The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Trump could make public health a partisan issue

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” President Trump told Fox News Tuesday. “We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu. We don’t turn the country off,” he added. “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We don’t call up the automobile companies and say stop making cars. We have to get back to work.”

Of course, we have no idea what Trump will say tomorrow or next week as the number of infections and deaths continues to rise — which it will. But we have to be alert to the danger of heading toward a situation where our public health response and the choices we make as individuals are shaped by partisan politics.

Just a week ago, I took note of a shift that was occurring on pro-Trump media outlets, particularly Fox News. Once Trump began taking the public health crisis seriously and declared himself a “wartime president,” his media allies shifted from arguing that the virus was no big deal and was under control (as Trump had claimed) to arguing that it was a big deal, but Trump’s awe-inspiring leadership was saving us all. Now another shift is underway.

With the severity of the economic crisis now clear, the president wants everyone to get back to work as quickly as possible. So over at Fox News, they’re pushing the same line, even to the point of arguing that if we have to sacrifice a few thousand or hundred thousand people to the ravenous god of the markets, so be it.

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That may seem bonkers, but if it’s what Trump wants, then certain people will give it to him. And since he wants it soon, we could reach a place in weeks when we’re confronted with this contrast: Maintaining social distancing and the other measures public health experts tell us are necessary will be considered anti-Trump, while ignoring those measures will be considered pro-Trump.

In some quarters, this may already be happening. Consider this story about Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s most ardent supporters and a frequent Fox News guest:

As the coronavirus threatens to spread across the Lynchburg region, Liberty University officials are preparing to welcome back up to 5,000 students from spring break this week.
Defying a national trend of campus closures, President Jerry Falwell Jr. has invited students to return to residence halls and has directed faculty members to continue to report to campus even as most classes move online.

Some of those faculty are none too happy about it. But what’s likely to happen is that Falwell will continue to get criticized by liberals like me, which will convince him all the more that he’s right and this is all an effort to hurt Trump.

Meanwhile, conservatives all across the country will watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh and hear a similar message: All those liberals just want the economy to tank so Trump loses in November.

Should Trump follow through in a couple of weeks and tell people to go back to work and school, he won’t actually be able to force them to do it. In this case, governors have much more control; they can declare (and eventually lift) the states of emergency that allow them to order nonessential businesses closed and keep people from gathering in large groups.

But at that point, the Republicans among them may start to feel increasing pressure to dial back those restrictions, both from above and below. Trump will be saying it (and maybe calling them up to tell them to get with his program), and because their constituents are tuned into Fox and conservative talk radio, they’ll get the same message and begin agitating to restart normal life as soon as possible.

Those constituents will hear the people they respect and admire (Trump foremost among them) telling them it’s time to get back to normal, and people they’re inclined to dislike (liberals, know-it-all scientists) telling them the opposite. Who are they going to believe?

They might even start taking their own initiative: Hold a party to own the libs!

And because the virus will spread more quickly in dense areas — i.e. cities, which are also more heavily populated by liberals — many conservatives in small towns and rural areas with relatively few infections will decide that the whole thing was overblown from the beginning and we ought to end the social distancing already.

Which could in turn lead to more infections and the lengthening of the crisis.

It may not play out that way, especially given that Trump changes his mind so frequently. But as the recession deepens, he could make all kinds of decisions and all kinds of arguments that are dangerous to public health. And some people will follow his advice.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Republicans angry that Democrats want to do too much for the economy

Karen Tumulty: It’s time to socially distance real journalism from Trump

Jennifer Rubin: Would Trump be willing to be the canary in the coal mine?

Jennifer Rubin: Trump is playing Russian roulette with Americans’ lives

Matt Bai: Trump sees the virus through a partisan prism