From the beginning, Donald Trump has taken a rather peculiar view of the new coronavirus: If he can’t see the damage it’s doing, it’s not doing any damage.
It was how Trump justified saying nothing to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who blithely kept his state open through April 2. “They’re doing very well,” Trump said of Floridians on March 31. “Unless we see something obviously wrong, we’re going to let the governors do it.” It is how he justifies opening up the country when tests remain in short supply. “You don’t need testing,” he explained April 10, “where you have a state with a small number of cases.” Tests were necessary only “if there’s a little hot corner someplace.”
Where he could see it, in other words.
The hole in this reasoning is not terribly difficult to spot. It’s like offering to use a condom after you’ve already gotten a woman pregnant. Horse-has-left-the-barnism as national policy. Yet this is now the logic for reopening the United States, ZIP code by ZIP code.
One could argue, to some degree, that Trump is simply doing what humans are hard-wired to do.
“We believe our eyes before we believe what people tell us,” Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard social psychologist and author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” said when I phoned to ask him about the infuriating persistence of this habit. “The apparatus that sees the world is over 400 million years old. The prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that comprehends projection models from the C.D.C. — is maybe 2.5 million years old. That’s brand-new, in evolutionary terms. It’s still in beta testing.”
Which is why fighting things we can’t see is so hard, like pandemics and climate change.
But this, one could argue, is the most important job of the presidency: to sweat the long-term stuff. Our implicit assumption is that presidents will plan, self-moderate and reason. Executive function is an essential requirement for executive office.
In Trump, alas, we have the opposite: a man renowned for intellectual incontinence, rather than discipline. His plans to fight this pandemic vary from hour to hour, minute to minute. He has all the focus of a moth. It’ll miraculously disappear I mean it’s a mild flu I mean it’s serious I mean reopen the country I mean don’t reopen the country I mean yes reopen the country I mean I have absolute authority I mean the governors will do it.
His prefrontal cortex — the very part of the brain that controls executive function, anticipating and regulating and decision-making — is entirely offline.
If this indiscipline were conjoined with a devil-may-care courage — an indifference to what others thought, a willingness to quickly adapt — that would be one thing. But it isn’t. And having the strength to establish new norms is another cognitive requirement to lead during a crisis.
Trump, curiously, was selected and celebrated precisely for his gleeful assault on norms. But during this pandemic, he has been remarkably hesitant to help establish a new way of life. Only under duress did he start to encourage a national program of social distancing. He persisted in shaking hands at news conferences, even when the rest of us were leaving 6-foot wedges between ourselves and our fellow citizens. He says that he, personally, won’t wear a face mask.
Trump was certainly not the only official who was slow to adapt. Human beings are hard-wired to follow the herd. On March 2 Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, was still encouraging New Yorkers to “get out on the town despite the coronavirus.” He went to the gym in Brooklyn on March 16, even after he’d announced the city schools were shutting down. (Then again, Trump, on March 2, said he expected deaths to be in a “much smaller range” than those from the flu. On March 10, he still said: “Just stay calm. It will go away.”)
Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, perhaps the most trusted man in America right now, admitted recently that he rode the subway to work in the early days of the pandemic. “When the White House heard that, they went completely nuts,” he said.
“If some people are riding the subway, how bad could it be?” Gilbert said when I asked him about this phenomenon — what psychologists call “normative influence.” No one wants to be a chump. “Human beings look to other human beings to know what to do,” he said. “It’s the primary way we know what to do.”
Which makes the early action of some of our governors all the more remarkable — particularly Mike DeWine of Ohio. On March 3, the day after de Blasio was encouraging New Yorkers to mingle, DeWine was canceling the Arnold Classic, a health-and-fitness Lollapalooza that draws some 60,000 participants from 80 countries. (It was named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, natch.)
I spoke to DeWine last week to try to determine what, precisely, gave him the fortitude to cancel that event. He was three days before the city officials in Austin, Texas, who canceled South by Southwest, and at the time even that was considered extreme. He canceled school before any governor in the nation. He shut down restaurants and bars long before New York. And his state had far fewer cases of COVID-19 than New York.
And he’s a Republican. Red-state governors have been far more reluctant to issue stay-at-home orders during this pandemic than blue-state governors. To this day, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota still hasn’t issued one, though more than 300 workers in a pork-processing factory in her state fell ill, forcing the entire plant to shut down on Sunday.
“I’ve spent over 40 years in public office,” DeWine, 73, told me. “When I’ve made mistakes, it’s usually because I didn’t have enough information. I didn’t ask enough questions, I didn’t ask the right people, I didn’t drill down deep enough into the facts. That experience was helpful in regard to this.”
But you can be selective about where you get your information. What became clear, in talking to DeWine, is that he cast a very wide net to get his facts. He spoke daily to the mayors of the state’s biggest cities, all Democrats. He spoke regularly with his health director and an informal council of 14 doctors from around the state.
He has given his cell number to so many regular citizens over the years — “My wife says I’ve given it to everybody in the state” — that he got a burst of texts (in some cases with accompanying pictures) that reported people were crammed together in bars and big-box stores, complaining that social distancing wasn’t working.
This wide range of sources was key. As Cass Sunstein, the lawyer and behavioral economics expert, has noted — most recently in his book “How Change Happens” — if you want to shift norms, it helps to know that people have secret, unarticulated beliefs, and what were those texts to DeWine if not an expression of that? (Their tacit message: Please make these people listen.) It also helps to have viewpoint diversity in your brain trust. If you spend time with people who think only like you do, your biases harden — and move even further to the extreme.
Which describes the life of Donald J. Trump. He moves from one echoing cavern to another, whether it’s Twitter or his own Cabinet meetings.
Now he wants to reopen the country. It’s essential to our economic health, it’s true. But the president refuses to concede there’s a testing problem, and absent testing, it may be hard to get many people to go back outside. Before, no one wanted to be the only chump to avoid crowds; now many will be reluctant to be the chump who rushes toward them. Because that’s the new normal. It’s going to be hard to undo. Even if Trump refuses to wear a mask.
Jennifer Senior is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.