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Can you really practice social distancing while cutting someone’s hair? Barbering is an intimate act, one that many of us are nostalgic for in the Covid-19 lockdown. But thanks to an executive order from Governor Brian Kemp, residents of Georgia will in a matter of days be able to go to hair salons and a host of other businesses. Following the lead of Donald Trump, who has repeatedly advocated an early reopening of the economy, Kemp has issued orders allowing, as The Washington Post reports, the reopening of “fitness centers, bowling alleys, body-art studios, barbers, nail salons, cosmetologists, aestheticians, beauty schools, massage therapists, theaters, private social clubs and dine-in restaurants.”
Many of these businesses don’t meet the criteria set out by the White House for a safe operation. Nor does Georgia seem ready for experimentation with reopening. With 818 deaths as of Tuesday, it has the 11th-highest number of fatalities of any state.
During a briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force was asked how social distancing could be practiced in hair salons, nail salons, and tattoo shops. Birx replied, “I believe people in Atlanta would understand that if their cases are not going down, that they need to continue to do everything that we said—social distancing, washing your hands, wearing a mask in public. If there’s a way that people can social distance and do those things, then they can do those things. I don’t know how, but people are very creative. So I’m not going to prejudge.”
Birx’s incoherent answer reflects the dangerously mixed messages the Trump administration has been sending about Covid-19. Birx, like her colleague Dr. Anthony Fauci, has repeatedly stressed the need for continued social distancing, which will allow for a testing regime to be set up that will make it safer to return to normal social life. Unfortunately, any sound advocacy by Birx gets overwhelmed by others in the administration, including the president himself, who are eager for a quick solution. In order to maintain their status in the White House, Birx and Fauci have to compromise with this faction, leading to absurdities such as Birx’s suggestion that a barber shop could practice social distancing.
The constant stream of mixed messages from the White House is likely to make worse both the pandemic and the economic crisis. States like Georgia aren’t going to see a full return to economic health, since people understandably will be reluctant to go to public places. Who would go to a gym or a tattoo parlor with even the small possibility of getting a potentially fatal virus?
The most likely scenario is the worst of both worlds: an economy that remains in free fall while the pandemic spreads unchecked.
The dismal Georgia saga gives the lie to a common argument that American federalism has vindicated itself during the pandemic. The claim is that while Trump has been incompetent, the states and cities have stepped up to the plate. The reality, though, is that Trump still has enormous power to shape how states behave, particularly in Republican strongholds. When Trump argues for reopening the economy, governors like Brian Kemp ask only, “How soon?”
At the Tuesday briefing, Trump was asked by John Karl of ABC News, “How do you protect the people of South Carolina, for example, from potentially bad decisions by a governor in Georgia?” Trump praised the governors of both states, adding, “We’re going to find out.”
Writing in The Atlantic, George Packer asserts that Trump’s early response to the pandemic is proof that the United States is a failed state: “Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter.”
With the passage of another month, we can extend Packer’s argument and note that the special failure of Trump’s response is that his is a Potemkin presidency. Even before the pandemic, Trump’s main concern, as befit a former reality-TV star, was optics. He has never quite figured out how to govern, but he has focused his energy on appearing like he’s doing his job. In the game of performing president, Trump has been successful enough in keeping his base—roughly 40 percent of the American electorate—on his side.
Trump’s Potemkin presidency can be seen in every aspect of his response to the pandemic, including the daily briefings that are designed to make it look like he’s in charge. Though these propaganda events offer little in the way of useful information, they do allow Trump to keep pushing his talking points of the day—and to score shots against his political rivals and the media.
The primacy of performative politics can be seen in Trump’s pulling stunts like ordering a temporary suspension of immigration—an act that does nothing to address the reality that Covid-19 is now a homegrown problem, with the United States having more cases than any other country in the world.
Trump’s constant assurances that the United States is meeting its testing needs is another example of the president trying to pass off boasting as reality. As The New York Times notes, “Notwithstanding the Trump administration’s boosterish assurances, the United States still lacks the means to perform enough tests.” A return to normality will certainly require upward of 500,000 tests per day and perhaps as many as 5 million tests per day. Currently, the United States is stuck at a plateau of about 150,000 tests per day.
Instead of addressing the testing shortfall, Trump has been busy promoting hydroxychloroquine as a potential wonder drug. His enthusiasm for this remedy always had the air of quackery, although in an emergency any possible cure is worth testing. But the emerging evidence on hydroxychloroquine isn’t promising. The Associated Press reports that the “malaria drug widely touted by President Donald Trump for treating the new coronavirus showed no benefit in a large analysis of its use in U.S. veterans hospitals. There were more deaths among those given hydroxychloroquine versus standard care, researchers reported.”
There is no shame in pursuing a medical theory that doesn’t pan out. But Trump’s over-promotion of hydroxychloroquine is all too typical of his propensity for magical thinking. The pandemic has revealed Trump at his worst: a con man who can’t distinguish between hope and hype.
The distressing fact is that as long as Trump is president, it’s hard to see any solution to either the pandemic or the economic crisis. Federalism is only a partial remedy. Trump still occupies a position that is essential for the functioning of the system. The presidency is all the more important in a crisis. And Trump is only going to keep making everything worse.