Trump unveiled the moniker this week — during a trip to a face-mask manufacturing facility in Phoenix on Tuesday and again in an Oval Office photo op with nurses Wednesday — suggesting it is no longer just medical workers on the front lines who must respond against the lethal illness.
“I’m actually calling now . . . the nation warriors,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We have to be warriors. We can’t keep our country closed down for years.”
The president’s use of the term has capped a weeks-long rhetorical effort to frame the crisis through battlefield language. Trump has called himself a “wartime president” and cast the virus as an “invisible enemy” that is “smart” and “tough.” In recent days, he has taken to comparing the national emergency to other moments in American history when the nation’s collective spirit and bravery helped overcome threats from a challenging foe, including World War II.
Yet in his efforts to rally public support, Trump — as he did with the farmers and GOP lawmakers — is again shifting the burden and potential repercussions of his decisions onto those whom he is enjoining in the fight, in this case most other Americans.
Trump’s push to loosen state and municipal shutdowns in hopes of bolstering the cratering economy has come as the pandemic’s death toll in the United States moved past 75,000 — blowing through the White House’s favored model projection of 60,000 — with few signs of slowing. Most medical experts have warned that restarting the economy too soon could result in new spikes in cases of covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, and corresponding deaths.
“Hopefully that won’t be the case . . . but it could very well be the case,” Trump acknowledged.
After his administration promoted federal social distancing guidelines for 45 days in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, Trump has reiterated his previous warnings that he views the widespread stay-at-home orders and closures of businesses and schools as a cure that is potentially “worse than the problem itself.” More than 30 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March, shattering records, and mental health experts have seen a rise in depression, substance abuse and suicides.
Trump has sought to project confidence that public life can resume, even though while the number of coronavirus cases in the country has plateaued, it has not dropped — and has continued to rise outside New York, an early epicenter of the disease.
His trip to a Honeywell plant producing face masks in Phoenix marked a resumption of presidential travel as the White House moves to demonstrate a return to a more normal public schedule. Trump has tweeted support for relatively small groups of protesters who have called for state and local governments to lift public shutdowns. This week, Trump toyed with disbanding the White House’s coronavirus task force, before announcing it will remain intact with a shift in focus toward safely reopening the country.
“My sense is they are moving pretty dramatically away from the concerns of the medical community over the loss of life and they have decided the top priority has to be saving the American economy,” said Peter Wehner, who served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He said he does not recall Bush calling the general public “warriors” during his administration’s “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks.
Wehner predicted Trump’s push to reopen would backfire by making the pandemic worse, but he added: “Trump is trying to gear up the public for it. He’s trying to position this as a great struggle against a foreign enemy. But to position the American people as warriors, as if they are engaged in a real war, is the wrong way to view this. Courage and sacrifice and patriotism in this case means social distancing.”
Trump has grown impatient with the public shutdowns as the economic shock has upended his campaign message. Once confident that he could win reelection by touting a strong economy, the president and his campaign team are scrambling to adjust to the possibility that the nation, and the globe, could still be mired in recession, or even a depression, come this fall.
White House aides defended the president’s rhetoric by suggesting he was calling on the public to abide by some social distancing safeguards even as businesses reopen. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday that Trump considers the public warriors “because they’ve stayed home . . . because they’ve social-distanced.”
When a reporter pointed out that Trump used the language while calling for a return to public life, McEnany replied, “The president says they’re warriors to reopen because, guess what — in order to get to reopening, you have to social distance.”
That’s not how Trump put it during his Honeywell visit. While meeting with Native Americans who have been hit hard by the virus, Trump said he views American citizens as “warriors” because “we can’t keep our country closed.” Then he boasted about the low unemployment numbers and record-high stock market before the pandemic arrived.
“Now it’s time to open it up. And you know what? The people of our country are warriors, and I’m looking at it,” Trump said. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”
Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in presidential communications, said Trump’s rhetoric falls short because “it’s empty framing in that he doesn’t tell us what the plan is.”
She pointed to Trump contradicting Sophia Thomas, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, who said during the Oval Office photo op Wednesday that hospitals were having only “sporadic” success in obtaining enough personal protective equipment.
Trump — who has bristled at criticism that his administration has failed to help deliver enough medical supplies — shot back: “Sporadic for you, but not sporadic for a lot of other people.”
Such displays undermine Trump’s “winning-the-war frame,” Mercieca said. “We’re warriors for what? He’s not saying we’re warriors in fighting the virus — that’s a position people could get behind. He says the cure can’t be worse than the disease, and he says we’re warriors for the economy.”