHR cited growing problems with voter suppression and challenges of pandemic voting that have decreased general trust in the administration and call the election’s integrity into question. For example, at his first debate with Joe Biden, President Trump urged his supporters to “keep an eye out” at the polls, and refused in the same debate to promise a peaceful transition of power if he loses. Regardless of the outcome of the election, if there is serious doubt about the integrity of the results, the world may be watching more protests in the streets.
Black Lives Matter Goes Global
When a country is locked down for months, people live in fear of an unseen enemy; U.S. unemployment is higher than at any time since the Great Depression, parents are struggling to work from home and educate their children, messages from politicians contradict science and create confusion, and minorities are more likely to contract and die from the disease than white Americans. This is a formula for civil unrest. All the metaphorical tinder box needs to ignite is a match. For the United States, that match came on May 25 in the form of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who died when a police officer put a knee on his neck and suffocated him while he gasped out the words “I can’t breathe”.
When a cellphone video of his death went viral, the balloon of tension that has swelled with the deaths of other Black Americans killed by police over the years burst. News of the February shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed jogger, by three white men in Georgia came to light in early May. No one was arrested until a video was shared. The story of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed African-American woman who was shot in March when Louisville, Kentucky police knocked down her door with a no-knock warrant, also hit the news in the beginning of May.
When George Floyd died and the floodgate broke, Americans took to the streets in mostly peaceful demonstrations about both police violence and underlying systemic racism that affects aspects of Black lives in numerous ways. America was mobilized to look at its racist history in ways that it hadn’t previously. The dearth of distractions—carpools for sports and school activities, social events, travel, and other life activities—imposed by quarantine perhaps contributed to forcing Americans to focus.
Whatever the reasons, it wasn’t just the United States that watched and reacted. Trump’s use of force on peaceful protestors near the White House to clear a path for him to take photos in front of a church holding a Bible was international news. Not since the use of dogs, fire hoses, and tear gas on peaceful protestors during the Civil Rights Movement had there been so much news footage of forceful response to demonstrations. Protestors and journalists, including some foreign, were jailed, and the United States’ moral authority regarding free speech and human rights was diluted. One example of the dilution of the United States’ ability to call out human rights violations abroad was a Chinese official’s much-quoted response to a U.S. diplomat’s criticism of Chinese actions in Hong Kong. When Morgan Ortagus, a Department of State official, accused China in a tweet of breaking promises to Hong Kong as a result of imposition of Chinese security laws that impact Hong Kong’s autonomy after pro-democracy protests, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted, “I can’t breathe”. Another response came from senior United Nations (UN) officials from Africa, who issued a statement condemning police brutality in the United States and called for a UN inquiry into abuses in both the United States and other countries.
With tens of thousands worldwide joining the protests in solidarity, the United States indirectly caused the rest of the world to look at their own racism. Demonstrators in Japan were photographed holding signs stating that “Racism Exists in Tokyo,” and South African rugby players created a controversy similar to U.S. football player Colin Kaepernick’s when part of the team took a knee before the start of the game to proclaim that Black Lives Matter while others stood, refusing to participate. The Guardian acknowledged the UK’s shortcomings and wrote of “the commonality of black struggles elsewhere, and more broadly the fight for human rights.” In some ways, Americans’ public acknowledgement of its racist past and failure to acknowledge systemic racism through marches and signs in cities large and small is a step toward restoring the country’s self-image of checking its imperfections and finding grassroots ways to hold public officials accountable. However, the September 2020 Pew study of world perceptions of the United States noted that there have been steady declines related to respect for personal freedoms in the, and directly cited concerns about racial injustice as a cause.
How Did It Happen?
For the world to make sense of the news headlines coming out of the United States since March, it is necessary to understand the complex domestic political climate and its origins. The current political climate is the cumulation of forty years of changing views on the role of government, social issues, and individual rights: the last deeply rooted in an American psyche distrustful of government after British rule and nurtured by a rugged individualism that hankers back to Manifest Destiny.
