President Trump claimed last week that the coronavirus crisis had turned him into a “wartime president.” Over the weekend, he signaled that he might aid the enemy. “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” he shouted on Twitter on Sunday night. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
The “problem” to which Trump refers is a pandemic that threatens to kill between 200,000 and 1.7 million Americans over the next year, according to CDC estimates. The “cure” is a massive temporary reduction in American social and economic life that will throw the nation into a recession and upend countless lives and fortunes. Trump’s Sunday tweet—which reportedly reflects a deeper unease within the White House about public health experts’ approach to the pandemic—is the first sign that he may be doubting the guidance he gave Americans just a week ago to flatten the curve.
For months, Trump downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus outbreak in public and private. He told supporters that it was a “hoax” that Democrats and news organizations had exaggerated to undermine him. Not until last Monday, when the number of confirmed cases in the United States hit 4,000 and the stock market suffered record-breaking losses, did he decide to reckon seriously with this pandemic. That the mercurial president is already threatening to reverse course, as the number of domestic cases tops 40,000, speaks to a more fundamental problem for Americans in this crisis: Trump doesn’t care.
I don’t mean to suggest that the president wants scores of Americans to die from the coronavirus. But it’s clear he doesn’t care about the people whom social-distancing practices and lockdown measures are trying to save. These people are hypothetical, abstract, and intangible. (He has also disputed damning death tolls before.) The president is more concerned about the cornerstones of his reelection message: a low unemployment rate that is likely to skyrocket this week and a plummeting stock market, which hurts his family business and corporate pals.
Trump’s lack of empathy is worsened by his preference for style over substance. His daily press briefings promise miracle cures that don’t work, sweeping action that falls far short, and imminent relief that never appears. When news organizations catch on to the snake-oil salesmanship, he attacks. “I watch and listen to the Fake News, CNN, MSDNC, ABC, NBC, CBS, some of FOX (desperately & foolishly pleading to be politically correct), the @nytimes, & the @washingtonpost, and all I see is hatred of me at any cost,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday evening. “Don’t they understand that they are destroying themselves?”
These flaws make Trump receptive to rising unease across the American right with public health guidelines. Over the weekend, a number of Fox News hosts favorably shared a Medium essay by a Silicon Valley technologist with no public health experience or medical training. His conclusions fit the conservative media’s preconceived notions about the current crisis: that the experts had gotten it wrong, major news organizations had fallen victim to “hysteria,” state and local governments had gone too far, and most Americans should return to everyday life. Medium removed the post on Sunday, but not before it resonated with some of Trump’s closest allies.
There is also a growing sense in finance circles that the projected loss in economic growth is outweighing the projected loss in human life. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board led the charge last week, warning that “no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health.” Lloyd Blankfein, the former Goldman Sachs CEO, also sounded alarms. “Extreme measures to flatten the virus ‘curve’ [are] sensible—for a time—to stretch out the strain on health infrastructure,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday night. “But crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue—and beyond. Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.”
I don’t blame the president or anyone else for dreading the economic nightmare ahead. There is simply no precedent for what will come next. Some economists estimate that the economy could shrink by as much as 25 percent in the second quarter of 2020, a contraction without parallel in modern times. A Federal Reserve bank president publicly suggested last week that the national unemployment rate could reach 30 percent by month’s end. At the height of the Great Depression, by comparison, the unemployment rate peaked at just under 25 percent. The coronavirus’s toll on American livelihoods will be immense by modern standards.
Elected officials cannot prevent all of the damage. Fortunately, they can mitigate a great deal of it. States can halt foreclosures and evictions, impose moratoriums on rent and mortgage payments, and offer other forms of direct relief to their hardest-hit citizens. Congress could send direct-cash payments to every American to help them make ends meet while the economy is frozen, offer lifelines to healthy businesses that face ruin through no fault of their own, enact a universal paid sick-leave law to help hourly workers recover, and adopt countless other measures to blunt the impact.
But Republican leaders who have spent their careers preaching the virtues of small government appear unwilling to pursue this path. Under the Senate GOP’s original proposal for “phase three” of coronavirus relief, lower-income Americans would have received far less money than those who make more than $75,000 a year. Democrats also revolted against the Republicans’ proposed $500 billion assistance fund for companies, which Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin would control with little oversight and few constraints. Trump refused to rule out the possibility that his family business could receive some of the largesse.
“The politicians in Washington are telling Americans, as they always do, that they are riding to the rescue by writing checks to individuals and offering loans to business,” the Journal’s editorial board complained last week. “But there is no amount of money that can make up for losses of the magnitude we are facing if this extends for several more weeks. After the first $1 trillion this month, will we have to spend another $1 trillion in April, and another in June?” The response to this rhetorical question is easy: Sure, why not?
Trump’s heartlessness is also not unique among his peers. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson downplayed the coronavirus’s dangers by taking a nihilistic approach to how many people would die. “Getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population … probably far less,” he said in an interview last week. “We don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways.” In a country of more than 330 million people, a 3.4 percent fatality rate would be equivalent to the entire state of Ohio dropping dead. I would be curious to know how many quarters of negative gross domestic product growth the senator would trade for them.
If Americans are lucky, federal public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci will be able to overcome these voices and the president’s natural tendency toward self-interest. Even if the experts lose, it’s worth noting that Trump can’t actually undo the lockdown measures under which many Americans currently live. Those powers lie with state governors and local officials, many of whom have acted with more alacrity and caution than national leaders have shown so far.
But Trump has tremendous power to disrupt the response. He could use his platform to encourage desperate businesses and restless citizens to defy restrictions, overwhelming the states’ ability to enforce them. Republican-led governments in states like Texas and Florida, which have been slow to adopt far-reaching restrictions, would also likely embrace Trump’s laissez-faire stance. Americans would then be facing a war on two fronts: against a deadly virus that threatens their lives and those they love, and a federal government that won’t do everything it can to save them.