I was told, in the run-up to the 2016 election, that one of Trump’s greatest strengths was that he was not a politician. I typically responded that he was, in fact, a politician, he’d simply never run for office. My views have been vindicated; every defining negative characteristic of politicians – they will promise things they have no intention of acting upon, they knowingly lie, they abuse power, they are corrupt, they are elitist – is exemplified by Trump. Even his most ardent supporters, those who will typically deny every charge leveled above, have admitted to each of those points at times over the last three years. He is then immediately absolved for one reason or another (most commonly, because he doesn’t have the scary D by his name or he was somehow “chosen by God” in a way that didn’t apply to Obama or Bush.)
The denial has become so reflexive and complete that his fandom is often called a cult by its detractors, and the charge holds significant merit. Even now, people who defined themselves in part by their dedication to continuation of life are growing more eager by the day to increase the death tolls across America. They celebrate as decreasing projection curves indicate we may only have 60,000 dead Americans by the time the covid-19 crisis is over, and demand we restart the economy by sending everyone back to work.
60,000 isn’t just another number. It has a face – thousands of them, in fact. Right now, we have seen just a quarter of that, and we have this:
How, then, do Trump and his GOP leadership handmaids maneuver their followers into accepting this? The answer lies in NIMBY.
It’s not the first time the Trumpublicans are relying on well-established psychological effects. The two most common excuses of Trump provided above are examples: ginning up fear of an enemy until any alternative looks better and providing messianic hope are hoary tricks, but they can be effective, particularly when tied together. The death numbers are explained through a quote attributed to Stalin, “If one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy; if a million die, that is only a statistic.”
There is little evidence, beyond his words (and not even those, consistently) that Trump cares about the thousands of lives that will be lost due to his actions. He cares about his continued role as President.
When he was elected, many of his then-reluctant supporters expected that he would spend most of his time enjoying the perks of the office and playing golf, while leaving the day-to-day operation of the government to Mike Pence. They were delusional. Trump revels in the exertion of power, and will not delegate any significant authority. He simply refuses to study, or learn, or take responsibility for his inevitable failures. The Presidency is the ultimate power trip, and even were he not concerned about losing his ability to grift millions from taxpayers or prosecution for various illegal activities after he leaves office he would fight tenaciously to retain his position.
His re-election hopes have been tied to the economy. People’s views of the economy have been systematically tied to that of the stock market – first by the Obama administration, and then again under Trump. He therefore sees his re-election as dependent upon a significant stock market jump, something to show a “V-shaped curve”. Washington D.C. has thus thrown trillions of dollars at Wall Street in an attempt to make the Dow Jones numbers rise. It’s worked, but not enough. The only thing that will bring the numbers back sufficiently to give Trump a fighting chance is returning people back to work.
There is a way to do this safely, as shown by South Korea and Austria. The key is to exclude the diseased from the general populace, and then allow those without covid-19 to act in normal fashion (while still taking rational precautions.)
Doing this would entail a few weeks of annoyance and difficulty beyond simply sitting at home. It would expect the expenditure of money and time to make test kits, to ramp up test processing, and to bother nearly every person in the country by getting a long Q-tip pushed into their nasal cavity, probably a few times over the course of months.
It’s hard to forget having a cotton swab rammed into your nose, so instead Trump is relying on “Not In My Backyard”, a political trick that comes into play when everyone agrees that something must be done about an issue… but that the issue isn’t dire enough for them to take firm action themselves.
In this case, we are being sold the notion that, while the disease is out of control in New York, it’s different where WE are. Whether it’s Californians being told that they likely have some sort of herd immunity not experienced by the remainder of the world (or the Trumpers who are being told the same thing) or the middle Americans who are told that it’s just like the flu and that the deaths in NYC are an aberration to be ignored, or the Republicans who have been convinced that if they do get the disease a simple dose of hydroxychloroquine will fix them right up and the President has thoughtfully stockpiled the miracle drug (which is strangely being administered in New York with a continued high mortality rate), the message is simple: you’re special. You don’t have to worry. The disease isn’t going to be as bad in your backyard.
Normally the concept is used to keep out projects like windmills, incinerators, recycling plants, prisons, apartment complexes and schools. This time, it’s being used to keep away thought.
Trump is set on opening the economy as early as possible. This wouldn’t be a problem – using broad testing and isolation and masks, we could easily be in a position to safely do so by May 1 – except that he’s also set against taking the precautions necessary to safely do so. When he opens the economy, deaths will spike upward again. Even if Governors and Mayors defy his orders, his faithful will attempt to return to normal, and they will spread covid-19. Our best chance to minimize the toll will come from the treatments developed over the next few weeks, but the fatality numbers will rise.
When this happens, children and grandchildren will be eager to see their parents and grandparents. Nephews and nieces will want to play with their friends. Old poker buddies will want to get together for a sorely missed game. It will be the responsibility of all of us to tell them no, and to continue acting in the way we are under lockdown. It will be heartbreaking, but it is also the least we can do for the medical professionals who are currently working tirelessly and at great personal risk on our behalf. Trump isn’t thinking about them. The Republicans aren’t thinking about them. We need to be the ones who do.
Keeping ourselves out of mass graves in the bargain is a nice benefit.