In the age of coronavirus, Republican politics can kill you
US President Donald Trump, pictured at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 6, 2020, has been rebuked for his messaging on the outbreak (Photo: AFP/File / JIM WATSON)

I don’t mean to belabor the obvious, but the president’s political instincts are rather stale. The price of gas, the ups and downs of the Dow, the unemployment rate, and the US economy generally—these are the indicators Donald Trump turns to in order to determine how he’s doing politically and gauge the likelihood of getting reelected.

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Indeed, the economy is so important that he was willing to do pretty much anything to prevent the markets and the electorate from knowing more than he wanted them to know about Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, which will have killed by week’s end 120,000 people and has unemployed more than 44 million others. By the time the markets and the electorate fully understood the danger, but before the pandemic had even peaked, the president had already begun champing for a return to normal, as if normal were possible in the absence of a vaccine, as if an economy based on consumer demand can recover when consumer demand has all but collapsed.

Most Republican governors went along. Florida’s Rick DeSantis and Texas’ Greg Abbott, for instance, hesitated to implement guidelines designed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the infection (some Republican governors didn’t bother doing anything). Then, after the president gave them some political cover, they were quick to reopen. States that rushed reopening, however, are now seeing a resurgence in rates of the disease. That doesn’t amount to a second wave, according to the Post, so much as a continuation of a first wave that never crested.

The GOP altogether appears to have decided that saving the economy is worth sacrificing scores of thousands of lives. That calculation seems to rest on an accepted truth: that what’s good economically is good politically. The Republicans figure a recovering economy will carry them through. While that logic might be sound, and cold-blooded, what’s good economically is good politically is more assertion than fact.

There has probably always been some kind of link between economics and politics, but the link was of acute interest during the 1992 presidential election. Like this year, that year saw a recession (a small one compared to today’s), and like the current incumbent, George H.W. Bush had, not quite fairly, a reputation for being out-of-touch with the ordinary worries of ordinary Americans. Over time, the link between economics and politics came to be seen as the cause for Bill Clinton’s victory, and the link was later preserved in amber when a campaign advisor quipped, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

No one knows why anyone wins the presidency. If there is indeed a reason, it’s the most obvious one. Ross Perot, that year’s independent candidate, split the Republican vote, giving Clinton a win by plurality. That, however, didn’t prevent James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid” from being received as gospel truth by which every first-termer seeks a second. The thinking goes that incumbents can withstand pretty much anything, even something as damaging as an impeachment trial, as long as the economy is performing well. George H.W. Bush’s one-term presidency (and Jimmy Carter’s too) are like ghosts. They haunt the White House and have for 40 years.

Economics might (might!) have determined 1992, but it likely won’t determine 2020, because polarization—the rightwing purification of the Republican Party—will almost certainly prevent self-identified Republican voters from leaving Trump’s side. Yes, his policies, especially his senseless trade war with China, has hurt Republican voters in places like Kansas and Nebraska, but, honestly, they are used to it. The GOP has conditioned its members to endure all kinds of misery. If they could live without expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, they can live with a potentially deadly virus.

If I’m right in saying that economics is not going have much or any bearing on the results of 2020, I have to ask: what’s the point? What’s the point of Republican governors rushing to reopen their states, sacrificing scores of thousands of lives in the process? It could be they think politics—total resistance to the Democratic Party—will win the day. That, however, presumes voters won’t die before they vote, especially elderly voters who tend, as a class, to favor Republicans. The conclusion I come to is honestly the worst conclusion I can come to. If they win, politics will have paid off in the form of power. If they lose, politics will have paid off in the form of profits.

Regardless of what they say about themselves, the Republicans are, first and last, the party of business. Big business, small business, all business, and the pandemic has been the biggest threat to business since no one remembers when. So it should be no surprise that the GOP appears to have taken a page for Big Tobacco’s playbook.

They know their product (politics) is killing people, but they are going to sell as much as they can for as long as they can until people get wise to what they’re doing, and even then they are going to double down in order to squeeze out every last buck. It’s greedy. It’s cynical. It’s defies comprehension utterly. In the end, however, it might work.

John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.