Trump’s Cruel Election Gamble

By Lincoln Mitchell Ph.D

Over the last month or so, the Coronavirus has changed almost everything in America-including the election. A month ago, it looked like Joseph Biden, the all but certain Democratic nominee, would have to make the case to the American people that despite the relatively strong economy, Donald Trump’s incompetence, bigotry, contempt for democracy and never quite fully explained relationship with the Kremlin were enough reason to throw him out of office. The Republican campaign was boiling down to telling voters that none of that mattered if the economy was good and the market was strong. The election looks very different today.

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Although Donald Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis has received good marks from roughly half of the American people, according to most medical professionals and health experts, the worst of the pandemic is yet to come. If this happens, it will become clear that Donald Trump’s mishandling of this going back to when he shut down the White House pandemic office, through his descriptions of the pandemic as a hoax and his current daily press conferences that are rich with disinformation, have cost American lives and damaged the economy.

Perhaps instinctively, Donald Trump knows this and in recent days has therefore created a dynamic where his reelection campaign will be something different than simply a referendum on his handling of the Coronavirus crisis. Last week Trump and some of his supporters began floating a dangerous idea that if implemented would, according to some interpretations of international law, qualify as a crime against humanity. This idea was to lift all social distancing policies, let one or two percent of the population, mostly the old and unwell, die, but keep the economy running. This is a cruel idea that is also colossally stupid, as the deaths of millions of Americans in their 70s would not exactly bolster the Dow Jones Industrial Average. 

It is easy, and important, to criticize this idea, but Trump may have not actually meant it. Rather, by proposing this, he wanted to shift the dialog around the pandemic and the election, and with it the blame for the weakening economy. Despite Trump’s huge media presence, the government officials who have led the charge against the spread of the Coronavirus have been governors, most notably Jay Inslee of Washington and Gavin Newsom of California, but also others like JB Pritzker of Illinois and our own Andrew Cuomo. Several less prominent Republican governors like Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland have joined these Democrats in implementing strong social distancing or shelter in place policies that have already saved thousands of lives.

If we avoid the worst of this pandemic, it will be because of the steadfast commitment to public health of governors like these, most of whom lead states Trump will lose in 2020. If Trump urges lifting social distancing, he will find himself in a public fight with these governors, which he will lose, as Andrew Cuomo, Jay Inslee and others are unlikely to be bullied into killing residents of their state, even by Donald Trump. Their social distancing policies will not only save lives, but will prevent the worst economic outcomes, although joblessness and other economic problems will continue to grow.

If this occurs, then going into the November election Trump will be able to make the argument, based on the pandemic not being as devastating as it might have been, that these governors overreacted and if they hadn’t the economy would be even stronger. Trump will essentially accuse the governors who in fact saved lives, jobs and businesses, of panicking and sabotaging the economy. This strategy could easily backfire because if the pandemic gets worse, Trump’s mishandling of it will be obvious to all but the most devoted members of his cult. Nonetheless, Trump seems comfortable with, and committed to, betting his political future and American lives, not on his ability to solve a problem, but on mostly Democratic governors doing the right thing. 

Lincoln Mitchell, PhD is a  political analyst and professor of political science at Columbia University.

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