Larry Kudlow on coronavirus: "We have contained this"

Larry Kudlow on coronavirus: "We have contained this"

I’m tempted to say “I can’t imagine what he’s thinking” but I definitely can imagine what a top Trump advisor is thinking when he says something this dubious. Watch, then read on.

It’s true that the virus has been more or less “contained” in the U.S. to this point as far as we can tell, i.e. assuming none of the many thousands of Americans diagnosed with the flu right now actually have COVID-19. The United States has tested a grand total of 426 people so far, with only a dozen labs capable of screening for the disease thanks to a faulty CDC test that was initially sent out. But it’s bananas that he’s talking about “close to airtight” containment within hours of the CDC issuing one of the most alarming public-health warnings of my lifetime. “It is not a question of if coronavirus will spread through the United States but a question of when and how many people will have severe illness,” said the agency’s head of immunization and respiratory diseases, adding that “disruption to everyday life may be severe.” You don’t often hear the word “severe” in briefings about novel infectious diseases. And you don’t usually get dire personal anecdotes like this:

“I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning, and I told my children that – while I didn’t think they were at risk – right now, we as a family, need to be preparing for significant disruption of our lives.”

Not a great sign when lead scientists are encouraging their own kids to adopt a bunker mentality, but if that’s where we’re headed, better that we all know. How, then, to explain Kudlow’s curious attempt to counterprogram the CDC briefing? The answer, I think, is that he knows who his boss is. And despite the fact that coronavirus is metastasizing in Italy and Iran, a particularly dangerous crossroads for the world, the boss is on-message that this is all well under control.

“I think that’s a problem that’s going to go away,” Trump said about the coronavirus outbreak at the start of a business roundtable in New Delhi…

Trump has said he believes China, where the illness emerged in the city of Wuhan, is getting the epidemic under control.

“They’ve had a rough patch and … it looks like they’re getting it under control more and more,” Trump said earlier. “They’re getting it more and more under control, so I think that’s a problem that’s going to go away, but we lost almost 1,000 points yesterday on the (stock) market.”

That’s what Kudlow’s thinking about. If this were a simple matter of the administration wanting everyone to keep a stiff upper lip, not to panic, etc, some “keep calm and carry on” wisdom on TV would be perfectly fine and welcome crisis management. But he could have done that without the misleading nonsense about “close to airtight” protocols and Trump could certainly do it without lying about the disease getting “under control” in China. Ross Douthat explained this morning why the right — and the left, so far — have each had political incentives to downplay the coronavirus epidemic:

The political right would normally react to the menace of a viral outbreak in a major geopolitical rival with demands for quarantine and a zealous government response. But with a nationalist Republican president enjoying the benefits of a long economic expansion, there has been a strong partisan incentive to play down or ignore the seriousness of the virus’s threat to supply chains, the Dow, the country’s gross domestic product.

Liberals have partisan incentives that run the other way, toward emphasizing the White House’s unpreparedness in the face of a clear and present threat. But these incentives have so far been outweighed by liberalism’s ideological bias toward global openness, its anxiety about saying or doing anything that might give aid and comfort to anti-globalization forces, its fear of ever sounding too, well, Trump-y in the face of foreign threats. Thus the liberal instinct toward minimization: It’s not much worse than the flu, panicking makes things only worse, don’t spread conspiracy theories about its origins, racism toward Chinese people is the real danger here.

Liberals will lose their incentive once there’s a major outbreak here, sacrificing their message about xenophobia in favor of a message about White House incompetence in failing to better prevent the disease’s spread. Righties will lose their incentive too but more gradually, as the toll from the outbreak becomes harder to deny. Eventually they’ll sacrifice their message that this is no big deal — a common cold, as Rush Limbaugh heinously claimed yesterday — in favor of a message that things are getting better, Trump’s efforts to contain it are working, etc.

But I’m not sure Trump himself will ever fully relinquish his message that there’s no great crisis, even if a crisis clearly develops. To his core he believes he can convince people to believe what he wants them to believe, whether through persuasion, bullying, tribalist appeals, conspiracy theories, complaints about contrary information being “unfair,” and so on. There are a few very important things he needs voters to believe on Election Day: Not only has the president given us a fantastic economy with a fantastic stock market, he’s kept us safe from foreign threats. COVID-19 threatens all three of those messages, the market most imminently. And Trump is worried about it.

On Jan. 31, the same day several airlines suspended flights and the United States announced its escalated response, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 600 points, or 2 percent. Trump grew concerned that any stronger action by his administration would hurt the economy, and he has told advisers that he does not want the administration to do or say anything that would further spook the markets. He remains worried that any large-scale outbreak could hurt his reelection bid.

The Dow was down a thousand points yesterday and closed down nearly 900 points today thanks to anxiety from the CDC briefing. The S&P 500 is now in the red for the year. My guess is that Kudlow was either tasked by Trump to go out and try to talk the markets up or that he took it upon himself to do so knowing that that’s what Trump would want, even at the price of undercutting the CDC’s warning to prepare. It won’t surprise me if someone at the agency gets an earful from the White House about the damage they’re doing to our poor president’s reelection chances by talking the way they are. And it won’t surprise me if Trump himself takes to trying to counterprogram the CDC’s official conclusions about the disease’s spread and lethality if a major outbreak happens here. If forced to choose between broadcasting dire but accurate information about the disease that informs the public but hurts his political prospects versus downplaying or suppressing that information at the risk of making the crisis worse but his political prospects better, which do you suppose Trump would choose based on your observations of him the past five years?

Here’s a clue from one of his staunchest defenders in media:

I think he can get reelected amid an outbreak if his team is seen as competently managing an unavoidable crisis and as being honest with the public throughout. If they’re not, the prospect of President Bernie rises. Speaking of which, here’s an interesting exchange today between Trump’s acting DHS chief and a Republican senator, John Kennedy, who’s normally not prone to make trouble for the administration. Kennedy catches Chad Wolf in a surprising bit of ignorance: As noted in the tweet, the flu is much less deadly than COVID-19 based on what we know at the moment. It’s also less infectious. As of four days ago, 14,000 Americans had died of the flu this season and a quarter million had been hospitalized. What that portends for the numbers from coronavirus once it’s here and circulating, God only knows.

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