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The Deranged Push to Get Americans Back to Work

Some conservatives want ordinary citizens to return to their jobs and absorb the unfolding coronavirus catastrophe on everyone’s behalf.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Reports began emerging earlier this week that President Donald Trump has been getting restless about the severity of the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, worrying both that the crisis would continue to occupy his attention well into the remainder of the year and that the economic impact of the efforts to contain the virus could be ruinous for his reelection prospects. Those reports were seemingly confirmed after the president retweeted several supporters urging the administration to endorse a limited mitigation strategy, as well as in a tweet from Trump himself on Sunday, in which he argued that the country “cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” He elaborated on this at his Monday press briefing. “I think we’re very substantially under 1 percent now,” he said, referring to the coronavirus’s mortality rate. “It’s still terrible. It’s still the whole thing. The whole concept of death is terrible. But there’s a tremendous difference between something under 1 percent and 4 or 5 or even 3 percent,” he added.

It is true that there is a large difference between a number lower than 1 percent and more than 3 percent. It is also true that if half the country contracted the coronavirus, a mortality rate of 0.5 percent would imply over 800,000 dead. In a widely circulated epidemiological report from Imperial College London, it was estimated that approximately 1.2 million Americans would die if the country as a whole pursued the strategy Trump is evidently interested in—a limited mitigation approach with social distancing, quarantines of the infected and exposed, and a focus on isolating the elderly and those at high risk. Millions more, of course, would fall ill—many critically so—and the effort to absorb them into the nation’s hospitals would crush the American health  care system.

Even granted a point Trump has been making—that the recession now underway will also kill many—the best mortality and infection estimates available make plain that an attempt to return to business as usual as the virus continues to spread would bring about an even worse economic debacle. Beyond the dead, tens of millions of sick and merely terrified Americans would be financially incapacitated, burdened either by the costs of care or the heaviness of a fear that would have them squirrel their money away. Countless businesses, unwilling or unable to bring in customers and their sick or defiant workers, would remain closed.

The choice the country now faces isn’t between public health and economic stability. We are choosing which public health and economic catastrophe we would like to see unfold. And one is plainly preferable.

Nevertheless, Trump said Tuesday that he’d like to see a return to normal activity by Easter. The following day, he intimated that efforts to keep businesses closed were part of a media conspiracy to deny him reelection. Importantly, he cannot actually end the shutdowns on his own. The authority to reopen business ultimately lies with the governors who have taken action, and it’s difficult to imagine blue state leaders like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom simply acquiescing to Trump’s demands as cases in their regions continue to rapidly increase and public health experts continue to support aggressive containment. But as New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait pointed out Wednesday, there are tools Trump might use to pressure governors in the weeks ahead. “States are dependent on help from FEMA, the military, and other arms of the federal government,” he wrote. “New York’s Andrew Cuomo is pleading for Washington to send him ventilators, which he will need within days, or New Yorkers will begin dying for lack of treatment. As the coronavirus spreads, more and more governors will find themselves in this position.”

Critically, however, almost half of our states have yet to close all nonessential businesses in the first place, and about 40 percent of the population hasn’t been made subject to state stay-at-home orders or recommendations. Given this, the risk is less that Trump could force a reopening of the economy in places where state officials have taken prudent action than that officials in states that haven’t done so, especially those in red states, might be dissuaded from getting serious until it is too late.

That risk has been compounded by a chorus of conservative voices who have joined Trump in pushing an end to the shutdowns. The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh and ABC political analyst Matthew Dowd suggested earlier this week that we should accept the death toll of mass infection because 35,000 to 40,000 Americans die in car accidents each year. Fox Sports’ Clay Travis suggested the same because 8,000 Americans die each day. “I wish we were all immortal and no one ever died,” he tweeted. “But we can’t shut down the country’s economy to keep people from getting sick.”

The Federalist’s Jesse Kelly, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Glenn Beck performatively offered themselves to the disease, with Beck telling his audience that Americans over 50 should be willing to die to keep the country afloat. “I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working,” he said. “Even if we all get sick, I would rather die than kill the country. ’Cause it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”

And, as if to prove the intellectual fragility of the right’s rising anti-laissez-faire traditionalists, First Things’ Rusty Reno, a putatively heterodox conservative, offered an impressively grotesque illustration of the same old fusion between pseudo-piety and market ideology that has always defined the movement’s mainstream. “The mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere,” he wrote. “Governor Cuomo and other officials insist that death’s power must rule our actions. Religious leaders have accepted this decree, suspending the proclamation of the gospel and the distribution of the Bread of Life. They signal by their actions that they, too, accept death’s dominion.”

The reality all this grandstanding evades is that there is, again, no real trade-off here. There will be socioeconomic devastation as a consequence of state lockdowns, and there would be deeper socioeconomic devastation as a consequence of the virus’s poorly contained spread, which would destroy our health care infrastructure and kill American civilians in extraordinary numbers. But this posturing is second nature on the right: The people we hear as raving imbeciles are, for conservative audiences, daring provocateurs broaching hard questions the left is too timid, frail, and sentimental to touch. Of course, the right can deploy discourse-smothering emotion when it wants to. These are many of the same people who have spent nearly 20 years accusing anybody condemning American imperialism, jingoism, and Islamophobia of dishonoring or forgetting the nearly 3,000 Americans murdered on September 11. They’ve turned now not only to minimizing a national tragedy that will kill many more Americans than died that day, even as we’re watching it unfold, but insisting that others undertake a conscious act of mass human sacrifice—an unfathomable letting of American blood—in the service of market and social forces that they do not even understand.

The one true thing they managed to grasp in the aftermath of that attack, and that evidently escapes them now as they babble about the flu and car accidents, is that the psychic weight and material consequences of a shock to the system are far more difficult to contend with than the weight and consequences of casualties our systems regularly and gradually absorb. What is taking place right now will add to the number of preventable deaths we already tally annually. We will not be getting the coronavirus instead of the flu, or car accidents, or heart attacks, or cancer, this year. We will be getting all of them. And, critically, patients with the virus are on pace to take up all of the available hospital beds in regions across the country.

The threat facing us is great enough that Fox News has ended its in-studio guest bookings, even as those guests, comfortably ensconced in their own homes, rant and rave about overreaction and the urgent need to send people back into their workplaces. But if all America opened up again tomorrow, it would not be Glenn Beck, the Fox pundits, or the staff of the Federalist who would man our cash registers, restock our retail shelves, or wash the dishes and clean the hotel linens of the defiantly infectious. These are men patting themselves on the back for their willingness to continue laboring in a totally marginal sector of the American economy. To them, the people performing the labor that actually keeps the country running are merely raw materials—less human beings than replaceable fitted parts for the engines of wealth creation.

This is all out in the open now—an unmasking and a clean mental break brought about by an unwillingness to acknowledge the desperation of our situation. The United States will soon pass China in the number of documented coronavirus cases. As wished, we are the world’s exception. And we are out of options, with neither the power nor the agency to invent better ones. The undefeatable country has already been defeated, less by the virus itself than by a frail health care system, decrepit institutions, and a discourse populated by idiots, ogres, and ghouls.