Donald Trump is not known for telling the truth, but his usual blustery fictions occasionally part to allow some honesty. During a Friday press conference to announce a national state of emergency for novel coronavirus, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said of the government’s slow response to the pandemic. Indeed, he does not. Though he announced a few new measures to address the crisis, including drive-through testing and the waiving of some restrictions on nursing home admissions and the length of hospital stays, Trump’s announcement wasn’t notable for its generosity. It was remarkable for a much less heroic reason.
Trump’s answer to a public health emergency to enrich and empower the private sector. He used the occasion of his press conference to lavish praise on several corporations by name: the Swiss drugmaker Roche, which received an FDA patent for a COVID-19 test, and Thermo Fisher, an American company that will partner with the government to provide tests. From there the glad-handing only became more enthusiastic. Trump thanked Google for “developing a website,” upon which 1700 of its engineers are reportedly at work. (This is not quite true, as the Verge later reported. The website will be produced by a subsidiary of Google’s parent company and will initially be available only in the Bay Area.) Dr Deborah Birx, who is overseeing the White House’s coronavirus response, spoke glowingly of the government’s “innovative response,” which is “centered fully on unleashing the power of the private sector.”
That’s great news for corporate executives, several of whom were present for the press conference. Trump paraded them before the cameras, calling them “celebrities in their own right.” Friday’s event was as much an opportunity for Doug McMillan of WalMart to advertise the beneficent qualities of his corporation as much as it was for the public to learn what the president they elected would do to help them. Walgreens got a turn, and so did Target. The corporations kept coming. There was Becton Dickinson, which sells medical devices, and Quest Diagnostics, which processes lab tests; they were followed by Roche, by Signify Health, by Lab Corp, by CVS, and by the mysteriously-named LHC Group, a company Trump called “a tremendously-talented group of people.” (They provide home health services, it turns out, and will test the sick at home.)
The parade seemed like it would never end. Interchangeable men in suits said as one that they were eager to help, to partner with the government, to serve American consumers. The spectacle was kind to them. Overall it gave the impression that these charitable corporations would lead the charge against COVID-19, and not the government. When Trump denied responsibility, he referred to controversy over the government’s flawed early strategy for handling the crisis. There weren’t enough tests available, and the testing criteria was inadequate; researchers in Seattle only uncovered the state of their local outbreak by going around the government and testing sick patients anyway. But it’s hard to avoid reading another meaning into Trump’s strange statement. He seems to deny responsibility in another, literal sense. He is shifting the burden of public care from the government to private industry.
Trump’s strategy will directly benefit the industry leaders who spoke during his press conference. But in practice, public-private partnerships aren’t as successful as their advocates make them out to be. Corporations have one mandate, and that is to make profit, The government has a far different mission. Its objective, ostensibly, is to serve the public – and the public’s needs are unwieldy, and expensive.The government’s private partners tend to cut corners in order to cut costs, as the case of Maximus, the private welfare contractor, shows. Not only does Maximus exploit its own workers in order to keep profits high, its public partners have complained that it’s not very efficient at processing welfare claims. It costs money to serve people effectively, and that’s an unattractive prospect for private industries. Bloated government contracts sweeten the deal – but they do so at the expense of taxpayers, who subsidize corporations like Maximus while the public welfare state inexorably shrinks.
The president’s dependence on industry is not a new feature of American government, as the case of Maximus shows. Even Democratic presidents have touted public-private partnerships as the way forward, a means to inject innovation into thunderously slow government processes. But government is as ineffective as it’s made to be by whoever is running it. Trump has made an ideological choice. Since taking office in 2017 he has siphoned money and personnel resources from the federal workforce, which officials defend as necessary measures to reduce frivolous spending. That left the government ill-equipped to fight the public health crisis at its door. As PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor pointed out in a question on Friday, Trump disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemics team in 2018
“I just think it’s a nasty question,” Trump responded. “You say we did that, I don’t know anything about it.” It happened, of course, and as the pandemic worsens, Trump might not be able to evade responsibility forever. A small government is necessarily reliant on private partners for help. Small government is weak by design; it cannot protect the public on its own. Americans must instead trust the intentions of Walmart, and Target, and Quest Diagnostics. They become something other than citizens, and consumption acquires political status. They are governed not just by the officials they elect, but also by corporate lords, each responsible for a fiefdom. We can’t go back to the way things were, but our national recovery can go one of two ways. It can develop a social safety net that works, or it can devolve power to the private sector at the expense of the public. Only one of those options will backfire.
We’re committed to keeping our readers informed.
We’ve removed our paywall from essential coronavirus news stories. Become a subscriber to support our journalists. Subscribe now.