Coronavirus highlights dangers of Trump’s destruction of the public sphere
A staff member blocks the view as a person is taken by a stretcher to a waiting ambulance from a nursing facility where more than 50 people are sick and being tested for the COVID-19 virus, Feb. 29, in Kirkland, Wash. | Elaine Thompson / AP

It’s easy to sell people on lower taxes and them to hate paying taxes altogether. Few politicians, even those who promise to provide health care, better public education, student debt relief, and so on, rarely explain in detail what Americans are getting in return for the investments their taxes fund or the bills they pay.

And it’s easy to get people to hate the government, to paint it as some insidious deep state working undercover for nefarious ends or to depict it as some bloated and ineffective democracy. This portrait of the government is, in fact, what fuels tax-hating.

Americans are really bad at thinking carefully about—and American politicians are even worse at talking about—the benefits we all receive for the taxes we pay, from roads to schools to health care to energy to security and so forth.

The current coronavirus pandemic may very well provide an opportunity to spotlight the value and necessity of the nation’s public sphere, the hosts of often unnoticed government and state agencies that do in fact serve and protect us.

Conversely, this pandemic promises also to highlight Trump’s destruction of the nation’s public sphere and the dangerous consequences of this agenda of defunding and short-staffing public service agencies.

While the Associated Press has identified as inaccurate certain claims by Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg that Trump has defunded the Center for Disease Control (CDC), thus hobbling efforts at prevention and response, the fact remains that Trump has substantially weakened the abilities of the CDC and other agencies in terms of their abilities to adequately ensure public health.

Since assuming office, Trump and his administration have in fact been dismantling the very government programs and agencies charged with addressing global health crises.

In 2018, for example, because it was running out of money, the CDC had to eliminate 80% of its effort to prevent the outbreaks of global disease, narrowing the number of countries on which it focused its efforts from 49 to just 10.

Moreover, the Trump administration undertook a series of actions to dismantle government-spending programs aimed at combating the spread of global diseases. For example, the unit of global health security in the National Security Council was shut down, national health spending was reduced by $15 billion, the U.S. government’s Complex Crises Fund of $30 million was eliminated, and more. Reporting for Foreign Policy, Laurie Garrett asserts that the U.S. has never been less prepared for a pandemic, pointing out, among other factual developments, that in 2018 Trump “fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure.”

One could go on citing the ways the Trump administration has actively undermined and underfunded the abilities of our public agencies to secure the nation’s public health in a way Americans have come to rely on, whether it is always visible to us or not.

But we need to recognize Trump’s dangerous behavior in relation to public health in this instance as part of a larger agenda of eliminating the public sphere, the multitude of tax-payer funded public agencies that serve the needs of the American people, from health care to education to national parks to infrastructure to energy.

Trump simply has chosen not to fully staff many crucial agencies and the primary leadership positions within. In February 2017, according to CNN, Trump still had not filled nearly 2,000 vacant appointed positions. And he has shown little inclination to actually staff the government since then. Two years into his administration, the State Department 61 of 202 Senate-confirmable positions were vacant; in the Justice Department 15 out of 29; and in the Department of Defense 12 out of 56. Across federal agencies, at that time, there were 260 vacancies out of the 713 leadership positions.

Government, for Trump, simply isn’t about public service, and he doesn’t seem to value any concept of the public good.

Perhaps most exemplary of this disavowal of the public good and the public sphere is the appointment of conservative lawyer William Perry Pendley last July as the head of the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that oversees a substantial portion of publicly-owned lands. He, of course, believes the government should sell off all of this land.

This position meshes completely with Trump’s behavior of letting the public sphere simply wither, unstaffed and underfunded—with the desire perhaps of finally having them completely unfunded.

Trump wants everything public to be privatized.

Taught to hate paying taxes, Americans can be slow to realize the value of pooling our money together to fund collectively our educational system, our roads, research and development, health care, social security, and more.

But think if we left matters of public health up to private companies and interests. Companies like Johnson and Johnson and Purdue Pharma were brought to justice for in fact fueling the opioid crisis in America in the name of generating profit. These private interests showed little concern for the health of the American public as long as they could garner billions of dollars in profits.

The coronavirus pandemic is beginning to draw into relief the value of the public sphere, our public agencies, and the need to fund and staff them.

As has been pointed out, the economic damage an out-of-control coronavirus can inflict on the nation far surpasses the costs of preventing and preparing for it upfront.

So, as we watch Trump continue to slash taxes, let’s reflect on the real cost of not funding the public services upon which we rely.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.