It hadn’t yet been a week since Donald Trump declared himself a “wartime president” before he was itching to declare victory and thus end his sacrifices and the nation’s.
Of course, it had only been a spare seven days since Trump had pivoted from coronavirus optimist to steely-eyed epidemiological commander-in-chief: On March 15, the pandemic was “something that we have tremendous control over,” but less than 24 hours later he had declared it a “very bad” situation, requiring Americans not to gather in crowds of more than 10 people for at least 15 days. We were, after all, facing “the toughest enemy: the invisible enemy.”
But war is a bummer and so is a crashing economy — especially if you have to hold news conferences instead of campaign rallies (while your sons are busy shuttering your own hotel businesses and your friends’ and donors’ stock portfolios tank).
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So by Monday, our wartime president was equivocating about the necessity of really fighting the enemy to its firm defeat: We’ll “reassess” at month’s end the restrictive social distancing measures that public health officials agree is the only remaining way to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which he finally started only last week after blowing off most other preparations. “America will again and soon be open for business,” Trump said in his Monday briefing. “Very soon.”
Explicitly cutting against health experts’ advice, Trump is embracing the chic new philosophy of the economic right: Death happens, live with it. “The cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re going to have to make some difficult tradeoffs,” Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Fox News on Monday.
Later in the evening, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox's Tucker Carlson: “No one reached out to me and said, 'As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren?' And if that is the exchange, I'm all in.” (How very “Logan’s Run” of him.)
This might be Trump’s greatest pivot yet: turning the self-anointed pro-life party into one of death-tolerance. It’s true that all public policy involves some level of cost-benefit analysis, but few people really think Trump is capable of such nuance.
Even if he were, how could we really analyze those costs? We haven’t taken the infection curve’s measure, let alone started to bend it. And the cure — social distancing — isn’t the real problem for the economy anyway: “The thing damaging our economy is a virus,” as Jason Furman, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, told The New York Times. “Everyone who is trying to stop that virus is working to limit the damage it does to our economy and help our eventual rebound.”
Trump’s White House tenure has been filled with perceived and proclaimed pivots, moments when commentators imagined that he would grow into the job, rise to the moment or otherwise transcend himself to the nation’s benefit. They each proved either illusory or delusional. Trump never pivots to maturity and never meets the occasion; he only exhibits irascible consistency.
In this case, the Donald Trump who pivoted and took coronavirus seriously was never long for this world. He remains saddled with the problems that made him dangerously insufficient to the challenges in the first place, including a lack of credibility that compounds at the geometric rate of the virus itself, a baseless and bottomless self-certainty and a child-like impatience.
Follow the bouncing Trump, if you can.
Start with his credibility problem: Trump’s early claims that, in January, “we pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” for example; or, in late February, that the number of Americans infected would “within a couple of days going to be down to close to zero.” Both were so on-their-face-risible that he cast himself as a biothreat Baghdad Bob. That is Trump: a dangerous mix of blatant lies, misremembered or made-up facts and, when not inconvenient, truth.
The now-daily news conferences that seem to be the main result of his turn as a “wartime president” have only spun up the pace of his bunkum: Ford and General Motors are making ventilators! (They’re not.) He’s using the Defense Production Act! (He wasn’t, though that’s finally changing.) There’s a miracle cure for COVID-19! (It’s not, and in its aquarium-cleaner form it might kill you.)
His approach to crisis leadership, like any huckster, is: Fake it ’til he makes it. Spout good-news nonsense and hope reality catches up.
Add to that mix, then, his intellectual incuriosity and belief in his own brilliance. “Maybe I have a natural ability” in understanding infectious diseases, Trump mused in his visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month. The unproven treatment he has touted even as actual scientists urged caution? “I’m a smart guy,” he said when asked about it. “I feel good about it.”
The one area in which Trump refuses to pivot (even while pirouetting) is his own infallibility. He reimagines his record and positions himself as a seer, never mind his actual words and deeds. Last week, for example, he nonsensically claimed to have “always known” coronavirus was a pandemic. He still touts his banning travel from China, as if it had stemmed the spread of a virus that has claimed more than 500 lives in the U.S. alone since he instituted that policy.
Ultimately, Trump’s coronavirus gyrations may have catastrophic real-world consequences. His new turn to the economy-über-alles falsely positions public health — and the survival of some unknown number, but possibly millions of Americans — as being in opposition to economic well-being. But how will the economy thrive if the health system is overwhelmed, untold numbers of people are sick, dead or dying and the pandemic is still unchecked?
Worse is the threat that Trump’s reversal will further polarize the public coronavirus response while we still have time to forestall the worst possible outcomes. “For the moment, the nation seems taking up collective action with pretty good spirits,” conservative Charlie Sykes wrote Tuesday. “But Trump could unravel all of that with a single press conference, turning social distancing from an act of civic virtue and responsibility, into yet another signal of tribal identity.”
The sole reason to have hope is that the 15 days Trump ordered everyone to socially distance don’t end until next week — leaving Trump plenty of time to pivot back to being a responsible president and claim that he always was.