Donald Dossier: Irrational Optimism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it's more like a late-night infomercial than morning in America.
By Daniel Malloy
For a president who campaigned on a bleak image of a country under siege, and who invoked the phrase “American carnage” at his inauguration, it’s a remarkable turnabout. But Donald Trump has become the country’s optimist-in-chief amid a generational crisis, hastening to find and promote any shred of sunlight peeking through the coronavirus clouds.
Of course, a president preaching stay-the-course for a second term must make such a pivot. But Trump’s overly sunny public disposition when talking about the pandemic — often at odds with the best medical advice — carries grave risk. From the poor soul who died after ingesting fish tank cleaner (a similar compound to the chloroquine malaria drug Trump has talked up as a coronavirus treatment) to Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (who suggested older Americans like himself should risk their lives to revive the economy), we’re going a little batty as a country right now. Evidently, Trump too is getting tired of being cooped up, missing pleasant rounds of golf and rapturous crowds. May we suggest more Hulu and less cable news?
So he’s got to play cheerleader. But Trump is not doing so in a Ronald Reagan, “morning in America” kind of way but more like a late-night infomercial, hawking cures and trials for unproven drugs. “If any of this worked, this is a game-changer,” he told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday during a meandering 39-minute phone interview. “There’s no risk when it’s already out there in a different form for a different purpose,” he added, which is plainly not true, even as thousands of desperate physicians and patients are trying the drugs in New York.
But what’s really got people panicked is Trump’s insistence on reopening the economy ASAP. After initially tweeting that people could start going back to work as soon as this week, he revised his deadline to April 12, Easter Sunday — with allies saying there could be an American economic resurrection to coincide with Jesus Christ’s. Despite the — it may shock you to learn — overplaying of Trump’s words on cable news, the president as usual offers plenty of wiggle room, painting Easter as an aspiration rather than a deadline and acknowledging that all of this will happen piecemeal for different regions and sectors. A series of punts with a deadline just out of reach might be a ploy to keep people — and the markets — sane. Sure enough, Trump on Sunday extended the government’s social distancing guidance through the end of April.
Twitter will paint this as a binary choice: GDP vs. your life. It’s not. A lockdown of vast chunks of America cannot last long without causing real health and societal problems in and of itself and must be weighed against the health consequences. But the hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of sick that experts say could come from a return to normal life wouldn’t be so swell for the economy either.
Trump knows, too, that he can’t get governors or local officials to end their restrictions. But if he’s the guy standing up for stir-crazy America against blue staters, all the better. And so far, it’s working: Polls show his approval rating ticking up to some of the highest marks of his presidency and Gallup finding that 60 percent of voters approve of his handling of the coronavirus situation.
But the thing about viruses is they don’t stay put for long. Trump can blame China all he wants, or Democratic governors who don’t “appreciate” him enough. But this could well decimate Red America too. The smallish city of Albany, Georgia, is seeing an overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, as Gov. Brian Kemp has avoided the most draconian statewide measures, though he has closed schools and restaurants. For rural communities that already have worse health outcomes and have seen hospitals shutter, this pandemic is going to be brutal. Though later to the party, the most conservative states are now going into overdrive: Alabama on Friday shuttered “nonessential” businesses.
After an awful recent run, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose about 13 percent last week. Trump naturally took credit for this, telling Hannity, “They know that I am one who wants to get everybody back working.” He also lauded America’s “esprit de corps” in fighting the pandemic. Our president, perhaps reflecting the times we live in, doesn’t do the “shared sacrifice” thing particularly well. He’d rather have his steak and eat it too. For a while yet, it will have to be takeout.
- Daniel Malloy