Instead, Trump now seems to be viewing the crisis though the same bicolor lenses that have framed all of his political choices: red on one side, blue on the other.
A week ago, you’ll remember, Trump had adopted a grave countenance in his public briefings. After telling Americans that concerns about the virus were a hoax and that the virus itself would “disappear,” he was now bent on preparing us for long, isolating months of social distancing.
The boomerang back around started Sunday night, when Trump tweeted that he would now revisit all this social distancing stuff after the 15-day minimum period expired next week, because "WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.“
He repeated that line at Monday’s briefing, having seemingly decided that drastic measures weren’t going to be necessary much longer — even as the United States recorded its first daily death toll over 100. He compared the pandemic to traffic accidents and the ordinary flu, suggesting that maybe we’re all just being a little too precious about the whole affair.
A lot of this, of course, is driven by Trump’s fear of an economic depression. America “wasn’t built to be shut down,” Trump told reporters, in case you thought this was all just a routine case of periodic maintenance.
But Trump said other things, too, and they were more illuminating. He reeled off three states where he noted there were currently very few cases of the virus and where people wanted to get back to work: Nebraska, Iowa and Idaho. All governed by Republicans, all largely white and rural, all states that voted for him in 2016 and where he expects to do well again.
And then he talked about Democratic governors in states where the crisis is acute — New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois — and how he was mainly deferring to their leadership (which he has often criticized) and standing by to help (although they need to find their own masks and ventilators). If they needed to keep on with these lockdowns for a bunch more weeks, Trump essentially said, go with God.
These are all states, of course, where if anti-Trump sentiment were a vaccine, you wouldn’t find a positive test for hundreds of miles around.
We should have seen this division coming. If you’ve looked at a map of the virus’s spread, you might have noticed that it’s started to color in a lot like an electoral map. The coasts and large urban areas are bearing most of the assault, while rural America — sparsely populated, less dense, less visited by tourists — hasn’t yet seen much evidence of the pandemic.
None of which would have mattered to any of Trump’s predecessors. All presidents play politics, but at bottom they have all seen themselves as stewards of the entire country — not just the parts of it they like.
Not so for Trump. He used his very first address as a national healer, on the day of his inauguration, to portray America’s cities as rotting hellholes. He’s persisted in talking about “his people,” his Americans, while lashing out at cities such as Baltimore and Los Angeles as if they somehow belonged to Europe.
I’m not suggesting Trump wants the virus to rampage through New York and California; I’m sure he’d like to prevent that. But Trump always measures himself by ratings, and right now the ratings that matter to him are among the business leaders who like him and the states he needs to win in November.
What the president is saying to these urban states in crisis is: Hey, you do what you’ve got to do, but I really can’t sit here and let your virus destroy my economy and my voters. We are definitely not all in this together.
The real problem for Trump, aside from the morality, is that the strategy won’t work, medically or politically.
I’m no epidemiologist, but I’m pretty sure the experts will say that letting up on the virus before we’ve really contained it — maybe not months from now, but certainly still weeks — will lead to a spike in cases everywhere, as carriers of the virus inevitably move around the country. And that’s bound to create more lockdowns and more economic trauma, rather than less, in some of the states where Trump likes to hold his rock-star rallies.
Unlike the president, viruses don’t exist in a world of blue and red.