That’s because for Trump, nothing that goes wrong is ever his fault. In fact, nothing that can go wrong is even his job. This is partly a function of the president’s personal rejection of even minimal accountability, but it’s also rooted in a long-standing principle among Republicans that government solutions should be last resorts and the business of governing should be outsourced to actual businesses. Trump’s refusal to govern during the pandemic isn’t just ineptitude; it’s ideology, and he’s not the only one who embraces it.
This same attitude was on display recently when Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman appeared on cable news to call for reopening her city despite the absence of measures like comprehensive testing, tracking and tracing that would make it safe to do so. How could people maintain social distancing in a casino, where tourists from all over the country touch slot machines in close proximity to one another? “That’s up to them to figure out,” Goodman told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. She said she didn’t own a hotel and didn’t know how the business worked — a baffling claim for the mayor of a city built on the casino industry — but she asserted that free enterprise would remedy any fallout. “Let the businesses open, and competition will destroy that business if in fact they become evident that they have disease,” she said. Goodman was insisting that it’s not actually her job to govern during a pandemic; the market will figure it out.
Trump has done the same thing repeatedly, parading chief executives through press briefings and saying, out loud, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the dangerously subpar federal response to the pandemic. The result is that Democrats and civic-minded members of the GOP are in the absurd position of having to argue that public health is a public-sector issue by definition — which shouldn’t really be up for debate.
In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp parroted the same logic. Kemp allowed many businesses to reopen on April 24 and 27, including gyms, restaurants, tattoo parlors and movie theaters, against the advice of health experts, a mere three weeks after issuing a stay-at-home order. “I am confident that business owners who decide to reopen will adhere to Minimum Basic Operations,” he tweeted on April 22. It isn’t his job to keep Georgians healthy. (And if employees who don’t feel safe going back to work lose their jobs, customers stay home and businesses fail without adequate federal and state programs to mitigate those effects, that’s just capitalism at work, folks.)
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who hasn’t bothered to issue a stay-at-home order, is even more aggressive in her insistence that the government has no business managing public health. Willfully distorting the often-abused concept of personal liberty, Noem told Sean Hannity: “I just believe in our people. They know and understand personal responsibility, so I didn’t mandate that any businesses closed.”
Under this childish and anarchic paradigm of human behavior, we may as well dispense with laws that prohibit driving drunk, require developers to adhere to safety codes, determine who can fly a commercial airliner or curb any kind of criminal behavior — because personal responsibility is a universal value, shared and internalized by all. No one has to worry about selfish, irresponsible or dangerous conduct by individuals that could affect the public — because individuals never behave that way. If Noem’s libertarian fantasy were rooted in any kind of reality, South Dakota might not have to worry about covid-19, because “flattening the curve” would have been everyone’s top priority from Day One. The governor’s “let the people govern themselves, because it’s not my job” approach would have yielded results equivalent to those in states observing lockdowns. Needless to say, it has not: South Dakota had the 12th-highest per capita number of covid-19 cases as of April 21, despite having the fifth-lowest population density in the country.
Ultimately, the idea that elected officials are not here to govern, either because people can govern themselves or because the private sector will sort it all out, is a rejection of government in principle. It’s a mutation of the right’s impulse toward smaller government, rooted in a Reagan-era individualism that says that Americans are responsible for their own success and that it can and should happen without government intervention. But if Reagan’s notion that “as government expands, liberty contracts” is the theoretical background for what we’re seeing now, it has been taken to such an absurd extreme by successive generations of Republicans that government itself is now considered a violation of liberty, even in situations where government is the only mechanism for addressing a problem.
Trump embodies this disdain by failing to fully staff the government, and by appointing people who are inexperienced or incompetent, damaging institutions along the way. And so we get a pandemic response team that was dismantled (or in Republican doublespeak, “streamlined”) before a global pandemic; a weakened Centers for Disease Control and Prevention whose authority is consistently undermined by the president’s actions; a decimated safety net for those who lose jobs or get sick; and a lack of infrastructure to support widespread testing, tracking and tracing. When confronted with these obvious and catastrophic failings, Trump points the finger at governors who’ve been the most aggressive about managing the crisis and whose efforts the administration has actively thwarted by confiscating and redirecting personal protective equipment acquired by the states. “Some have insatiable appetites,” he tweeted about the governors of heavily affected states, casting the need for PPE as greed on their part. “Remember, we are a backup for them,” he added, ludicrously miscasting the federal government as a bit player in any coordinated national response.
In the Trump narrative, everyone in government is failing to do their job except him. He is in charge, but he is not responsible. The state governments are making a mess, but the CEOs of LabCorp, Quest Diagnostics, Walmart, Gilead Sciences and maybe Ruth’s Chris Steak House will figure it out, and they’ll be rewarded with promotion from the presidential podium. And no corporation sympathetic to Trump’s political interests will be left behind, as evidenced by the Rose Garden appearance in March of infomercial pillow salesman Michael Lindell, who thanked the president for his “call to action, which has empowered companies like MyPillow to help our nation win this invisible war.”
Of course, history and common sense betray the fantasy that the market alone will fix the problem. It has simply never happened. Private companies do not magically coordinate in the public interest just because the situation is urgent. They have no incentive to. Worse, they routinely engage in behaviors that harm the public (pollution, exploitation of workers, marginalization of vulnerable populations for profit, to name a few) when not constrained by law. They will not be our saviors.
That’s why there is no precedent for a nongovernmental approach to a global pandemic. No other country has successfully flattened the coronavirus curve via an organic private-sector response. South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and Germany all relied on unified, centralized programs for addressing the crisis that were built around testing, tracking and tracing. Someone was responsible for developing, implementing and managing those programs, which required the input and work of public health experts and were deployed consistently at the national level.
As it happens, we elect citizens to office precisely to act in the public interest and manage processes and programs associated with it. We even pay them a handsome salary to do it. If they do not like governing, which is what we call this managerial function, then people like Kemp, Noem, Goodman and Trump are always free to resign. And if they continue to abdicate their responsibilities on the basis that governing is not the job of elected officials — who in their view are largely symbolic civic cheerleaders with no responsibility for civic outcomes — they will be fired anyway: November is barely six months away.