Trump's reckless coronavirus pivot promises to give us the worst of both worlds
Republican governors, bending under Donald Trump's unsubtle pressure, have started to end the restrictions on businesses and other public places that were put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. In reaction, public health officials have been adjusting their models to reflect what is likely to be a rapid spread of new infections. The New York Times obtained a leaked document from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that projects a massive increase in the daily death toll, from 1,750 to 3,000 a day, and suggests we may see as many as 200,000 deaths by June 1.
The reason that the Trump administration and the GOP governors in his thrall are going forward, despite these numbers, is simple: They believe that it's worth the sacrifice of lives to reopen the economy. Texas Lt. Gov Dan Patrick famously explained the logic to Tucker Carlson on Fox News: "There are more important things than living, and that's saving this country for my children and grandchildren and saving this country for all of us."
Trump has not hidden that he believes that American voters won't care about widespread sickness and death, so long as the economy is doing well. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — who is basically the White House chief of staff now, no matter who officially holds the position — also seem to believe that the only thing stopping the economy from roaring back to life is the lockdowns, not the virus itself.
Indeed, Kushner made headlines last week by claiming that the crisis was basically over already. By July, he predicted, the country would be "really rocking again."
It appears far more likely, however, that Trump's strategy will result in the worst of both worlds: One where the economy is in the tank and the virus itself is devastating the country.
Trump's path on this couldn't have been worse, even if he was actively trying to destroy America. (Which is certainly one way to interpret his actions.) First, he delayed the shutdown recommendations and ignored the coronavirus for months, allowing infections to spread unchecked. Then, once the horse was already out of the barn, he reluctantly allowed shutdown orders to go forward. But being shortsighted and impatient, he and many Republican governors are now shutting down the shutdown well before the pandemic has been contained. The result is obvious: There will be a ton of serious economic pain, and most of that sacrifice will be for naught as the virus starts to spread again.
Trump's optimistic assumptions about the economy roaring back to life have no apparent connection to reality. For one thing, the economic damage is already so widespread and severe that it's magical thinking to imagine that everything will rebound quickly. The last time the country had an unemployment rate this high was during the Great Depression, which lasted a full decade. The grim reality is that economies don't bounce back after taking such a massive hit.
True, this is a unique circumstance in that the economic crash was not fundamentally due to market problems, but to the government shutting down public places. Some economists hope the recovery will be swifter than usual once the crisis is over, and of course we should all hope they're right.
But even if that is true, there's reason to believe the damage is too widespread to simply heal overnight. Too many businesses have already gone under, and rehiring all the people out of work isn't going to happen overnight. J.Crew has already filed bankruptcy and numerous other major retailers and large corporations are likely right behind them. As Annie Lowrey at the Atlantic reports, small businesses across the country are collapsing. Like it or not, a lot of the jobs aren't coming back just because states decide it's time to reopen. We are likely in this for the long haul.
There's good reason to fear that by reopening prematurely, the economic damage will be even worse than if we pursued a more rational course. Beyond the sobering death rate, the FEMA projection predicts an eightfold growth of infections, from 25,000 a day to 200,000. That would be 6 million people newly infected within a single month. That kind of widespread sickness — even if the vast majority of those people will recover, and some never become noticeably ill — is simply not compatible with the "rocking" economy of Trump and Kushner's dreams. Sick people can't work. Even those who have extremely mild symptoms will likely be under quarantine (as they certainly should be) to stop further spread.
People who see these rising rates of sickness and death will not be overly eager to return to "normal" life. New polling from the Washington Post shows that this is not a situation of "if we reopen, they will come." On the contrary, 67% of Americans said they would be uncomfortable going to a retail store and 78% said the same about going to a restaurant.
Prematurely ending the lockdowns could also force even more small businesses to close their doors. As Emily Stewart at Vox reports, being "allowed" to reopen could be devastating for some small businesses like hair salons. When the lockdown was mandatory, employees at such businesses qualified for unemployment. Now they no longer will, in most cases — but they can't exactly go back to work as usual if no customers are coming in. So all those workers and small-business proprietors will be much worse off than when they were being forcibly shut down. Business will be "open" and people will be employed or employable, technically speaking. But whether there's actually work or any revenue coming in just because the doors are open is quite a different matter.
"You can't reopen your hair salon if there's no one there to do hair," Stewart writes.
Restaurants, retail shops and so on will largely face the same problem. Dramatically reduced foot traffic, plus the reluctance of many employees to return to work, will mean waiters losing out on tips and store clerks seeing their hours dramatically reduced, if they're not laid off entirely.
Forcing millions of people off unemployment into "jobs" that provide no real income will be devastating for the economy, arguably much worse than the situation of the last several weeks. People can't spend money they don't have, full stop. And the economic slowdown that will result will reverberate throughout the country.
Furthermore, states who see their hospitals get overcrowded and death rates soar are likely to panic and reinstate lockdowns, causing more rounds of unemployment and more businesses to shut down. As painful as extending the current lockdowns would have been, adding more chaos and sickness will just make the whole situation worse. (The governor of Mississippi, as red as a state as one could imagine, seems to have tentatively come to this understanding.)
Donald Trump doesn't care about any of this, of course. Being a sociopathic narcissist, he has undue confidence that he can just bullshit his way out of this situation (or any other). Instead of focusing energy and resources towards fighting the virus, as media critic Jay Rosen writes, Trump will instead focus his energies on "one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in U.S. history."
Trump's focus, as usual, will be on how to pin the blame for all the deaths and all the economic devastation on someone else: the governors, the Democrats, the scientists, Barack Obama, whoever. In that sense, he clearly believes he's got a win-win situation. If the public is outraged over the rising death toll, he can blame governors for ending the lockdowns prematurely. If the public is outraged over the economy, he can blame the governors for having lockdowns in the first place.
We've already seen Trump's having-it-both-ways strategy, in his treatment of Georgia's Republican governor, Brian Kemp. Under pressure from Trump (and out of a desire not to keep paying unemployment benefits to hairdressers, tattoo artists and other employees in shut-down businesses), Kemp moved to reopen Georgia's economy too early and too rapidly. As soon as he did so, however, Trump castigated him for it. Now, whatever happens — whether the coronavirus devastates Georgia or not — Trump can claim that he wasn't responsible for any mistakes that were made.
The silver lining in all this: It's not likely to work. Trump's gamble that he can be the first president in history whom people don't blame for tough times is a product of his extreme narcissism, and not based on any evidence outside the fantasy world in his head. It's particularly hard to imagine how he'll pull that off when there's such a wealth of video footage of Trump claiming to have "total" authority, announcing that a miracle is in sight, hogging credit for things he didn't do and declaring premature victory. For Democrats, creating campaign ads that contrast endless, fatuous Trump's self-congratulation with his total unwillingness to accept responsibility should be a breeze.