Everyone is talking about Dan Patrick’s on-air death plea.

Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, touched off an outpouring of anger when he declared to Tucker Carlson that people like him — grandparents in their twilight years — should risk death so people can stop social distancing to avert economic calamity.

Why has this touched such a chord on social media?

I submit it’s because it captures something essential about President Trump, his response to coronavirus, and the vision of our responsibilities to one another underlying it — or, more accurately, the lack of any such vision.

Global Opinions writer Jason Rezaian spent a year and a half in an Iranian prison. How he coped with panic and anxiety applies to the fear of coronavirus today. (The Washington Post)

Patrick, a Republican, noted that it’s time to “get back to work,” adding that seniors such as him should be willing to be “sacrificed” if necessary, so our children don’t “lose our whole country” to an “economic collapse”:

No one reached out to me and said, “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?” And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.

This is driving all the attention. But a crucial aspect of Patrick’s plea continues to elude us: He was offering his best argument in defense of Trump’s evolving position on what his government, and our society, should do in response to coronavirus.

Right now, Trump is actively considering relaxing federal recommendations on social distancing. As Trump put it, “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

Health experts are screaming warnings. As Tom Inglesbe, the director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, powerfully argues, the failure to test has dramatically undercounted the true numbers of those infected. This, plus a looming exponential surge in cases, almost certainly means that, if we don’t continue major social distancing, our health system will soon be overwhelmed.

Indeed, the World Health Organization is now warning that a major acceleration could turn the United States into the next coronavirus global epicenter.

But Trump plainly wants to ward off the coming economic downturn — no matter the cost — because he fears for his reelection. As the New York Times reports:

Mr. Trump has watched as a record economic expansion and booming stock market that served as the basis of his re-election campaign evaporated in a matter of weeks. The president became engaged with the discussion on Sunday evening, after watching television reports and hearing from various business officials and outside advisers who were agitating for an end to the shutdown.

Indeed, as Matt Gertz documents, Trump may have adopted the idea that “the cure is worse than the disease” almost verbatim from a segment on Fox News, which has pushed this line relentlessly.

Dan Patrick’s plea

Patrick’s plea to Carlson was inspired by Trump himself. As Patrick noted, his “heart is lifted” by Trump’s suggestion that it might be time to go back to work.

“We’ve got a choice here,” Patrick said. “We’re going to be in a total collapse in our society if this goes on another several months. There won’t be any jobs to come back to.”

“As the president said, the mortality rate is so low,” Patrick concluded. “Do we have to shut down the country?”

Trump has not said the elderly should be prepared to sacrifice their lives, as Patrick did. But Trump’s framing of the broader choice at hand is very much like Patrick’s: We must get back to work, because he sees the risks posed to our economy by social distancing as more intolerable than the risks of relaxing it.

But the virus is the underlying cause of the threat to the economy. Indeed, it’s worse than this: As Will Wilkinson argues, the current Trump/Patrick line is that we should risk millions more dying, even though we’d only be guessing that relaxing social distancing would help the economy, when in fact the mounting deaths would take their own economic toll.

But, in a way, the very indeterminate nature of this guesswork — by Patrick and Trump alike — is what captures an essential truth about Trump’s handling of this whole disaster.

We don’t have to accept this choice

What Trump is really proposing here — and what Patrick is justifying — is a further washing-of-hands of responsibility for this whole affair.

We don’t have to choose between unbearably high mass death totals and an economic collapse that dooms the American experiment. The government can send people money in sufficient sums and fortify the welfare state to save them from personal economic calamity, while bailing out small and large businesses with tight conditions that sagely protect taxpayers and working people.

As it happens, Trump and both parties appear close to a deal doing this. But Democrats had to drag Trump toward conditions on bailouts, and drag Republicans toward spending enough on protecting individuals.

Those things might not stave off a recession. But they will mitigate the effects, and surely the result will be worth living through to avert countless additional deaths. We could do more to mitigate those effects, if Trump and Republicans (and to a lesser extent, Democrats) were willing.

The federal government could have done this while also offering a robust response to the crisis from the outset that itself would have minimized deaths. But Trump didn’t do this, because he feared taking the novel coronavirus seriously would rattle the markets and imperil his reelection.

Indeed, Trump’s failure to take the coronavirus seriously continues right now: He still won’t use the federal government in the manner he should to get private companies to supply equipment. It’s in that context that we should view Trump’s directive for people to get back to work.

That directive becomes exponentially more irresponsible and dangerous, because Trump is advocating a course of action that will result in many more cases while also refusing to do everything possible to marshal the needed supplies for dealing with that coming tidal wave.

Patrick is telling us we should simply accept horrifying levels of sickness and death, on the indeterminate claim that it will somehow mitigate economic pain that we could mitigate through determined government action, if only the leadership were there to do so.

Trump would not put it quite this way. But this, at bottom, is what he’s asking us to accept. And we don’t have to.

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