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Trump’s Next Pivot Will Leave Us More Divided Than Ever

It's coming.
March 24, 2020
Trump’s Next Pivot Will Leave Us More Divided Than Ever
Dr. Anthony Fauci pauses after during a TV interview outside the White House March 12, 2020, in Washington, DC. - Between 70 to 150 million people in the United States could eventually be infected with the novel coronavirus, according to a projection shared with Congress, a lawmaker said March 12, 2020. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told the hearing: "We really need to be careful with those kinds of predictions because that's based on a model." (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Naturally, the president of the United States is signaling a dramatic change in national strategy during a time of unprecedented crisis by sharing a tweet from a sex counselor.

“The fear of the virus cannot collapse our economy that President Trump has built up,” tweeted Dr. Dawn Michael. “We The People are smart enough to keep away from others if we know that we are sick or they are sick! After 15 days are over the world can begin to heal!”

Trump retweeted Dr. Dawn who was herself replying to his own tweet in which he made it clear that, six days after calling for a 15-day period of social distancing, the president was getting antsy. On Sunday night he tweeted:

You could tell he was serious, because of the ALL CAPS.

Trump repeated the sentiment at Monday night’s news conference. “America will again—and soon—be open for business,” he said. “Very soon, a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. A lot sooner. We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

So what happens if Trump calls Americans out of their social isolation—which, please remember, has been done mostly voluntarily though with some state-level mandates? For the moment, the nation seems taking up collective action with pretty good spirits. But Trump could unravel all of that with a single press conference, turning social distancing from an act of civic virtue and responsibility, into yet another signal of tribal identity. As the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins notes, “it seems like very soon, social distancing is going to be treated by many primarily as a political act—a way of signaling which ‘side’ you’re on.”

Which, come to think of it, is what the very idea of being concerned about COVID-19 was for three months while Trump was lying about it.

Among Trump’s inner circle, the New York Times reports, there “has been a growing sentiment that medical experts were allowed to set policy that has hurt the economy, and there has been a push to find ways to let people start returning to work.”

Economic advisor Larry Kudlow was quick to embrace the new mantra. “But the president is right” he said. “The cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.” [Emphasis added.]

Euphemism alert: Those “difficult tradeoffs” will be measured in body-bags. But Kudlow is far from alone.

Reports the Washington Post:

President Trump is weighing calls from some Republican lawmakers and White House advisers to scale back steps to contain the coronavirus despite the advice of federal health officials as a growing number of conservatives argue the impact on the economy has become too severe, according to several people with knowledge of the internal deliberations.

Loosening restrictions on social distancing would override the internal warnings of senior U.S. health officials, including Anthony S. Fauci, who have said the worst of the pandemic has yet to be felt in the United States.

The 15-day period is set to end on March 30.

At the end of the 15 day period, notes Axios’ Jonathan Swan, “there will likely be a serious clash between the public health experts—who will almost certainly favor a longer period of nationwide social distancing and quarantining—versus the president and his economic and political aides, who are anxious to restart the economy.”

A central player in that confrontation is likely to be Fauci, who has reportedly warned administration officials that prematurely scaling back social distancing measures could have disastrous consequences for public health and for U.S. hospitals.

But the ultimate decision maker will be Trump, whose lack of empathy is rivaled only by his disdain for expertise.

Would Trump do it? Would he prioritize the economy ahead of human lives? Would he side with the hard-edged utilitarians—some of whom were, funnily enough, passionate pro-lifers until five minutes ago—who are now arguing that deaths from coronavirus need to be seen as a rational tradeoff to keep the economy humming?

The political risks are huge because there is no guarantee the ploy would work. Trump could summon the economy back to life, but would it obey him? As his loyal satrap Lindsey Graham tweeted Monday: “Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can’t help all, and every moment … played out in our living rooms, on TV, on social media, and shown all around the world.”

But Trump’s calculation may be different: he may feel that his reelection bid will be hurt more by a recession than by many thousands of deaths. Those tragedies can be blamed on the Chinese and they may take place predominately in blue states. He may think that he can create his own reality and shift responsibility for American deaths.

But the economy, he owns.

It is entirely possible that Trump may calculate that he can survive your grandmother’s death, but not another 10,000 point drop in the Dow.

So maybe Trump decides to call it off the shutdown, or dramatically dial it back in week or so. That decision could leave us with the worst of both worlds: a devastated economy and a pandemic disaster.

It would also leave the country more divided than ever, a red and blue nation with radically different attitudes, lifestyles, and death rates.

Polling already shows a stark partisan divide over the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite Trump’s shift in tone in recent days, his weeks of downplaying the severity of the pandemic have left much of his base skeptical and even blasé about the threat.

