The power of a pithy phrase to sway the ignorant is not to be underestimated. This is one of the less-urgent lessons of President Trump’s recent reversal on whether the coronavirus pandemic is really worth fighting if it means continued economic trouble, exemplified by the president’s Sunday night tweet: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” A trenchant point, Sir: What if the cure was—get this—worse than the illness? Now our national conversation can be defined by the stupid parameters of this little bit of rhetoric. No one seriously wants to contend, “Yes! I prefer the cure to be worse than the illness; that is good, to me,” do they? Well then, you must agree that allowing a pandemic to rage unchecked in service of Stocks Go Up Again is good and correct.
This little bit of verbal trickery masks a number of salient facts, such as that it is pretty wild to assert that millions of Americans dying of a painful disease, unable to see their loved ones one last time as their lungs fill with fluid, would be a preferable alternative to anything. It ignores that the downsides of the “cure” could be mitigated with massive government spending, to replace lost demand in the economy. It forgets that it seems unlikely the economy would look so great if the health care system were totally overwhelmed with disease and death, as it would and likely will be if we reverse our late turn toward social distancing. Finally, the contention that the cure is worse than the ailment does not contain a sincere concern for the economy; rather, it is about the rich, some of whom made out suspiciously well before the rest of the country was caught up in the pandemic.
Many of Trump’s most craven allies have embraced the idea of consigning a few million Americans to death in order to rescue the economy. As ever with Trump, it seems likely he picked the idea up from one of his brigade of psychopaths, amplified it, and thus ensured that every other goblin in Trumpworld would toe this line. This is how you get right-wing radio hosts like Jesse Kelly tweeting little bits of meaningless faux-patriotic bravado: “If given the choice between dying and plunging the country I love into a Great Depression, I’d happily die.”
But beyond this grimy passel of hucksters and third-rate Hannity knockoffs, there has been a small number of conservative experts and thinkers—that is, people with graduate degrees—who have dutifully trotted out ersatz intellectual defenses of “reopening America.” The conservative Hoover Institution has been a locus for much of this work. In a post for National Review, Hoover fellow Victor Davis Hanson lamented that “those who advise caution out of fears of an economic meltdown will never be able to quantify the greater number of fatalities from a depression than from an infection,” and that these poor folks are “more likely to be damned as putting money over lives, even if they are more worried about lives than money in the event that a severe recession follows.”