The roots of the political divide that propelled Donald Trump into the presidency rest with Ronald Reagan and the rise of the “new Right”. Reagan outlined his political philosophy of limited government in a speech, “A Time for Choosing,” in 1964 and embraced its tenets during his presidency. In a 1983 speech entitled “The Evil Empire,” Reagan rallied evangelicals and many other Americans with these words: “This administration is motivated by a political philosophy that sees the greatness of America in you, her people, and in your families, churches, neighborhoods, communities—the institutions that foster and nourish values like concern for others and respect for the rule of law under God.” Reagan’s antigovernment, antitax, antiregulation, and anticommunist message, along with his belief in American exceptionalism and family values, redefined the Republican Party and led to Christian nationalism. Reagan’s antiabortion rhetoric in his 1983 speech appealed not only to the evangelicals to whom it was given, but also to Catholics, thus creating a coalition that shifted some traditionally Democrat voters to the Republicans. They were wedged out as attention shifted to social issues and guns, and this eventually led to a 1994 Republican takeover of Congress and a steady increase in Republican control of governorships and state legislatures. In 1981 Democrats held twenty-seven governorships, but by 2016 it was sixteen with Republicans controlling two-thirds of state legislatures. In 2016, Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress. Public satisfaction with Congress was at eighteen percent—down from a high of 84 percent after 9/11.
As a political outsider, Trump capitalized on the antigovernment atmosphere and low Congressional approval of 2016 with his “drain the swamp” message. He maintained control of the religious Right despite his three marriages and predatory attitudes toward women as expressed in the “Access Hollywood” tapes released during the campaign. His assurances that he would appoint prolife judges—which he has—helped achieve his victory. Twenty-six percent of Republicans listed Supreme Court appointments to protect gun rights and restrict abortion rights as primary reasons for a Trump vote. Adding to Trump’s coalition were the Americans who felt left out of the economic recovery during the Obama administration. While jobless figures were low in 2016—4.7 percent compared to 10 percent in 2009—real wages were stagnant, and the rich–poor gap was growing. Many jobs went overseas, and sectors such as mining and manufacturing were on a decline. Trump promised to bring them back and punish China for its unfair trade practices.
Trump’s message also played into white fears of marginalization stemming from demographic shifts and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a result of immigration and lower birth rates among white Americans, the United States is on target to become a majority “minority” country by 2050. Illegal immigration was at its lowest since 2004 in 2016; however, Trump played into fears about job loss and terrorism and capitalized on systemic racism to blame immigrants for many of the problems disaffected voters experienced. Because of the country’s Electoral College, Trump lost the popular vote but won narrowly in several “battleground” states that were most susceptible to his message because of high immigration numbers or loss of manufacturing jobs. Low voter turnout among minorities in those states also contributed.
In January 2020, at the start of a presidential election year, Donald Trump was facing a Senate vote on the articles of impeachment for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress passed by the Democrat-controlled House on December 18. The charges stemmed from allegations that Trump tried to influence Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with a threat to withhold military aid and a White House invitation unless he provided incriminating information on Democrat opponent Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who had worked as an advisor to a Ukrainian natural gas company. Trump was also accused of obstructing the Congressional investigation.
The Republican-controlled Senate exonerated Trump on February 5; while awaiting the outcome, Trump assured his supporters and world leaders that it was all a hoax as he went about the business of the presidency and his campaign. During the proceedings, Trump’s reelection hopes were riding high with a mix of low unemployment at 3.5 percent and stock markets continuing an upward trend. It helped that there was no clear Democratic challenger at that point in time. The Democrats had a cast of twenty competing in contentious debates for their party’s nomination and two of the top candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, were considered far-Left with Sanders a self-proclaimed Socialist. Joe Biden, the early favorite, was stumbling in the debates as political opponents who were children, teens, or not even born when he became a Senator in 1973 attacked his record in ways that often appeared to surprise him. There was no clear favorite after the first few rounds of primaries in February. The Democrats appeared to be giving Trump enough material for his campaign ads regardless of who the candidate was.
