Until 2019 turned to 2020, most people proceeded under the assumption that if President Trump was to be re-elected, it would be on the strength of the robust economy that had defined his presidency — at least among those whose brains were not addled by his mere presence in the White House.
But now that the bottom has dropped out of that economy, with tens of millions wrenched into joblessness by a bat virus, and suffering extending well beyond those afflicted with COVID-19, on what basis will the voters now make their decision?
There is the question of how much blame can be pinned on Trump for a pandemic over which he and the rest of humanity had no control. One suspects the great majority of non-deranged voters won’t hold him responsible for the fact of the virus and its presence in the United States. But how about the response? That is where the rubber meets the road in the minds of voters who had never heard of COVID-19 when the year commenced. Now polls confirm the vote will largely focus on the virus aftermath or, more precisely, the degree of wreckage strewn about our discombobulated nation as spring melts into summer and summer into fall.
Sure, all 50 governors — especially those of the blue state variety — will have to answer for their responses, but as Harry Truman famously declared about the Oval Office, the buck stops here. And if the nation faces the specter of an honest-to-goodness depression, as opposed to the expected recession, will the voters opt for four more years of Trump, even with the hapless Joe Biden as the only alternative?
The answer will ultimately lie in the 20-20 hindsight voters are likely to employ when they enter the voting booth. They will ask themselves the question, animated by the condition of the country five and a half months from now, whether shutting down the nation at all was worth it.
While markets are currently on the rebound, and some limited euphoria is in the air over gradual reopenings across the land, the harsh reality of what the shutdown has wrought, the damage that cannot be reversed, will certainly take hold. What if the plausible scenario of many millions still unemployed and economic growth stubbornly stunted dominates the political landscape come Nov. 3? Will voters pull the lever believing the president and governors should have done what unlocked Sweden and Taiwan did: warn the populace, set out recommended precautions, and let people decide for themselves whether to follow the government-provided guidelines? Disruption would have followed, but nothing approaching the economic catastrophe that has accompanied the mandated lockdowns that we have been forced to endure for weeks on end.
The root of Trump’s problem is a growing trove of hard data suggesting that the lockdowns have failed to achieve what was promised and, given the staggering job losses that have resulted, present a potentially grave threat to his presidency. He has recently sought to position himself on the side of those who want to reopen rather than those who want to continue the shutdowns indefinitely, but is it too late now for him to reverse the damage?
We now have ample data over a long enough period of time to begin drawing legitimate comparisons between the many countries that were locked down and the few that were not. According to the latest figures, the United States has experienced 237 deaths per million people. Taiwan, a no-lockdown country, has had 0.3 deaths per million (almost 800 times less than the United States); unlocked Sweden has had 347 deaths per million; its neighbor Belgium, under lockdown with a similar population, is at 763 deaths per million. Ethiopia, with a population of 109 million, did not enforce a lockdown and has had a microscopic death rate of 0.04 per million.
In addition, for the first time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has attempted to offer a real estimate of the overall death rate for COVID-19; under its most likely scenario, the number is 0.26%, as opposed to the 3.4% estimate of the World Health Organization (WHO) in early March. In other words, the actual infection rate is likely 13 times lower than the world’s most prestigious health organization told us to expect when the virus hit our shores.
And that is before you even factor in that at least half of deaths attributed to COVID-19 occurred in nursing homes, with their closed environments, elderly populations, and underlying health conditions. If you remove the nursing home deaths, the infection fatality rate for the rest of the population is roughly 0.1% or 1 in 1,000, same as the typical annual death rate from the seasonal flu.
The CDC further estimates the COVID death rate for healthy people under 50 years old is .05% (1 in 5,000). Put into context, those under 50 without pre-existing conditions are more likely to die in a car accident, while school-aged children have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning.
Yes, these lockdowns became conventional wisdom for most nations of the world, all of whom have suffered severe economic consequences. But didn’t Trump proclaim that America is different, that we must not follow, but lead, the rest of the world?
We did not lock down the nation at the onset of the Hong Kong flu, Asian flu, swine flu, or Ebola — all of recent vintage. Each resulted in no less than one million deaths worldwide, but our nation recovered without mandated social distancing or mass quarantines.
Did the president make a fatal error when he so quickly and willingly embraced the received wisdom of the medical establishment, from the WHO to Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx and on down the list of acclaimed health experts and organizations? That is the proverbial $64,000 question.
In the way of alternatives, Biden called Trump’s best single move during the crisis, shutting down travel from China, “racist and xenophobic,” so presumably the prospective 46th president would have been happy to allow the Chinese to keep on coming, and one can only imagine how much worse things would have been. Surely voters will not ultimately conclude that Biden would have done any better, or that he is the ideal person to lead them to the promised land of a revived economy with full employment as things were until the virus hit. But sometimes the voters will simply overlook flaws that are disqualifying if they’re desperate enough for change for the sake of change.
Why, you need go back only four years to remember all the character issues identified with Trump that voters overlooked in their desire for foundational change to a disgraced system. But if the new boss winds up overseeing a bottom-line economic condition far worse than what he inherited from the old boss, no matter the circumstances, it is only the belief that Trump was right to shut down the country and faith that he can turn things around a second time that will rescue him from defeat.
Further evidence of the potential torpedoes-be-damned outlook of voters — in what Chevy Chase termed a head-sewn-to-the-carpet moment — is that, by a 47%-44% margin, voters say Biden would handle the economy better than Trump. And Biden’s margin is even larger on handling the pandemic.
Voters likely did not believe in the overwhelming numbers that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the perfect choice to lead the nation out of the Great Depression, but they knew for sure they would not countenance another four years of Herbert Hoover. So FDR won the 1932 election in a landslide. Similarly in 1980, voters were not sure what to make of Ronald Reagan, demonized by the elite media as Trump has been, but they would not accept a second term of stagflation and weakness from Jimmy Carter. Reagan won 45 states. In 2008, Barack Obama inspired a movement on the left as the most effective Democrat to run for president since John Kennedy, but given the economic meltdown on the watch of George W. Bush, it’s likely that almost any Democrat would have vanquished any Republican without breaking a sweat.
Or go back to the American Revolution. Did the nation as a whole believe a ragtag band of rebels would succeed in releasing the grip of the world’s most powerful empire? No, certainly not. But enough people were willing to roll the dice because they simply could no longer stand by as King George turned up the heat of repression.
When people are desperate, they tend not to care nearly as much about who is the alternative, so long as there is some alternative.
The last century is replete with examples. Iranians desperate to remove their shah in 1979 did not think through the consequences of supporting an Islamic revolution that obliterated the existing order and replaced it with a different form of tyranny. The Cuban people were not thirsting for communism in the 1950s, but they were willing to undergird the revolt of Fidel Castro simply by virtue of him not being Fulgencio Batista, the dictator who had ruled with an iron fist for years. The Chinese and Russian communist revolutions earlier in the 20th century similarly exploited the growing gulf between the rich and poor to thrust a murderous system on hundreds of millions of innocent citizens. While electing Biden over Trump would hardly qualify as an act of rebellion nearly so earth-shaking, it would send one unmistakable message: We need to end the Trump era, no matter the alternative.
Will America’s voters, deflated and demoralized by this sudden and acute crisis, decide these desperate times require desperate measures? Certainly, electing an obviously declining Biden as leader of the Free World would constitute desperation and still seems implausible in the end. But after carving his way through decades of dysfunction in D.C. and touting his revival of the flagging economy — until the virus hit — President Trump is now subject to that old truism: Those who live by the sword can also die by it.
Read more from Tim Donner.