Donald Trump’s re-election strategy had two potential paths this week. The first path would save millions of jobs, turn Trump into a populist hero for many and perhaps prevent another depression. The second path would court chaos, playing up the partisan divide, deflecting all blame for the coronavirus pandemic onto the media, China and the Obama White House, and praying that it ends up being enough to obscure his administration’s disastrous lack of preparation.
It’s a testament to Mr. Trump’s callousness that at this decisive moment, he chose the second path.
Already we see the carnage. Last week, more than three million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, in part because of a sclerotic government response to the virus shutdown.
It didn’t have to be this way. Mr. Trump could have pressured Congress to join European leaders — including the Tory-led British government — and proposed to “freeze” the American economy in place. Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have all committed to paying at least part of workers’ salaries if their companies don’t lay them off.
The American bailout bill does far less for workers or the small businesses that employ them, while larger corporations reap expansive benefits.
And President Trump appears poised to urge workers in some areas back into the pandemic, possibly as soon as mid-April, to restart the economy — a maneuver health experts agree would cause cases to skyrocket, effectively losing the short-term fight against the virus.
Knowingly putting workers into harm’s way to move the market is both unthinkably cruel and wildly misguided, even from an economic perspective.
With this shortsighted call, Mr. Trump is essentially making a massive bet that political polarization is a more powerful force than the virus’s body count. By picking the usual fights with the press, the president is hoping to change the narrative around the virus.
Take the president’s continued efforts to brand the pandemic as a Chinese virus. For Mr. Trump, such language operates as a grotesque division tactic. It creates an enemy for his base at the expense of inflaming racial resentment toward Asians everywhere. The controversy also creates a diversion. News cycles about the administration’s trollish language compete for airtime with reporting around the administration’s slow and costly response to the coronavirus — one that’s left millions of citizens and health care workers vulnerable. In pro-Trump circles, the conversation focuses on a deranged media that’s more obsessed with political correctness than a pandemic.
Mr. Trump’s desire to end social distancing follows a similar pattern. The president’s short attention span, thin skin and obsession with the Dow Jones industrial average all lead him to push for a reopened economy. Only the president doesn’t have that power — states do. And most states are likely to continue urging their residents to stay home. So he’ll blame the media and Democratic governors for the economic fallout. Here’s where the faulty American bailout helps the president in the most sinister way: Workers left without adequate protections could suffer more under a mass quarantine and might be more likely to resent medical experts and a mass media urging for social distancing. Mr. Trump can rail against the states’ decision to extend the quarantine and pretend, insincerely, to side with workers over the elites. After all, many of them can comfortably work from home and keep their jobs, he might argue.
For the president, it might feel like a win-win. If states ignore Mr. Trump’s advice and beat back the virus successfully before Election Day, he can claim victory. In the very unlikely event the virus doesn’t cause destruction in other parts of the country similar to what it is causing in Seattle, New York City and New Orleans, he can claim fear-mongering on behalf of Democrats and the media.
Meanwhile, the conversation around the virus shifts away from those needlessly suffering and the Trump administration’s woeful preparedness. The pandemic moves from Mr. Trump’s nightmare — a complex medical and logistical crisis requiring empathy and leadership — to Mr. Trump’s wheelhouse — an overly simplified, cynical political battle fought with cruelty and finger-pointing. Just as his coronavirus news conferences have become stand-ins for his rallies, the president’s politicization of the virus allows him to operate in a modified campaign mode. Without an official Democratic challenger to call out and a traditional election news cycle to cover the horse race, Mr. Trump is choosing to use the pandemic as a tool for his usual base-rallying division.
Under normal circumstances, this tactic seems to work for the president. But these are not normal times. Though public opinion around the virus is still starkly divided by party, there’s evidence to suggest that gap is narrowing and could shrink substantially as the spread of infection peaks across the country. Faced with an exponentially multiplying threat, the president has chosen to flirt with disaster rather than avoid it. It’s a strategy with a high risk of collateral damage — namely, us.
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