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Opinion The big, ugly paradox hovering over Trump’s latest deceptions

President Trump during a coronavirus briefing at the White House on April 16. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Amid our ongoing struggle with the novel coronavirus, an ugly paradox has emerged: On one front after another, President Trump is prioritizing his efforts to create the illusion that the country is returning to normalcy over taking concrete steps that might make that actually happen safely.

Which, perversely enough, is making that outcome less likely.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Put another way: Trump prizes his magical reality-bending powers so highly that he’d rather rely on them to deliver him reelection, because he fears taking the governing steps necessary to get us back to normalcy will render his reelection less likely as well — the real world consequences be damned.

The Fix’s Natalie Jennings analyzes what recent polling and the economic fallout from coronavirus could mean for President Trump’s reelection chances. (Video: The Washington Post)

This strange dynamic is thrust upon us by a remarkable new Associated Press scoop, which reports that Trump is deliberately refraining from wearing a protective mask in public because he thinks it will damage him politically, for multiple reasons:

Trump has told advisers that he believes wearing one would “send the wrong message,” according to one administration and two campaign officials not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations. The president said doing so would make it seem like he is preoccupied with health instead of focused on reopening the nation’s economy — which his aides believe is the key to his reelection chances in November.
Moreover, Trump, who is known to be especially cognizant of his appearance on television, has also told confidants that he fears he would look ridiculous in a mask and the image would appear in negative ads, according to one of the officials.

This confirms what your humble blogger has suggested, that Trump is almost pathologically focused on creating the appearance that we’re getting back to normalcy, even if it deceives people into putting their own lives at risk.

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After all, if Trump fears negative ads featuring images of himself in a mask, it is likely because he thinks it would display him (in his twisted imagination, anyway) to be a failure in managing the crisis. In fact, it would show him functioning as a leader who prioritizes setting an example for the country over concerns about his appearance on TV or about his reelection.

What’s more, the idea that there’s a downside to appearing “preoccupied with health,” as opposed to “focused on reopening the economy,” itself confirms what we all know already. Trump is loath to do too much in terms of standing up a federal response to the continuing scourge of the coronavirus, because it risks feeding the impression of an ongoing health crisis continuing to rampage out of control.

That, in turn, could make it harder to get people to resume economic activity quickly. And that is his lodestar, at least in part for reelection purposes.

But this has the situation exactly backward. Which gets at the paradox outlined above.

A deep fallacy

The fundamental problem, as former Obama administration health official Andy Slavitt outlines in a powerful new thread, is that the current response is trapped in a fallacy. Trump has decided that reopening the economy is such an urgent priority that nothing can be permitted to delay it.

But the economy can’t reopen until the health crisis is wrestled down to a greater extent, precisely because people won’t feel safe to resume economic activities.

As Slavitt asks: “Without a credible plan to address the public health crisis, tell me how consumers start buying cars, small businesses sign leases & employers start hiring?”

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This would involve standing up a much more robust federal testing and tracing program, as health expert Tom Frieden and many others have already explained.

But Trump isn’t willing to do this — even though some of his own officials want him to.

As CNN’s Jake Tapper reports, officials in Trump’s own government and on his coronavirus task force are urging him to “take the lead on an ambitious national testing program,” so “society can responsibly take steps to reopen.”

But, Tapper continues, Trump “so far has rebuffed those suggestions,” and is “opting instead to listen to voices” who think the private sector will generate enough testing supplies on its own, and are “eager to reopen the economy, at least partly motivated to boost the president’s reelection.”

And yet, if the economy isn’t going to reopen in the manner Trump himself wants until he stands up a much more robust testing program, why not do the latter?

Trump himself hinted at the answer to this question, when he said on Wednesday: “In a way, by doing all this testing we make ourselves look bad.”

Whatever Trump precisely meant by that remark, it’s increasingly obvious that he has decided that creating the illusion that the economy is reopening gives him a better shot at getting reelected than taking actual steps to do so safely does.

For Trump, the timeline is all-controlling, and that timeline is an unforgiving one.

After all, reality is looking pretty grisly right now. We just learned that the ranks of those who have filed jobless claims have swelled to 33 million. And while many states are taking steps to reopen, as Trump wants them to, this is what’s going on with the coronavirus in them:

In more than half of states easing restrictions, case counts are trending upward, positive test results are rising, or both.

The bottom line is that it’s going to take an extraordinary effort at all levels of government and society to get us relatively safely back to normalcy, if there even is such a thing anymore.

For Trump’s purposes, that will not just require launching greater efforts for which he might be held accountable, as is often pointed out. It will also take too long.

Trump needs people to believe the economy and health crises are getting turned around, and he needs it to happen in time for November. Whether this actually happens is largely irrelevant to him.

Speculation by Fox News and the president about covid-19 cures is making it more difficult for health officials to do their job, says media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Alex Brandon / AP/The Washington Post)

Read more:

We need smart solutions to mitigate the coronavirus’s impact. Here are 34.

Jennifer Rubin: We are asking the wrong question about reopening

Dana Milbank: Trump calls the pandemic ‘worse than Pearl Harbor’ — and declares a cease-fire

George Conway: Trump lashed out at me on Twitter. It’s because he knows the truth.

Alexandra Petri: The White House model for ending the virus by May 15 is just not ambitious enough

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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