Something weird and bad seems to be brewing in the president’s brain. After downplaying the coronavirus crisis and wasting valuable months with statements like this, President Trump recently had an abrupt change of heart about the pandemic — reportedly following an Imperial College analysis that showed the possibility of 2 million deaths in the U.S. — and began pushing the country towards drastic and necessary steps. He gave press conferences flanked by top epidemiologists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, and endorsed social distancing proposals, including closing schools and limiting gatherings.
Now, though, as the economy continues to sputter as businesses close and workers stay home, and as expanded testing reveals tens of thousands of new cases across the country, Trump appears to be chafing against the yoke of responsibility. He doesn’t like being told what to do, especially not when the decisions he makes appear to damage the gains made by the stock market since he took office, which have now been totally erased. The New York Times reported that Trump’s inner circle is becoming increasingly frustrated that he let “the doctors” dictate policy at the expense of the economy.
The president’s Twitter feed shows the battles going on between his id — expressed in all caps tweets and retweets of random people — and his superego, aka the doctors and other advisers urging him towards continued shutdowns in the name of public health and safety.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump tweeted yesterday. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
For now, the president appears caught between dueling impulses, each with their own Greek chorus urging him towards wildly different outcomes.
He also retweeted a handful of random users expressing support for letting people return to work. This included a woman named Renee Williams with 862 followers, who tweeted, “15 days. Then we isolate the high risk groups and the rest of us get back to work before it’s all over for everyone!! #Landslide2020.”
Trump also retweeted an account called @SexCounseling, which declared, “The fear of the virus cannot collapse our economy that President Trump has built up. We The People are smart enough to keep away from others if we know that we are sick or they are sick!”
CNN reportedly interviewed White House officials who said Trump is “itching” to cut back on social distancing measures when the initial 15-day pause period elapses. This goes against the advice of the top doctors, who stress that a longer period of containment will be required to get the virus under control. Because so few people in the U.S. can be tested for coronavirus, it's nearly impossible to know who may be carrying the virus but presenting without symptoms — meaning someone may be feeling healthy and able to go back to work, but in reality be a carrier who could spread coronavirus to their peers.
In some countries like Singapore and South Korea, people have actually been sent back to work already. But that was only possible because widespread testing allowed the government to successfully quarantine people who were contagious, thus containing the disease. The United States has lagged far behind these countries in making testing available to everyone, and containment may no longer be possible given the number of people infected.
But according to CNN, Trump believes he can start relaxing the limits nationwide while still allowing harder-hit states, like New York and Washington, to maintain control over their own outbreaks. His medical advisers, though, have been pressuring him to continue implementing strict measures to mitigate community spread of the virus.
These dueling strategies have played out in contrasting messages shared by Trump allies in the media. "We can't shut in the economy,” said Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, in a TV appearance Monday. “The president is right. The cure can't be worse than the disease, and we're gonna have to make some difficult trade-offs. ... I spoke to the president about this very subject late last evening, so we’ll be looking at a number of different things."
Also Monday, Georgia Republican Rep. Jody Hice tweeted, “Which is worse, the illness or our ‘fix’? Americans stand up to challenges. Don't succumb to fear! Trust in God.”
Divine intervention notwithstanding, other key Trump allies aren’t ready to end the shutdown just yet. "We should always err on the side of doing more — not less — when it comes to containment,” wrote South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s fiercest defenders on Capitol Hill, on Twitter.
"President Trump's best decision was stopping travel from China early on,” Graham added, questionably, given Trump closed the borders only after the infection was already spreading within the U.S. “I hope we will not undercut that decision by suggesting we back off aggressive containment policies within the United States."
For now, the president appears caught between dueling impulses, each with their own Greek chorus urging him towards wildly different outcomes — the doctors on the one hand, desperate to keep Americans safe and indoors, and MAGA nation on the other, howling for big stock numbers at all costs. Which of these goals Trump ends up pursuing could determine the number of zeros on the death count in America in the year ahead.