Donald Trump has announced that he and his wife have tested positive for COVID-19. I’ll look at the question of how we got to this point in the broader context of risk — and describe the unlikely opportunity it creates.
Just a reminder: these Rationalist Papers posts are for the group I call the deciders: conservative, moderate, undecided, and third-party voters considering their choices in the 2020 US Presidential election.
The Trump approach to risk
We have a full term’s worth of experience now to evaluate how Trump governs. One little-discussed but fundamental principle guiding his decisions is how his administration treats risk, always prioritizing short-term gain over long-term safety.
Part of government’s job is to reduce risks to the nation. These risk-reducing programs generally have a monetary cost.
Take, for example, Trump’s rollback of environmental regulations. His administration weakened greenhouse gas standards for passenger cars and light trucks. He weakened regulations on coal and coal-powered plants. These rollbacks have the net effect of making it easier to do business and make money in the short term, while increasing risks from pollution in the long term.
Similarly, the USDA now will let meat slaughterhouses monitor their own safety, rather than inspecting them. This is cheaper for the government and easier for the meat producers, but increases the risk of contamination in the food supply.
Reducing these types of programs makes the government less capable of dealing with crises. Take the economic crisis we are now grappling with. Trump has encouraged the Fed to keep interest rates low and his administration passed a tax cut that doubled the size of the budget deficit. These policies created much stronger growth and contributed to the run-up in the stock market. But they also deprived the nation of tools it could use in case of an economic criss. It’s impossible now to cut interest rates any lower, and the economic consequences of further expensive stimulus packages — in terms of higher government debt and inflation — will be with us for decades.
There are a few exceptions — for example, Trump magnifies the risk of migrants from central America and the risk of housing rules to suburbs — but as a general rule, his philosophy is to invest in growth over risk-protection.
When it comes to COVID, the same logic applies. Last September, Trump cut its pandemic readiness program and removed CDC virus monitoring staff on duty in China. The haphazard and inconsistent approach to coronavirus when it appeared was due in part to the dismantling of these programs.
It’s tempting to attribute Trump’s own infection to some sort of karmic retribution. But there’s no need to resort to such superstitions. Consistent with his own governing principles, Trump dismantled safeguards that removed protections, and those actions allowed the virus to spread. On a personal basis, Trump’s failure to take precautions regarding wearing masks and social distancing at his campaign rallies and events surely had an impact. He says he takes hydrochloroquine, which has no actual protective effect. While he denigrated Biden for hiding in his basement, he himself was out and about meeting with people and flying on planes. This increased his risk for getting COVID-19.
I don’t rejoice in Trump’s illness, any more than I would for the other millions of people suffering from this disease. But I see all of those infections, including his, and the resulting economic devastation, as a clear consequence of a reckless failure to invest in risk reduction and crisis readiness.
Trump’s unique opportunity
Trump’s illness will generate sympathy — his supporters will be concerned and heartbroken. And it will curtail his ability to conduct his usual vigorous mass rallies leading up to the election. But he has an opportunity to take this misfortune and turn it into leadership.
Before he becomes too sick to do so, he could address the nation. He could explain what has happened. And he can explain the lesson that can be drawn from it: that we all must wear masks, avoid gathering in groups, maintain social distancing, and get tested. He could also direct Senate Republicans to embrace the compromise plan recently passed by the House to improve the economy and help schools and businesses to deal with the pandemic.
That type of communication is very much the approach that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson took when he was infected, and it went a long way towards creating sympathy and solidarity in the nation he led.
I don’t think this will happen with Trump. The speech I have described would require Trump to admit he had made a mistake in his previous approach to COVID-19. And he never admits a mistake.
What it all means for you
If you feel sympathy towards Trump, that’s great. No one deserves to suffer from a deadly disease. Trump’s weight and age put him at risk. This will be a serious health challenge for him.
But do not vote out of sympathy. The office of President of the United States is not awarded to the person we feel most sorry for.
What matters is how the person we choose will lead the nation. Trump has shown that he leads by prioritizing the short-term at the expense of readiness and risk-protection. I don’t believe this philosophy serves us well as a nation. He may deserve your sympathy, but he does not deserve your vote.
Feel free to post comments about salient parts of the debate. However, I will delete comments that insult or demean me, other commenters, or groups, or state supposed facts without evidence. Vacuous cheerleading and catcalling is also prohibited; this is not a sporting event. No one persuades anyone by creating a hostile environment.