“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall….“ [The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe]
What was the State of the Union and the state of the presidency of the United States on October 3, 2020, the first full day of Donald J. Trump’s internment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center? Not so different from other days. Chaotic and on the edge.
Millions of Americans had already voted by mail or by drop box, a record number of them not waiting for election day itself, November 3, 2020, roughly 730 hours or 44,000 minutes from this writing. [Click here for the countdown.]
With Trump in the hospital being treated to the extent anyone could be treated for COVID-19, the trappings of the presidency carried on in many ways not so different from any other day of the three-year, 256 day Trump presidency. [counting that too.] On a non COVID-19-challenged day, Saturday would be a day off. One wag suggested on the internet that Vice President Michael Richard Pence had taken over for Trump by heading to the Trump National Golf Course at Bedminster, New Jersey. [Trump reportedly has gone to Bedminster 80 times during his presidency.]
It was not difficult to imagine how the wheels of government were turning as Trump lay in repose at Walter Reed – not so differently in many ways. With most of the adults in the room fired by now (Kelly, Mattis, Sessions, even Bolton], the Trump presidency had the quality of the French court of Versailles just before the French Revolution. Power centers with discreet missions, pretenders to the throne, family members, charlatans, all working behind the scenes and trying not to disturb the monarch unduly.
Among those with Trump at the traveling White House was his chief of staff, Mark Meadows. He was clearly one of the chief advisers, but the most important members of the presidential team might not have been there often. They worked behind the scenes with unprecedented power: a Ivanka Trump, her husband, Jared Kushner, and Stephen Miller. All had been in physical proximity to the president, and would have been worried about contracting COVID-19 themselves. One other person who normally would be close by was Hope Hicks, but she was the first person among them reported to have contracted the disease.
Beyond the presidential entourage there were other power centers whose specific goals centered around keeping Trump in office. Pence iwas primary among these—for all those days of the presidency, Pence had flown around the country, under the radar at times, shoring up support, speaking to local leaders and local media in conservative strongholds. Part of his message was to provide a veneer of dependability with his placid contrast to Trump, expressing at every stop the faux humility personified long ago by Charles Dickens’s Uriah Heep.
Pence remained important. He was second in line, and reassured the members of the Trump cult who included evangelicals and harbored a need to believe—and Pence believes. Pence was also a liaison to the Federalist Society, which helped choose federal judges – including Supreme Court justices, most recently Amy Coney Barrett. Whatever was written on the mask of propriety sometimes worn for public niceties, Barrett, along with justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were there for the Federalists and for Pence to fulfill their mission, in Pence’s words, “to consign abortion” legalized under Rove v. Wade “to the ash heap of history.”
Therein is the marriage of convenience among Trump, who could care less about Roe v Wade or any of their goals, and the evangelicals. It is also where Pence centered his connection with the surviving Koch brother, Charles Koch, who once again was spending tens of millions of dollars to keep Trump and the Republicans in office. Throw the abortion bone to the religious types, said Koch and the libertarians, and they would use their religion to maintain power. That was also where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held sway—whatever maintained power was good enough for him. Koch money meant power and McConnell wielded power and money diabolically in Washington.
And tied in with all the above was an aligned but independent actor, Attorney General William Barr, one of the most devious men of all the devious men who had ever held power in Washington. Yes, tied to the Federalist Society, yes related in turn with Opus Dei, the ultraright-wing Catholic Organization, and yes fulfilling his paternal command – strengthen the unitary presidency and destroy liberalism in all forms.
These were the actors, the president’s family and hangers on, who risked criminal prosecution if Trump lost the presidency; the vice president, who stood in waiting, certain that he was on a mission from God; the rest of the Republicans, holding onto power was greater than our 244-year-old experiment in democracy; and William Barr, twisted by hatred. They fulfilled their roles and would do everything to shield Trump, hide Trump, keep Trump and his presidency alive.
But COVID-19 was the equalizer, knowing not party nor prejudice; it slipped in, past blind ambition and stupidity, unmoved by imperial aspirations. COVID was now a presence among those of the palace and the time approached. “It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe. “And then, for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock.”