The difficult politics of Covid
By Scott Sumner
President Trump is such an unusual politician that people (myself included) have trouble seeing him clearly. For instance, Trump is often seen as an opponent of lockdowns. But while he did often speak out against lockdowns during the waning days of the campaign, he actually supported them during the period they were most restrictive. Here’s a NYT headline from April 22:
Trump Criticizes Georgia Governor for Decision to Reopen State
“I think it’s too soon,” said the president, who joined several mayors in questioning Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, who had said some businesses could resume on Friday.
And here’s a tweet from April 30:
And it’s not just lockdowns. I could easily dredge up Trump quotes for and against masks, for and against testing, or for and against any of a number of other policies.
Trump needed substantial votes from two groups that had very different views on Covid-19. One group, mostly made up of his “base”, included small businesses worried about the economic effects of lockdowns, libertarians opposed to mask mandates, and Hispanic workers who lost jobs due to lockdowns. Another group included moderate Republicans in the suburbs with professional jobs, who were economically insulated from the crisis but worried about the effects on their health.
It seems to me that early on he sensed that there was a risk of going too far “right” on the issue, losing those swing suburban voters. Later in the year, it became clear that the problem wasn’t going away and indeed was picking up again. At that time, he decided to go down the final stretch by appealing to his base with an anti-lockdown message.
I’m not sure that Trump had any good options politically (once the epidemic was out of control), although it’s intriguing to speculate as to what would have happened if he had followed me in questioning the experts’ (skeptical) view on masks back in early March. The actual issue in which Trump questioned the experts (chloroquine) didn’t seem to pan out for him in the end, but by late April, experts throughout the world had basically decided that masks were indeed the way to go. It might have been a big political win for Trump if he’d been ahead of the experts. In addition, masks are a more attractive solution for small businesses than lockdowns. In conservative Mission Viejo, almost everyone wears mask when in stores. In contrast, very few people in North Dakota wore masks, and now they are paying the price.
When politicians encourage people to voluntarily wear masks, they are actually promoting liberty. That’s because the more people that wear masks, the less political pressure there will be for lockdowns.