There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic

Donald Trump is running for reelection on an anti-socialist message. But the COVID-19 outbreak demonstrates the emptiness of ideological labels.

Lauren Lancaster

“America vs. Socialism” was the theme of the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, though as fights go this one was pretty one-sided. An anti-socialist message thrummed through the halls while the crowds celebrated free-market capitalism over $4 cups of coffee and $20 chicken-salad sandwiches wrapped in cellophane.

As the panelists likened socialism to a disease, an actual disease, the coronavirus, shadowed the gathering. One participant would later test positive for the pathogen, touching off a scramble that sent four lawmakers (and counting) who attended into precautionary self-quarantine.

But the White House officials and Trump allies who spoke from the main ballroom urged calm. The real threat, they said, was socialism. “The virus is not going to sink the American economy,” Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser and part of the White House’s coronavirus task force, told the audience, in comments that were premature given the market tailspin that would come soon enough. “What is or could sink the American economy is the socialism coming from our friends on the other side of the aisle.”

Even as Kudlow spoke, the Trump administration was taking aggressive measures to halt the epidemic’s spread—measures that rely on the sort of big-government intervention that was a CPAC bogeyman. In the 2020 election, Donald Trump’s aim is to brand his opponent an avatar of socialism, whether it’s Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. But the COVID-19 outbreak demonstrates the emptiness of these sorts of ideological labels. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, in a national emergency, there’s no truly laissez-faire government.

Speaking to reporters at the White House yesterday, Trump said he wants to shore up businesses and aid people whose finances have been hit. “We’re going to be working with … a lot of companies so they don’t get penalized for something that’s not their fault,” he said. Worried about the slumping travel industry, the White House is now considering tax deferrals for airlines and cruise lines. The administration has been weighing whether to use funds from a disaster program to pay for treatment of uninsured people who have become infected, The Wall Street Journal reported. And Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, said the administration might dust off a Korean War–era law called the Defense Production Act to ensure rapid manufacturing of medical supplies in the private sector.

“That’s not free-market capitalism,” says Jean Cohen, a political-theory professor at Columbia University, referring to the measures the White House has contemplated as the virus spreads. “You can choose the term: It’s regulated capitalism, or it’s the interventionist state, or it’s democratic socialism. If you want to serve the public good instead of private profit making, you need government to come in and make sure that’s done.”

Whatever the term, the Trump administration’s handling of the outbreak amounts to government activism in the face of a national crisis. It’s nothing new and, as may well prove the case this time around, it’s often necessary. Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called on American industry to outproduce the Axis powers during World War II, retooling whole sectors to meet ambitious manufacturing goals for tanks and planes. George W. Bush, a Republican, sunk hundreds of billions of dollars into a bailout program meant to keep the banking industry afloat after the 2008 financial crisis. “I decided that the only way to preserve the free market in the long run was to intervene in the short run,” Bush wrote in his 2010 book, Decision Points.

In Trump’s case, he may try to have it both ways: using socialism as a convenient campaign slogan, while battling the coronavirus with extraordinary measures comparable to what other modern presidents have done to beat back a crisis. Critics have panned his methods so far. As infections spread, he’s kept up his golf outings and fundraising schedule, while downplaying a virus that could have reached his outstretched hand: At CPAC, he greeted Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, who was in contact with the infected participant.

Trumpworld would like the 2020 general election to be a referendum on socialism; the Democrats want it to be a referendum on Trump. “We will have it out,” Kudlow said at CPAC. “President Trump is more than prepared to show the world why what he called … ‘the American model of free enterprise’ will whip socialism every time.”

Trump, though, is no doctrinaire economic conservative. His political brand is rooted in personality and celebrity, and he’s bent on capturing a second term. If he decides that the quickest path to quashing the coronavirus is activist, interventionist government, free-market doctrine is unlikely to get in his way. If there’s some dissonance in his reelection message and his practices, he’ll live with it.