For weeks, Trump had been playing a double game of supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reopening guidance while encouraging conservative skepticism toward that guidance — “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” — on Twitter. He has purposely widened a gap in perceptions between Republicans and Democrats on the lockdown/distancing strategy. (A recent poll found Republicans 45 percentage points less likely to wear masks in public than Democrats.) Now, Trump has quashed a more detailed version of the CDC’s reopening guidelines. And he is using indications of public discontent as a justification to press governors for rapid reopening. (“The country won’t stand for it. It’s not sustainable.”)
This capitulation is being sold as courage. “We have to be warriors,” the president recently said. “We can’t keep our country closed down for years.”
It is a good thing that straw men can’t contract the novel coronavirus, given how often Trump deploys them. As far as I can tell, no reputable expert in epidemiology has proposed years of national lockdown. Most recommend closings and aggressive social distancing until the burden of disease becomes more manageable and an adequate system of testing, contact tracing and isolation is put into place.
So why has Trump chosen this moment to abandon the guidance of scientists? In fact, polling shows little public demand for quick and risky reopening. And not a single state has met all the CDC reopening guidelines.
With this administration, politics is usually paramount. The most plausible explanation for Trump’s timing is an electoral calculation. He does not want to face a national election in six months with Herbert Hoover’s economy. So Trump feels he must pack in as much recovery as possible before Election Day.
That makes for dreadful public health policy. We appear on track for the worst of both worlds — all the pain of a shutdown with much of the gain quickly squandered. The human cost could be considerable. And there are likely to be dreadful, long-term economic consequences if competitors recover while America relapses.
Trump’s politicized health policy also will have dreadful and predictable political consequences. When the president concedes that “some people will be affected badly” by swift reopening, he is not talking about a sacrifice that will be equally shared. And this unequal suffering — these unequal fatalities — will put major stress on the most dangerous fault lines in our public life.
First, Trump is likely to feed another round of catastrophic polarization. The current composition of “some people” skews away from his own political tribe. It is one thing to engage in a bitter debate over judicial nominees or Social Security. It is something else entirely to be broadly perceived as sacrificing lives in blue America as a result of politics in red America. And because much of the coronavirus suffering has taken place in Democratic-leaning urban centers, the prioritization of reopening over safety may well be taken as a signal that liberal lives matter less.
If health policy is seen as the result of political calculation, the likely losers from such a policy may be aggrieved beyond normal political measure.
Second, Trump’s politicized public health policy will place additional strain on America’s racial fault line. One of the most appalling aspects of the coronavirus crisis has been the disproportionate suffering of black communities. Nearly 60 percent of fatalities from the disease have come in predominantly black counties. In a normal presidential administration, Republican or Democratic, this would be a scandal requiring urgent attention. Trump’s politicized approach to health policy not only signals indifference; it will be taken as a sign that minority lives matter less.
Finally, playing politics with health policy will put additional strain on America’s generational fault line. The “some people” who are the likely casualties of rapid reopening are disproportionately elderly. And they may reasonably take a politicized health policy as a signal that senior lives matter less.
None of this is to say that the proper balance between health risk and economic activity is easy to determine. But if determining that balance becomes disconnected from the advice of public health experts, the administration must offer a rationale more compelling than “the country won’t stand for it.” And Trump has not even attempted an explanation equal to the risk he seems determined to impose.