What If Trump Had Been Trump Last March: A Counterfactual

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“While my advisers tell me that the response to this new virus will be different in all fifty states because of something about “states’ rights” in the Constitution, my billions of supporters in the U.S. and around the world can be sure that I won’t abandon them. I will not sit back and watch liberal governors destroy this beautiful economy my policies have created.

No great nation remains great by destroying businesses and jobs. So mark my words that if any governors in any of our 50 states locks down, those Governors will soon have a regular visitor with a big, beautiful 747 widebody to deal with: me. I will campaign endlessly in states that take away businesses, jobs and freedom from their people. Better yet, I’ll embarrass loser Governors so clueless as to fight a virus with economic desperation. So let this serve as a warning: while it turns out my power over the states isn’t absolute, it will soon seem like it is.”

Imagine if then-President Donald Trump had uttered those words last March. The world would arguably be a much different place today.

For background, readers familiar with Ronald Reagan’s political history are also familiar with a saying that was routinely uttered by the people most ideologically close to the 40th president: “Let Reagan be Reagan” they would say. Don’t try to change him, don’t try to make him what he isn’t, he’s best when he’s himself.

This is important with Donald Trump in mind. Since his election loss last fall there have been all manner of opinion pieces about how Trump would still be president if he’d laid off Twitter, if he’d sat back and let Joe Biden talk himself out of the job in the first debate, if he’d not picked so many fights with other Republicans, if he were more conservative, less conservative, if he’d gone silent with the media so that Biden could have once again talked himself out of the job….

Of course, missed by all of these counterfactuals was that if Trump had instincts of the restraint and moderation kind, then he wouldn’t have been president in the first place. Only someone wildly audacious, only someone utterly bereft of self-awareness, only someone incapable of not being on the routine offensive would have ever had the nerve to run for president. And win. Trump had to be Trump, for good and bad.

Arguably the bigger problem for Trump was when he went against type. In particular, when advisors convinced him to not be himself. The view here is that Trump’s failure to be himself cost him the White House, and also brought the American people much suffering. In truth, the two are related.

To see why, it’s useful to travel back in time to the days and weeks before the lockdowns. President Trump said the new coronavirus was “no big deal,” but so had Vogue editor Anna Wintour. New York Mayor de Blasio was still taking the subway to encourage the citzens. He was telling them to see movies too. The reflexively alarmist New York Times was preaching caution against overreaction and the taking of civil liberties. The cross-ideology consensus was, relax.

Some will say both sides had it right when they were preaching caution. Figure that the reflexively alarmist New York Times has regularly reported the actual facts inside stories with alarmist headlines and alarmist slants. As such, careful readers of the Times have long known that the hospitalization rate for those infected with the virus is below 1 percent, that U.S.-based coronavirus-related deaths have very much associated with already very ill, very old people in nursing homes, and that in a broad sense death from the virus has really been death with the virus in consideration of the CDC-provided fact that somewhere north of 90 percent of those who died with the virus had other serious, life-threatening illnesses they were dealing with.

Back to Trump, imagine if he’d stuck to his guns and remained his normal, obstreperous self. If so, Trump arguably would have forced a shift in response that would have truly saved the U.S. and the world from needless heartache, tragedy, starvation, and presumably all three. Think about it.

If Trump had been dismissively Trump about the hysterically foolish notion of lockdowns, his contrarian ways would have given Republican governors across the country the political cover to similarly hold firm. It’s safe to say his actions would have empowered a few Democratic governors to similarly avoid economic desperation as a virus-mitigation strategy.

Just as important, what the U.S. does is closely watched by the rest of the world. If Trump makes plain that the U.S. won’t choose economic contraction to fight the virus, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that Trump would have similarly provided political cover to world leaders to not do what was so abjectly foolish.

At which point it’s a safe bet that the U.S. and global economies still contract a little in the GDP sense. They would have mainly because GDP is informed by consumption, and it’s well-documented that Americans had already adjusted their living, dining and travel habits well ahead of the tragic and wholly superfluous lockdowns. In other words, Americans didn’t need a law to be more cautious.

What’s important about this is that the voluntary reduction in spending by Americans would have served as rocket-fuel for a quick economic recovery that would have revealed itself rather quickly as open businesses bolstered by increased access to capital born of savings adjusted to a new reality. Translated for those who need it, a natural pullback from concerned Americans would have produced the resources necessary for a naturally speedy rebound.

Alas, Trump didn’t act like Trump. In a position to be himself, and in the process scoring monumental victories of the political, economic, and statesmen variety, Trump lost his nerve. We suffer to varying degrees his inability to be true to himself last March to this very day. The problem was that Trump panicked.

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