The president brings instability and confusion to a crisis.
Having a pandemic is really bad. Having a pandemic and a civil war together is really, really bad. Welcome to Donald Trump’s America 2020.
If you feel dizzy from watching Trump signal left — issuing guidelines for how states should properly emerge from pandemic lockdowns — while turning right — urging people to liberate their states from lockdowns, ignore his own guidelines and even dispute the value of testing — you’re not alone.
Since Trump’s pronouncements are simultaneously convoluted, contradictory and dishonest, here’s my guess at what he is saying:
“The Greatest Generation preserved American liberty and capitalism by taking Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day — in the face of a barrage of Nazi shelling that could and did kill many of them. I am calling on our generation to preserve American liberty and capitalism today by going shopping in the malls of Omaha, Nebraska, in the face of a coronavirus pandemic that will likely only kill 1 percent of you, if you do get infected. So be brave — get back to work and take back your old life.”
Yes, if you total up all of Trump’s recent words and deeds, he is saying to the American people: between the two basic models for dealing with the pandemic in the world — China’s rigorous top-down, test, track, trace and quarantine model — while waiting for a vaccine to provide herd immunity — and Sweden’s more bottom up, protect-the-most-vulnerable-and-let-the-rest-get-back-to-work-and-get-the-infection-and-develop-natural-herd-immunity model, your president has decided for Sweden’s approach.
He just hasn’t told the country or his coronavirus task force or maybe even himself.
But this is the only conclusion you can draw from all the ways Trump has backed off from his own government guidelines and backed up his end-the-lockdown followers, who, like most of the country, have grown both weary of the guidelines and desperate to get back to work and paychecks.
But, in keeping with my D-Day analogy, Trump has basically decided to dispatch Americans into this battle against this coronavirus without the equivalent of maps, armor, helmets, guns or any coordinated strategy to minimize their casualty count. He’s also dispatching them without national leadership — so it’s every platoon, or state, for themselves, maximizing the chances of virus spread between people who want to go shopping and those who still want to shelter in place.
He’s also dispatching them without a national plan to protect the most vulnerable, particularly the elderly, and without setting the example that everyone should wear face masks and practice social distancing whenever they are at work or in a public setting. Finally, he’s dispatching them without a plan of retreat if way too many vulnerable people are infected and harmed as we take to the malls of Omaha and beyond.
Other than all that, Trump is just like F.D.R.
I fear that when these shortcomings become apparent, it could trigger a low-grade civil war between those who will ask their neighbors: “Who gave you the right to ignore the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and heedlessly go to a bar, work or restaurant and then spread coronavirus to someone’s grandparents or your own?” And those who will ask their neighbors: “Who gave you the right to keep the economy closed in a pandemic and trigger mass unemployment, which could cost many more lives than are saved, especially when alternative strategies, like Sweden’s, might work?”
A new Mason-Dixon line could emerge between those states led by governors who want to equip their people with the maximum protective gear and safety guidelines and those governors who are keen to reopen their states for business as usual — gear and guidelines be damned.
According to a new poll from Pew Research Center, more than two-thirds of Americans worry that their respective states are reopening too quickly, while pro-Trump protesters have taken to the streets to demand that businesses get people back to work now.
So, I can imagine the possibility of the governor of Maryland, who has been very careful about lifting lockdowns, banning cars coming north on Interstate 95 with Georgia license plates. And this is not just my imagination.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem “sent letters Friday to the leaders of both the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe demanding that checkpoints designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus on tribal land be removed” — or risk legal action, CNN.com reported Saturday. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has rejected the ultimatum. Stay tuned.
The tragedy of all of this is that a better president would never have allowed us to get to this edge of pandemic civil strife.
A real president would be simultaneously framing the issues for the nation and then arguing for and guiding us on the least painful course. He’d start by explaining that we are up against a challenge no one in our generation has ever faced — the challenge of a global pandemic in which Mother Nature is silently, invisibly, exponentially and mercilessly spreading a coronavirus among us.
And, unlike a human foe, you can’t defeat Mother Nature, negotiate with her or spin her. All you can do is adapt in the least harmful way possible to whatever she throws at you. And when it’s a pandemic, it means there are only hellish moral and economic trade-offs — no matter which path you choose. Too closed, she’ll kill your jobs. Too open, she’ll kill your vulnerable.
The job of leadership is to choose the path that offers the most sustainable way to balance lives and livelihoods and then create and stick to the conditions that make it workable.
So, as I said, China has chosen the pathway of locking down and then opening its economy, but with strict social distancing, masks everywhere and highly intrusive testing, tracking, tracing and quarantining anyone with coronavirus to prevent further spread — while it waits for a vaccine to create herd immunity.
Sweden has chosen moderate social distancing, keeping a lot of its economy open, while trying to protect the most vulnerable and letting those least vulnerable — those most likely to experience coronavirus either asymptomatically or as a mild or tough flu — continue to work, get the virus and develop immunity to it. Then, when enough of them are immune, they can sound the all-clear for the vulnerable. That’s Sweden’s strategy, but it is too early to say it’s the right answer.
If you listened to Trump last week you heard a president who was all over the place. One day he talked as though he wanted to follow Sweden in getting a lot of people back to work, even if many more will get infected by coronavirus. Another day, he boasted that we’re testing just like China — only more so. Another day he disputed the need for testing at all.
In brief: Trump talks like China, envies Sweden, prepares for neither and insists that his strategy is superior to both.
But the fact is he is not prepared to impose the kind of strict surveillance tracing and quarantining system that makes China’s reopening work. And he is not ready to consider strategies — like moving vulnerable people living in crowded homes to empty hotels or surrounding every nursing home with a public health testing units — that might make a Swedish-style opening less dangerous.
So, I fear that we are heading for a roiling mess. Our coronavirus infections will be exacerbated by Trump’s incompetence, while our hyper-political partisanship will be fed by his malevolence. After all, his whole political strategy is to divide us into red and blue, Republicans and Democrats, open-now advocates and go-slow advocates. That’s the only politics he practices.
In sum, Covid-19 is sapping our economic and physical health, while Trump is undermining our institutions and national unity. We desperately need a vaccine — and a 2020 election outcome — that can give us herd immunity to this virus and this president.