By KATHLEEN PARKER
It often seems like a double tragedy that the COVID-19 pandemic arrived during a presidential election year, casting every decision from the Trump White House in a potentially political light rather than in the certainty that each one is laser-focused on what is prudent.
Alas. President Trump’s insistence that we should re-open the country sooner rather than later — by his royal command, apparently — defies reason on multiple levels. The only operable reason is that the election looms while the economy crashes and people are dying.
They’re not dying in expected numbers, to judge by Trump’s call to end the very measures that are keeping the numbers lower than the millions that were predicted if no mitigation measures were adopted. This is one time when everyone’s happy to be wrong.
What is correct, however, is that we are flattening the curves of infections, hospitalizations and deaths precisely because of stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures put in place by governors across the country. Now Trump, who apparently has never read the U.S. Constitution, insists that he has “ultimate authority” to order states to get back to work.
As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in 1995, “The Framers split the atom of sovereignty. It was the genius of their idea that our citizens would have two political capacities, one state and one federal, each protected from incursion by the other.”
But Trump remains convinced that he can tell the governors what to do. If he has daydreamed about imposing martial law, giving him military command of the country, he would find it difficult to perp-walk small-business owners to work at the point of a gun. An absurd proposition, to be sure, but we are living (and dying) in a theater of the absurd when the president tweets that disagreeable governors are mutinous. Mutiny, really?
After flailing against “fake news” at his Monday briefing (not, I hasten to add, without some justification), Trump turned to Twitter to skewer governors who disagree with his push to reopen the economy. Why are some resistant to an economic recovery? Surely, not because they’ve become attached to massive unemployment and cratering businesses. Perhaps, it’s because they trust the scientific community, which broadly prescribes a continuation of current policies for a bit longer.
Not forever. We’ll get to the other side of this virus. But one needn’t be a scientist to recognize a causal relationship between social distancing and reduced infection rates.
Trump, however, seems to think we can ignore the reasons for a better-than-expected trend and pivot quickly back to “normal.” His cohorts on Fox News seem to agree, as when former education secretary Bill Bennett recently declared there IS no pandemic and that the number of deaths from this coronavirus, currently projected to be about 60,000, will be no worse than the number of deaths in the 2017-18 flu season, which killed 61,000.
With all due respect, there are differences of an exponential order.
First, many people get the flu, but it is less contagious and less lethal than COVID-19, for which there is no vaccine. Second, COVID-19 fatalities are ongoing. In New York on Monday, 778 people died of complications from the virus, bringing the state’s total deaths to 10,834.
Without the restrictions governors put in place, the number of deaths certainly would have been much higher. And, if restrictions are lifted too soon, we risk seeing infections and deaths rise again. Plainly, we can’t sustain what has become an economic disaster. But just as clearly, life won’t be normal again until we can test widely for infections and antibodies, which could happen soon-ish, and until we have a vaccine, which won’t be for a while. In the interim, reopening the country could be playing Russian Roulette.
Meanwhile, a big new factor has entered the political calculation: us. The American people have been changed by this virus — their practices as well as their values. Wondering each day whether the virus might invade our bodies has cast deathbed issues in stark relief. What really matters? We each answer this question in our own way, but political grandstanding probably isn’t on anyone’s list.
Unfortunately, this president’s behavior the past several days has ratcheted up the sense that his only real commitment is, even now, to winning. A down-economy won’t win him reelection, so, something-has-to-be-done. But in two weeks? Does Trump imagine that risking re-infection would ingratiate voters to his royal highness?
Long ago, this nation decided against having a king. In fact, we fought a revolution to liberate ourselves from monarchy. Let’s keep it that way.