After wasting months of precious time, one week ago, Donald Trump bowed to reality and started taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously. This included following the advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts, and encouraging social distancing to “flatten the curve” and slow transmission of the virus.
And that lasted… a week? Guess he got tired of being a “wartime president.”
Trump is now signaling he might be headed a different direction, tweeting right before midnight Sunday night: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
Trump has a short attention span, so this was predictable. It’s hard to imagine him committing to a long-term strategic approach that involves asking Americans to sacrifice, particularly if it involves harming the economy as the election draws nearer. This is no small consideration. According to experts, the unemployment rate could be 30 percent, and U.S. GDP could “shrink a record 30 percent in the second quarter.”
Trump is also highly susceptible to the whims of certain conservative opinion leaders. A week ago, he came to embrace a more robust containment approach, presumably at the urging of Fox News host Tucker Carlson. But in recent days, other conservative influencers have started pushing the opposite direction.
You live by the talking head, you die by the talking head.
I first picked up on this shift on Saturday morning, when Fox News’ Brit Hume tweeted a controversial Medium piece (which has since been quarantined) that argued more harm than good was being done by the social distancing approach.
Although I am not qualified to confirm or dispute the data, this question concerned me: “What happens when Trump hears about this?”
Well, we now know the answer. Trump doesn’t read long-form pieces, but he does watch cable news and read tweets. And on Sunday night, Fox News’ Steve Hilton took to the air to reinforce the Medium piece. Then, on Monday morning, Trump started re-tweeting people who were urging him to send everyone back to work. And then, Fox host Laura Ingraham tweeted, “Doctors provide medical treatment and cures—they should not be the determinative voices in policy making now or at the end of 15 days.”
It seems Trump is now being torn between the experts and the political pundits who fear Trump’s re-election chances are sinking faster than the economy.
As Axios’s Jonathan Swan noted, “At the end of the 15-day shutdown period, there will likely be a serious clash between the public health experts versus the president and his economic and political aides, who are anxious to restart the economy.”
So what should Trump do?
At the risk of oversimplifying, there are realistically three strategies.
One suggests we should indefinitely impose social distancing (until we have a vaccine. This would be the safest from the standpoint that every human life is precious, but does great damage to the economy, not to mention the psychic toll that could come from prolonged isolation and economic despair. And who knows how long it would last?
A more utilitarian approach suggests that we should “cocoon” especially vulnerable people, while sending everyone else back to work and school to become infected (which would, theoretically, give us herd immunity).
This mitigation strategy means that while we try to protect high-risk Americans, we otherwise pull the band-aid off all at once and save the economy. The downside is that we are basically inviting hundreds of thousands—possibly millions—of Americans to die quickly, which would overwhelm hospitals (plus, it’s possible the virus mutates, meaning that the herd immunity won’t work).
A third option is a sort of hybrid approach where we practice social distancing until robust testing allows us to sequester infected people (many of whom may not yet be symptomatic).
It would be a mistake to think of this as a random mish-mash compromise or a reversal. In order for this to work, it must be clearly communicated and competently and rigorously implemented—once we have the tests ready.
One could make an argument for any of these options. Personally, I’m partial to option three—and it may well be that this is where Trump ultimately lands.
But the worst scenario—the lose-lose scenario that I fear Trump might be sucked into—is an “epidemic yoyo” scenario. This would involve implementing extreme social distancing just long enough to damage the economy, then caving to the pressure to send millions of Americans back into the workforce—to become infected and exponentially spread the virus.
The key, it seems to me, is to avoid premature, reckless decisions that bring us to this lose-lose option. The worst scenario is for Trump to oscillate his governing approach, based on what the last Fox News host he heard says.
For Trump—and America—this should be viewed as an existential crisis. Trump owes the American people an evidence-based plan that is based on saving lives, not just saving his reelection chances. Then, he needs to stick with it, even when things aren’t easy--even when his friends on Fox try to get him to waver.
This is the biggest leadership test Trump has ever had to face, and frankly, there is little reason to believe he’s up to the job. Here’s hoping he surprises me.