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Things took a turn for the better—or, much more accurately, for the slightly less very bad—late Sunday regarding the White House’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. As of Friday, Donald Trump was still bragging that he’d told Mike Pence not to respond to Democratic governors’ emergency requests if they weren’t sufficiently obsequious, and on Saturday, he suddenly floated the idea of putting the New York area under some sort of federally imposed quarantine, which he presumably envisioned as being like martial law, from a movie. On Sunday afternoon, he sent three tweets celebrating the TV ratings that his crisis press conferences have been getting. Hanging over all of it was his previous threat to declare that Americans should reopen businesses and public spaces by Easter, which falls this year on April 12.
On Sunday night, though, Trump said he was recommending that U.S. residents continue “social distancing” until the end of April—a welcome reversal, especially given the influence it may have on on the #MAGA-movement Southern governors who have been refusing to issue stay-at-home orders. (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves have already partially relented.) As of this moment, Trump also seems to have stopped actively pursuing feuds with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and has dropped the potentially panic-inducing, constitutionally questionable idea of closing state borders; instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has simply recommended that residents of New York–area states avoid nonessential travel. While his Monday press conference was filled with bizarre falsehoods about, for example, the population of Seoul, he stuck to the same overall plan he’d introduced the day before, saying that “challenging times are ahead for the next 30 days.”
A Monday CNN report attributed Trump’s decision to extend the social-distancing guidelines to a number of related factors. One was media coverage of New York City’s Elmhurst Hospital, which is located in the borough of Queens, where Trump was born, and which has been deluged with coronavirus patients to the extent that a mobile morgue is set up outside. Another was a model shown to him by health officials Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, which projected hundreds of thousands of potential deaths. A third was the reminder apparently given to him by advisers that “attacking governors who had criticized the federal government, which he had done on multiple occasions, could have a political cost.” (Michigan is a key 2020 swing state, and Whitmer—like Cuomo—has seen her approval rating rise even more than Trump’s has in recent weeks.) The passage of a stimulus package, which stabilized the stock market, also probably helped, given the prominence that market drops had taken in Trump’s prior rambling about reopening “the economy.”
In sum—as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was said to be part of the group that helped change Trump’s mind, foreshadowed in tweets last week—the president was convinced that a “back to work” message wouldn’t save the Dow Jones but would create a slow-moving health disaster defined by catastrophic televised images for which he, and not Democrats, would be blamed. (Monday afternoon, the Los Angeles Times reported that Trump’s campaign aides are particularly concerned that the pandemic is about to escalate in red states and that he will suffer more severe consequences there if he is “seen as too lax.”) So instead, he’s pivoted to a framework in which he will be considered a hero for keeping U.S. coronavirus deaths under 2.2 million by not actively overruling epidemiologists.
The critical factor in any Trump decision is how a given subject makes him feel. Initially, when the possibility of a coronavirus pandemic was largely being raised by Democrats and members of the media, it made him feel defensive, so he denied that it existed. Slowly, the people around him have been able to turn the ship, and now talking about the coronavirus makes him feel like an important president doing serious things on TV. This is what currently passes as a reason for optimism.
It is not ideal that the president can’t be counted on to prevent coronavirus deaths. But Sunday’s press conference shows that, through flattery and fear, he can be prevented from preventing the actual preventers from doing prevention. And every American has a part to play in keeping this going. If you are responding to an opinion poll, say you trust and support the president’s advice about social distancing. If you are a Nielsen household, claim that you watched his press conference even if you didn’t. If you are advising Trump on public health issue, make facially ludicrous claims about his ability to “analyze and integrate data” in order to stay in his good graces. If you are a news blogger, use flattering photos of the president looking resolute and leader-y to illustrate your posts.
We’re all in the fight against the coronavirus, and our president’s sociopathic inability to contemplate the existence of minds and egos besides his own, together.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Monday’s episode of the Gist.