One of the most tired cliches in conservative politics is that we should run government like a business. Donald Trump’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect demonstration of how pernicious that philosophy can be, especially in times of crisis.
Much has already been said about how Donald Trump’s personality flaws and questionable policy obsessions have hampered America’s response to the growing pandemic. His narcissism leaves him unable to consider anything but his own political fortunes; his racism makes him treat an international medical problem like a clash-of-civilizations and border control problem; his incuriosity makes him unable to digest new information and respond with flexibility, must less act foresight to head off problems. Whole books could be—and likely will be—written about how the convergent moral failings of the president and his favorite conservative infotainment networks have contributed to a ruinously incompetent response to the burgeoning pandemic crisis.
Even in more competent and empathetic hands, the Trump (and more broadly, the conservative) approach to governing philosophy would still run counter to the demands of the moment, at a time of crisis requiring foresight and intervention by public sector.
At every step of the way, Trump and the conservative media have treated the coronavirus as a PR problem, a political problem, and a business problem. They have tried to downplay the severity of the disease, tell people to continue life like everything is normal, continue flying and going on cruise lines, and boost the markets however possible. Friday’s bizarre press conference was little more than an infomercial for some of the top health-related businesses in the Dow Jones average, with a parade of CEOs talking about their commitment to doing vague somethings about the pandemic right before the closing bell. It worked, at least for now: the Dow surged as a result of the upbeat corporate presentation. For weeks now the administration has slow-played testing under the theory that lower reported numbers would somehow look better and magically change the actual reality on the ground until the problem went away.
Like so much of modern American business culture, the ethic here is short-sighted and self-serving at best, and cruel, callous, and malevolent at worst. Today’s fast-moving capital markets are explicitly designed to be reactive rather than proactive, and every incentive built into them is to push for growth at all costs. Problems are meant to be pushed to the side and out of sight so the good times can keep rolling at the top; inconvenient costs are externalized and socialized on the backs of workers, the impoverished, and the environment. In the best of times, this dynamic creates massive inequalities and injustices that the market doesn’t notice, because the victims most affected are insignificant to—and go unnoticed by—the invisible hand. In the worst of times, however, it utterly hobbles a society’s ability to respond to crises that require active management before they can be directly felt in the marketplace.
The coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis are similar here: by the time the capital markets notice there is enough of a problem here to affect their bottom lines, it will be far too late to actually solve the problem. It’s true of any problem with an exponential curve whose solution requires acting well before the curve turns irrevocably steep, but where the action to prevent it would impact corporate profits.
Conservative ideology generally is incapable of handling problems like this. The philosophy of minimal government and just-in-time responses through privatized action is doomed to fail when the challenge requires redundancy, massive public investments, and temporary inconvenience to private sector profiteering. Paying for a pandemic response office, universal healthcare, a larger number of available hospital beds, and such would be inconvenient for some executives and their tax burdens, but it’s invaluable for social justice—and to keep people alive when systems are stressed. The same analogy can be made, but on a much bigger and more consequential scale, for climate change: adopting a Green New Deal may be expensive and inconvenient for some yacht owners today, but it will save millions of lives and trillions of dollars in disaster costs tomorrow.
Republicans and their conservative media allies have become so used to the “sweep-it-under-rug-and-say-whatever-you-have-to” approach to problems that they’ve forgotten how to do anything else. It’s not just a cruel dismissal of the needs of the young, the stranger, and the unfortunate: it’s also an entire culture of refusing to see problems that run contrary to their ideological framework. Every political problem can be solved by providing their base a comfortable alternative reality.
Donald Trump’s own personal brand of narcissism, pathological lying, and blunt ignorance is just an extra dollop of dangerously cruel incompetence. Outside of Trump, the conservative movement’s reaction to coronavirus reveals an ideology that has not been fit to deal with inconvenient problems for decades—whether it be climate change, the costs of education, healthcare and housing, or even other epidemics like the AIDS outbreak in the Reagan era.
Of course, a virus doesn’t care what presidents say, what University of Chicago economists write, or Fox News talking heads broadcast. A virus does what it does. Exponential curves are what they are. Sometimes, reality intrudes no matter what alternative realities are created, and no matter what actions are taken to try to sweep it under the rug so the champagne can still flow at Wall Street after-parties. A pandemic like this can kill the rich and the poor alike.
Even for the well-heeled, running a government like a business only works until it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, the consequences are beyond disastrous not just for the economy, but for life itself.