President Donald John Trump, 45th president of the United States of America, has just made the biggest gamble of his career.
On the unanimous recommendation of the public health professionals, he decided to close down the US economy in a manner more severe than any other measure ever taken by a U.S. president, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of martial law on September 15, 1863.
Clearly, no one can reasonably disapprove of the need to save American lives by containing the deadly coronavirus. If the next few weeks occur as expected by the public health experts, the virus will peak and begin to recede, allowing normality to return. If that sequence of events is delayed much longer than a total of 30 days or so, the country risks falling into a recession that could rival the Great Depression of the 1930’s – 25% unemployment, long bread lines, starvation staring out of the hallow eyes of children.
The President is fully aware of this danger. He knows he is risking becoming another Herbert Hoover, who was unjustly blamed for the Depression and lost the presidency by a landslide in 1932. One big difference is that Hoover was a victim of circumstances, whereas Trump’s fate will be seen as the inevitable result of his own decision.
Closing down the economy was not the only choice that could have been made. Woodrow Wilson did nothing to affect the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-20, and the result was the Depression of 1920. Wilson was in his second term and could not run again (although this did not stop Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944). Wilson’s Democrat party lost the 1920 election in a landslide.
George Bush did invoke a few measures to mitigate the immediate effects of the 9-11-2001 attack but concentrated his primary efforts on foreign policy actions. He survived the temporary shutdown and won re-election in 2004. Barak Obama did very little to fight the outbreak of West Africa Ebola of 2013-16, which ultimately killed 11,310 victims but was not a candidate in 2016.
President Trump could have followed any of these strategies. Instead, he gave the public health experts full reign over the nation’s response to the threat of the new virus. Their prescription for countermeasures has had temporarily catastrophic effects on the economy. These people have dedicated their lives and talents to saving and enriching all our lives by seeking effective cures for the diseases which threaten us and identifying the best preventative measures to mitigate the ones that cannot be cured. These are truly noble goals.
However, that perspective has its limitations. It emphasizes one dimension of human life, namely, physical health — often to the exclusion of all other factors. Among those other factors are the economic and social needs which are also shared by all people. The compromise we are now living out is “Let’s follow the public health scientists until we beat the virus, and then we will revert to normal life.” The gamble is: “Will normal life still be possible after we beat the virus?”
For President Trump, the stakes are very high. If he wins, he will be the Savior who rescued the nation from disaster. If he loses, he will lose everything, including his second term, the destruction of all his innovations, as well as his reputation. His legacy will be remembered as either victory or tragedy.
For the American people, the stakes are even higher. Never before have we faced the near shutdown of the economy, even for a day, let alone a month. The closest we have come is the Great Depression, when things were so desperate that Russian communism was openly advocated. We don’t know if the damage will be permanent, overcome quickly, slowly, this year, or if it will take years to regain our momentum.
What we have to remember, especially in this perilous time, is that we Americans have survived many other crises in our history. We have flourished throughout the ages no matter the obstacles. In fact, America’s history is the story of crises happening and crises overcome.
Our greatest crisis was the Civil War, when we fought ourselves and lost an estimated 650,000 lives, a whole generation of young men. But the newly reunited nation came roaring back in the Gilded Age (c.1870 – 1900), a period of extraordinary growth in all areas of American life, including technology, manufacturing, transportation, and higher learning, among many other areas.
In the 1930’s, the Great Depression nearly destroyed America’s will to survive. Yet the country rallied out of the Depression when the Japanese Navy destroyed the Pearl Harbor naval base in 1942, proving that the American spirit was not only not dead but so filled with vitality that we won both the war with Japan and saved Europe from the Nazis – at the same time! And it took us only three years to go from a dead stop to overdrive.
We are seeing much of the same spirit of unity in the “war”, as was evidenced in WWII, as political opponents join forces (except the Governor of Michigan) with companies and whole industries to shore up scarce supplies and bring supply chains back home. Likewise, stories of outstanding generosity and kindness on the part of individuals and local businesses are beginning to surface. This generation is proving that the American spirit of our forebears is still alive as we rally to save our country from disaster.
The moral of the American story is that Americans can overcome every threat we have ever faced, and we will overcome this one – whichever way it goes!