Trump doesn’t really want to restart the economy — he’s preparing the ground to blame Democrats and the media for the coming recession
President of the United States Donald Trump speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Under pressure from business leaders and conservative pundits, Donald Trump is reportedly considering asking those who are at elevated risk of death from COVID-19 to isolate themselves and “opening” the economy back up for everyone else. But that’s not an option. Trump doesn’t have the power to flip the switch on the economy in the midst of a pandemic.

And on some level, he knows it. Trump doesn’t really want cases of COVID-19 to spike after schools and businesses re-open prematurely. Rather, this is transparent strategy to shift responsibility for the inevitable consequences of his miserable response to this crisis onto his political opponents.

But before we get into that, restarting the economy isn’t an option for Trump for a couple of reasons. First, the US, China and Iran are now the only countries that have severe outbreaks but haven’t yet issued a nationwide order banning group activities and shutting down schools, restaurants, bars, gyms and other public spaces (but note that China did lock down an entire province with 60 million people). As of yesterday afternoon, eight states (and a number of localities) had taken such steps but while other central governments can ease their countries’ restrictions, there is no federal lockdown for Trump to lift.

Second, if we were to ease the social distancing before “flattening the infection curve,” cases would continue to increase exponentially, our healthcare system would quickly be overwhelmed (it’s likely to be clobbered either way) and the mortality rate would spike. People would stay home out of self-preservation as the bodies stacked up regardless of what he says. (By a 60-40 margin, Americans don’t trust what Trump says about the pandemic generally.)

This is also a worldwide economic crash that was precipitated not only by a drop in consumer demand but also by massive supply-chain disruptions in our highly globalized economy. There is nothing Trump can say or do to make those problems go away.

Conservatives have convinced themselves that we face a choice between mitigating the severity of the outbreak and tanking the economy. The stark reality is that it isn’t the media or Democrats who are pounding the markets, it’s COVID-19. We can either support the economy while mitigating the impact of the outbreak or we can let it spiral out of control and face a much more severe economic crash as a consequence.

While it’s true that Trump puts more faith in the bobbleheads on Fox and Friends than in the public health experts who brief him, he must understand this to a degree. He knows that forecasters predict a drop in America’s gross domestic product of between 8-15 percent in the second quarter of this year. And he knows that governors, whose own political fortunes are going to be determined by how they manage this disaster, are not going to heed his call to re-open businesses.

Trump’s strategy here is clear. He’s incapable of even considering any political approach other than firing up his base, and he hopes to deepen the existing partisan divide on the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then blame the media and Democratic governors for the economic tsunami that’s about to break over our shores. (It’s a safe bet that the Republican governors who have acted aggressively to contain the pandemic–notably Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Ohio’s Mike DeWine and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan–will also ignore conservative demands to re-open schools and businesses, but that reality won’t impact the rhetoric coming from the White House briefing room or from the idiots on Fox News.) This is all about laying the groundwork to claim that he desperately tried to keep the economy humming but was thwarted by others.

But this strategy poses a serious problem for Trump because he can’t bullshit his way out of this crisis. We’re having this conversation as the US has suffered around 600 deaths from the pandemic (602 as of this writing), but that number is doubling every three days. If current trends persist, we’ll be looking at 2,400 deaths within a week, and 10,000 a week after that. Trump is the president*, and while he would like the media to stop talking about his bumbling mismanagement, especially during the crucially important early weeks of the outbreak, that is not going to happen.

It also poses a serious problem for the people of the United States. Trump can’t turn the economy back on, but he can convince enough of his base that they don’t need to take voluntary measures to contain the chain of transmission or that they should ignore orders to stay home to make the outbreak much worse than it would otherwise be.

This doesn’t appear to be a concern for Trump and his apologists, but make no mistake: People will die unnecessarily as a result of one man’s desperate re-election strategy.