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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because any "liberation" will start with governors.

By Daniel Malloy

Donald Trump says a lot of things. A shoo-in for our most communicative commander-in-chief of all time, he gives two-hour pandemic news conferences, Twitter tirades at any time of day and, back when this sort of thing was allowed, rollicking 90-minute rally speeches. Parsing those words can often be a head-scratching experience. The country is alternately thrilled and outraged by at least seven things he says on a daily basis.

And now we are captivated by what he says about when the American economy can “reopen,” despite his lack of power to make that happen. Trump declared on Tuesday that he had “ultimate authority” to send people back to work, which is not how the Constitution works. Time for everyone to freak out and tsk-tsk on TV. 

Then on Thursday, he put out a well-reasoned, sober description of how state governments could decide to relax social distancing gradually if their COVID-19 cases come down. It was a plan that clearly deferred to the public health professionals in his ear.

Then he flipped on Fox News to watch a segment on lockdown protests and, well…

Despite the fact that this genre of tweet would have made more sense in 1776 (Paul Revere would have been perfect as the medium), Trump’s zigzag is revealing. The governors are in control here, while the federal government dispenses checks — with Trump’s name on them, natch — and provides some measure of recommendation about what to do. When things go poorly, then, it’s the governors’ fault: Trump also spent Friday hammering them for a lack of testing, ignoring how the feds had failed to ramp up testing capacity for months. Tests, in fact, plateaued this past week, at less than a third of the 500,000 per day that experts say is needed.

Trump’s bark has long been far more powerful than his bite, going back to the Mueller report, when we parsed what he said about firing the special counsel or leaning on the Department of Justice to shut down the Russia investigation. His words never came to fruition, and the probe carried on to its conclusion. At the same time, it’s worth noting that Trump has often followed through on grave threats (the government shutdown, ditching the Paris Agreement and Iran deal). And even action-less statements have real-world impact (“shithole countries,” “very fine people”).

But his words are proving especially limp now. Early in the outbreak, Trump tried to speak coronavirus out of existence and, well, we’ve seen how that worked out. Now he’s tried to reset expectations ahead of the election, whether it’s saying that 100,000 deaths would constitute a “great job” by the U.S. or by positioning himself against the governors imposing lockdowns, as a voice for the American worker itching to get things moving again. 

(U.S. deaths from COVID-19, as compared to American losses in modern wars.)

Yes, people are getting restless in places like Michigan, where several thousand turned up at the state capital to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown order. (As her star has risen as a vice presidential contender for Joe “remember him?” Biden, so too has the partisanship.)

But the remarkable thing, really, is how few people are rebelling. One recent survey found that 92 percent of Americans are practicing social distancing. Yet it’s unclear how much longer this will last, which is why Trump keeps dangling that reopening carrot.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took the bait, announcing Friday that his state will be one of the country’s first to loosen its lockdown, but gently. Shuttered retailers will be allowed to sell at curbside, for example. While Trump doesn’t have direct power, many red-state governors take their cues from his rhetoric — such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis. He delayed shuttering his state, then allowed beaches to reopen this weekend even as cases are spiking, leading to the trending hashtag: #FloridaMorons. On the other side, many states are forming regional consortiums to act as a group to reopen when the time is right for them — paying no mind to the president.

Any “liberation” must run through state capitals. And unless you think Trump is sending Seal Team Six to East Lansing, it’s best to disregard the rants.

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