A daily tracking poll by Civiqs, for instance finds that 57 percent of Democrats are “extremely concerned,” (with 28 percent “moderately concerned”) about the virus, compared with just 19 percent of Republicans who say they are “extremely concerned” (and 29 percent “moderately concerned”).

Among Republicans 33 percent say they are just “a little concerned,” while another 19 percent say they are “not concerned at all.”

People often vote with their feet and one of the markers of social distancing is that people travel less. As the coronavirus has spread, travel has declined in every state. But 23 of the 25 states where residents had cut their travel the least were states Trump won in 2016.

So while Trump is trying to rebrand himself as a “wartime president,” much of his base never took this war seriously in the first place.

How did we get here?

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson was among the first to hint at the tradeoff between economics and lives. “Getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population . . . probably far less,” Johnson said. “We don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways.”

Of course, 3.4 percent of our population would mean millions of deaths. Some wrote off Johnson’s comments as a gaffe. But, in fact, he turned out to be the leading edge of the Republican party’s shift away from prioritizing public health.

In the Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins argued that by listening to the medical experts “we’ll be spending a lot more than we’ve ever been willing to spend before to avoid flu deaths. Eighty-three percent of our economy will be suppressed to relieve pressure on the 17 percent represented by health care. This will have to last months, not weeks, to modulate the rate at which a critical mass of 330 million get infected and acquire natural immunity,”

This posture was quickly adopted at theFederalist: “Is it right for the nation to require our children’s futures be destroyed to keep alive less than 1 percent of our population until the next flu season?” asked writer Joy Pullman, who argued that there are worse things than allowing people to die.

“My point here is not that I like people dying,” Pullman wrote. “It’s that very often our society chooses to allow deaths because the alternative is worse. I’m suggesting the severe social and economic tradeoffs of unlimited quarantine are an important consideration that is not being taken seriously enough.”

The idea has become so commonplace on the right that it’s almost as if Trump’s most reliable surrogates had all gotten together to coordinate it.

Here’s Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton eagerly leaving behind his usual bailiwick of law and government accountability to demonstrate a heretofore unknown expertise in the complex interplay of epidemiology and macroeconomics.

It is, of course, a total coincidence that Fitton’s considered judgment happened to align with where MAGA world was heading.

And of course, Jesse Kelley chimed in, too:

The “show” must go on, despite some projections suggesting that as many as 2.2 million American could die and 20 million be hospitalized. “The reality of so many lives lost,” writes Ari Schulman in the New Atlantis, “more than all the soldiers we have lost in all the wars we have fought—is not something modern Americans can grasp.”

But the argument here isn’t between people who want to restart the economy and people who do not.

The economy will be restarted.

At some point, people will go back to their jobs, children will return to school, sports will return, restaurants and gyms will reopen, and the nation’s culture will start up again.

The question is when this should be done in such a way as to minimize both the economic and human costs of this pandemic.

Yuval Levin argues in the Atlantic that we need a hard start, followed by a soft start. “The aim of public policy should be to have this period last weeks, not months,” he argues, “to let people keep their place while we go through it; and to enable a gradual, soft, uneasy return to work, school, commerce, and culture.” But, he also notes that “it is not yet possible to move from the hard pause we have taken to the soft and gradual resumption of normalcy.”

Again: The question is not whether or not to revive the economy. It’s when to do it? And how?

Here is a serious question: How do we think Trump will try to do it? Carefully? Or impulsively? Please recall that this entire debate was set off by a tweet sent in ALL CAPS by the president of the United States just before midnight.

Do you think it will be done with wisdom, or cynicism? Do you think it will be done in such a manner as to unite the country, or further divide it?

And do you think it will be done in concert with, or defiance of, medical experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci?

The more immediate problem is practical and constitutional: Many of the more dramatic shelter-in-place orders have come not from the federal government, but states and localities, over which Trump has no direct control. Could Trump “reopen” America, or would it remain a patchwork of states and communities with different policies and impacts? Will the Red versus Blue divide extend to school and business closings? And will it be reflected in different rates of infections and death?

There is also the question of leadership: Does Trump have the deftness or the credibility to pull the delicate and sensitive shift this requires? Does he have the moral authority to summon the nation to sacrifice and then back again to consumerism?

And finally: Do we really imagine that we can revive the economy in the midst of a pandemic that doesn’t care about Donald Trump’s ego, his polls, his tweets, or his re-election?

It would be pleasant to say that, well, you never know. People change. Sometimes a man rises to his moment.

But then, we have the tapes. And so we probably have our answer.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.