Progressive voters have spent weeks hand-wringing about the small polling bump President Trump received for appearing to take the coronavirus seriously, even berating cable-news networks for airing his briefings, which supposedly gave him the benefit of uninterrupted airtime. Ironically, Trump’s own advisers are upset about the same briefings. The New York Times reports that Republicans have been pleading with the president to scale them back, arguing that Trump “was handing Mr. Biden ammunition each night.” Trump’s internal campaign polling shows that the president has “mostly lost the initial bump he received early in the crisis.” New public polls from ABC and CBS show the same decline.
That political desperation is the context to understand Trump’s palpable desire to reopen the economy by May 1 or sooner. Trump has been publicly oozing impatience with his current policy for days, and The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have new reporting that suggests the money wing is once again regaining the upper hand over public-health officials within the administration. Trump “regularly looks at unemployment and stock market numbers, complaining that they are hurting his presidency and reelection prospects,” reports the Post. He is reversing course, not because of any public-health reason, but because he is losing the election.
Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to “reopen” the economy, but it’s not clear exactly what this means, or what he can do about it. Governors and mayors have issued the orders shutting down public spaces. Trump can’t overrule those, though if he wants to pry them open, he does have some tools: He can urge his supporters to resist, or use federal resources to pressure states and localities that resist his advice.
Public-health experts have argued that social-distancing measures can only be relaxed after several benchmarks are reached. Community spread has to be contained, and the government needs to have the capacity to conduct mass testing and to be able to trace the contacts of anybody who tests positive. This is not just some liberal-weenie precaution. The conservative American Enterprise Institute made this case in March, and CDC director Robert Redfield confirms it in a new NPR interview.
The notion that we’re going to be ready to do this within a few weeks seems utterly fanciful. At a recent press briefing, reporters tried to drill down on how much testing Trump planned to have available to accommodate the reopening. Trump simply denied the premise that testing to scale was even necessary. “Do you need it? No. Is it a nice thing to do? Yes. We’re talking 325 million people. That’s not going to happen, as you can imagine,” he said at one point. Asked about the number of tests his former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has said would be needed, Trump scoffed, “I don’t like using the word needed, because I don’t think it’s needed.”
Rather than ramping up a massive national testing regime, the federal government has been signaling to states that they’re soon going to be on their own. And as for contact tracing — like a cell-phone app, or an army of public-health officials, to track down every contact of a person who tests positive — well, there’s simply no sign whatsoever that either project is even in the works, let alone ready for an early May rollout. And if the government doesn’t have the capacity to quickly identify and isolate new cases, relaxing social distancing will simply lead to renewed outbreaks.
So, given the government’s utter unreadiness to transition away from social distancing, what does Trump have in mind when he talks about reopening? The answer seems to be retreating into denial.
The most concrete step toward reopening the economy is the reported formation of a new coronavirus task force with the mission of reopening the economy. There are already two coronavirus task forces: a government one, run by Mike Pence, and a quasi-private one, run by Jared Kushner. The purpose of the newest task force would supposedly be to focus on reopening the economy. “Administration officials have started contacting outside economic experts and other allies of the president to gauge their interest in working with the task force,” reports the Journal.
The delicate phrase “economic experts and other allies of the president” captures the awkward reality that the economic task force’s staff — whose members are reported to include such luminaries as Larry Kudlow, Steve Mnuchin, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump — are not necessarily actually experts in the economy, or even experts of any kind. They are not enhancing the administration’s coronavirus response team with specialized knowledge. They represent the impulse to override public-health expertise.
Likewise, the obsession with hydroxychloroquine among Trump’s loyalists is primarily a form of escapism. “He thinks that it’s the drug that’s going to get everyone back to work,” a Republican close to the White House told Politico. “It’s the only thing anyone has held out as offering an immediate reprieve from what’s become his greatest challenge — and political threat,” a former senior administration official explained to the Post. The official described the hydroxychloroquine craze as Trump’s “overwhelming desire for a silver bullet to make it all go away.”
It is irrational for Trump to believe he can restart the economy without first putting into place a robust public-health apparatus to contain new outbreaks. But it is not irrational for Trump to worry about his reelection. The state of public opinion may be even grimmer than even the top-line numbers would indicate. The public believes Trump was unprepared to deal with the virus by overwhelming margins — 63 percent to 22 percent, according to YouGov, and 71 percent to 29 percent, per CBS. YouGov also asks if Trump could have reduced the damage had he acted sooner, and 40 percent say “a lot,” while 25 percent say “somewhat.”
Two-thirds of the country believes Trump bungled the early stages of the crisis and subjected the country to unnecessary pain. So, on what everybody expects to be the single question that decides the election, Trump has lost the entire premise. Trump is already losing, and the current course seems far more likely to widen the gap than to shrink it. Whatever slim benefit of the doubt the public was willing to cede as he tackles the crisis is quickly expiring, and he stands (justifiably) to be blamed for the hardships that will follow.
It’s no surprise that Trump and his loyalists are grasping for some kind of deus ex machina. Maybe the models will all be wrong. Maybe there will be a magic pill. The country needs the diligent, patient work of recovery. But Trump’s reelection — the only thing he truly cares about — requires something closer to a miracle.