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One of the most terrifying facts about the coronavirus pandemic is that Jared Kushner is still setting policy. The president’s son-in-law was one of the chief architects of Trump’s early dismissive response to the pandemic. If Trump spoke about the crisis as a hoax promoted by his political enemies and to Covid-19 as a problem comparable to the flu, it was because Kushner was whispering in Trump’s ear. Kushner, in line with many on the right, thought the coronavirus threat was grossly exaggerated by the media.
Speaking at the White House’s daily press briefing on the pandemic, Kushner no longer downplays it. Instead, Kushner argued that many of the problems hamstringing the pandemic response have their origins in state governments. He insisted that shortages in medical supplies, notably ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), are matters governors have to deal with. “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile,” Kushner said. “It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.” Kushner also said many governors aren’t even aware of how many ventilators they have. He explained, “What a lot of the voters are seeing now is that when you elect somebody…think about who will be a competent manager during the time of crisis.”
Kushner’s remarks make clear that the Trump White House has turned the pandemic into a reality-TV show competition. Just as the rivals in The Apprentice had to do battle to get Trump’s approval, now the governors of 50 states are in a scramble to acquire their own medical supplies.
“That is a Darwinian approach to federalism; that is states’ rights taken to a deadly extreme,” said former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley.
This ghoulish tournament has two purposes: It is a way of making the governors fall guys if things go bad; it also creates new opportunities for big business to profiteer.
The pandemic reality show thus serves Trump both politically and ideologically. One problem he’s had grappling with the pandemic is that it was hard to combat the crisis without violating the Republican aversion to government spending. But the business interests that support Trump don’t mind government programs they can profit from, as opposed to social welfare measures.
On an ideological level, Trump’s Darwinian federalism helps win over conservatives who are wary of the federal government. Republican-led states like Arizona, Florida, and Texas have been allowed to take a go-slow approach to social distancing. In Arizona, many small businesses that would be shut down elsewhere, notably barber shops, are allowed to keep running. The governor of Florida has carved out exemptions for churches to continue to hold large gatherings.
This Darwinian federalist approach makes little sense as public policy. The United States is a nation with no internal borders and tremendous geographical mobility. An outbreak in Florida or Arizona could easily spread all over the country.
Further, Trump’s approach puts the federal government and 50 jurisdictions into competition for the same medical supplies, setting off a price war that hurts everyone. A centralized system where medical supplies were sent to the worst-hit regions first would be much more logical—and effective.
But Trump’s policy is guided not by logic but by a right-wing ideology that prioritizes the enrichment of big business. Even the military is now subsumed to this goal. The navy has set up an air bridge to help bring PPEs to America. Speaking about it in a press conference, Rdml. John Polowczyk said, “This product that we are moving is primarily a commercial product that would enter the commercial system and be distributed through financial business transactions between hospitals and these distributors.”
Former Obama official Andy Slavitt has spoken to several governors about the ventilator situation. “One of the governors tells me about price,” Slavitt reports. “FEMA is buying all the vents in the market. ‘We can’t buy any’, one tells me. The other has found a manufacturer in state who has produced 10 to see if they work. Trump was on TV complaining that it was the states’ fault, yet it’s FEMA who is making the ventilators hard to find.”
Slavitt also noted, “One of the governors is trying to buy them at $45,000 per ventilator. The typical cost is $15,000 per ventilator. The other can’t even find them at that price (hence the manufacturing). They are all bidding against each other. State vs. state.”
As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo observes, “Reporting tonight it’s clear that there are huge, huge fortunes being made now on the COVID Crisis.” Marshall also noted that “if you’ve got the right connections and access to trade networks and political power there are fortunes to be made starting bidding wars for products people are literally dying for. This is much uglier than I think most people imagine. And it’s being made possible by no clear federal response or a federal response which wants to leave disaster response to private sector markets.”
Jared Kushner has shifted from downplaying the pandemic to arguing that it is up to the governors to deal with it. The same transition can be seen in the views of many right-wing pundits. On February 27, Candace Owens, a provocateur closely aligned with the Trump White House, sarcastically tweeted, “Now we’re all going to die from Coronavirus. The Left is becoming a Doomsday Cult.” On April 1, Owens took a slightly different tack: “Two things can be true at once: the #coronavirus can be real, and corrupt politicians like @GovNedLamont and @NYGovCuomo can be lying to extract money from the federal government because their socialist-run states are out of money.”
The fact that Kushner and Owens are no longer dismissing the pandemic is welcome, but as a response to the crisis, Darwinian federalism is only a slight improvement on malign neglect.