Half a million COVID dead: Trump death cult meets shock doctrine
AP photos / PW illustration

Remember just a few short months ago when President Donald Trump floated the number of 200,000 coronavirus deaths as an acceptable number before COVID-19 just vanished like a miracle?

The inevitable outcome of Trump’s death cult has arrived—as of this week, a staggering half a million Americans in their graves from a disease that could have been brought under control.

500,000. Every single one of them a human being with the right to live out their days in peace.

The “American carnage” that Trump thundered about in his 2017 Inaugural Address turned out to be not a diagnosis of the condition that the country already had but a prescription for what he—and only he!—would bring us.

Today we are a nation of the walking wounded—those of us still above ground.

Except, naturally—this is a free enterprise nation after all—the billionaire class which has seen their wealth increase by a third in some estimates. Why waste a good catastrophe?

Shocking the nation into numb acquiescence

Social theorist Naomi Klein has written much about the “shock doctrine.” If you want a quick turnabout in your fortunes, hit the people so hard and fast they won’t even know what hit them. That has classically been the theory of the coup d’état (Chile 1973 comes to mind, but there are many other examples).

It’s also the doctrine that motivated the sudden transformation of the Soviet Bloc from socialism to capitalism practically overnight. Almost before you could notice what was happening under your very eyes, the collective wealth of the Soviet people, the commonweal, was distributed at fire-sale prices to corrupt investors in a new emerging class of oligarchs. Within a year or two, critical systems that had taken generations of sacrifice to build, like hospitals and health care, collapsed. Life expectancy dropped in the former Soviet Union by 20 years!

That was the price to pay to institute vulture capitalism with no controls, no restraints, no regulation. It was an entrepreneurial wet dream. Those who got sick and died, who wound up on the street selling their wedding rings, who could no longer afford their newly market-scale apartments were just so much baggage to be thrown off a fast-moving train as it rounded the curve.

Is it any wonder that a crook and conman like Donald Trump so deeply admired that class of unconscionable thieves that came to be led by Vladimir Putin? Survival of the most corrupt.

The death cult

As an up-and-coming public figure with a popular TV reality show, Donald Trump showed his mettle. It was only small potatoes then, not much more than a game. Yet it was a telling one. If back then he showed manifest delight in pointing his finger at his Apprentice contestants and informing them, “You’re fired,” imagine the joy, if he ever got the chance—by not even lifting a finger and by deception and deflection, by false promise and reckless medical advice, by indifference and greed for material profit and power—to order the deaths of half a million of his fellow Americans. That’s very close to, and will likely soon surpass, one out of every 600 Americans killed by a voracious disease he refused to wrestle to the ground with accepted methods the world has known for thousands of years.

His murderous impulse could be seen decades ago when he took out full-page ads in the New York papers calling for the Central Park Five to be executed—those teenagers and young men accused of rape who spent years in prison on the basis of coerced confessions. Finally, they were released after challenges to their convictions—and another individual admitted to the crime. Did Trump ever recant or apologize? Silly question.

Who can forget his boast that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and he wouldn’t lose an ounce of his popular support?

Who can forget his love of violence against demonstrators, his invitation to his supporters to rough up protestors at his rallies, his encouragement to police to do more head-banging, his endorsement of far-right, racist, and anti-Semitic terrorist wackos?

Like an omnipotent potentate or general who with a wave of his hand can order the deaths of thousands, at the last opportunity available to him as president, in the waning days of his tenure, he flew in the face of decency, mercy, and changing attitudes toward the death penalty and ordered a rash of executions in federal prisons.

And of course, not to be overlooked, how could Trump not have anticipated death and destruction in his final gasping attempt to call up a putsch to preserve his power? After months of pushing his Big Lie about the results of the 2020 election that finally ran aground in the Electoral College, the popular vote and in the courts, finally, waving his black-gloved fist on January 6th to his adoring crowd, he sent them off to “be strong” at the Capitol Building.

“Be strong” and risk getting killed for his glory. “Be strong” and kill whomever you meet and see—legislators, Capitol police officers, and what about that coward Vice President Mike Pence who in the end, for the first time in four long years, refused to do Trump’s bidding? Go find him, search him out, use that gallows and noose you’ve erected for that purpose.

This is the mindset of a fascist. To visit hurt, pain, suffering, and death on others. This goes far, far beyond the old Trump-branded steaks and wines and ties and “university,” the snake oil of investment properties that go sour. Donald Trump wound up killing half a million people, the very incarnation of death.

Do we understand that now? He himself defended it in a few succinct words: “It is what it is.”

And what is it, but the existential terror of never knowing from one moment to the next your fate in this world. Whether your business will go under, your job will be there in the morning, whether you can afford to remain in your home, to feed your family. Indeed, whether you will live or die.

The Bible he liked to brandish like a sword of vengeance says, “Choose life.” But Trump chose death, over and over and over again.

500,000 deaths, more than the sum total of all U.S. lives lost in World War I, the “antifa” World War II against Benito, Hirohito, and Hitler, plus Korea and Vietnam.

