Because it’s the only Hail Mary chance he has at reelection. And, sure, it probably won’t pay off. But just as he’s done his entire life, Trump has no problem gambling with other people’s money and well-being — even if the stakes could be fatal.
Pre-pandemic, Trump’s case for reelection could be summed up as: “But the economy.” Ignore the racism, misogyny, abuses of power, environmental destruction, kids in cages, the siphoning of taxpayer funds into Trump-owned golf cart rentals. The economy has been good! And, rightly or wrongly, voters credit him. So long as stocks are high and unemployment is low, Americans might be willing keep him in charge.
More than 22 million people filed for unemployment in the past month; economic output is expected to shrink this quarter at its fastest pace on record. Even leaving aside the U.S. death toll of more than 41,000, Trump is dangerously close to failing the “are you better off today than you were four years ago” test on economic metrics alone.
This could play out in a few ways.
We could wait until epidemiologists say it’s safe to reopen the economy. That would presumably come after we’ve massively scaled up testing, tracing and isolation of infections, and mandated adaptive measures so that more people can return to work. Such measures might include more protective gear and limits on person-to-person contact in offices, restaurants and stores. Which would require a relatively gradual reopening, even after the pandemic’s peak passes.
While this strategy is likely to pay off in the long run, that long run probably wouldn’t come in time to help Trump campaign on the economy. That is, a substantial economic recovery is unlikely to materialize by November if states wait to fully reopen until later this summer or even the fall — which is when Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb suggests broad-based testing will become available.
On the other hand, states could reopen before preparedness measures are in place. The likely outcome: Things blow up again.
That is, we return to pandemic-levels of coronavirus spread, which infect and kill lots of people; impose a second round of lockdowns (as happened during the 1918 influenza pandemic, in which the second wave was deadlier than the first); wreck the economy for another year; and have to spend even more taxpayer funds to relieve widespread financial ruin.
So he wants to roll the dice.
That’s why he is encouraging protests against stay-at-home orders, even though his administration has recommended those orders, and even though the protests put more lives at risk as unmasked crowds cluster together. It might also be why he’s taken hostage fiscal aid that states and cities desperately need; the administration reportedly thinks that withholding aid can pressure states to reopen their economies sooner.
Right now, Trump is a man with almost nothing to lose, and that makes him dangerous. He’s more than happy to risk the lives of the old, infirm or otherwise vulnerable, even if they’re his voters.
If such pressure works, states reopen and we (luckily) experience low levels of coronavirus resurgence, then Trump has a chance of reviving his “But the economy” message. If cases instead spike — as models predict — well, no sweat off his back. He’s already laying the groundwork to blame governors for mishandling the pandemic response.
As a political strategy, this is atrociously irresponsible. But it’s consistent with Trump’s pre-politics career, which involved getting himself into a hole; taking ever-bigger risks with other people’s money in the hopes that one of those long shots could get him out of the hole; and then, when he still couldn’t repay, blaming creditors for being foolish enough to lend to him. Given that he managed to persuade a major bank to lend him billions of dollars even after his first four corporate bankruptcies, perhaps his assignation of blame wasn’t entirely wrong.
As a businessman, Trump successfully persuaded creditors to throw away good money after bad. As a politician, he may yet persuade states to risk more lives, and livelihoods, after so many have been lost already.