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Trying to predict Trump administration actions really is like Kremlinology, updated for the age of social media. There’s clearly no formal policy process; Donald Trump acts on impulse and intuition, often shaped either by whomever he last met or what he last saw on Fox News, making no use of the vast expertise he could call on if he were willing to listen. Those of us on the outside, and from all accounts, even many people within the administration try to infer what’s coming next from tweets and statements by people presumed to be in favor at the moment.
So what does Trumplinology suggest right now? That Trump really, really wants to end the economy’s lockdown very soon. Early Monday Trump tweeted out an assertion that he has the power to overrule state governors who have imposed lockdown orders — which suggests that we may have a constitutional crisis brewing, because as far as anybody knows he has no such power. Meanwhile, in an interview with The New York Times, Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade czar, argued that a weak economy might kill more people than the virus.
The thing is, as far as I can tell epidemiologists are united in the belief that it’s far too soon to be considering any relaxation of social distancing. The lockdowns across America do seem to have flattened the curve, allowing us to — just — avoid completely overwhelming the health care system. New cases may have peaked. But you don’t want to let up until you’re in a position to do so without giving the pandemic a second wave. And we’re nowhere close to that point.
So where is this coming from? I’ve seen some people portray it as a conflict between epidemiologists and economists, but that’s all wrong. Serious economists know what they don’t know — they recognize and respect experts from other disciplines. A survey of economists found almost unanimous support for “tolerating a very large contraction in economic activity until the spread of infections has dropped significantly.”
No, this push to reopen is coming not from economists but from cranks and cronies. That is, it’s coming on one side from people who may describe themselves as economists but whom the professionals consider cranks — people like Navarro or Stephen Moore, who Trump tried unsuccessfully to appoint to the Federal Reserve Board. And on the other, it’s coming from business types with close ties to Trump who suffer from billionaire’s disease — the tendency to assume that just because you’re rich you’re also smarter than anyone else, even in areas like epidemiology (or, dare I say it, macroeconomics) that require a great deal of technical expertise.
And Trump, of course, who was planning to run on the strength of the economy, desperately wants to wish the coronavirus away.
The reality is that we shouldn’t consider opening the economy until we have both reduced infections dramatically and vastly increased testing, so we can crack down quickly on any potential re-emergence.
The good news is that many governors seem to understand that, and that Trump probably can’t override their better judgment. The bad news is that America’s governors — who are turning out, on the whole, to be better than we deserve — are having to fight a two-front war. Not only are they having to fight a deadly disease, they’re having to fend off a national leader who is doing all he can to sabotage their efforts.