Declining life expectancy

And now—as if it couldn’t have been safely predicted—the numbers are coming in. Life expectancy in the United States was already declining, let us not forget that: With gun proliferation, substance addiction, closing of hospitals, poverty, homelessness, privatized medicine, how could we expect otherwise?

But last year the statistics took another steep dive. Only the first six months of 2020 have been officially reported, and we know that the overwhelming majority of COVID deaths occurred in the second six months. Still, 2020 goes down in U.S. history as, so far, the deadliest year, with more than three million on record for the first time.

When the year 2019 ended, life expectancy was 78.8 years overall, and by July 2020 it had gone down to 77.8 years for Americans overall, with females generally living longer than males. That number will certainly decline even more precipitously once the full year’s morbidity figures are in.

It’s important to note that for a myriad of reasons attributable to historical racism, life expectancy for Black people decreased 2.7 years in 2020, to 72; 0.8 years for white people, to 78; and 1.9 years for Latinos, to 79.9 (yes, the Latino life expectancy is higher than for whites). The higher rate of decline can be explained by the greater likelihood of people of color working at “essential” front-line jobs at low wages and living in crowded homes where the virus can spread more easily.

A decline of this magnitude had not been seen in the U.S. since World War II. The deaths are not only from COVID-19, of course, but those from other conditions such as heart disease and cancer that are exacerbated by the overall health care crisis, the shortage of ICUs, the lack of health insurance because of immigration status or job loss, and for many the prohibitive cost of seeking care.

But aren’t a lot of people in other countries dying too? Yes, the pandemic is global, but many other countries have taken a science- and fact-based approach to the crisis, and have better policies in place to protect their populations from job loss, loss of housing, and to provide universal health care. The U.S. accounts for 4% of the world’s population, yet over 20% of coronavirus deaths in the world.

By comparison, owing to their enlightened policies even under vastly diverse social systems, countries like China, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, and Cuba have kept deaths to a minimum. In some of those places, life has returned to very much as it was before COVID. The whole continent of Africa, the world’s poorest, with 54 nations, has 1.3 billion people (four times the U.S. population), and so far a recorded COVID-19 death toll of 100,000—a fifth of the United States. And Donald Trump had the audacity to mock what he called “shithole” countries!

“It is what it is” simply did not have to be.

The Trump death cult also took the form of holding public rallies, White House gatherings with unmasked participants, modeling unsafe behavior, demonizing science, and promoting quack cures such as hydroxychloroquine in which the president’s friends had a financial interest.

In numbers that reflect the Trump death cult narrative, according to The Nation magazine (Feb. 22, 2020), over 50% of Latino immigrants in New York State who had symptoms “did not seek care due to fear or a lack of insurance”—a sure recipe for worsening a public health crisis. Some 14.4 million people in the U.S. were “excluded from the CARES Act due to their own or a family member’s undocumented status.” The Nation further cites a 40.7 “percentage by which Covid deaths would have fallen if the federal government had enacted a blanket moratorium on evictions from early March through November.”

Vaccination rates are also reportedly lower for people of color. The numbers and the rates are growing daily now, but by the end of January in a survey of 14 states, 4% of whites had received their shots, 1.9% of Blacks, and 1.8% of Latinos.

Turning the corner

At long last there is hope. And a vaccine. The numbers of diagnosed cases are dropping, with approximately 35% of the total population already infected, many without ever having experienced symptoms. In densely populated areas, like Los Angeles County, the estimate of the already infected runs as high as 55%. The R value there, measuring the number of people an infected person goes on to infect, is currently 0.8. If it’s less than 1.0, that means the virus is finding fewer and fewer available targets to infect and is on the road to extinction.

Herd immunity from having warded off infection—one of the Trump administration’s pet “survival of the fittest” theories—is still far off. Without treatment, it would have resulted in far greater numbers of dead. Even if that were the strategy, it would require 90% immunity, and with the high numbers of people refusing the vaccine for religious or political reasons, the U.S. might never get there. The last wave of deaths might be the faithful and the willful who expect their final reward in some other place.

At press time, some 12% of the population has received at least one inoculation. With the coming spring weather and people spending more time outdoors—hard to imagine right now in many places across America, but it will come for sure—the potential for more surges is reduced.

Already many reports have been heard of long-lasting, lingering conditions after the infection is gone. There may be organ or brain damage from the virus that will continue to have powerful effects on a person’s health, in some cases possibly permanently.

This is no time to relax the vigilance of masking, avoiding gatherings, and frequent hand-washing. It’s not over. The virus will not stop at 500,000. We do not know who will be the last person to die of COVID-19, nor how high the toll will rise.

The American people had the common sense, against many odds, to vote a mass murderer out of office. Trump and his cronies caused deep wounds along the “shock doctrine” road to corporate hegemony. So far the signs of a robust response from the new Biden-Harris administration are encouraging.

But it is also no time to relax the pressure to repair so many of the endemic problems that worsened the health care crisis and which bold, aggressive action on the part of Congress could address. That action is needed now.

In our collective mourning let us continue to fight for the living and make sure that when the next pandemic comes (and be assured there will be a next one sooner or later) our nation will be prepared, capable, caring, and smart. And let us face life with optimism, confidence, and joy, knowing that we have—for now—put our worst demons behind us.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.