The US Reaches the Tipping Point

The United States has reached a critical juncture in the 2020 battle against COVID-19, a “tipping point.”  This is epitomized by a small but hugely symbolic action: Donald Trump’s refusal to wear a protective mask.

In his 2000 book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,”  Malcolm Gladwell defines a “tipping point” as a moment when there’s a critical change of social perspective because a key determinant has reached critical mass.  Donald Trump’s refusal to wear a protective mask symbolizes his attitude about the pandemic: he’s quit fighting it.

1.Trump doesn’t take the pandemic seriously.  During the COVID-19 crisis, Trump has been inconsistent about many things — for example, the role of the Federal Government — but steadfast in his refusal to wear a mask.  On May 5, Donald toured an Arizona facility making N-95 protective masks but refused to don one.  (The factory had multiple signs, “masks required.”) On May 11, when Trump announced that all White House staff would wear a mask, he remarked that he would not.

Trump does not take the pandemic seriously and, therefore, is unwilling to wear a mask , social distance, or take the decisive actions most of us expect the President to take during a national crisis, such as invoking the Defense Production Act to expedite testing.

Whether or not they voted for Trump in 2016, most thoughtful Americans understand that the Coronavirus pandemic is the dominant event of this era and, therefore, deserves to be taken seriously.  Trump’s’s attitude is one of the reasons that a majority of voters disapprove of how Donald is handling the COVID-19 crisis. (57 percent)

Nonetheless, most Republicans are sticking with Trump.  (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/06/senate-republicans-trump-coronavirus-response-240454 )    CNN ( http://Percolating beneath the more general pandemic stress is a political divide cleaving us over the role of government, science and even truth.) observed that wearing a mask has become a red versus blue issue: “Beneath the more general pandemic stress is a political divide cleaving us over the role of government, science and even truth.”

Writing in Think, Liz Plank (https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-s-coronavirus-mask-standoff-reveals-dangerous-ripples-fragile-masculinity-ncna1205441 ) noted: “[Among conservatives] Trump’s decision..[to not wear a mask] is also being hailed as a man’s man portrayal of virility and valor by some of his loyal foot soldiers… as wearing a mask would be ‘a searing image of weakness’ and ‘would signal that the United States is so powerless against this invisible enemy sprung from China that even its president must cower behind a mask.'”

2.  Trump is setting a bad example for his base.  During the past two months, Trump’s approval rating has stayed around 43 percent (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/ ).  That means that more than one-third of the country trust Donald to lead the United States and, for the most part, trust his remarks about dealing with COVID-19 (even when he suggests injecting bleach ( https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52407177).)

Therefore, at a moment when we are trying to squash a highly contagious virus, many in Trump’s base are not wearing masks, washing their hands, or maintaining social distance.  They want to open everything up because that’s what Trump has suggested.  Many of these supporters are involved in the protests against their state’s lockdown rules.  (A recent poll found that only 31 percent of Americans approve of these demonstrations (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/majority-disapprove-coronavirus-protests-poll-200511150558609.html ).)

Early indications are that this cavalier attitude is taking a toll.  On May 13, The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/13/new-us-coronavirus-hotspots-republican-heartland-areas ) reported that there’s a “surge” of new COVID-19 cases in the Trump heartlands (red-state towns and rural communities).

3. Trump is not thinking strategically.  Confronted with the pandemic, Trump at first flailed and then adopted a tactic of diversion — he turned his limited attention to the economy.  Late in March, Donald tweeted: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”

Recently Trump suggested that “shelter-in-place” policies were more harmful than COVID-19.  On May 14, Trump remarked that Coronavirus testing is “overrated,” adding “When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing we would have very few cases.” (https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/497846-trump-says-testing-may-be-frankly-overrated )

Dealing with COVID-19 requires a complicated strategic plan that involves, among other things, securing the necessary testing resources and developing a multi-layered testing plan.  New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/11/opinion/coronavirus-depression.html) argues that we must deal with the pandemic if we are going to avert a major depression:

“[This] means crushing the curve: getting the number of infected Americans way down, then maintaining a high level of testing to quickly spot new cases, combined with contact tracing so that we can quarantine those who may have been exposed… we would have to protect all Americans with the kind of testing and tracing that is already available to people who work directly for Donald Trump but almost nobody else… Crushing the curve isn’t easy, but it’s very possible. In fact, many other countries, from South Korea to New Zealand to, believe it or not, Greece have already done it…But you do have to stay the course. And that’s what Trump and company don’t want to do.”

Writing in the Medium ( https://medium.com/@ASlavitt/the-economy-will-not-open-up-without-a-credible-plan-to-address-the-public-health-crisis-28eac8d5a425), former Obama-era Medicare, Medicaid, and ACA head, Andy Slavitt observed: “[The U.S.] had a [pandemic] strategy. Trump gave it a few weeks and then decided ‘liberate!’ Basically, he’s a quitter.”

Donald Trump has turned his back on the pandemic and is now solely focused on “opening the economy.”

Summary: At the heart of this tipping point is a profound irony: Trump won’t wear a mask because it projects an image of “weakness.”  At the same time, he’s faced with the very difficult task of responding to the pandemic and he’s quit working on the problem.  He’s abandoned his post,

If this is the new wartime, then Donald Trump is a deserter.