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Donald Trump’s Death March

For the president, the question isn’t how many people die from the coronavirus pandemic, but who.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

After a beautiful weekend in the nation’s capital, where hundreds flocked to the National Mall to watch big planes go zoom, it is hard not to wonder if too many people in power have concluded that it’s about time we wrapped up this whole lockdown thing. Some states are reopening their businesses even as death rates continue to climb, affording people one last chance to go out and get some sun or a haircut before they die; one state, Ohio, is even taking steps to prevent workers at reopened businesses from claiming unemployment.

This is all happening at the same time as new governmental figures tell us there is far more horror to come. A new estimate by the Trump administration predicts that daily deaths will reach 3,000 by June (which could be low, since the United States saw 2,909 deaths on Friday, according to the World Health Organization) and 200,000 new cases each day. As David Wallace-Wells pointed out on Twitter, until now the actual numbers have “ranged north of the 97th percentile” in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s projections, which would mean an actual number of 15,000 dead per day.

So why would the head of this administration, in full possession of these facts, be barreling ahead with this reopening of the country? Trump may simply be incapable of processing this information, or refuses to believe what his own experts tell him. This would be consistent with his behavior for the entirety of his presidency. But it may also be that the Americans who are dying are not, by and large, the ones he cares about. This, too, would be in keeping with Trump’s reign.

Anyone who has been paying attention might wonder why the estimates keep shifting so much. At first, we were told to expect 100,000 to 200,000 deaths; then the models were revised, and the predicted death toll plummeted to just 60,000 by August. Now, with the U.S. passing 69,000 deaths in early May, the deaths predicted by the models clearly must rise again. There are many reasons why the models appear to have been too optimistic, some of which seem to be inherent in this kind of modeling. And yet, as the models turn grimmer, the administration has not shifted its response. Even if it made sense to think about loosening the lockdown when we could kid ourselves that things were improving, continuing to pursue the idea of “reopening America” while the numbers get worse is pure negligent madness.

The administration and several state governments, encouraged by the president, seem to have decided that a few weeks of social distancing is frankly all the universe can ask of us, and that hitting a high plateau of daily deaths is basically the same thing as beating the virus. It’s the murderous equivalent of going on a diet for one day and rewarding your hard work with a blowout trip to the Cheesecake Factory. How can we explain this? Primarily, Trump is clearly very good at ignoring things that don’t suit his desires and in bullying and punishing members of his administration who don’t kowtow to those whims. Already, scientists and government officials who have blown the whistle on his pathetic handling of the crisis have been removed.

Even someone so resolutely committed to shaping the world entirely around how it makes him feel might have cause to worry that presiding over thousands more deaths might cause him some political headaches. Last week, CNN reported that Trump flipped out at his campaign manager for the crime of telling the president that his poll numbers against Joe Biden aren’t looking so good. Perhaps his decision to double down is simply attributable to his experience that doubling down always works.

But Trump may feel he can relax again for a much worse reason: His supporters are mostly not the ones who are dying. The disease is primarily killing poor people, black people, residents of underfunded and overburdened nursing homes, prisoners, meatpacking workers, and others who don’t have the luxury of working from home indefinitely. It is killing people who cannot afford to stop going to work, or people who live in cramped houses with many other people. It is killing New Yorkers, people from Detroit, people in Los Angeles—all places that don’t really register as “Real America” to Republicans. We don’t have to worry, then, if the numbers keep going up; after all, these people were going to die early anyway.

Trump may see his dire internal polling and interpret this as a sign that things must be made normal as soon as possible—regardless of whether that normal ends up killing yet more people. He may be aware that the armed, angry men who demand at state capitols that we reopen America are more important to his reelection prospects than the types of people who are dying from Covid-19. This is likely to be a grave miscalculation: The bigger the pandemic gets, the more likely it is that it will reach retired suburbanites crying about their unfertilized lawns. New York may be the country’s worst coronavirus hotspot for now, but if Republican states keep insisting on letting people go to the mall, there is no reason why it won’t happen there, too.

People in Trump’s orbit have been itching to reopen America since the very first social distancing measures were put in place. The fact that this death march is continuing despite mounting evidence that it would be disastrous is evidence that the lives of those who have died thus far, including the essential workers whom we meaninglessly salute with hashtags and military jet flyovers, are simply not important enough to this administration to frighten it into changing course. When the pandemic hits Dick’s Sporting Goods stores in the Midwest or golf clubs in the South, perhaps the president might stop encouraging states to liberate themselves, and he might stop congratulating himself on the numbers being lower than we predicted.

What state will the country be in then? We already know the answer, because we have lived through the first wave of the pandemic, and the outlook for the second wave is even worse. But Trump still, somehow, hasn’t got a clue.