A savage pandemic has left America vulnerable and disappointed. Protection and power are what voters want.
When the Spanish Flu hit Zamora it found the perfect breeding ground. Inhabitants lived alongside animals and many houses lacked a lavatory or water supply. Institutional problems had created a bureaucratic and underfunded health system that failed to prevent the pandemic from spreading.
In the face of such devastation, a paradoxical response took hold. Whilst citizens called for a strong authority that could enforce strict lockdown rules, there was one part of the city that was immune from regulation. At the height of the pandemic, Zamora sought solace and protection from its churches. Whilst mass gatherings were prohibited, the city cathedral was packed and Zamora’s new bishop Alvaro y Ballano became the people’s leader.
It is undeniable that the actions of the church contributed to Zamora suffering more than any other Spanish city and yet, Ballano was awarded the Cross of Beneficence for the protection he had provided. The response by Zamora’s residents to omit the church from their calls for lockdown reveals something profound about the human psyche in a pandemic.
The people of Zamora had accepted that some of the factors which were contributing to the death toll were out of anyone’s control and that many were long in the making. Yet at the same time what they could not accept was a failure of leadership. Whilst local politicians floundered, Bishop Ballano provided the protection, comfort, and solace that the city required. Residents were so desperate for such leadership that they were prepared to allow the church to break the very rules they were calling for.
Enter Donald Trump
Almost 100 years later another man promised to become the protector of his people. At his inauguration, Donald Trump promised America ‘we will always be protected’. International economic and social movements were no longer benefiting the American people. He would close the country to such threats, including that of jobs moving abroad, illegal immigration and ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. Who the recipients of his protection were going to be was clear. Donald Trump was to be the protector of primarily white and older Americans. A majority of all those aged over 45 voted for Trump, along with 57 per cent of white men.
It is for this group of voters where Donald Trump’s promise of protection has fallen through the most. The largest global economic and social threat since 1945 is defeating America. Of the ten states where coronavirus cases are rising the fastest, eight voted Republican in 2016. Within these states, it’s the older white and male population that is bearing the brunt of the disease.
Many Americans accept that the country’s ability to fight coronavirus has been undermined by institutional failures within its healthcare system and its federal governance. Nevertheless, similar to the people of Zamora, what they don’t accept is a lack of leadership. In both rhetoric and substance, Donald Trump has provided none of the solace or comfort Bishop Ballano did. It is for this reason that recent polls in almost all key battleground states show the President to be trailing Joe Biden.
There is however another difference between Ballano and Donald Trump. The former arrived in Zamora amid the pandemic, whilst the President has been in post for four years. In 1949, adopting a similar mantle as America’s protector President Truman promised to fight communism. To achieve this, Truman’s goals were underpinned by a belief that America had to strengthen the economies and democratic institutions in those countries that were under threat.
Donald Trump’s policy of America First has contributed to a reversal of Truman’s aims. In Europe, a lack of American investment in technology and energy has left a vacuum for China and Russia to fill. In Africa, the depletion of American funding has been replaced with dangerous Chinese loans. Meanwhile, the absence of one of democracy’s strongest forces has been most felt in Hong Kong and Eastern Europe.
In 1949 Truman led an America that was stronger than the rest of the world. Whoever succeeds in November will lead a country battered by Covid-19 and whose power has steadily diminished. The American electorate right now needs a Bishop Ballano. Joe Biden believes he holds the leadership skills and the empathy needed for the job.
The spread of coronavirus has taught America that it cannot withdraw or escape from the world it helped define. It has reaffirmed Woodrow Wilson’s comments in 1917 that, ‘we are provincials no longer’.
The future of America will be determined by whether this election campaign becomes one where each candidate fights to be the public’s Ballano or if there is an acceptance that to truly protect America, a Truman or Wilson are needed.