The signs of this are everywhere: in a new federal testing blueprint that largely casts responsibility on the states. In Trump’s new rage-tweets at the North Carolina governor over whether a full convention will be held under coronavirus conditions. And in demands for liability protections for companies so sickened workers can’t sue.
All these things, in one way or another, show that Trump’s war on reality has veered into a new place. Trump is responding to our most dire public health and economic crises in modern times with a concerted, far-reaching effort to concoct the mirage that we’re racing past both.
A deceptive strategy
First, the testing blueprint. The administration just released to Congress a “plan” for testing, in keeping with a requirement in a recently passed rescue package.
The plan does contain some good news: The feds say they’ll distribute to states 100 million swabs for testing, along with tubes for transporting tests.
But overall, the plan is quite deceptive and insufficient. It largely transfers responsibility to states to implement their own testing and contact-tracing plans. But as public health experts point out, it does not include a massive federal mobilization to redirect supply chains to enable states to do that successfully.
“You can’t leave it up to the states to do it for themselves,” one expert told the New York Times. “This is not the Hunger Games.”
If we sufficiently tested all people admitted to hospitals and all residents of nursing homes and their workers — and workers at meatpacking plants, where new spread is erupting — we would already likely far outpace those numbers.
Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, told me the suggestion that we have enough testing “endangers people’s lives.”
“We’re not close,” Konyndyk told me. “A big part of the reason we’re not close is that rather than trying to keep scaling up testing and personal protective equipment, the administration keeps claiming we already have enough.”
The bottom line is that this document attempts to create the impression that the coronavirus is largely under control — even though it isn’t — without the government undertaking the full range of steps necessary to make that actually happen.
The crucial point here is that far more robust testing and tracing is required to accomplish what Trump himself says he wants to accomplish — a return to economic normalcy — because people will feel far more safe about resuming activity.
But Trump won’t do this. Among other things, it would expose those efforts to scrutiny and accountability to new benchmarks.
So creating the illusion of a return to normalcy is the go-to plan.
Nothing but illusions
On another front, Trump is threatening to pull the GOP convention out of North Carolina, because Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has yet to guarantee it can proceed at fully packed capacity. But as the governor’s office responded, this decision will be made in keeping with what state health officials recommend.
Note that Trump is explicitly demanding that state officials prioritize his reelection needs — he views massive crowds as central to energizing base turnout — over the health of their own constituents. Here again, what matters most is marshaling the appearance of returning to normalcy, even if health officials conclude it will imperil lives.
In a new piece, political theorist Will Wilkinson gets to the depraved core of this idea: Trump and Republicans are implicitly conceding that returning to work now actually does put workers in great danger — hence the need for protections.
But they are proceeding anyway. As Wilkinson notes, these protections for companies — when combined with financial aid to people that’s insufficient and puts them in desperate straits — will have the effect of coercing untold numbers to go back to work despite these dangers.
If some of them do, Wilkinson notes, it will help “conjure the illusion of a successfully managed return to normality well before the election in November.”
What makes this even more depraved, however, is that this is the Trump/GOP substitute for taking steps that would enable workers to actually return to work safely in genuinely normalizing conditions. Just as with Trump’s new testing “strategy,” this requires far more robust testing than Trump is willing to marshal.
In so many ways, Trump is prioritizing the weaving of an illusory return to normalcy over taking steps within his power to make that actually happen. That’s actively dangerous. It could lead to substantially more lost lives.
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