At a tense moment in HBO’s Chernobyl, Soviet authorities discover that their robot technology is too primitive and faulty to clear ultra-radioactive rubble.
They could ask the Americans for help; the Americans have the machines they need. But such a request would further humiliate the Soviet state, already deeply shamed by the backwardness and incompetence revealed by the accident. Instead, the Soviets resort to “biorobots”—human beings. Teams of workers will hazard the radiation that disabled machines. To save itself, the regime will sacrifice its people.
I thought of that scene during President Donald Trump’s press conference Thursday about reopening the U.S. economy. The press conference lacked the drama of the HBO series. There was no single moment where the scheme was revealed in its enormity. Yet the intentions are becoming clear.
The administration has two plans for the next six months. It is implementing them at the same time. They reinforce each other, and each can replace the other if either fails.
Plan A is the Chernobyl plan: trading higher human casualties in hopes of a triumph for the central state.
By reopening some aspects of the U.S. economy in the next few weeks, Trump hopes to goose the stock market and restore jobs. It’s plainly impossible to return to full employment by November 2020, but Trump can hope that the trajectory of the economy will matter more than the economy’s absolute level.
In November 1984, as Ronald Reagan ran for reelection, unemployment still stood at 7.2 percent. But the economy was adding jobs fast through 1984: a net increase of 1.3 million from the year before. That’s why the Reagan ads called it “morning in America”: the sun was not yet fully risen in November 1984, but there was no mistaking that a better day lay ahead. Trump apparently hopes that by reopening now, he can make the same claim in time for his own reelection.
As this plan has come into view, critics have replied that the president lacks the power to reopen the American economy. Stay-in-place orders were issued by governors and mayors, not the federal government. The airlines were grounded for lack of passengers, not by presidential order. If Trump did not switch the economy off, how can he switch the economy back on?
But things are more complicated than that.
Trump may not have legal power to order people back to work. But he has tremendous power over the economic resources that allow most people to stay away from work. The $1,200 per person signed into law March 27 will not last long. The $600-a-week federal supplement to state unemployment-insurance benefits will expire July 31. The mortgage forbearance in the March 27 law is conditional, limited, and temporary. Rent forbearance is even more conditional, limited, and temporary. Thirty-one percent of American renters paid no rent in the first week of April.
Unless federal aid is extended and expanded, workers will soon be driven to return to work by economic necessity. If Trump withholds his signature, federal aid cannot be extended or expanded. So yes, Trump has a lot of power over the closing or opening of the U.S. economy.
Trump has another power, too. Half the states are led by Republican governors. With rare exceptions—Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Larry Hogan in Maryland—Trump defines for those governors the limits of the politically possible. If Trump urges reopening, he gives permission to Republican governors who want to reopen fast, like Florida’s Ron DeSantis. He also puts pressure on Republican governors who would prefer to go slow, like Ohio’s Mike DeWine.
Reopening early will lead to higher mortality from COVID-19. How much higher? Here’s where the brutal reality of Plan A bites.
A Trump reopening in May will be only a partial reopening. Not all backs are equally exposed to the whip of immediate necessity. Trump can readily enough impel office cleaners back to the bank towers; he will have a harder time with the bankers themselves. Administration officials speak of a “phased reopening.” But if the reopening starts in May, it will be phased not by medical advice, but by the hard grammar of wealth and poverty: poorest first, richest last.
In the event of an early and partial reopening, the disparities can only widen. Those who can telecommute, who can shop online, or who work for health-conscious employers like public universities will be better positioned to minimize their exposure than those called back to work in factories, plants, and delivery services. The economy will be further divided along its widening class fault: those who can control their contacts with others, and those who cannot.
It did not have to be this way. If the Trump administration had not bungled testing, if it were not to this day jerking and lurching in obedience to the president’s latest ego demand, we could by now begin to see the way to a safer reopening in the next few weeks.
As is, the United States will be nearly as blind in May as it was in March. The testing regime remains bottlenecked and slow. Contact tracing barely exists. The people called back to work in the next few weeks will wear masks and stand farther apart from one another. But we are nowhere near the point of promptly identifying sick workers and effectively isolating them while they remain infectious.
The plans for a May return imply acceptance of significant infection and higher casualties. Pro-Trump talkers boast that they will volunteer for these risks themselves. Broadcaster Glenn Beck said on March 25:
I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working even if we all get sick. I’d rather die than kill the country.
Those words were spoken from Beck’s home studio. The day before, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (also a former radio host) said something similar on Fox News to Tucker Carlson, who was broadcasting from his home studio.
My message: Let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.
But that is not how the pattern of sacrifice will be felt in real life. The Trump administration still has not built an effective testing-and-tracing system, almost half a year after the president received his first formal warning about the pandemic in his daily intelligence brief on January 3.
