For almost as long as he’s been pretending to lead a government-wide response to the coronavirus epidemic, President Trump has insisted that at some point he will declare the crisis over and “reopen” the American economy. Until this week, the national press corps largely accepted Trump’s framing of his own powers, which are—as critics in statehouses and the legal academy have been at pains to note—imaginary.
The economy closed over Trump’s objections thanks to the actions of governors, mayors, and responsible citizens who recognized the danger of carrying on as normal. He can’t reverse that process by fiat and if he tried, he’d be quickly embarrassed when millions of people and their local elected leaders ignored him.
But this argument has played out in a naively literal way, as a rote accounting of whether the Constitution supports Trump’s assertions of dictatorial power, instead of in the realm of lived experience with Trump, where abuse of real powers, rather than conjured ones, actually reigns. Trump can’t open-sesame the economy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t exert himself in a crude and vindictive manner and get much of what he wants. It would behoove Democratic governors and congressional leaders to imagine what this would look like—to think the way Trump thinks—because the consequences of getting caught flatfooted would be disastrous.
Trump has hinted in a variety of ways that a “reopening” of some kind is already in the works. His Mad King-like claim to ”total…authority” to end shelter-in-place orders across the country has understandably consumed a lion’s share of attention, but he hasn’t limited himself to totalitarian language. On Monday he acknowledged “a couple of bands of Democrat governors”—presumably the ones leading contiguous states in the north east and along the Pacific coast—have resisted the idea of a “reopening,” but then predicted “they will agree to it.” More ominously, he suggested their agreement would be coerced, “because the governors need us one way or the other.”
Trump is also blustery, and this may ultimately amount to as little as his recent passing threat to “quarantine” the states of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. But if that’s the case, he’s going to unusual lengths to get caught bluffing. Why would he create a “Council to Re-open America” and fill it with zero economists, zero public-health experts, and seven discredited charlatans, possessed only of supreme confidence in their ability to swindle the masses, just to leave the status quo in place?
This is the committee you’d form if you’d devoted no thought to arresting the spread of the virus, no thought to ramping up regular economic activity in a sustainable and safe way, but plenty of thought to staging some kind of fake national victory celebration and placing Donald Trump at the center of it. The consequences of such a theatrical “reopening” wouldn’t be merely atmospheric either.
If Trump announces that the economy is “reopened” it will have no legal force, but it’s easy to imagine Republican governors would follow suit as if it did, and withdraw stay-at-home orders–even in densely populated metro areas that aren’t defined by fealty to the president, and where the risk of contagion is higher. The whole concept of social distancing would become far more politically polarized than it already is, leading to breaches of quarantine all across the country.
But Trump and his allies have more tools at their disposal than the political power to destroy national solidarity in the fight against the epidemic. He could order federal employees back into their workplaces. Republican governors could do the same to state employees. If that were to drive a mass exodus of bureaucrats from the governments, so much the better as far as the right is concerned. Republicans could support right-wing lawsuits in jurisdictions that remained under lockdown aimed at forcing blue states and cities to allow businesses to reopen. These measures combined would exacerbate infection rates unevenly, which would give Trump a pretext to further corrupt the allocation of medical supplies, by directing more to supportive partisans and less to those attempting in vain to protect the health of their citizens.
All of this would fall against the backdrop of congressional negotiations over how to keep the economy afloat through plague conditions. Democratic leaders have thus far shied away from maximizing their leverage to insist that further recovery efforts also include provisions to allow Americans to vote by mail. The current fight in Congress over a single rescue program, which Republicans are desperate to strengthen, meant to keep small businesses afloat. Democrats have imagined that after this interim negotiation is complete, Trump and Republicans will return hat in hand for further aid extensions, so that Trump doesn’t face voters amid a depression he helped create. But what if they don’t? Or, what if Trump demands more aid, but refuses to extend the other main arm of the existing recovery program: enhanced unemployment insurance?
It’s tempting to assume that Trump would have a more practical sense of his own self-interest than to turn off a spigot of money that might keep the economy from collapsing. But at this point he has already laid the groundwork to blame Democratic governors for sabotaging the economy by refusing to withdraw their social-distancing guidelines. Should the unemployment provisions expire, the ensuing humanitarian crisis would place governors and mayors under immense pressure to ramp up economic activity, if only to provide some of their unemployed citizens new sources of income. Suddenly Trump would have pried loose most of what he wants, without conceding much of anything. He is in equal measure desperate to see an economic bounceback and to avoid enacting provisions that will support the natural rate of voter turnout in November, and he will play extra dirty to get both things. As fights over stimulus and social reintegration play out, the United States Postal Service is on the brink of collapse, and Trump reportedly opposes all plans to save it. If it fails, the main, necessary condition of a free-and-fair election will disappear.
This isn’t to say a plan like this would “work” in any familiar sense of the word. Even in an “open” economy, most people will be reluctant to travel and shop and go to restaurants until the threat of the virus is gone. To the extent that Trump successfully increased interactions among members of the public, infection rates would climb and more people would die. The actual consequences would be horrendous. But it’s a mistake to assume Trump cares about any of that more than his conception of his own self-interest, and if he’s decided that indefinite lockdown is worse for him than a brawl over the economy with governors, then he will brawl. The real Trump is the one who agreed to oversight as a condition of Congress passing a multitrillion dollar rescue package, then fired one watchdog and nominated his own lawyer as another. He can’t be forced to honor his word, advance the public interest, or be decent in anyway, but it is possible to anticipate his tricks and plan around at least some of them. His low character is an inescapable fact, but the decision to proceed as normal and assume good will prevail is a choice, and an error.