Trump Can’t Just Make Country Re-Open. He Has To Actually Stem the Outbreak.

The administration treats the pandemic as a media problem rather than a public health problem.

Donald Trump’s peculiar personality defects have never been more apparent than in his confused, blustering response to the ongoing pandemic. His signature combination of aggressive, ignorant mendacity has been particularly catastrophic in reaction to this once-in-a-century crisis.

When the history of the COVID-19 pandemic is written, it will show that Trump didn’t want to believe the threat was real, didn’t want to do the work to deal with it once the damage became obvious, and then tried to use wishful thinking, magic cures, and propaganda to will it out of existence.

But unlike most political issues in America in which the conservative propaganda machine has brought large swaths of public opinion where it wants it to be, the virus is implacable. It does what it does without regard to what Trump, Fox News, or AM Radio says about it.

Most of the public has caught on. Desperate to buoy his deflating poll numbers, Trump is eager to restart the economy (and his political organizing base in evangelical churches) as soon as possible. He has declared that he has the authority to supersede governors in doing so (he does not: the 10th Amendment to the Constitution clearly relegates that power to the states).

Yet even if Trump could wave a magic wand and force the entire government and every shuttered American business to reopen tomorrow, it’s not at all clear that people would cooperate. According to a new AP-NORC poll:

[M]any are apprehensive about re-engaging in activities that draw a crowd, like attending movies, concerts, or sporting events, using public transportation, or even going out to bars and restaurants.

People’s post shutdown plans depend on what they did before the outbreak. Overall, 38% say they would attend religious services. But among people who attended services at least once a month before the coronavirus outbreak, 67% say they would return to their church, synagogue, or mosque if restrictions were lifted. Fifty-two percent of those who ate out at least once a month before the outbreak say they expect to head to a restaurant or bar.

Still, even among those that regularly engaged in activities that draw a crowd, like sporting events, concerts and movies, or using public transportation, fewer than half plan to return to them in the short term once restrictions are lifted.

There’s also the economic psychology to deal with: the tens of millions of Americans who are now either temporarily or permanently laid off from their previous jobs aren’t going to be splurging on cocktails, sporting events, or manicures any time soon.

Of course,  some of the economic damage was inevitable given the impact of the virus. But a huge amount of the blame for the economic fallout falls on stingy Congressional Republicans who refused to do what so many other countries did in guaranteeing wages and housing protections so that people could maintain a firm financial footing during the months of lockdown.

Most state governors will not recklessly court a second wave of COVID-19 just to temporarily help the president’s reelection prospects, knowing that they will ultimately be blamed for the consequences. Even if they do, most ordinary Americans won’t be going out to get sick and spend their limited disposable income.

The only credible way out of this crisis—at least until the distribution of an effective vaccine, which likely is still at least a year away—is to do the hard work of testing and contact tracing. That, in turn, means the federal government and state governments telling the public the real number of cases and deaths (looking at you, Florida), and moving aggressively to quarantine the sick and those most immediately at risk.

This is the work Trump and his team have most resisted doing as they tried to manage the disease. They treat it as a media problem rather than a public health problem. They tried to minimize the official number of cases by not ramping up testing and then hoping it would go away, fearing a dip in the stock market above all else.

As it turns out, the stock market is doing fine—due largely to the now-unbridgeable gap between Wall Street and Main Street. But regular people are hurting badly, the real economy is teetering on the edge, and no number of executive orders can make the governors do what Trump wants, or force people into stores and stadiums, even if they could.

This administration is going to have to buckle up and do the hard work they’ve been avoiding now for months, or this crisis will continue to spin out of their control all the way through Election Day and beyond.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.