Many of us are not surprised to see President Trump putting his own welfare above that of the nation. But why would he embrace a policy that seems to jeopardize his own reelection? That is more of a puzzle.

Trump is busily inciting people across the country — and especially in swing states — to ignore public health guidance on limiting the spread of covid-19 and resume socializing and working in the riskiest of ways. Modeling masklessness, he welcomes any sabotage of orderly reopening. “The place is bustling!” he exulted, after Wisconsin’s Supreme Court struck down stay-at-home orders.

Such recklessness, in defiance of his own administration’s guidance, risks igniting new waves of the disease. That could lead not only to thousands more deaths but also to further devastation of the economy. It’s not far-fetched to think that this blowback could arrive with the cooler weather next fall — just as people are voting in the presidential election.

Various theories are offered for this seemingly self-destructive behavior.

Trump, it is said, can’t think beyond tomorrow’s headline or stock market bounce. His need for instant gratification clouds his ability to plan ahead.

Or, his perennial hunger for adulation drives him to irrationality. He craves the thanks of tavern-goers in Wisconsin; he is desperate for the roar of his rally crowds.

Or, he is simply discounting the advice of experts, confident that his gut provides a better guide than their knowledge and experience.

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. (The Washington Post)

All of these theories may contain some truth. But they also understate Trump’s cunning, and his cynicism.

So here’s another theory.

Trump and his team realized weeks ago that he was losing to Joe Biden, badly. They began casting China as an enemy and, preposterously, Biden as a Communist sympathizer. They intensified their slanders of the presumptive Democratic nominee as doddering and (because he is following public health guidance) cowardly. They invented “Obamagate.”

They will certainly continue these lines of attack. But they also realize there’s a good chance none of them will be sufficient if the economy continues to tank. So, against all common sense, Trump began agitating for the country to get back to work.

The strategy, at its most basic level, is to keep fingers crossed: hope businesses reopen but that a second wave does not materialize, at least until after the election.

If the wave does appear too soon — well, Trump was going to lose anyway, so no harm done, except to those who die needlessly and, more painfully for him, the margin of his defeat.

But he is also buying an insurance policy, laying the groundwork to blame anyone but himself if things do get worse in the fall. Since there is no national policy, he can blame the governors. Since they are not taking his advice on quack remedies, he can — and surely will — blame Anthony S. Fauci and his colleagues. These stratagems may sound implausible, but with Fox News dependably amplifying whatever scapegoat theories Trump settles on, they cannot be discounted.

It’s important to note that any president or governor would find the choices before the country excruciating. Stay-at-home orders are devastating millions of people, especially the most vulnerable; lost school time can never be recovered. There’s no right answer, and any president might weigh economic factors more heavily than public health experts advised.

But a president concerned for the welfare of the nation would work with governors to find the right balance, instead of needling and undermining them. A president committed to a safe reopening, rather than a blame-avoidance strategy, would be leading the way to ensure the nation had sufficient testing and tracing capacity.

Polls show that a majority of the country would favor such a strategy; most Americans are more concerned with risk mitigation than immediate reopening. But Trump’s calculus, as always, is not about uniting the country or winning majority support. He simply wants to turn enough voters against the authorities in enough swing states to claw his way to a second term.

Although he is the incumbent, Trump hopes to run against those authorities, too, as the outsider, the victim of the “deep state,” the voice of the aggrieved. It may seem preposterous that, after so thoroughly botching the response to the novel coronavirus, he would present himself as the champion of those whom his failure has most harmed. But he will try — even if it means putting the nation at further risk.

It should be shocking that a president would gamble the health of the American people to improve the odds of his reelection. What is shocking is that it is no surprise at all.

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