President Donald Trump’s recent row with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shows how little he has changed since his 2016 run for the office: The president is still willing to put his misogynist squabbling ahead of the needs of the American people in crisis — elevating himself and perceived slights from women above the well-being of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Trump went so far as to suggest Whitmer’s comments could affect whether he declares a state of emergency in Michigan, making the state eligible for federal aid. After that, Trump reverted to elementary school insults, calling the Michigan governor “Half” Whitmer and admitting that he would not so much as make phone calls to governors he perceived as not treating him well.
Michigan has over 17,000 coronavirus cases, the third highest in the country. Over 700 people have died in the state. Emerging demographic data shows Michigan among the states with alarmingly disproportionate rates of positive cases and deaths among black Americans — making existing racial disparities more explicit. Despite comprising only 14 percent of the state’s population, black Americans make up at least 41 percent of coronavirus deaths and 33 percent of positive coronavirus cases. The number of cases in Detroit alone, a city that is 79 percent black, is expected to rise to 31,360 by April 27.
Addressing Trump on Twitter, Whitmer said, “I’ve asked repeatedly and respectfully for help.” This help included her 25-page letter to Trump requesting he approve a major disaster declaration for Michigan and outlining needed aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. “We need it. No more political attacks, just PPEs, ventilators, N95 masks, test kits. You said you stand with Michigan — prove it,” she tweeted.
In the letter, Whitmer outlines her work combating the coronavirus, including her declaration of a state of emergency on March 10 immediately after the first set of positive cases emerged, which would direct state resources to mitigate its health and economic impacts. On March 12, she noted, Whitmer announced the statewide closure of K-12 school buildings and urged the president to permit a special enrollment period of the Affordable Care Act, which, three weeks later, Trump has yet to support.
Trump reverted to elementary school insults, admitting that he would not so much as make phone calls to governors he perceived as not treating him well.
But Whitmer’s early criticism of a lack of preparedness among the federal government and his administration’s inadequate travel restrictions have been met with sexist attacks. Trump has dismissively referred to as “the woman in Michigan.” Insulting Whitmer’s competence, Trump tweeted that she was inept, in “way over her head,” and that she “doesn’t have a clue” about how to handle the health crisis. In a phone interview Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump framed Whitmer, who is approaching 50, as a “young,” “new governor” who has not “been pleasant.”
What’s more, Trump has singled her out among governors who’ve challenged his response to the health crisis. “I’ve seen other governors say essentially the same thing and not have the same reaction,” Whitmer told The Atlantic. When asked what more he wanted Washington governor Jay Inslee, another outspoken critic, and Governor Whitmer to do in their coronavirus response, Trump asserted, “I want them to be appreciative” of what his administration has already done.
Trump’s criticism about Whitmer’s responsiveness not only has no basis — his contempt could also be harming the governor’s constituents. In an interview with Detroit’s WWJ 950, Whitmer noted, “What I’ve gotten back is that vendors with whom we’ve procured contracts — they’re being told not to send stuff to Michigan.”
A day later, Trump’s mercurial bickering appeared to have cooled, perhaps because of Vice President Mike Pence’s positive working relationship with Whitmer. His administration approved Michigan’s major disaster declaration and the release of aid for some of Whitmer’s requests, including funding to support the purchase of personal protective equipment and temporary remote testing facilities.
On top of Trump’s antipathy toward Whitmer, reports indicate that his commitment to big businesses, and their lobbying against the Defense Production Act, has motivated his unwillingness to coordinate an aggressive national response that could assist states like Michigan. Trump’s corporate deference (barring his spat with GM CEO Mary Barra) could be a necessary talking point to cut at the heart of his potentially deadly, conservative response.
Trump’s petty fights with state leaders like Whitmer could also end up being bad politics for the president in an election year. While Trump won Michigan in 2016, his narrow victory there and in another swing state, Wisconsin, may become a wide gulf in a country fighting off a pandemic. Whereas Trump won the Electoral College with a mix of apathy and antipathy towards Clinton among Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters in swing states and rage against Obama among white, conservative voters, the stakes are higher today. And the recklessness of Trump’s rhetoric and governance is even clearer in a global crisis.
Trump’s fight with Whitmer, a rising star in the Democratic Party, also provides a preview for what’s to come in the general election.
Joe Biden, the Demoratic Party’s frontrunner, included Whitmer in a recent list of potential running mates after promising to name a woman as his vice presidential pick. In doing so, Biden probably hopes to paper over his own unsavory history, lost in a news cycle charged by partisan theater. Never mind that Biden undermined Anita Hill’s sexual assault allegations during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. We can forget his decadeslong support of the Hyde Amendment (a position he has since reversed), which bans federal aid for most abortion services, or his villification of welfare recipients and support of conservative welfare reform. Biden’s refusal to back the discharge of student loan debt in bankruptcies, which disproportionately affects black women who carry higher student loan balances, will likely not be discussed at all. The credible assault allegations against him may be discussed just slightly more so.
The danger is that, instead of holding either presidential candidate accountable on women’s policy matters, or holding Biden accountable at all, the race could come down to the optics of a female vice president battling Trump’s incessant sexist rhetoric. This might be good for cable news drama. It’s terrible for an electorate dependent on strong leadership and bold policy to confront the unprecedented health and economic crisis that is prematurely costing Americans’ lives and is bound to threaten those of generations to come.