Not so long ago, I had a face-to-face coffee with someone who had assured me over email that she was “undaunted and free of symptoms.” Symptoms of what, she did not have to specify. The coronavirus was far enough along for that to be implied — though not so far along that it couldn’t be joked about, and joke we did, looking out at an empty street, with an empty bar stool between us.
It was Friday, March 13. Parents in my neighborhood still felt it was safe for their children to use the playground. One hundred and eighty-nine Italians died of Covid-19 the previous day, but only seven Chinese; the number of deaths in the U.S. was still under 50. The situation felt something like the Iran standoff or a school shooting: troubling, but manageable, and even if it wasn’t managed, life as we knew it would more or less go on. Restaurants were still allowed to seat customers. The mechanics in the bike shop down the street had not yet donned masks and gloves or posted a sign requesting that no customer set foot inside the store. The coffee shop had not yet closed its doors indefinitely.
Meanwhile, after boasting of “record highs” in January, President Trump had stopped tweeting about the stock market. His silence coincided with a 20 percent decline in the Dow Jones industrial average, the index Trump has so often cited as the measure of his own success. The week before, Larry Kudlow, who leads Trump’s National Economic Council, told long-term investors to “think seriously about buying these dips,” because the coronavirus “is relatively contained.” The word “contained,” awful as it appears in retrospect, was at the time an ordinary ministerial distortion, something to please the boss. But stare at that “relatively,” and you’ll glimpse what Kudlow was saying under his breath: Caveat emptor.
By the time we finished our gelatos and said our goodbyes, Trump was striding out into the Rose Garden to make it clear he intended to roll up his sleeves. The coronavirus, which only four days earlier he compared to “the common flu,” was now a “national emergency, two very big words.” His concern came several weeks later than some had hoped, but appeared to be genuine, or at least genuine enough to appease the Dow, which shot up to close at 23,186 — over 1,000 points higher than that morning, but nearly 7,000 points lower than the 30,000 ceiling that it brushed up against in January and February.
Still, the comeback was good enough to excite Lou Dobbs, the Fox Business commentator. “On Wall Street today … stocks skyrocketing!” he told his audience on Friday night. The screen cut to green bars of the three major stock indexes, with three green northbound arrows. Dobbs chanted the numbers as though they were a home-team box score. Then the broadcast cut to a printout of the day’s minute-by-minute ticker. Floating above the rising line were some black zigzags that faintly resembled cursive letters: the president’s signature. Trump was already eager to declare his victory over the virus’s economic symptoms, even as the government’s response to the disease itself was just beginning.
“The president celebrating his, uh, signature day today,” Dobbs said, stumbling a bit as he downshifted from bullish incantation. “The White House sent along to me a, uh” — and here he chuckled — “signed chart of the skyrocketing Dow.”
There is so much to Dobbs’s chuckle: an acknowledgment of the shamelessness of Trump’s gesture tempered by an almost parental familiarity with his rascally ways, with notes, even, of complicity and grudging appreciation. Trump and Dobbs, after all, were each working hard to shore up an endangered idea — that the smart thing to do with your money is to buy and hold a portfolio consisting mostly of diversified stocks and to keep hanging onto that portfolio no matter how much it goes down, because the American economy is a good bet over the long run, and stocks will always, inevitably, go back up, providing average annualized returns of 5 to 7 percent a year to those who are stalwart enough to ride out the bumps, thus vindicating the stock market as something more than a zero-sum game. In good times, this advice seems like a scientific law of nature. When things go bad, it’s something closer to a religion.
After Friday, as the scale of potential American deaths became clear, the Dow began to spurn Trump’s supplications. Trump, like an ardent suitor, gave chase. His once-obscure Coronavirus Task Force began holding news conferences, with Trump himself appearing daily before the press. He did what he could to whip up good news, even as the numbers that mattered — deaths and infections — rose on an exponential track. It was as though Trump considered the pandemic to be a creature of mass psychology, like a run on a bank, when it was more like a burning theater. Even if you persuade the audience to stay calm and remain seated — even if you convince them that the theater’s management has taken the vigorous and decisive step of calling 911 — the theater will still be on fire.
Of course, it is certainly possible that the Dow will soon give in to Trump’s supplications. That seems marginally more likely now that Trump has opened a second front in his rhetorical fight. The allegedly priceless sanctity of human life, he seemed to suggest, had to be aggregated, quantified and balanced against the Dow. “The whole concept of death is terrible,” is how he put it, “but there’s a tremendous difference between something under 1 percent and 4 or 5 or even 3 percent.” According to this logic, the small number of people who burn to death in their seats are the tragic price paid by the collective so that the show can go on.
Some of the players, meanwhile, had already sneaked out of the wings. Starting in January, the senators Richard Burr, Dianne Feinstein and Kelly Loeffler each sold stock valued in the mid-six figures or more. (Feinstein indicated that the decision to sell was her husband’s. Loeffler attributed it to financial advisers. Burr said his sales were based “solely on public news reports,” not the official briefings that he, Loeffler and other senators received about the virus’s rapid spread.) But getting ahead of the market’s downturn proved easier for Capitol Hill than outrunning the illness causing it. By late March, at least three members of Congress had tested positive for the coronavirus; another five, at least, were quarantining themselves after learning they’d been in contact with someone who was ill. On March 20, a week after Dobbs touted the Dow’s big rise, Fox Business announced that one of its employees had tested positive. By that time, Dobbs, who recently called out “the national left-wing media, playing up fears of the coronavirus,” was one week into his own self-quarantine. “Lou feels well,” another Fox host assured the audience. “He has no symptoms.”