Back in mid-March, President Trump declared himself a “wartime president” who was rallying the country in a battle against the “invisible enemy” of the novel coronavirus. Invoking World War II, Trump issued a clarion call: “We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together.”
Now, amid plans to wind down his coronavirus task force and efforts to reopen the country quickly, Trump is again invoking martial imagery, describing the American people as “warriors.”
“They’re warriors — we can’t keep our country closed,” Trump said on Tuesday night. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes.”
The juxtaposition is a telling one — on two levels. Trump is basically walking away from the very fight that he sought to project engagement in only six weeks ago, as Steve Benen notes. But this also reveals something important about the true nature of his new stance.
Trump’s new posture is best seen as a reversion. What we’re seeing now is Trump vaulting back to the position he held throughout the early weeks of this crisis: That he could make coronavirus disappear simply by pretending it didn’t pose the dire threat it actually did pose.
Broadly speaking, there have been three phases to Trump’s response. In the first, he squandered weeks and weeks minimizing the threat and ignoring his own experts’ dire warnings about it. That period included claims that coronavirus would go away with “the heat” and “disappear” like a “miracle.”
In the second, when mounting deaths rendered that no longer tenable, he went through the motions of appearing to fully engage the federal government — without actually doing so. He extended social distancing guidelines, but only under pressure and after seriously mulling ending them. He refused to fully deploy the Defense Production Act or stand up a truly robust federal testing regime, which is sorely needed to reopen safely.
It’s telling that his “wartime president” quote came during that second phase. That was when he wanted to appear as such.
Now we’re entering the third phase. After failing to act to contain the virus in the first phase, and after failing to lay the groundwork for a safe reopening in the second, Trump has concluded he has no choice but to push forward with the reopening regardless of the risks.
But central to this phase — and here is the reversion — is the project of vastly minimizing the threat as it exists all around us. After all, people won’t return to their normal social and economic activities if they think it’s threatening to them.
So Trump must create the illusion that it isn’t.
Thus it is that Vice President Pence, in defending the decision to wind down the task force, cited the “tremendous progress we’ve made as a country.” But this is absurd. As the New York Times reports:
Indeed, administration officials themselves know Pence is full of it. Politico reports that officials are privately sounding the alarm that the current rate at which states are reopening — which Trump is encouraging — could cause more deaths and a spike in cases that overwhelms hospitals.
The point here is that the justification for winding down the task force — that “tremendous progress” has been made — is itself highly suspect. Indeed, Trump himself inadvertently gave away the game here, when he said this:
But there isn’t necessarily a connection between the pace of reopening and the mere existence of the task force. Which strongly suggests that, for Trump, what’s truly important in this decision is the appearance it creates that we’re returning to normalcy.
Seen this way, that imperative also explains why Trump and Pence have been spending so much time lately holding events without masks and proper social distancing. Trump sat at close quarters with the New Jersey governor and crowded together with small business owners for a photo shoot. Pence toured a facility without a mask.
Trump and Pence have come under fire over these events. Interestingly, they have defended themselves by pointing out that they and their entourages have special access to testing, so they can hold such events safely.
That’s to be expected, since Trump is president. But as David Nakamura reports in an important piece, this has created a separate dynamic that’s also problematic: It’s precisely because Trump and his people benefit from this special testing that he is able to go through motions that project normalcy to the rest of the country. That doesn’t mean they should be doing this.
Which raises a terribly uncomfortable question: Are Trump and Pence going through these events in the full knowledge that sending this message of normalcy will induce more people who lack the benefits of testing that Trump and his entourage enjoy to put themselves in harm’s way?
This sure appears to be the case. Trump’s own quote — that the American people should function as “warriors” even if it puts them at risk of being “affected badly” — would seem to capture this perfectly.
Trump is both using the White House’s image-making powers to create the impression that we’ve moved past coronavirus, to the point where normal life can resume, while also shrugging that any deaths that result are mere collateral damage for a greater cause. That cause is obviously grounded, at least in part, in Trump’s short term political needs.
This is what has become of the self-proclaimed “wartime president.”
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