An Explanation of the
Federal Coronavirus Non-Response

1  The Basic Non-Response

Here’s a way to understand what’s going on: Suppose a spectacularly evil narcissist were in charge of pandemic policy. Ask yourself, what would he do?

Initially, the outbreak mainly affected blue states such as California, Massachusetts, and New York. So he lets it burn. FEMA buys up tons of PPE and sticks it in warehouses, exacerbating the shortages. This results in tremendous amounts of suffering, injury, and death. A hundred thousand people die during this phase, but he doesn’t care, because he wasn’t going to win those electoral votes anyway.

The “screw the blue states” explanation fits the facts. All along I assumed it was intentional, even if they weren’t admitting it in public. I’ve been writing about this since June. Recent outstanding reporting by Katherine Eban confirms my suspicions: by mid-April this policy was fully explicit and intentional.1

There is a flaw in this plan: Biological weapons are notoriously hard to aim. If you aim to kill people in blue states, you’re likely to kill a lot of people in red states also.

When the outbreak spreads to deep red states, nothing changes. He lets it burn. He insists that the meat-packing plants stay open. This results in more and more suffering, injury, and death. His margin of victory in the deep red states will be decreased, but he doesn’t care, so long as he still carries those states.

By June, the outbreak was raging in swing states including Arizona, Florida, and Texas. Now the let-it-burn policy is politically problematic. He cannot afford to antagonize people in these states.

You might naïvely think he would pull out all the stops to suppress the outbreak in swing states. Release all the stockpiled PPE. Impose mandatory masking and distancing. Call out the national guard to perform testing and contact tracing. And so on.

You might worry that this would be too much of a policy shift, but no, these guys change their principles more often than they change their underwear. Remember when he was going to provide great, great healthcare to everyone, at a fraction of the cost? Any number of staffers have gone from “the best people” to “liars and losers” overnight. Kim Jong-un went from Little Rocket Man to BFF overnight. Similarly he pivoted from praising China to blaming China for their handling of the virus outbreak. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Less naïvely, he never solves problems. Mary Trump says he suffers from “toxic positivity”, which is a fundamental flaw in his character — one among many. He cannot admit that he made a mistake. He cannot admit that he has a problem. Instead, he denies that the problem even exists. If that fails, deflects blame for the problem. That’s his MO. The possibility of actually solving the problem would never occur to him.

This includes blaming China. It even includes blaming Mexico, even though until recently the outbreak was worse in the US than in Mexico. As the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a wall, every problem looks like an invasion.

Similarly, he put out a bunch of vague guidelines, neither explicit nor mandatory. That way when things go badly, he will blame local authorities for following the guidelines too strictly or not strictly enough. And of course if things went well, he would claim the credit.

He amplifies his aversion to reality by surrounding himself with people who share his contempt for facts and expertise. Speaking truth to power is not survival trait in this white house. This leaves him in a position where he couldn’t solve a real problem even if he wanted to. In other words, he has neither the inclination nor the resources to deal with reality.

2  Win/Win Solution

By way of contrast, let’s be clear: There never should have been a choice between avoiding mass slaughter and avoiding economic ruin. In reality, the best way to protect both lives and wealth would have been (and still is!) to suppress the outbreak hard and fast.2

3  The Mask Issue

We now turn to the anti-mask issue. This requires careful analysis. Note the contrast:

For years I’ve been saying he’s always malignantly narcissistic, but not always stupid. It is not satisfactory to say that he does inexplicable things because he is stupid. The problem is, anything can be explained that way, and nothing can be predicted. We should hold our explanations to a higher standard. The fact is, the things he does are usually quite predictable.

Asking people to wear masks doesn’t hurt the economy to any appreciable extent, even in the short run, and in the long run it helps. And the allegedly-good economy was supposed to be the linchpin of the re-election campaign. (Actually the economy started contracting in February, before the pandemic hit, but that’s a story for another day.) So discouraging his followers from wearing masks is grossly illogical.

This stands in contrast to stay-at-home orders and other distancing measures, where we have to weigh very real costs against the advantages.

It is not logical to claim that the outbreak isn’t real, or that it will magically disappear. The anti-mask demagoguery is both evil and illogical, yet also quite predictable.

This brings us back to the fundamental character flaw mentioned above: He is preternaturally disinterested in solving problems; instead he specializes in deflecting blame for the problems. In other words, he’s not just Voldemort but also Gilderoy Lockhart. However, you cannot gaslight a virus, so deflection isn’t working, and he has no idea what to instead. Again: he has neither the inclination nor the resources to deal with the fundamental issues.

Figure 1: Bumper Sticker

Here’s a closely related idea: he cares about appearances, not reality. Telling people to not wear masks is a way of making things appear normal even if they aren’t, for instance when he gazes upon a MAGA rally and sees all the unmasked faces.

*   A Non-Explanation

Not all conspiracy theories are created equal:

You’re not a kook unless you believe in conspiracies and/or theories that don’t fit the facts. Therefore it’s important to be upfront about ideas that don’t really explain what’s going on.

In particular, we can see that masks have become a political symbol. Wearing a mask (or not!) has become a way of showing your gang colors.

However, this observation has little explanatory power and even less predictive power. As previously remarked, these guys change their principles more often than they change their underwear. It would be straightforward for them to sell a line of MAGA-branded masks. This would solve the practical issue, mostly without forfeiting the symbolic issue.

Let’s be clear: Masks are the easy part. If they can’t get this right, they have no chance of doing the other things that are needed, things that require actual effort and competence, including tracing and testing and distancing and isolation and treatment, etc.2

*   References

Katherine Eban
“Suppressing the Virus is a Package Deal”