May 4, 2020

The big news today is that there has been another leak from the White House, and this one is colossal. The New York Times obtained a document suggesting that the administration has misrepresented the numbers of American deaths expected from this pandemic by pushing an artificially low estimate for close to a month.

Modeling by the Federal Emergency Management Agency now projects 200,000 new coronavirus cases a day by the end of the month (we currently have about 25,000 new cases a day), and by June 1, about 3000 deaths every day from Covid-19. Trump revised estimates of the dead upward to 100,000 yesterday, but the new document suggests even those are optimistic. The White House pushed back against the leak, saying that the document had not been vetted or presented to the coronavirus task force.

We also learned today that the new White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, must give his express approval for members of the coronavirus task force or their aides to appear before Congress this month, so it certainly looks as though we will not be hearing an explanation of the discrepancy between Trump’s projections and this document anytime soon.

Historians are prophets of the past, not the future, and I am completely unqualified to assess this released model. But I am indeed qualified to note the political importance of the fact that the administration appears to have seriously downplayed its own estimates of the projected death toll from this pandemic. As Andrew Slavitt, acting administrator for Medicare and Medicaid under President Barack Obama, explained, Trump’s team told him to expect 100,000 to 250,000 dead, horrific numbers, numbers from which Americans would recoil. But he revised that number downward based on a model that assumed, for example, that states without social distancing would not have outbreaks. The number he offered was around 60,000, a number that convinced his supporters that Covid-19 was no more serious than a bad flu, and that Democrats were exaggerating the danger for political gain.

That was enough to start a push to reopen states.

While there is a lot of talk about Trump wanting to reopen the states to repair the economy, it’s hard to see how that can happen if the pandemic continues unabated or even gets worse. Others have suggested that the president might simply live so entirely in the moment he cannot adequately assess cause and effect. He wants the economy to get better, so he is trying to will that into reality despite the death toll.

But I wonder—and I’m really only wondering tonight, because it’s already 2:00 and I am too tired to start chasing down the speeches and statistics I would need to make this as an assertion—if what is really driving this mad push, funded as we know it is by right-wing political groups, is a frantic determination to make sure the country does not turn again now, in the midst of this pandemic, to a government that regulates business and provides a basic social safety net, a government like the one we created during the Great Depression.

I mean, if the protesters really wanted to protect workers, wouldn't they be demanding laws that replaced lost wages? Other developed countries have passed exactly those sorts of measures, putting their economies into a holding pattern as the pandemic passes, but the Trump administration has focused largely on protecting those at the top of the economy. Reopening states will also keep us from expanding unemployment programs, since they will keep workers from being able to claim unemployment benefits. They must work or starve, as opponents of welfare legislation used to put it. And, of course, people are waiting too long to get medical care for Covid-19, and thus are spreading it, not simply because we have insufficient tests but also because they have no healthcare insurance for treatment anyway.

“It’s not a pandemic,” said a speaker at a rally at the Boston State House today demanding that Republican Governor Charlie Baker reopen the state. “The reason why they’re doing this… to turn the United States of America into the United Socialist States of America.”

This is ridiculous of course, but it sounded very like what Republicans said in the 1930s as they insisted first that there wasn’t a Depression, and then that if there was a Depression it was the job of the destitute states to fix it because federal government intervention in the economy was socialism. Indeed it sounded so much like Republican speeches from the 1930s that it instantly brought to mind Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech when he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1932.

“Out of every crisis, every tribulation, every disaster, mankind rises with some share of greater knowledge, of higher decency, of purer purpose…. I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.”

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Notes:      

New numbers and testimony: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/04/us/coronavirus-live-updates.html

https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/new-govt-document-covid-deaths-projected-to-increase-to-3000-per-day-by-june-1

About the warping of the death toll:

Boston:

FDR: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-accepting-the-presidential-nomination-the-democratic-national-convention-chicago-1