Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2020-12):
The Two Disruptions Rocking the US

Naoko Funatsu (Research Fellow, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)
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The US is currently being rocked by two disruptions: the spread of novel coronavirus infections and the systemic racism deeply rooted in American society. These two disruptions have once again brought into relief the divisions that have long existed at all levels in the US. With society facing such major disturbances, both coronavirus countermeasures and racial discrimination have become politicized, and divisions in the US stemming from the partisan divide as well as President Trump's words and actions have become increasingly serious, amplifying the social turmoil.

Novel coronavirus infections explode

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has been on a worldwide rampage. Infections have been rising rapidly in the US since the start of March, with the number of infected persons surpassing two million and the number of deaths topping 115,000 as of mid-June, making the US the hardest-hit country in the world1. The death count of more than 115,000 greatly exceeds that of American deaths in the Vietnam War (approximately 58,000)2, the Iraq War (approximately 4,400)3, and the 9-11 terrorist attacks (approximately 2,900)4, dramatically illustrating the serious harm that COVID-19 is doing to the US. No prophylactic vaccine or curative drug has yet been developed and the US, like many other countries, has imposed lockdowns and mandated that offices and stores suspend operations in order to prevent the spread of the virus. States with economically vibrant metropolises such as New York and California have adopted particularly harsh measures and penalties for non-compliance, and these have resulted in enormous economic losses. The US Department of Commerce expects GDP to drop significantly from 2.1% in the fourth quarter of 2019 to -5% in the first quarter of 20205, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate, which had been maintaining last year's 3% range, rose to 4.4% when COVID-19 infections first began spreading conspicuously in March, climbed sharply to 14.7% as the damage from the widening infections became serious in April, and remained at a high 13.3% in May6.

The "Black Lives Matter7" movement spreads

Even as the country faced this viral calamity, another incident occurred that shook the American public. On May 25, a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while arresting a black male suspect lying face down on the street, kept pressure on the man's neck and eventually caused his death. The unarmed black man cried out "I can't breathe" during the more than eight minutes he was being restrained, and videos of this treatment that spread far and wide across SNS from the day following the incident sparked calls of outrage. The cry of "I can't breathe" was the very same one let loose by a black male suspect similarly suffocated by a police officer during a July 2014 arrest in New York City, and the repetition of this anguished cry appears symptomatic of a sense of stagnation in a society where racial discrimination has not been resolved. Alongside "Black Lives Matter", this plea has become symbolic of the outcry over deeply-rooted structural discrimination against blacks. The protests quickly swept across the country, with demonstrations protesting police brutality against blacks organized in numerous cities nationwide. While the vast majority of these demonstrations have been peaceful, some have been marked by violence with scattered acts of looting. Some participants have been injured in clashes with police during the protests, and there has been growing unrest surrounding the protests. In many cases, participants closely packed in at protests, as well as the police or National Guard troops deployed to keep the peace at these protests, have failed to maintain proper social distancing, and it has been suggested that COVID-19 infections could turn upwards again not only as economic activity resumes but also as the protests spread, giving rise to concerns about a second wave of infections.

The potential for politicized turmoil

These two disruptions could well become politicized. The economic policies adopted during the coronavirus pandemic have been increasingly called into question. With President Trump determined to make his skill at running the economy a major selling point of his campaign in the November presidential election, the economic stagnation that has been caused by the coronavirus has proven a vexing issue, and Trump has been in a hurry to get economic activity underway again. However, the two major parties are starkly divided on how best to strike a balance between resuming economic activity and precluding a second wave of COVID-19 infections. New York State, for example, has a Democratic governor who has prioritized preventing a second wave of infections over resuming economic activity, while the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona have been quick to restart economic activity even though increases in the number of infections have been reported. Surveys by the Pew Research Center show that 48% (April 7-12 survey) or 53% (April 29-May 5 survey) of Republican supporters believe that efforts to reopen the economy have been too slow, while 81% (April 7-12 survey) or 87% (April 29-May 5 survey) of Democratic respondents answered that the economy is being reopened too quickly8. It was also frequently noted that high-income earners, which include many office workers, have broadly been able to work at home during the lockdown, while low-income earners tend to be employed in jobs that are difficult or impossible to perform at home, meaning that infection risks are also tied to income disparities. Rectifying disparities has been advanced as an issue by the Democratic Party and, together with efforts to balance the resumption of economic activity and the prevention of a second wave of infections, discussions on a suitable balance between economic growth and disparity correction could well become politicized.

