It’s apparently “intellectually casual Friday” at the White House, where President Trump, in a series of tweets, has delved deeper into the crazy to signal his support for protesters opposing state social-distancing orders aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.
At 11:21 Friday morning, our itchy president tweeted “Liberate Minnesota!” before following up a minute later with “Liberate Michigan!” and three minutes later with “Liberate Virginia, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
Trump’s tweets come as demonstrators in Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia are all holding protests of public-health orders in their states intended to curb COVID-19 infections by mandating business closures and encouraging residents to stay in their homes unless they’re conducting essential business.
Trump’s language is vague, but it’s no mystery what he’s talking about. The states on Trump’s list are all home to protests, including one in St. Paul organized via a Facebook group called “Liberate Minnesota,” local ABC affiliate KSTP reports.
In egging on the protestors, Trump is also undercutting his administration’s own guidelines “30 Days to Slow the Spread,” issued April 2nd, which call on all Americans to “avoid social gatherings, especially those with more than 10 people” and to “avoid discretionary travel” — with encouragement from Trump himself for every American to “do their patriotic duty and help us to achieve a total victory” over the pandemic.
All three of the states Trump is tweeting about, however, have social-distancing orders put in place by Democratic governors, including Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer — whom Trump frequently derides as “the woman in Michigan” and a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. There are also protests in Ohio, where Republican Gov. Mike DeWine was an early adopter of anti-COVID-19 measures, but Ohio (as of publication time) hasn’t made Trump’s liberation Twitter list.
The protesters claim the closures are driven by alarmism over COVID-19 and that the economic fallout is more damaging than mass exposure to a pulmonary disease that spreads and kills people of almost all ages and conditions at a frightening rate.
As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control report about 27,000 recorded COVID-19 deaths in the United States, with about 4,000 more deaths that were probably caused by it. Despite false claims that these totals are being intentionally inflated for political reasons, it’s far more likely this is an undercount, both because the figures do not include people who die at home and because of the nation’s dysfunctional rollout of coronavirus testing, which has left us with fatally incomplete data.
The closures have caused massive economic fallout, with skyrocketing unemployment (22 million Americans have applied for unemployment in the past four weeks) and business closures. This is a real problem, but not one without solutions: The federal government is able to borrow massive amounts of money at extremely low rates, which, if deployed effectively and on a sufficient scale, could cushion individuals and businesses from the pain — as well as preserve the economy’s productive capacity for when businesses can be reopened without risking large-scale human death.
Congress approved a large initial bailout package with support for individuals and businesses, but so far the Trump administration’s efforts to get that money to people have gone poorly. The Washington Post reports that many people who are supposed to be getting stimulus checks have gotten their funding behind schedule or in smaller-than-prescribed amounts. Separately, here’s the New York Times headline on how the small-business lending program is going: Small-Business Aid Funds Run Dry as Program Fails to Reach Hardest Hit.
The blow could also be cushioned by the type of universal social safety net that proto-Trump Tea Partiers — and their “respectable” Republican Reaganite predecessors — have spent decades decrying as “socialism.” But, you know, go off, Donald.
That’s not to say that large checks and universal health care — and a competent White House to administer them — could ameliorate entirely the damages of social distancing. To name a few consequences among many, remote schooling exacerbates inequality and deprives low-income students of in-person support resources. Social isolation is also mentally taxing and can exacerbate other physical and emotional conditions. But there are no good answers here, and the pain of social distancing needs to be weighed against the death and suffering we’d risk by taking a business-as-usual approach.
And Trump’s not helping anything by playing Twitter footsie with people holding up swastika-emblazoned “Heil Whitmer” signs in Lansing. What he’s doing — and what he’s been doing from the start — is sending inconsistent messaging about how seriously we need to take this pandemic. Just as he did when he wrote “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” Trump is undercutting the social-distancing guidelines that are, for the most part, voluntary. Governments aren’t arresting people for leaving their homes. Instead, we’re all depending on each other to observe these guidelines to save tens or hundreds of thousands of us from needless and premature deaths.
And when people cluster around governors’ mansions to shout (and expectorate) about how this is all hype and hooey, they’re making these painful-but-necessary measures less effective. And when Trump encourages those people to deflect attention from his own disastrous effort to address the pandemic, he’s doing the same on a far, far larger scale.