Lessons Not Learned: Trump Has the Templates from History to Fight the Pandemic: Part I.

Awhile ago I read former Vice-President Joe Biden’s recommendations to the Trump Administration as to how to battle the Coronavirus pandemic. They are laudable not simply for their practicality and wisdom, but because Biden, like Mr. Obama before him, chose not to sit back and watch his potential predecessor flounder in the mess of his own making.

Not very many presidential candidates or Presidents-Elect have stepped forward to help solve the crises faced by an incumbent.

Most notably, as the Depression devastated the U.S. economy, Franklin Roosevelt awaited his inaugural in March of 1933 to address the economic morass facing the Nation and Herbert Hoover. Most historians would, I think, agree that FDR saw no return in offering advice to the failing Republican Administration, regardless of the ongoing economic toll on large numbers of Americans.

Candidate Barack Obama broke with this precedent — by recognizing that in waiting for the outcome of the 2008 election and his possible transition he would waste precious time needed to solve the impending financial crisis. Obama recognized a national crisis in the offing that far transcended party or politics.

Also, Mr. Obama recognized that it is indeed time that is of the essence in these national crises: whether they be natural disasters, pandemic spreads, or impending financial calamity.

Yet, by now ignoring these examples of history, Trump as an incumbent has already lost precious time that will (and has) undoubtedly cost lives and further weakened and hampered the vitality of the national response to the pandemic. This fact, combined with Trump’s refusal to recognize the essential national character of the crisis and primary role of the federal government, is still continuing to undermine our readiness and recovery. It must be rectified if the Coronavirus pandemic is going to be controlled pending vaccines and viral treatments which can be be effectively and safely administered.

Meanwhile, by personalizing and politicizing his response to the Covid-19 crisis, Trump not only weakens himself as President but dissipates the most significant resource he has outside of the federal stockpile — the resource of the power to persuade.

Famous presidential historian Richard Neustadt’s thesis about presidential power is well-known to even casual students of the presidency. Neustadt asserted that the real power of the office is the power to persuade and thereby to influence events.

By continuing to vacillate about the federal role in fighting the pandemic — including through unfounded prognostications about “reopening America” — Trump sends not only mixed and contradictory messages which echo uncertainty but reveal his own indecisiveness about national priorities.

Moreover, Trump’s repeated and rolling reassessments of the forecasted period needed for scientifically-indicated “social distancing” undermines not just his own credibility (already a scarce resource) but further decreases the ability to marshal the needed federal resources within the power of the presidency. Trump’s refusal to set a clear strategy, including his mysterious reluctance to trigger the National Defense Production Act, sends indefinite signals within his own bureaucracy, as well as to the private sector.

Likewise, his cronyism-oriented acts in removing career inspectors-general in favor of an obvious political appointee undermines his own ability to speak with authority on critical issues when the time comes.

And, by making extra-constitutional claims of authority (“I can order the States to reopen”), Trump depletes the possibility of moral suasion when it is time to “jawbone” private or state-based actors through presidential persuasiveness.

Lastly, by engaging in threats of reprisal, Trump eliminates what every President requires: the needed candor and honesty of those in his circle of advisers and ability to receive sometimes painful advice he must hear as a decision-maker. This is no time for sycophants. Or, simple political consultants.

Recent history is replete with instances of presidents who either refused to listen (LBJ) or who only heard what they wanted to hear (George W. Bush). The results are typically disastrous.

Moreover, Trump in allowing the allocation of federal resources to become a personal or political decision, has undercut his own ability to view the threat of the pandemic nationally. This failure means that like the strategy of the Confederacy, the pandemic war will now be fought State-by-State. History shows us that is a sure prescription for losing.

Just as historians can now see that the seeds of defeat in the Civil War were planted in the structure (if not the idea) of the Confederacy, so any effort to battle a pandemic virus without a clear national strategy will fail. No strategy against a thing like a virus, which is itself biologically insensible to man-made boundaries, can succeed by fomenting a competition between the States. It is doomed to fail.

And by dealing with the States solely as political units (or potential electoral prizes) Trump and his advisers ignore the obvious historical and scientific truth that diseases, like this novel virus, have no political affiliations.

But more than this, the virus lacks all susceptibility to being controlled by what demographers call the “resource of sovereignty.” It simply does not adhere to legal, political or sovereign limitations. It only knows its biological limits as to its potential hosts: in this case, it simply infects all humans in its path since there is no known immunity.

The use of sovereignty as a legal resource to limit the spread of the virus can only be efficacious as to someone who can engage in rational choice regarding a prescribed public policy: namely a rational being. But in this instance because of Trump’s unwillingness to provide testing on a wide-scale basis, the only real rational. choice available to those who are subject to legal or policy limitations is to maintain distance from any (and all) possible other carriers of the virus. This will inevitably be ineffective in a complex social structure. Thus, Trump must do testing to give not only public health professionals. but ordinary citizens the information to make rational choices, despite any political consequences.

Moreover, by viewing this crisis as primarily state-specific, or bounded by limits of political sovereignty with respect to the allocation of resources, the Trump Administration’s response is inevitably doomed to fail more woefully than it already has.

Trump’s current approach of treating the States as the only relevant or meaningful units by which to determine the national capacity to fight the pandemic is more than politically demoralizing; its inherent unpredictability also causes the States to ultimately act inefficiently as separate components of the national strategy to stop the spread of the pandemic. Indeed, it is so flawed as to be wholly ineffectual, and ultimately must be tragic in its outcome.

Albert Turner Goins

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Albert Goins

Albert Goins

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