Trump, COVID, and Industrial Policy
The pandemic response that could have been
Trump has COVID-19. That’s today’s news cycle, and, God forbid, it could be the news cycle for the rest of the month if his condition becomes severe. But this is not about Trump’s illness. I’ve been thinking about Trump’s missed opportunities during the whole pandemic saga, where he could have both better handled the country’s crisis and reduced his own political liability.
His diagnosis comes as the climax of a months-long roller coaster, beginning with obscure right-wing and contrarian voices warning about the severity of the virus back in January and February, and ending with the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons—an obscure right-wing and contrarian medical advocacy group, which once accused Barack Obama of employing mind control and hypnotic induction in his speeches, and which earlier in the crisis touted hydroxychloroquine—denying the efficacy of masks. The reversal on COVID politics was partly due to lockdown fatigue, and partly due to the perceived fecklessness, hypocrisy, and arrogance of the public health authorities. The about-face on masks was particularly damaging. But the sense of chaos from all quarters, the death toll, and the country’s general unpreparedness was not inevitable.
If the general internet was already abuzz with COVID news in the very beginning of 2020, surely the president knew something was going on in China. This should have triggered his long-time China hawk tendency. The possibility of material and equipment shortages could also easily have been foreseen, and indeed almsot certainly was. This should have triggered Trump’s enthusiasm for American manufacturing. That the president whiffed on an opportunity to integrate a then-looming public health crisis into two of his core winning issues, and benefit the country in doing so, absolutely boggles the mind.
What could an alternate response—Trumpian in a different way than the one we got—have looked like? Instead of the president’s insensitive and imprecise “Chinese virus,” he could have hammered the Chinese government and the complicit WHO even more pointedly, while adopting the ordinary medical nomenclature. He could have given a sober speech—before Christmas, or before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or even before Valentine’s Day—warning that things could go south, and that he was preparing. He could have underpromised and overdelivered, a tendency that should be second-nature to a businessman. He could have urged U.S.-based companies to engage in a crash reshoring of industrial capacity for the purpose of manufacturing and stockpiling, if needed, ventilators, masks, gloves, and gowns. The president who cheerfully denounced Mondelez for outsourcing an Oreo factory to Mexico had to be dragged kicking and screaming into invoking the Defense Production Act to produce ventilators. Instead of intimating that hospital workers were stealing masks, Trump could have loudly put 3M on notice, before COVID hit our shores, that we had better have more than enough American-made medical-grade N95 respirators, just in case. When China instituted a late-spring export ban on PPE, it wouldn’t have mattered. The public health authorities would not have needed to downplay masks and then backtrack, because there would have been more than enough for everyone from the start. They would have been able to preserve much-needed credibility. The long feud between Trump and the governors over ventilator shortages and Jared Kushner’s claim that the stockpile was not for the states would never have occurred. A lot of the chaos has been due to Trump’s personality, style, and mishandling, but a lot of it could have been prevented simply with material preparation.
A pandemic response focused on America’s capacity to produce the necessary equipment and supplies, implicitly validating the president’s narrative about America’s industrial decline and the need for trade reform, would have been a major improvement. That such preparation would have so neatly dovetailed with Trumpian talking points only underscores the failure.