Covid-19 was also on the ballot

The 2020 elections have taken place on two levels.  One can prove to be deadly.

Voters have been choosing the president, the Senate and the House.  The results of the voting also show that tens of millions place selfish interest above community welfare in dealing with Covid-19.

In selecting the nation’s leaders, voters have undoubtedly disappointed the Democrats and rewarded the Trump Republicans for their stance on the coronavirus.

There was no Democratic landslide. Whatever ultimately happens after all the votes are counted, the outcome reveals a deep split about the role of government established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt but also the health of the people.

President Trump saw his path to reelection based mainly on the strong economy in which unemployment was historically low and people had money in their pockets.  Surveys showed a majority feel better off under his presidency, but believe that the country is worse off.

Farmers provide a good example of his brand of politics. Though his trade policy cost them major markets, it brought in new import tariff revenues, collected from consumers through higher prices. Those funds were used to compensate the farmers.  Trump protected their incomes using funds raised from other Americans.

The farmers stuck with the president. Perhaps unwittingly, many of the contributing consumers paid the price of cutting cheap imports from China.  American agriculture suffered and retail prices rose a bit, both not good for the country.

But the farmers’ incomes were protected.  They voted overwhelmingly for Trump and his party. His policy was good for them, if not for everybody else.

This kind of trade-off is also happening on a far more important issue.

Covid-19 presented Trump with a problem he could not manage as easily. Instead, he would first try to convince people that it was far less harmful than it turned out to be. For him, minimizing its effects and dismissing strong health measures would allow the economy to resume its growth on which his reelection depended.

But the illness is real.  Trump failed to deal with its harmful effects.  According to polls, most Americans thought he had not handled the threat competently.  Joe Biden and the Democrats believed his failure would cost Trump Republicans the election, and they tried to make it the chief issue.

By minimizing the impact of the coronavirus, Trump created a new political reality that will survive the direct results of the election.  This column is written before the final outcome is settled, though Joe Biden looks like he will struggle to be a uniting president leading a divided nation.  That division will extend to public health.

In voting for Trump and his party, a huge segment of the electorate sent a message about the country.  In agreement with Trump, many believed that even if the price of economic growth were added illness and deaths, the price was worth paying.

Dr. Scott Atlas, Trump’s quack medical advisor, was selected because he provided the advice the president wanted. Let the economy reopen normally, he says, but offer special protection to the most vulnerable.  That way the human herd could protect itself, though inevitably there will be some deaths.

Doctors who had made their careers understanding viruses knew that without stopping the spread of the virus, you cannot protect the vulnerable. Many older Americans would die.  Under Trump’s growth-at-all-costs policy, they are expendable, sacrifices on the altar of prosperity.

A supporting message came from Trump’s backers: fighting the virus by trying to stop its spread by requiring masks and separation violates individual rights under the Constitution.

The basic purpose of democratic government is to protect public health and safety. That duty exists with or without a formal constitution.  People create a government for their common protection.  A constitution determines the rules of government but not human rights.

Yet some have chosen to elevate the American Constitution to the level of the Ten Commandments. A document written in a few weeks by 39 men some 233 years ago merits respect equal to the tablets handed down to Moses.

Trump’s political allies elevated the right not to wear a mask, on the grounds that it violated personal freedom, into a wedge issue.  In return for his protecting this single “right,” they would allow him broad power to set all other national policies.

Protecting the right to dismiss health guidance became the ultimate political value. True believers selfishly choose to ignore the threat they pose to others by not wearing a mask.

Maine was fortunate in having elected a Legislature likely to support Gov. Mills, whose tough stance on Covid-19 has yielded more favorable results than in almost any other state. Maybe that’s a sign of the oldest state population protecting itself.

Ultimately what may matter most is the second election – the choice of self over community, made by tens of millions of Americans.  Perhaps that vote will one day be reversed, but at what price?

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.