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The Rush to Reopen the Economy Is a Race to the Bottom

Governors in six states are loosening social distancing restrictions and allowing some businesses to reopen. But at what cost?

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Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has allowed certain small businesses in the state to reopen, including restaurants, theaters, studios, gyms, and salons. Kemp acknowledges the public health risk posed by the global coronavirus pandemic, especially amid widespread deficiencies in testing and treatment. “We’re probably going to have to see our cases continue to go up,” Kemp told reporters in Atlanta. “If we have an instance where a community starts becoming a hot spot, then I will take further action.” But Kemp argued the economic consequences of maintaining a statewide closure are too great. Other leaders in the state disagree: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Kemp’s announcement took her by surprise and that she disagreed with his decision.

Kemp has coordinated his intention to “reopen the economy” with a few Southern Republican governors in Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Last Tuesday, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster permitted nonessential retail businesses, including department stores, to reopen; Mississippi and Tennessee will begin loosening social distancing restrictions this week. A spokeswoman for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the six states were “working in a coalition.” These states were some of the slowest to implement shelter-in-place orders even once the virus’s threat became clear. Kemp issued a statewide directive in Georgia on April 3, a day after he told reporters he’d just learned about the potential for asymptomatic carriers to spread the virus even though medical experts had disseminated such guidance as early as January.

Kemp’s actions don’t seem designed to relieve his constituents during the pandemic so much as they seem designed to flatter President Donald Trump and his hardcore supporters, who empowered Kemp’s rise to the governorship. The president, meanwhile, has offered mixed messages on the subject: He initially rushed to “reopen the economy”—Trump and his economic adviser Stephen Moore popularized the slogan in the administration’s earlier push to resume business as usual by Easter. But Trump also criticized Kemp’s plan to loosen the restrictions in Georgia, saying, “I think it’s too soon.” Trump’s approval rating among seniors—a core constituency—is a reason for concern. March polling showed it had dropped “lower than that of any age group other than 18- to 29-year-olds.” Increasingly, Trump diffuses his responsibility for any decisions about the lockdowns, the shortages, and the subsequent recession. The change has been swift: “When somebody’s the president of the United States,” Trump declared a couple of weeks ago, “the authority is total.” Two days later, Trump told several governors, “You are going to call your own shots.”

Two weeks ago, Trump tweeted his support for the right-wing protesters marching on state houses in a campaign to “LIBERATE” citizens under statewide lockdown orders in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. The public demonstrations were leveled against the Democratic governors who issued the earliest (and thus far most prolonged) shelter-in-place orders. The protesters “just want to get back to work.” They distrust Anthony Fauci. They picket Democratic governors while carrying Trump campaign signs. Their slogans and their apparel suggest these rallies aren’t about the coronavirus pandemic so much as they’re rallies about Trump—for Trump—in lieu of the MAGA public gatherings that the pandemic has forced Trump to suspend.

Trump seems to perceive the coronavirus pandemic as a crisis for his presidential reelection campaign, which was premised on Trump touting the strongest U.S. economy since Harry Truman. His economic cudgel crumbled, and Trump now primarily regards the pandemic as an opportunity to rehash his familiar grudges against China, immigrants, regulations, and Democrats. “Not everybody believes we should do so much testing. You don’t need so much,” Trump told reporters last week. “The Democrats and some others,” Trump says, “they want to be able to criticize.” There’s no shortage of opportunities for “the Democrats and some others” to criticize Trump on any given day. But the medical crisis is real. The federal government and the states have shuttered the U.S. economy in order to throttle the pandemic, and the countermeasures have exacerbated the economic downturn. It’s a painful, global hardship with no easy, comfortable remedies; hence, 3 billion people around the world are sacrificing so many usual comforts in order to stall a pandemic that has killed close to 200,000 people in the past few months, including close to 50,000 individuals in the U.S. The unemployment rate is heartbreaking, too: 20.6 percent with minimal relief in sight. The figures aren’t lost on anyone but the anti-social-distancing protesters who would hospitalize their own parents in order to reinforce Trump.

Trump’s critics regard these scattered protests as too small, too frivolous, and too unpopular to dignify second thoughts about the lockdowns. But Republican governors in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina may well adjust their plans, as always, in favor of Trump’s political base. Trump launched his political career by stoking the vivid right-wing panic about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. He launched his first presidential campaign by describing Mexican immigration as an orgy of psychedelic violence (in so many words). In the latest phase of Trump’s reelection campaign, conservatives cultivate a new trutherism that regards the global coronavirus pandemic, and its countermeasures, as a conspiracy designed by Chinese communists, self-righteous elites, yellow journalists, and fraudulent doctors for downright Satanic purposes. (The conservative media’s emergent derangement about the coronavirus pandemic is, of course, the liberal media’s fault.) Trump is nothing without the coked-up contrarianism that reinvigorates his political mission in its darkest turns. There’s no shortage of derangement in national quarantine, in an election year, in this economy. It’s spilling back into the streets.