By Daniel W. Drezner / Special to The Washington Post
It would be difficult to deny that the covid-19 pandemic has hurt Donald Trump’s reelection chances and hurt them badly. Trump’s team, of course, will try to change the narrative. They will game out various ways to respond, like proclaiming the country is on the mend and China is bad. But as Nate Silver recently observed, that does not mean the White House knows what it’s doing.
One example of this is the administration’s persistent rhetoric on getting the economy moving despite evidence that, you know, it will also cause a lot more Covid-19 deaths. Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb noted over the weekend on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that, “while mitigation didn’t fail, I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t work as well as we expected. We expected that we would start seeing more significant declines in new cases and deaths around the nation at this point, and we’re just not seeing that.” This suggests any actual reopening of the economy will lead to a surge of new cases and new deaths.
None of this will stop Trump and his Team of Sycophants from trying to gamble on a more upbeat outcome. Trump’s team appears to be engaging in a weird mix of wishcasting and truthful hyperbole to gin up a narrative in which the economy is bouncing back. But this is happening at the same time that the novel coronavirus refuses to subside. New York’s Ed Kilgore noted, “He and his advisers apparently think they can goose the economy into a steep recovery before he faces voters, at the considerable risk of enabling another, perhaps even deadlier, wave of coronavirus infections. The one thing reasonably clear is that if this gamble fails in any major particular, so will his presidency.”
Absent any real change in the economy, the Trump administration could always attempt to rely on a cocktail of truthful hyperbole and symbolism. Engage in gestures like winding down the coronavirus task force to foster the illusion of progress. Talk up the nominal reopening of states even if real economic activity continues to sag. If it works on the stock market, maybe it will work on voters.
The big problem with this strategy, however, is that Trump cannot rely on his normal symbolic props to persuade the audience. And even he knows this. Trump acknowledged on Twitter a few days ago: “We are all missing our wonderful rallies, and many other things!” He also told the New York Post that he misses the rallies: “I hope we’re going to be able to get the rallies back before the election. I actually think it’s very important. I think that would be a big, a big disadvantage to me if we didn’t, if we couldn’t have the rallies back. People are wanting the rallies. They want to have them so badly. They were informative but they were fun.” By “people,” he means “Trump.”
The president cannot get the rallies back, however. Even advocates of reopening would have to acknowledge that in a world without therapeutics or vaccines, large-scale events such as campaign rallies, conventions or sporting events cannot happen. Those are exactly the kind of events that would lead to massive community spread and stories about how the country is very far from being back to normal.
Trump could lean on other big symbolic acts to show that American is back in business, but it’s not like the sports world has figured out what to do. My Post colleague Rick Maese noted last week that all of the professional sports leagues have tried to devise ways to start up again, “but every possibility presents obstacles, many currently insurmountable.” One sports executive told Maese, “It’s been a challenge. I would be lying if we were to say we have a good idea. They’re all degrees of bad.”
Without big symbolic mass gatherings, all Trump can do is bellow from a podium and dispatch the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds to fly over empty downtowns. It’s a nice gesture, but an empty one.
Trump’s one innate political skill is knowing what sells in the media. In dealing with the coronavirus, however, he knows he has nothing to sell but mourning in America. And it is driving him crazy.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything. Following him on Twitter @dandrezner.