And then came March and COVID-19’s rampage.
The Pandemic Response in the United States
It is well documented that Donald Trump downplayed the pandemic’s nature and severity. Prepublication reviews of Bob Woodward’s book Rage about the Trump presidency revealed that the President admitted to Woodward in February that the virus spread was airborne and more serious than the flu, but that he didn’t want to tell the American people because he didn’t want them to “panic”.
The first case of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, occurred in November 2019, with Chinese officials notified in December. The virus was not reported to the World Health Organization until January 8, 2020. There were media reports about a new virus originating in China with cases outside the country, but it was not until January 21 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States announced the country’s first case in Washington state. The potential severity and likelihood of spread was not emphasized, especially by the government. Between January 22 and March 11, Trump did everything he could to reassure Americans that there was nothing to worry about even though he knew better. He claimed: “And we have it totally under control”; “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear”; “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. . . .Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”; and “Just stay calm. It will go away.” His advisors, however, were telling him that it could affect millions. Trump’s one action to deter the spread was a travel ban on non-U.S. citizens coming from China effective February 2. The CDC began screening passengers from Wuhan and imposing quarantines. Yet, even with the ban, it is estimated that over forty thousand travelers from China entered the country. On March 13, the president declared a national emergency and called for fifteen days of social distancing—later extended to thirty—but did not invoke a national stay at home order as was done in other countries.
What ensued is a “crazy quilt” of responses across the country due to a constitutional provision that gives states the authority to deal with emergencies since they are closer to the problem. It is a system that sounds good in theory, but proved unworkable for something like a virus that does not respect invisible state borders. Some governors such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo—the site of the pandemic’s epicenter for many weeks—took control and implemented measures to shut down the state and enforce recommended public health procedures such as masks. New York and states surrounding it that implemented similar procedures are now among the lowest in terms of cases in the country, and they have banned visitors from high incidence states to prevent a recurrence. Other states such as South Dakota, which has a Republican governor who refused to issue stay at home or mask orders because “the people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety,” saw surges in September and October. A motorcycle rally in South Dakota was responsible for 20 percent of the new cases nationwide in August. Seven months after the national emergency declaration, the United States has two hundred and fifteen thousand deaths and is approaching eight million cases with predictions of over four hundred thousand deaths by January 2021. The end is not in sight, and won’t be until there is a vaccine with widespread distribution.
Whether it was Ronald Reagan espousing a philosophy that led to the current political divisions, Donald Trump calling the virus a hoax and downplaying its threat after recovering himself, or protestors chanting for justice, the events of the past seven months can be traced back to words. Moreover, film footage and images of police brutality or peaceful protestors with a message of justice often say more than words. Words and images create reality.
There is no denying that the United States is no longer viewed as the beacon of democracy and human rights that it once was, but the country has weathered other periods when the world watched in shock as it failed to live up to its ideals. Ultimately, the United States is a government of “We the People”. The power to restore its stature rests in the people; the November election will tell a great deal about their desire to do so.
Diana Bartelli Carlin is professor emerita of communication and former associate provost for graduate and global education at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri. Prior to her tenure at Saint Louis, she was a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas and served as dean of the graduate school and international programs for seven years. Carlin’s research is in political communication with an emphasis on presidential rhetoric, political campaigns and debates, and women in politics. Carlin’s research has appeared in the International Encyclopedia of Political Communication, Handbook of Political Communication Research, American Behavioral Scientist, Argumentation and Advocacy, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Communication Studies, and Political Communication & Persuasion. She is a co-author of Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced. In March 2020 she served as a Distinguished Visiting Researcher at American University in Cairo.
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