by Greg Sargent
Under furious pressure, President Trump is now backing off his push to quickly reopen the U.S. economy, and has instead agreed to extend the federal government’s strict social-distancing guidelines through at least the end of April.
This is being widely portrayed as a surrender — to facts, data and scientific realities that Trump tried to make disappear, before finally accepting that his magical reality-bending powers only go so far.
Which provides an occasion to suggest a deep reset in the language we’re using to describe the extraordinary dereliction of leadership we’re seeing from Trump, and from those officials around the country who have followed his lead.
By now, you’ve probably heard media figures claim that the stark differences between public officials over the true nature and scale of the coronavirus threat are rooted in “tribalism” or “polarization.”
These differences represent a “deepening partisan divide,” a new Associated Press piece reports, adding: “The divergent approaches are evidence that not even a global pandemic can bridge the gaping political divisions of the Trump era.”
This is true as far as it goes. But like so many other efforts to find language adequate to capturing Trump’s daily depravities and degradations, it’s profoundly insufficient.
When one set of officials shapes its response to a public health emergency around facts, data, public health expertise and science, and another set — with many exceptions, to be sure — relentlessly downplays that emergency, largely because Trump has demanded this for nakedly self-interested political reasons, words like “tribalism” or “partisanship” risk obscuring more than they clarify.
Indeed, this formulation does a disservice to the Republicans who have chosen not to slavishly follow Trump.
Trump’s abrupt reversal
Trump’s announcement of an extension in social distancing recommendations came after he spent days suggesting he wanted America to get back to work, in defiance of health officials. That came after Trump downplayed coronavirus for two months to avoid rattling markets and his reelection efforts, badly hampering the federal response and helping to produce our current dire straits.
In reversing course, Trump finally acknowledged coronavirus could claim 200,000 U.S. lives. The New York Times reports:One adviser said the president recognized that the data about the potential impact of the virus in the United States was bad, and could not be bent to his will.
But compounding Trump’s damage is the fact that numerous public officials around the country have followed his lead.
The AP piece, which contains very good reporting, looks at the stark divergence between GOP and Democratic leaders in handling coronavirus. As the AP concludes, Republican leaders “emboldened” by Trump’s “rosy outlook” have been “far more likely to resist the most aggressive social distancing.”
The governors of Oklahoma and West Virginia have recommended that people continue going out to dinner. And as David Leonhardt put it:Some Republican governors, following Trump’s lead, are also rejecting those experts’ pleas: There are beaches open in Florida, restaurants open in Georgia and Missouri and many people out and about in Oklahoma and Texas.
And as Jonathan Cohn documents, Florida’s GOP governor, Ron DeSantis, earned Trump’s praise precisely because he did not follow public health recommendations, and instead followed Trump in minimizing the crisis.
Then there’s Tate Reeves, the Republican governor of Mississippi. He has allowed most businesses to stay open, including restaurants, though with limited table service. The AP reports this:AD
Reeves dismissed those who think he’s not doing enough as enemies of Trump who “don’t like the fact that I’m a conservative and I’m willing to pray.”
The cultlike quality to all of this is unmistakable. Meanwhile, according to Nate Silver’s calculations, while coronavirus cases remain concentrated in blue states, they are beginning to increase faster in red ones.
It bears repeating that Republican governors Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland have been exemplary in their embrace of strict measures.
A deep perversity
When Trump announced his reversal, he also tore into the media and into Democratic governors for daring to criticize him, accusing them of exaggerating his failures.
Echoing this, Sen. Marco Rubio says the media “can’t contain their glee” at mounting U.S. deaths, thus offering a cultlike defense of Trump that is beneath the Florida Republican.
This is profoundly perverse, because Trump actually owes a major debt to the media and those governors. The media’s scrutiny is precisely what compelled Trump to reverse course, and those governors are on the front lines of enforcing the social distancing (while absorbing the political responsibility for doing so) that Trump sneered at for so long.
So they are responsible for reorienting Trump onto a path that is likely to save untold lives.
Yet at the same time, those who followed Trump’s lead may have put many in danger, as the AP concludes, without quite saying so directly:The fierce tribalism that has characterized debates over immigration, taxes and health care is now coloring policymaking during a coronavirus outbreak that threatens countless lives and local economies across the nation.
That is both an exceptionally stark statement — these differences do “threaten countless lives and local economies” — and a retreat from clearly explaining what causes them.
The gulf between those demanding a response in keeping with public health expertise and those refusing such a response — and even claiming that demands for more action can only reflect animosity to Trump — is not mere “tribalism” or “partisanship.”
One side is prioritizing science and the imperative of erring on the side of caution to protect as many American lives as possible. The other is actively submerging both of those to a kind of cultish devotion to the perceived political needs and demands of the leader.
And we need to find the right language to say so.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum’s Washington Post. He joined The Post in 2010, after stints at Talking Points Memo, New York Magazine and the New York Observer. Follow