Another undeniable possibility is that the debates over medical insurance will be reignited. Medical insurance in the US is provided for the most part by employers in the form of policies offered by private-sector insurance companies, so Americans are also facing the risk of losing their medical insurance, perhaps one of their most important needs as COVID-19 infection risks rise, or in the worst case becoming uninsured as the economic stagnation triggered by COVID-19 drives unemployment rates higher. Medical insurance systems have been a hot topic of debate since the previous Obama administration, becoming a key point of contention between former Vice President Biden and Senator Sanders (until the latter's withdrawal) in the fight for the Democratic Party's nomination. Opinions on medical insurance systems, including public medical insurance systems, vary widely not only by political party but also by income class, and protracted arguments could turn this into a political issue.

Moreover, the protests over racial discrimination have raised a variety of questions about the US' social structure, prompting discussions on possible political solutions. Those protesting police brutality, for example, have actively pushed for discussions on police reform, calling for police budgets to be cut and, in some instances, even demanding that police organizations be defunded. Attention is now focused on the steps that will be taken by Republicans, Democrats and the Trump administration through legislation or executive order.

Divisions exacerbating the turmoil

President Trump's responses to these two disruptions have in many instances widened the divisions in the US at various levels.

For example, President Trump, believing that restrictions on immigration were necessary to ensure employment for US citizens during the corona peril, issued a proclamation to restrict immigration on April 22 temporarily suspending the acceptance of applications from outside the US for the immigrant visas required to obtain lawful permanent resident status in the US. A strict immigration policy is one of Trump's priorities, but the exceptional measures taken with regard to legal immigration visa procedures have accentuated the divide between US citizens and immigrants. Perhaps aware of opposition from his support base in industry and agriculture, he did not at that time impose restrictions on the work visas required by foreigners with advanced skills or expertise to be employed in the US, the work visas required by foreigners for temporary work such as seasonal agricultural labor, or other non-immigrant visas, but it was first reported in June that restrictions would likely also be placed on work visas for these foreigners as well9. If these restrictions are put in place, the divide between US citizens and foreigners as well as that between US citizens and immigrants will become all the more unambiguous, categorically undermining the image of the US as a nation of immigrants and a magnet for talent from around the world in the name of securing jobs for American citizens during the corona pandemic.

President Trump has been strongly critical of the World Health Organization (WHO) over its initial responses to the novel coronavirus and this, too, has highlighted the conspicuous divide between the US and international organizations under the Trump administration.

The partisan divide that has so prominently characterized US politics in recent years remains intact, and it is also becoming ever more apparent that opinions are divided within the administration and the Republican Party. President Trump said in a White House speech made on June 1 that he would not dismiss the possibility of deploying federal forces in order to rein in the anti-racial discrimination protests10, evoking criticism and doubt from within the administration and the Republican Party. Secretary of Defense Esper objected to the idea of deploying federal troops at a Department of Defense press conference on June 3. In a video message presented at the National Defense University's graduation ceremony on June 11, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley, the US military's highest-ranking uniformed official, denounced racial discrimination and asserted that peaceful demonstrations were in accord with the principles of the US Constitution. On his having accompanied President Trump after the June 1 speech for a photo opportunity in front of St. John's Church once the demonstrators gathered in Lafayette Square north of the White House had been dispersed using tear gas and other means, Milley noted that his presence had given the mistaken impression that the military was involved in domestic politics and said, "I should not have been was a mistake...11". Former Defense Secretary Mattis also garnered attention for a statement disapproving of President Trump's actions, saying that the president was causing division between the people and the military responsible for protecting the people and intentionally exacerbating this national division, and harshly criticizing the president for lacking mature leadership12. Republican Senator Murkowski of Alaska agreed with Mattis' remarks and expressed uncertainty about being able to support Trump's reelection.


Divisions in the US, stemming from the partisan divide and amplified by President Trump's behavior, are already apparent at every level. With the convergence of two historic developments - a coronavirus pandemic and growing protests against racial discrimination - these divisions seem to be aggravating social upheaval. As people continue to suffer from the ever-changing disruptions, a long-term perspective will be needed to discern what solutions US politics can formulate to calm social unrest and ultimately how American democracy will demonstrate its resilience in the midst of unprecedented social turmoil.

(Dated June 15, 2020)