The great Sweden debate: Trump versus ... Trump fans?

How often do you see the president siding with establishmentarians and experts over his own base? There was the time he bombed Assad early in his presidency and assassinated Qassem Soleimani a few months ago after promising to extricate the U.S. from Middle Eastern entanglements. Those moves pissed off some of his isolationist-minded fans but were easily forgiven because (thankfully) they didn’t lead to wider wars and foreign policy is rarely a core concern for voters. Besides, he had showed strength by punching a bad guy in the mouth, even if doing so made America’s interventionist foreign policy establishment happy. MAGA fans will always cut him a break when he’s muscle-flexing.

There was also that time he agreed to sign another grotesquely bloated federal spending bill that some righties strongly opposed, complaining that the bill spent too much money on establishment priorities and not enough on nationalist ones like immigration. Trump was alarmed enough by the reaction that he vowed never to sign another bill like it, although of course the government kept running mammoth deficits afterwards even before coronavirus struck.

Whether it’s the base sighing and moving towards Trump’s position or Trump reconsidering and moving towards theirs, these spats are usually quickly papered over. But I don’t know about the great Sweden debate. Populist righties are dug in on the belief that Sweden’s no-lockdown model has been a major success, sparing the country from the same degree of economic calamity that now faces the U.S. Trump, however, blessed the lockdown model when he issued his first set of federal guidelines last month. Fauci, Birx, and the other experts on the virus task force convinced him we were facing as many as 240,000 deaths if we didn’t take drastic action to slow the spread. He sided with them — and then within a few weeks began agitating for states to reopen for business.

Which has made this a confusing moment for loyal Republicans. Is Trump pro-lockdown or anti? Does he believe we should “LIBERATE” states that are shuttered and move to a more Sweden-like model or is he still mad at Brian Kemp for moving too quickly to reopen Georgia? His messaging is a mess. To make the politics more confusing, Sweden’s model received some warm words yesterday from … the WHO, China’s mouthpiece, which Trump and MAGA Nation have rightly criticized for hewing too closely to Beijing’s line since the Wuhan outbreak began.

In an era in which political positions are defined as much by whom you’re against as what you’re for, how does all of that shake out? Anti-lockdown … or pro-Trump? Anti-WHO … or pro-Sweden? It’s so confusing that this morning produced an ultra-rare public disagreement between Trump and his most ardent superfan, Bill Mitchell:

Mitchell later deleted his tweet, presumably not wanting to be at odds with his hero, but other righties took to griping on social media about Trump’s anti-Sweden stance. Said one Twitter pal, “Trump has praised protesters, who cite Sweden as a model, for opposing lockdowns, even though it goes against his own directives. He also blames WHO for misguiding everyone. So when WHO praises Sweden, despite its rising death toll, what is a Trump sycophant to think and do?” What indeed.

Trump wasn’t letting go, though:

He’s right, Sweden’s death toll is conspicuously higher than its Scandinavian neighbors’. But the full picture of how they’re doing is more complicated, as I noted yesterday. What his base clearly wants him to do is disavow the experts (“#FireFauci”) and scapegoat them for having convinced him to support the lockdowns — and normally he would. When it comes to getting him to pass the buck for an unpopular move, you don’t need to ask twice. The problem in this case is that the lockdowns aren’t unpopular, and his own advisors may have finally gotten through to him on that point. It’d also be a strange moment to go all-in on relaxing restrictions given that America’s outlook on the pandemic isn’t as rosy as we all hoped it would be circa May 1. If he starts beating the drum about Sweden and a bunch of red states reopen and a second wave hits, he’ll end up on the hook for that in November.

So we have a rare stalemate. On the one hand, Trump’s being cautious by sticking with the experts. On the other hand, righty populists want to fight back against government restrictions on movement. Sweden is the flashpoint. But how translatable is the Swedish model to the U.S.? Even the Swedes are skeptical:

Swedes are quick to point out that their model relies on elements that are antithetical to American conservative philosophy — namely a high degree of trust in government — in addition to natural factors such as a less-dense population.

“It is interesting to see that the Swedish stress on what we call ‘freedom under responsibility‘ is getting picked up by the libertarian right in the U.S.,” said Lars Trägårdh, a history professor at Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College in Sweden. “The big problem with all of that is that Sweden is all built, ultimately, on a very strong alliance between the state and the individual.”…

He also described a radical culture of transparency, such as a centuries-old law that allows citizens to read politicians’ correspondence.

Swedes are also in better health than Americans are on average, which could have outsized effects on the toll the Swedish approach takes here. But like I said yesterday, I think Americans are being underestimated in terms of how willing they are to distance themselves from each other even without state orders in place. It’s not a matter of trust in the government, it’s a matter of reacting to information about how safe post-lockdown America is. We could reopen for business and see little difference short-term in how communities are functioning because most Americans just won’t come out of their homes until there’s some concrete reason to believe that it’s grown safer to do so. Whether that means more testing or a new contact tracing program or drug treatments, it means the great Sweden debate is to some degree a red herring. Ending the lockdowns won’t solve the problem. Better management of the outbreak will.