This week President Trump had a new message: he’s bored with the COVID19 epidemic. Or perhaps putting it a bit differently: it stopped being fun. He had already ramped back his daily coronavirus briefings which, for all the ‘ratings’ he crowed about, his aides decided were cratering his poll numbers. He first announced that he would disband the White House coronavirus task force before later saying he might continue it indefinitely because he found it was popular and “appreciated by the public.” He began telling friends and associates he doubted the the COVID19 death toll numbers – claiming they may be inflated to damage his political prospects or pad hospital earnings. He suggested that the price of federal aid to COVID-ravaged states would be a treasure trove of rightwing goodies: full compliance with ICE, defunding Social Security and Medicare and sharp reductions in taxation on investment income.
Putting these different messages together one aim seemed clear: after denying the existence of the epidemic, then fully immersing himself in its messaging and optics President Trump decided to disclaim ownership of it entirely. It’s really something happening in blue states, the fault of governors who didn’t prepare, states that were long fiscally mismanaged and economies shattered by refusing to reopen as quickly as he demanded. More than anything it’s just old news and not his problem. It’s happening somewhere else and, he hopes, not to ‘his’ people.
Of course saying things doesn’t make them so. It’s worked for President Trump for years. Mainly. But the COVID19 Crisis has undermined him by creating facts that are too immediate, obvious and grave to be pretended away.
Coupled to this shift from Trump is a more sullen affect and ominous message. From the start the debate over how to grapple with COVID19 divided along the luridly cartoonish class politics that are at the core of Trumpism. As the country trundled toward shutdown in March, press reports ran interviews with tycoons at their Florida estates and saying the costs to the economy were too great. As this article in Bloomberg News apply headlined one of these pieces:”Billionaires Want People Back to Work. Employees Aren’t So Sure.” It was from this milieu that President Trump himself picked up the ‘cure being worse than the disease’ mantra that occupied him through early April. Later it would be the billionaire DeVos family, his top supporters in Michigan, who funded the first ‘open up’ protests in the state. Main Street was shuttered; average Americans were scared; Mar a Lago wasn’t having it.
Again and again, the Trump Era forces us to the crudest and most unsubtle portrayals of the role of wealth and privilege in our society. But it’s no surprise since that is the essence of Trumpism.
Different people perceive risk differently and those differences do not all line up neatly with differences in wealth and privilege. But beneath the “we’ve got to get back to work” mantra has always been a harsher subtext of “you get back to work and I’ll hang back in my south Florida compound and see how it goes.” Despite high profile protests public opinion polls have shown consistently throughout the country that Americans are more concerned that the government will ‘reopen’ too quickly than not quickly enough.
Over recent weeks President Trump has focused with growing intensity on the storyline that he created the greatest economy in the history of the world and we need to get back to it as soon as possible. The shut down was unnatural; at a basic level, it was unfair. On the most important level it wasn’t his fault. As he put it on May 3rd in his Fox News special …
We built the greatest economy in the world. The greatest economy, frankly, Bret — and you can correct me if you’d like, but you can’t because it’s fact — the greatest economy that the world has ever seen.
And then, one day they said, “Sir, we’re going to have to close it.” I said, “What are you talking about, closing it?” Nobody ever heard that. We’re going have to close it. And we did the right thing. We saved — I think we saved millions of lives, but now we have to get it back open, and we have to get it back open safely but as quickly as possible.
But over the course of this week there was a perceptible shift. The rhetoric of Americans clamoring to reopen the economy was replaced by the economy simply needing to be opened up. Because …
This week he rebranded Americans as “warriors”.
As we’ve discussed in other contexts the metaphor of war is in many ways apt to the economic challenges American currently faces, the need for extraordinary means to keep society functioning even as major sections of the economy can’t function. But Trump’s “warrior” turn meant something very different. He’s given up on arguing that anything will be safe or okay. Indeed, he appears to have ditched the idea that people are clamoring to get back to work. They just have to.
“Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country opened,” he said Tuesday.
Trump shifts to new "warrior"/cannon fodder messaging. Americans are "warriors", must "open up" regardless; "Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country opened." pic.twitter.com/9IOzxcWo28
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 5, 2020
He made a similar point yesterday. In response to a question from John Roberts of Fox News who asked whether Americans would “just have to accept” more illness and more death as the price of reopening the economy, Trump said: “I’m actually calling now … the nation warriors. We have to be warriors. We can’t keep our country closed down for years. We have to do something. Hopefully that won’t be the case but it could very well be the case.”
Trump: You have to be warriors; some may die; get over it. pic.twitter.com/BY9pZkzeDt
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 6, 2020
For Trump the ‘warrior’ talk isn’t about shared sacrifice. He is adding a cheap patina of valor to his demand that people endanger themselves and in some cases die to restore the greatest economy that ever was … the one he created, the one he thinks will get him reelected in November. This is less warrior than cannon fodder.
In practice these oppositions of health versus economy are very likely mistaken. State orders to shutter whole classes of businesses are certainly imposing a massive damper on the economy. But the biggest throttle on the economy is people’s fear of getting sick and dying. Most of the parts of the economy that are in deep freeze are based on voluntary actions we take with other people – restaurants, bars, theaters, travel, entertainment and more. Put a different way, it’s not a matter or ‘reopening’ the economy. It’s about convincing the public it’s safe to rejoin it. Orders or no orders those won’t come back in any viable way until people have some relative assurance they won’t get sick, that the epidemic is under control if not over.
That requires vast effort and time. If there is a ‘war’ it’s that, something grueling and requiring immense effort and fundamentally hard. It’s one President Trump has no patience for.