The new message as of last week, I thought, was safety first.
That’s why he canceled the convention in Jacksonville. That’s why he started tweeting about how masks are patriotic. That’s why he resumed the daily coronavirus briefings, and took to saying unusually sober things like, “It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better.” The Journal published a story on Friday titled “Facing Declining Polls, Staff Anxieties, Trump Changes Course on Coronavirus” that included quotes like this: “A person in close contact with the White House said there was agreement among White House and campaign aides that the president’s insistence that the economy should reopen was out of step with the concerns of many Americans, who wanted a focus on health and safety.”
Last Wednesday, Kellyanne Conway went as far as to suggest that some states had reopened a bit too early and that the blame for that surely lay with those states’ governors rather than our very pro-reopening president:
Kellyanne Conway: "Some of these states… blew through our phases and they opened up some of the industries a little too quickly." pic.twitter.com/rRmWZTyVoX
— The Hill (@thehill) July 22, 2020
The message was clear. The White House was going to do what it could to rewrite history and present Trump as having been a voice of (relative) caution about relaxing social distancing from the start. Safety first.
So … here he is today reminding everyone that it’s time for states that are still “closed” to reopen:
President Trump: "A lot of the governors should be opening up states that they're not opening." pic.twitter.com/rJjdlDb6R6
— The Hill (@thehill) July 27, 2020
I suppose there’s only so much one can do to get him to stick to a message he doesn’t agree with, even if it’s in his political interest to do so. Clearly he doesn’t really believe safety is more important than the economy. If he did, it wouldn’t have taken him four months to shift from “we should have a monster party at the convention” to “we shouldn’t have a convention.” His advisors have reportedly done everything they can think of to sell him on a more cautious, safety-minded approach, including stressing to him that Trump voters — the only people he really cares about — are now suffering from the virus too:
People close to Trump, many speaking anonymously to share candid discussions and impressions, say the president’s inability to wholly address the crisis is due to his almost pathological unwillingness to admit error; a positive feedback loop of overly rosy assessments and data from advisers and Fox News; and a penchant for magical thinking that prevented him from fully engaging with the pandemic…
In the past couple of weeks, senior advisers began presenting Trump with maps and data showing spikes in coronavirus cases among “our people” in Republican states, a senior administration official said. They also shared projections predicting that virus surges could soon hit politically important states in the Midwest — including Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the official said.
The point about the “feedback loop of overly rosy assessments” is well taken but let me gently interject to remind WaPo that it’s not just “Fox & Friends” that’s guilty of that. It’s Deborah Birx. His own science advisors have helped steer him into this political box canyon, not just the floomers in the populist media he consumes.
He did at least wear a mask in front of photographers this afternoon. Republicans are coming around on mask-wearing, with 68 percent telling pollsters that people should wear masks in public when they’re around others. (Among Democrats, it’s 92 percent.) Interestingly, when Dems are asked how many Republicans they think would say that most people should wear masks in public around others, they guess 30 percent — less than half the actual share. Even Republicans slightly underestimate how many of their fellow partisans are pro-mask, guessing 65 percent.
“The anti-mask party” feels like a bad brand for the GOP this fall, but what do I know.
Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini made an interesting point this afternoon about Major League Baseball’s sudden season-jeopardizing crisis:
If baseball shuts down again, that's going to do more to (further) hurt the president's re-election chances than whatever happens with cases in the next month. Psychology matters more than objective reality.
— Patrick Ruffini (@PatrickRuffini) July 27, 2020
I don’t agree but I wouldn’t wager heavily that he’s wrong. If baseball throws in the towel and the downward trends in cases in Texas, Arizona, and eventually California and Florida continue through August and into September, I think Trump will benefit from that. Any evidence of durable progress in beating back the pandemic by Election Day gives him a fighting chance. (Trump himself touts therapeutic drugs in the clip as one way that might happen.) But Ruffini’s right that MLB having to shut down — especially so soon into the season — will be hugely demoralizing, proof that even a pro sports league with enormous resources and precautions in place was no match for SARS-CoV-2. It would be stark confirmation that nothing like normalcy will return this year. And it would be an omen that institutions with fewer resources than baseball, like schools and businesses, will find it impossible to resume business as usual until there’s a vaccine. It won’t decide the election but certainly it’ll be a psychological blow, a glaring reminder that America’s first four months of trying (sort of trying?) to contain COVID were a dispiriting failure.