President Trump’s current pandemic strategy — emphasize current; like the cliché about the weather, if you don’t like it, wait a few hours — is a baffling knot of contradictions. He is hurling all responsibility to state governments, leaving it to them to devise effective tests and to decide when to relax social distancing.
At the same time, he is starving them of the resources to handle the job. And even as Trump hides behind a policy of deference to governors, he is goading right-wing protesters to force their hand. Trump is “saying things that seem contradictory,” as the New York Times puts it, “like pledging to work with governors and then urging people to ‘liberate’ their states, and leaving it to his audiences to hear what they want to hear in his words.”
Yet there does appear to be a strategy here. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday afternoon that Trump has “asked White House aides for economic response plans that would allow him to take credit for successes while offering enough flexibility to assign fault for any failures to others.” Trump’s seemingly paradoxical stance is an attempt to hoard credit and shirk risk, straddling the demands of his business allies with the pleas of his public-health advisers. On the surface, he is deferring responsibility and blame to the governors. Just below the surface, he is coercing them to resume economic activity as fast as possible, regardless of what public-health officials say.
Trump’s plan to coerce the states into reopening has at least three discernible elements. The first is, or was, the formation of a task force to reopen the country. The purpose of the council was to give Trump cover. The council would prod governors to reopen businesses, and because it would be seen as coming from the business community, Trump himself would not bear the blame for future outbreaks that might result. As the Washington Post reported last week, “Trump’s advisers are trying to shield the president from political accountability should his move to reopen the economy prove premature and result in lost lives, and so they are trying to mobilize business executives, economists and other prominent figures to buy into the eventual White House plan, so that if it does not work, the blame can be shared broadly, according to two former administration officials familiar with the efforts.” (In part because its purpose was so naked, the task force seems to have collapsed.)
The second element is the mobilization of protests. The appearance of flag-waving and sometimes gun-toting demonstrators in a handful of state capitols this weekend seems to have come as a shock to the news media, but Trump’s allies signaled this was coming. Last Monday, Stephen Moore, a right-wing pseudo-economist and close Trump ally who has spent weeks pushing back on public-health guidelines, was quoted in the press saying, “In the next two weeks, you’ll see protests in the streets of conservatives; you’ll see a big pushback against the lockdown in some states.”
This was not just an eerily prescient forecast of the direction of right-wing opinion. Moore is not Nostradomus. The protests were always an integral element to Trump’s strategy. The protests apply pressure to state governments, mobilizing conservatives to oppose lockdowns and raising using the threat of either passive resistance (by flouting social-distancing rules) or open violence (which Trump teased by linking the cause with the Second Amendment).
Trump’s comments about the protesters have been unusually subtle. (“These are people expressing their views. I see where they are and I see the way they’re working. They seem to be very responsible people to me, but they’ve been treated a little bit rough.”) Anybody listening to Trump would understand that he is encouraging the protests and sees them as his allies, but he is also leaving himself room to deny direct responsibility for their actions if things get out of hand.
The final element of the plan is using fiscal starvation to bring the states to heel. Republicans have refused to allow any additional funding for state and local governments in the latest economic relief package. “The thinking among some Trump administration officials is that many states should be reopening their governments soon and that additional funding could deter them from doing so,” reports Axios. Likewise, Politico reports the administration opposes aid for states because it believes “if Congress keeps cutting checks for state and local governments, they will be disincentivized to open up their economies.”
From the standpoint of either public health or economic growth, this is a wildly irresponsible course of action. Public-health officials and business leaders agree that it will be impossible to restore normal business activity without testing and other measures to ensure public safety. Testing has been a debacle, and the number of tests has been flat for two weeks. Rather than sort out the mess, Trump is essentially giving up on the whole job and leaving it to governors.
And yet, while he is purposeful about avoiding blame, Trump refuses to cede authority to other officials. He wants to reopen the economy fast, and fiscal pressure is a way to force their hand.
Faced with the desperation of a disintegrating revenue base and spiraling needs for social spending, governors may be forced to risk the health of their citizens and try to gamble that they can restart the economy. The certainty of an unsolvable fiscal crisis, requiring massive cuts to education and health care, may outweigh the risk of a new outbreak. If the economy blossoms, Trump gets the credit. If the recovery sputters because people remain afraid to leave their homes, or if they do leave their homes and thousands of them die, then the governors who made the decisions get the blame.
To say that this is a plan is not to say it’s a brilliant plan. Trump’s calculations here, as always, are operating on a short time horizon. His obsession with the fastest possible recovery runs the heavy risk of stalling out again with new outbreaks.
But he does grasp an important strategic problem. His fate rests in the hands of public officials who are concerned with the long- or medium-term health and prosperity of their citizens, whereas Trump runs only to the course of the next half-year. If he can’t use reason to align the interests of the governors with his own, all he has left is blunt force.