Donald Trump’s MAGA followers finally agree: the coronavirus threat is real. But there’s now a growing chorus worried the president might overdo the response.
The fear is that the media and mass hysteria has cowed Trump into fully tanking the economy in response to what they believe is a dangerous, but not apocalyptic, disease. Despite warnings from Trump’s own health officials that millions could die unless drastic action is taken, some of the president’s supporters worry that the dangers of overreacting could also be severe.
“More than a month of people actually quarantined will break down civil society. Nobody is used to this, and when the money runs out for people they will get desperate — and there’s not enough money the government can dole out that’ll be enough,” said David Reaboi, vice president for strategic operations at Security Studies Group who writes for The Federalist.
“People will start to panic, then [begin] killing and looting. And we’ll face a society-wide crisis that’s more than simply economic. Absorbing the death of a certain number of people is preferable to that, if those are the options. Amazing and horrible to even think like that, but here we are.”
A variation of the debate has also started to infiltrate more mainstream circles, with a much-read Wall Street Journal editorial recently weighing how much financial devastation is worth the health benefits a prolonged economic stoppage will bring.
Public health officials insist such measures are necessary for now, noting the coronavirus is far worse than the flu — it is at least 10 times as lethal and about three times as contagious, according to officials. And recent data has also shown that the disease may pose greater risks to younger generations than previously thought — nearly 40 percent of coronavirus hospitalizations were people aged 20 to 54, according to a government report.
The fall-out has ramifications for Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, robbing the president of his most-common talking point — that he has overseen a growing economy. Instead Trump is facing criticism that problems with coronavirus testing and his own misleading rhetoric harmed efforts to quash the disease’s spread. And with large gatherings barred for the foreseeable future, Trump’s energetic rallies are off for now.
After initially downplaying the coronavirus threat, Trump has gotten behind severe measures to slow the disease’s spread. He supported governors as they ordered the closure of all restaurants and bars and applauded shelter-at-home orders, even as it caused the stock market to tank and sent businesses sliding toward bankruptcy. Trump himself has directed Americans to avoid any gathering of more than 10 people.
The reaction among Trump’s supporters is evolving, as well. A week after Trump’s base seemed to be splitting over the seriousness of the coronavirus, the quarrel is now over how much the government should damage the economy in response to the present threat.
“For generation X and younger MAGA influencers, we’re pretty much all uniformly on board with social distancing [and] flattening the curve policies. [The] only discussion is about severity,” said Jack Posobiec, a correspondent with the Trump-friendly One America News Network.
Posobiec advocates a “kill this thing, whatever it takes” approach, but acknowledged that “the draconian nature of government edicts is definitely something that causes old school conservatives to viscerally recoil — especially as pertains to business.”
It will inevitably be difficult for Trump to please his entire base, though. Some think Trump should deploy any emergency power that would help contain the virus. Others believe shutting down major sectors of the economy for weeks — dramatically limiting personal freedoms in the process — is misguided.
Reaboi worried that the people able to drive the conversation about the shutdown--”information economy folks [who] are used to telecommuting and taking two weeks of vacation”--were disconnected from the very real struggles of people who need to physically be at their work.
“Those people are still the lifeblood of the economy, and even the telecommuters depend on them being at their jobs. There are millions of people like that who are uncertain about their futures now, and it’s not long until worry becomes panic, and panic becomes terror. What happens after that is a nightmare for everyone, even the tweeters most alarmed by the virus.”
Fiscal conservative circles are starting to have their own discussion about how long the Trump administration should leave the economy fallow. The Wall Street Journal editorial board on Thursday called the extreme social-distancing policies “necessary,” but warned that they were not “sustainable.”
“There is no amount of money that can make up for losses of the magnitude we are facing if this extends for several more weeks,” the piece said. “If this government-ordered shutdown continues for much more than another week or two, the human cost of job losses and bankruptcies will exceed what most Americans imagine.”
The Trump administration has stressed that two weeks of strict social distancing will help avoid an overwhelming crush of patients at hospitals that are already struggling with resource shortages. Trump’s advisers have said they will reassess those guidelines around the end of the month.
Yet in recent days, there have been signs that the situation is growing more dire in hard-hit areas, including California and New York. Both states have issued stay-at-home orders, and other states, such as Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois, are following suit. Health care professionals are also scrounging for basic medical equipment, such as masks, to protect themselves — a shortage the Trump administration has vowed to address.
More hardline Trump supporters claim the media and Democrats are still putting much of the pressure on Trump to fully stall the economy, even as other countries take similar steps and Republican governors implement economic restrictions almost identical to those of Democratic governors.
Conservative commentator Candace Owens initially urged at-risk elderly people to quarantine themselves instead of shutting down bars and restaurants — an assertion health officials warn is dangerous because it ignores the fact that people of all ages are falling severely ill from this disease.
“Life does not mean ‘you get to live forever,’” Owens said during a March 16th Periscope stream, calling the “mass hysteria” surrounding coronavirus a media-driven “social experiment” that showed how much personal liberty people — particularly ostensible small-government conservatives — would shed during a crisis.
“The majority of Americans are not reacting in a way that you think that they should be acting because you’re fearful,” she said. “And if you believe in freedom, freedom doesn’t suddenly stop when you get scared.”
A segment of American voters, particularly those who sided with Trump through the past three years of scandals, agree.
“We’re Americans, right? We don't live in a communist country, nor do we have to stay indoors,” said Katie Williams, a Las Vegas woman running for Clark County school board, citing Owens as an influence
Williams blamed the media and liberals for pushing things this far.
“I mean, we are just one step away from communism at that point, you know?” she said. “With this media hype about the coronavirus, I think a lot of more democratic politicians, local politicians, are trying to push that agenda into more of a communist rule.”
Williams' commentary went viral last week when she fired off a snarky tweet aimed at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in defiance of the popular progressive’s plea for people to stop going to restaurants.
“I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30,” Williams tweeted. “It was delicious and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want.”
Williams does not believe her tweet was endangering public health.
“I don't have it. I haven't been exposed to anyone who has it,” she said to POLITICO. “I don't have any elderly people in my 10-foot radius of where I would go. And so when people were like, ‘You're irresponsible, you're out there spreading it,’ I'm like, ‘I can't spread it if I don't have it.’”
Health officials have pushed back against such logic, cautioning that younger people may not realize they’re infected and contagious.
Still, Williams said that her tweet was simply meant to underline the hypocrisy of Ocasio-Cortez’s statement days earlier that “racism” was behind people avoiding Chinese restaurants after the disease originated in China.
To this point, the Trump administration has taken several steps to keep Americans afloat during the crisis, delaying the tax filing deadline and suspending federal student loan payments for 60 days. The White House is also negotiating a massive stimulus package that could top $2 trillion and include loans to businesses and one-off payments to people.
In a comment to POLITICO, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign touted recent polling showing that the public largely approved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. “President Trump ignited the American economy once before. He is clearly the leader to restore our position once we are through this crisis. Joe Biden would undo all of the hard work that built the economy,” they said.
For Trump voters, and the wider universe of people who generally support Trump, the tug-of-war between acting in the interest of public health and keeping Americans financially secure is only likely to grow stronger.
“People diverge on severity of crisis versus economic cost,” Reaboi said. “It’s a real issue. Anyone who’s not taking that balance seriously is an idiot.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated with the correct county where Katie Williams is running for school board.