NEW YORK — I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling more and more as if we’re all trapped on the Titanic — except that this time around, the captain is a madman who insists on steering straight for the iceberg. And his crew is too cowardly to contradict him, let alone mutiny to save the passengers.
A month ago it was still possible to hope that the push by Donald Trump and the Trumpist governors of Sunbelt states to relax social distancing and reopen businesses like restaurants and bars — even though we met none of the criteria for doing so safely — wouldn’t have completely catastrophic results.
At this point, however, it’s clear that everything the experts warned was likely to happen, is happening. Daily new cases of COVID-19 are running 2 1/2 times as high as in early June, and rising fast. Hospitals in early-reopening states are under terrible pressure. National death totals are still declining thanks to falling fatalities in the Northeast, but they’re rising in the Sunbelt, and the worst is surely yet to come.
A normal president and a normal political party would be horrified by this turn of events. They would realize that they made a bad call and that it was time for a major course correction; they would start taking warnings from health experts seriously.
But Trump, who began his presidency with a lurid, fact-challenged rant about “American carnage,” seems completely untroubled by the toll from a pandemic that seems certain to kill more Americans than were murdered over the whole of the past decade. And he’s doubling down on his rejection of expertise, this week demanding full reopening of schools in defiance of existing guidelines.
Oh, and he still won’t call on Americans to protect one another by wearing masks, or set an example by wearing one himself.
How can we make sense of Trump’s pathologically inept response to the coronavirus? There’s an underlying core of utter cynicism: Clearly, Trump and those around him don’t care very much how many Americans die or suffer lasting damage from COVID-19, as long as the politics work in their favor. But this cynicism is wrapped in multiple layers of delusion.
On one side, it’s clear that the Trumpists still can’t accept that this is really happening.
Until early 2020, Trump led a charmed political life. All his recent predecessors had to deal with some kind of external challenge during their first three years. Barack Obama inherited an economy wracked by a financial crisis. Whatever you think of his response, George W. Bush faced 9/11. Bill Clinton faced stubbornly high unemployment. But Trump inherited a nation at peace and in the middle of a long economic expansion that continued, with no visible change in the trend, after he took office.
Then came COVID-19. Another president might have seen the pandemic as a crisis to be dealt with. But that thought never seems to have crossed Trump’s mind. Instead, he has spent the past five months trying to will us back to where we were in February, when he was sitting on top of a moving train and pretending that he was driving it.
This helps explain his otherwise bizarre aversion to masks: They remind people that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, which is something he wants everyone to forget. Unfortunately for him — and for the rest of us — positive thinking won’t make a virus go away.
That, however, is where the second layer of delusion comes in. By now it’s clear that the cynical decision to sacrifice American lives in pursuit of political advantage is failing even on its own terms. The rush to reopen did produce big job gains in May and early June, but voters were distinctly unimpressed; his polling just kept getting worse. This year, it’s not the economy, stupid — it’s the virus.
And now the surge in infections may be causing the economic recovery to stall.
In other words, the strategy of “damn the experts, full speed ahead” is looking foolish as well as immoral. But Trump, far from reconsidering, is digging the hole he’s in ever deeper — much the same way that he keeps turning up the dial on racism despite the fact that it’s not working for him politically. Incredibly, even as hospitalizations climb he’s still insisting that the rise in reported cases is just an illusion created by more testing.
So what can we do? Trump has another six months in office (if he’s still there after Jan. 20, God help us all). And it’s now clear that he won’t change course, no matter how bad the pandemic gets. As I said, we’re all passengers at the mercy of a mad captain determined to wreck his ship.
It’s true that federalism is our friend. Trump doesn’t actually have any direct authority over things like school openings. And many though not all states have rational governors who are trying to contain the damage, although it’s hard to keep the lid on in New Jersey or Michigan when the coronavirus is running wild in Florida.
But a lot more Americans are going to die. And if Joe Biden becomes president, he, like Obama 12 years ago, is going to take the helm of a nation in a deep crisis.
Paul Krugman is a syndicated columnist who writes for the New York Times News Service.