The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Pathetic displays like these are all Trump has left

President Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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When President Trump decided he wanted the economy to begin reopening very quickly, some governors promptly asserted that they would make this decision on their own schedules, in keeping with their states’ public health needs.

Was that a problem for Trump? Nope! Trump simply declared he has the “total” authority to command governors to do his bidding. He’s in charge!

But numerous experts then pointed out that Trump doesn’t actually have that authority, meaning that if he did issue such a command, no one would listen, making him look powerless and silly.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Was that a problem for Trump? Nope! Trump then simply asserted that he would authorize those governors to reopen the economy on their own schedules, even though he doesn’t have that power. He’s in charge!

So Trump then convened conference calls with business leaders to help him decide on new, nonbinding federal guidelines that would relax social distancing, to create the appearance of marshaling the country behind him as he projects decisiveness.

But many of those business leaders then privately warned Trump that reopening the economy without substantially more testing could prove catastrophic, and renewed their calls to ramp up such testing.

President Trump calls criticism of his coronavirus response "fake," yet cherry-picks news clips to make his case. He can't have it both ways, says Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP; Alex Brandon / AP/The Washington Post)

Was that a problem for Trump? Nope! Trump then simply boasted at one of his daily briefings that we have “the most expansive testing system anywhere in the world,” even though we’re actually lagging far behind other nations in per capita testing. He’s in charge!

You may have noticed a pattern here, in which all that matters to Trump is the theatrical appearance of being in charge and getting results, in a manner that’s entirely divorced from underlying realities.

Trump’s latest moves create confusion

Trump is set to announce his new, relaxed social distancing guidelines on Thursday. The Post reports that the goal is to “reopen much of the country’s economy.”

Seeking to build “national momentum” for this move, Trump’s handlers organized conference calls throughout Wednesday in which Trump solicited input from executives and industry groups.

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But as numerous reports have documented, the process was a mess. Some business and labor leaders didn’t know they’d been included until Trump publicly named them. But one thing many participants agreed on was that restarting the economy now is dangerous without a lot more testing:

Mr. Trump opened the call by saying that “testing is under control” in the country. But after each executive was given a minute or two to provide his or her overview of what was needed to reopen the economy, there was a wide consensus that more testing was needed before the economy could reopen, according to two people who participated on the call.

Trump privately insisted testing is “under control.” Business leaders disagreed. Then Trump simply asserted at his briefing late Wednesday that we have the greatest testing regimen in the known universe.

A new report in the New York Times illustrates how wrong this is. It finds that testing has indeed ramped up lately. But the essence of the problem now, as experts note, is that for people to return to a reopened society, you need a lot more testing, to track and stamp out small resurgences, preventing a second wave.

But for Trump, seriously grappling with the levels of testing needed to reopen society safely would require an admission that the response is still beset with problems. So he just can’t bring himself to make this part of his deliberations.

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Theoretically, one could envision a way in which enlisting various leaders to advise Trump on reopening the economy might be a constructive exercise. It’s a common enough approach taken by previous presidents.

But as always, in Trump’s case, the bad faith is the problem. This isn’t about actually enlisting their views, as it is (at best) about trying to create the impression that he’s acting, or (at worst) about getting them to ratify his insistence that the economy can be reopened safely right now, even if it can’t.

Obviously one has to hope that while the Trump Show plays on TV, the government professionals are on track to scale up the testing that’s needed. But the president’s megaphone has great influence — corporate leaders know it’s in their interests to toe Trump’s line, and the temptation to buttress his irresponsible claims about the safety of reopening must be great.

What’s more, Trump’s public displays have consequences, as Brian Beutler points out: What if GOP governors, egged on by constituents who are persuaded by Trump, reopen too quickly? We’re already seeing a groundswell of such pushes, organized by dubious Trump-aligned right-wing interests.

The displays are the action

For Trump, these displays are ends in themselves. His displays are his actions.

As the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins reports, Trump’s propagandists have launched a massive push to recast Trump as a coronavirus “visionary.” The daily briefings are central to this, allowing Trump to “narrate America’s national trauma, while editing his own role in it.”

Is this working? One Democratic strategist tells Coppins that the briefings improve Trump’s head-to-head numbers against Joe Biden.

But new research done by a Democratic polling firm finds that the percentage who are hearing “mostly negative” things about Trump’s handling of the pandemic is at its highest ever.

Nick Gourevitch, a pollster doing that research, tells me he believes Trump’s briefings “reinforce” a “behavioral flaw” in which Trump “too often blames other people instead of taking responsibility for the situation,” adding that the displays are “not helping and likely hurting him.”

Either way, the economy just isn’t going to reopen at anywhere near the levels Trump wants it to as quickly as he hopes. And for the foreseeable future, Trump is mired in a situation of his own making.

Which means that rewriting the story of how we got to this point through sheer bluster and blame-shifting, while staging theatrics designed to create the impression that he’s acting to spur on the return to normality, is all he has left.

Read more:

Dana Milbank: Captain Trump hits the rocks

Jennifer Rubin: Trump loves empty gestures. He’s averse to work.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Democrats in array, and Trump in denial

Yuval Levin: Only the public can reopen the economy

Jennifer Rubin: Ignore Trump’s tantrums. Focus on his incompetence.