First, President Donald Trump ignored the coronavirus, dismissing its threat to the public. Then briefly he took it somewhat seriously. He gave an address from the Oval Office, followed by one of the more sober-minded news conferences of his administration. A day later, he was back to his usual antics, attacking the press, amplifying propagandists and spreading misinformation. He has even promised a miracle cure.
Now, as it becomes clear that this is not a momentary crisis — that the economy may have to come to a standstill to keep the disease from overwhelming the country — Trump appears ready to quit altogether, even if it costs thousands upon thousands of American lives.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” the president said (or screamed) on Twitter late Sunday night. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
Subsequent reporting from Jonathan Swan of Axios confirmed that the administration is looking to relax guidelines for public gatherings, in order to bring the economy back online: “Amid dire predictions for jobs and the economy, the White House is beginning to send signals that there’s light at the end of the tunnel — that the squeeze from nationwide social distancing won’t be endless.”
If the United States had the strict testing regime of South Korea or Taiwan — if it knew the full extent of the outbreak and had the resources to selectively quarantine the sick and the contagious — then you could imagine a return to normalcy in the next month or so, as most people began to go back to work and the vulnerable stayed home. But that is an unlikely, best-case scenario, more dream world than reality.
What is actually happening is that we don’t know how many Americans are sick or how many are asymptomatic. We aren’t quite flying blind, but without more tests we can’t see very clearly either. What we do know is that we have a fast-growing caseload that implies that there are many more infections than what’s in the official numbers so far. To relax restrictions in this environment is to guarantee greater spread of the disease and higher death tolls
With a fatality rate of 1%, we can expect nearly 1 million deaths if 30% of Americans come down with the virus. Of course, the fatality rate isn’t fixed. Among other things, it depends on the capacity of the health system. If local hospitals aren’t able to handle a flood of coronavirus patients — if they can’t treat everyone — then the fatality rate will go up. In Italy, where hospitals are straining to treat the sick, the fatality rate among confirmed cases is closer to 9%.
The economy will collapse under an extended social lockdown. It will also collapse in the face of a million or more coronavirus deaths, as people refuse to work or spend time in public spaces lest they risk infection. Both choices are bad, but one will save lives while the other will sacrifice them for the sake of illusory gains. That’s why the administration’s own experts have urged the White House to continue social distancing and other protective measures.
But neither Trump nor many of his allies appear to care that much about the human toll. Or at least they’ve convinced themselves that an extended lockdown is more harmful than anything the virus can do. Trump, The Washington Post reports, is “fixated on the plummeting stock market, is chafing at the idea of the country remaining closed until the summer and growing tired of talking only about the coronavirus.” Key officials within the administration — like Steven Mnuchin, the secretary of the Treasury — are pushing the president to get the economy back on track. “The president is right. The cure can’t be worse than the disease,” Larry Kudlow, director of the White House National Economic Council, said on Fox News on Monday. “And we’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.”
I suppose it is possible that when Trump and Kudlow say this, they are thinking of service employees and blue-collar workers, of people who live from paycheck to paycheck. But their mutual fixation on the stock market — Trump’s shift from apathy to attention came in the wake of a breathtaking sell-off — makes this unlikely. The “trade-off” here isn’t lives for prosperity — again, coronavirus will dampen economic activity with or without social distancing — it’s lives for shareholder value.
There’s another issue as well. The only way to sustain an economy in lockdown is unconditional government support for individuals, families and communities. It’s social democracy, if only for a while. And that amount of redistribution — from top to bottom, from creditors to debtors — is unacceptable to the president and his allies. Remember that the Trump administration is still trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and end food assistance for 700,000 Americans.
Marxists have a turn of phrase that dates back to the late 19th century: “Socialism or barbarism.” It comes from the German journalist and philosopher Karl Kautsky, who in 1892 wrote, “As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.”
Two decades later, in a 1915 pamphlet, “The Crisis in German Social Democracy,” the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg recapitulated the idea, attributing it to Karl Marx’s lifelong friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels. “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads,” she wrote while a generation of European men marched to their doom in the First World War, “either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”
You don’t have to be a revolutionary socialist to understand the sentiment. In the face of disaster, the only path forward is solidarity and mutual concern. Reject it, and all that’s left is a cold and selfish disregard for human life.
“America will again — and soon — be open for business,” the president said on Monday. “Very soon, a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. A lot sooner.”
In other words, Trump will sacrifice Americans to coronavirus if it will save the market and his prospects for reelection. Which is to say that given the choice between solidarity and barbarism, Trump will choose barbarism. We’ll see, in November, if the rest of the country follows suit.
Jamelle Bouie is and Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.