The coronavirus as Americans know it is not an equal-opportunity killer. The research arm of American Public Media reported on April 17 that 27 percent of those killed by COVID-19 to date have been African American, more than twice their share of the population. Grocery workers are dying in the dozens, at least 41 as of April 12, according to The Washington Post, with thousands more fallen sick.
Thanks to the lockdown rules adopted by most states in March, coronavirus deaths per day are projected to subside to below 1,000 by May 1, from the more than 2,000 a day of mid-April. If the lockdown continues a little longer, that number could tumble to below 100 a day by mid-May.
But to look at casualties as numbers on the curve is to misunderstand what the Fox talkers and the Trump donors are telling us. The political calculus of Trump’s Plan A depends less on containing the total number of casualties than on confining the casualties to people deemed expendable.
A story from South Dakota is pertinent here. The state’s governor, Kristi Noem, resisted stay-in-place orders for her low-density state. As she said, “South Dakota is not New York City.” Then the state was hit by an outbreak at a Sioux Falls pork-packing plant: 634 cases among employees, plus hundreds more among those employees’ “contacts,” principally their relatives. Yet the Smithfield-plant outbreak has not changed Noem’s approach. The plant’s workforce, the BBC reports, was “made up largely of immigrants and refugees from places like Myanmar, Ethiopia, Nepal, Congo and El Salvador”—not Republican voters.
But what if the calculus of Plan A is wrong? What if reopening leads to a surge in deaths that cannot be politically contained? In that case, Trump reverts to his Plan B: a culture war against Democratic governors and blue states.
On April 16, Trump tweeted “Liberate Michigan!” in apparent support of protesters who blocked traffic around the state legislature in Lansing. To date, the great majority of Americans support the lockdown, according to polling by Pew. Twice as many fear that the lockdown will be ended too early than those who worry it will be ended too late.
In the face of this decisive opposition to the president’s wishes, the president’s supporters are borrowing the tactics of the early Tea Party. They are protesting in aggressively obnoxious ways to entice the TV cameras to overlook their tiny numbers and fringe membership: Confederate-flag wavers, militia cosplayers, anti-vaxxers. The Lansing protesters used their cars to impede ambulances. They brandished guns on the steps of the legislature. Behave obnoxiously enough, and the television cameras will disregard your scanty numbers. The Lansing protests have been joined by even smaller protests in California and North Carolina, each numbering fewer than 100 people.
And of course, America’s most powerful cable-news network is more than a passive victim of disinformation. As with the Tea Party a decade ago, so now with the anti-lockdown protests: Fox News acts as the co-author of the pseudo-events staged for its cameras, as in this fanciful graphic showing half the United States colored red in protest, as if the whole country were aflame rather than a few hundred oddballs.
For Trump, it's win-win. Either he pushes the country to trade poor people’s lives for the pursuit of economic recovery, or he gets a cable-TV culture war to distract his supporters from the troubles he himself aggravated by his own negligence.
President Trump’s bad leadership has inflicted terrible hardship on Americans. Trump’s Plan A is to use the pain of that hardship to justify more bad leadership. His Plan B is to use the pain as a way to shift odium: Don’t blame me, the guy who failed to prepare for the pandemic. Blame the governors who are now forced to respond to my failure.
The tools entrusted to the administration to protect the country are being used by the administration to protect the president.
Bloomberg News reported on April 17 that small-business-relief funds are disproportionately flowing to red states, not blue ones. In South Carolina, 56 percent of small-business applications have been approved. In Texas, 58 percent have been approved. In Utah, 66 percent have been approved. In Kentucky, 69 percent. In Kansas, 79 percent. In Nebraska, 82 percent.
In Washington State, however, only 44.6 percent of applications for small-business aid have been approved. In New York State, only 40.1 percent. In California, only 38.4 percent. In the District of Columbia, only 30.4 percent.
From his entry into presidential politics, Trump has divided Americans into first class, second class, and third class. He has continued that politics of division into this pandemic. On Saturday, Trump retweeted an ugly insinuation that state governments were favoring Muslim Ramadan observance over Easter worship.
The division is more than rhetorical. It shapes who gets economic assistance, who gets aid, and now, whose deaths are acceptable in order to put the country back to work.
Life never can be risk-free. The reopening of the economy cannot wait for the discovery and distribution of a coronavirus vaccine. The job of our political leadership is to win acceptance of risk by undertaking that the accompanying benefits be shared. Trump’s noisy attacks on the cities and states that have suffered most—and his politics-first response—send the message that he’s acting in his self-interest, not the public interest.
Both Trump’s Plan A and Plan B intend to turn American against American, in an ugly spirit of rancor and resentment. In pandemic as in prosperity, the Trump way is to punish opponents, reward friends; accuse victims, protect culprits; demand credit, refuse accountability; protect preferred classes and groups of Americans—and sacrifice the rest.