In states where the virus has not caused massive death tolls, it can seem remote. But economic blight is everywhere and may brew a political storm that could punish Democrats if Trump can paint them as stubborn enemies of a return to work or responsible for furloughs turning into long-term job losses.
In 2016, Trump confounded the political class by seizing on the “forgotten Americans” who had seen their jobs in industrial heartlands disappear to low-wage economies in Asia and were contemptuous of the promises of what they saw as politically correct, “globalist” politicians in both parties.
Trump has acknowledged that lives will be lost but says there is no alternative to reviving the economy on which so many lives rest — and on which his reelection depends.
“Will some people be affected badly? Yes,” Trump said earlier this month. But he added: “We have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”
The virus and its unknown impact on politics
The success or failure of Trump’s gamble will at least partially be up to a virus that is highly transmissible and has no current vaccine or proven therapy. If the pandemic wanes, and states that are opening create a semblance of normal life, the President could get credit for his early call to restart the economy. If, by November, the election turns on mostly economic questions, he may have maneuvered himself onto a launch pad for a victory that looked unlikely as the pandemic spread in recent weeks.
On the other hand, if state openings spark a resurgence of the virus ahead of a deadly winter, new questions will be raised about Trump’s leadership and squandering of human life. After being in denial about the virus in the first place and failing to properly prepare, he will have botched the reopening, potentially causing even more economic damage.
The conundrum reveals the most intriguing political questions of the coming months: How will the trauma from the pandemic shape voter sentiment? Have Trump’s repeated missteps already alienated sufficient swing voters — especially the crucial bloc of suburban women — to make Joe Biden president?
Or are the Washington pundits missing something. Does the incessant Beltway focus on Trump’s lies, organizational disasters and distractions obscure the possibility that he has again identified a latent political force with his reopening campaign that could reassemble his 2016 coalition and engineer an even more surprising victory night in November? Or is there an unknown, anti-Trump counter wave building, fueled by dissatisfaction with his performance?
A political play from the gut
He never shared former President Barack Obama’s vision of a unified America. Trump, instead, has worked to electrify the conservative half of the country. In pushing openings he is lining himself up among often blue collar conservatives in the Midwest and the South who populate his political base. Suburban, middle class voters on the coasts and in the cities are more likely to vote Democratic, and also may work in office jobs and so can log on to the laptop at home. But the economic crunch has disproportionately hit lower-paid workers who are more likely to be laid off and need to get back to the workplace.
“We’ve got to get your governor in Pennsylvania to start to open up here,” Trump said. The counties concerned do not yet meet the governor’s standards of 50 cases per 100,000 people that he says can allow a safe reopening.
Too early to tell how openings will affect the virus
Trump’s hunch to go all-in on opening the country explains why he has now turned on experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who warned Wednesday that opening too fast could cause unnecessary suffering and death.
In recent days, there is evidence that overall, the trend of national infections may be on a downward swing. New cases have been falling in Georgia and Florida for instance — two of the states most aggressive at reopening. Still, Texas, another opener, is rising quite sharply, and many major population centers in Florida and Georgia are still closed. It will probably be at least another two weeks, given the incubation period of Covid-19, before the impact of state openings on infections can be properly assessed.
But with 36 million people jobless in the most horrendous crash in the everyday economy since the 1930s, public tolerance for lockdowns is surely on borrowed time — one reason why the President may be so aggressive in pushing to open up.
Biden seems aware that flatly opposing an economic opening in such extreme times is a political liability.
“The issue isn’t whether or not to reopen. We all want to reopen. It’s how to reopen safely and effectively,” the former vice president said in a statement on Trump’s visit to Pennsylvania.
“The Trump administration simply hasn’t done the work to make that happen — except to take care of themselves at the White House,” Biden said, referring to the comprehensive diagnostic testing at the White House Trump has not offered all Americans.
Democrats have a strong case to make that Trump’s erratic leadership has made the pandemic in the US far worse than it needed to be. The President spent months arguing it would never be a problem in the United States and has consistently spread misinformation about its scale and threat. He did nothing to prepare businesses, school systems or America’s transportation infrastructure for the shock of the closures.
His failure to put in place a strong testing, tracing and isolation regime — except at the White House — means most Americans lack sufficient safeguards to go back to work — a factor that could slow Trump’s hoped-for partial economic recovery by November. And Trump also sided with big business interests in refusing to fully use the Defense Production Act to mass produce protective equipment for medical workers on the front lines, a factor that undercuts his claims to be a champion of the working class.
Democrats can also argue that Trump’s aggressive opening push will cost tens of thousands of lives. A new model often used by the White House put the likely toll by August 4 alone at 140,000 because of state openings. Hopefully it will not get that bad. But if it does, Biden will be in a position to claim that Trump let people die to win a second term and to benefit his friends in big business.
So far, Democratic governors who have faced a fierce challenge from the pandemic have been winning strong support from voters in polls. Yet they will face a delicate task in pivoting toward an economic message when the pain of the lockdowns begins to bite ever deeper.
Still, in the new political era of compromised truth, basing a campaign message against Trump on facts and details and science is a risk in itself. Truth has never yet brought him down.