Essay
04.15.2020

The president has got to make a decision.

“I’m going to have to make a decision, and I only hope to God that it’s the right decision.”

–Donald J. Trump, President of the United States of America, Good Friday, 2020

President Trump was right to declare war on the contagious Chinese virus that has trespassed our borders and now threatens our lives and our livelihoods alike.

President Trump was right to deploy medical experts within the federal bureaucracy whose job it is to advise and act in such situations and support their initial recommendations.

Now it is time to propose a long-term political plan to the American people that will turn this crisis into a victory that revitalizes America.

The “lockdowns” in many parts of our country are not a plan, but an understandable and plausible initial reaction to the virus. Most Americans understand, and have thus far willingly complied.

Continuing in this manner indefinitely, however, ensures that our national security, peace, and happiness will be threatened by Great Depression II, what will become the Greater Depression.

It was all too easy for those in power and the so-called “knowledge economy” to advocate for universal shutdowns that they can work though—while ruining the lives of those working in the much larger economy that cannot.

Merely sheltering in our initial defensive posture for much longer does not comport with the American way of life, or with any civilization worthy of the name—nor will it rid us of the virus.

Lockdowns are a necessary but blunt and costly weapon in this war. They will not win it. Staying inside will not magically make the virus go away.

Barring a miracle, we face a fight over the next few years to keep the virus at bay, our economy afloat, our political system intact, and our way of life unchanged for the worse.

But coming up with a long-term plan and implementing it effectively is going to require statesmanship—a concept with which our leadership class is unfamiliar.

The Stakes Are High

Fear and uneasiness about the virus is widespread. And just below the surface of the mainstream media’s distorted mirrors, white hot anger grows among those whose dreams and life’s work are being daily destroyed by our cratering economy. Resistance and legal battles about the constitutional legitimacy of extreme government actions in the wake of the initial response increase daily. A potential red-state-versus-blue-state divide in approach is widening. Many have even begun to attempt to “racialize” the crisis, further fomenting future civic strife.

Both sides in America’s Cold Civil War increasingly turn to what’s most comfortable. Many on the Left seek solace in wielding and grasping ever more governmental power, and the state of soft martial law much of blue state America has been plunged into might very well continue to harden in the coming weeks. Many on the Right seek solace in denying expert opinion about the virus’s danger, often playing the easy role of critic without the sober answers that governance requires.

These and similar trends are fast gaining momentum. This sort of fear and anger will not quickly subside—it will eventually land somewhere, politically, culturally, and economically.

But we do not face a rigid choice between a complete shutdown of our nation in which we arrest our fellow Americans for driving or surfing alone, or simply going back to normal and pretend the virus is a mere cold. These are the views of idiots and ideologues driven by fear and incompetence into policy paralysis.

In this crisis, the simple answers are the worst ones. If we merely seek to minimize harm and avoid risk, or if we simply “go back to normal,” we will lose this war.

Statesmanship versus Expertise

We need those with competence, courage, and vision to lead us decisively to victory. This is a time to act, not write; a time for leadership, not analysis. America has long been in desperate need of energetic leaders with rigorous ideas and the confidence and competence to implement them.

But our current leadership class is mostly past the customary retirement age of previous generations, habituated not only to stale thoughts and procedures but to outdated ideological frameworks. These filters blind them to reality as it is, never mind what must be done about it.

Whatever your preferential options in relation to the virus, things look different when you are actually sitting in a seat of real authority. Our political classes are unused to decisions of such magnitude being forced upon them. They are used to weaseling out of responsibility for momentous decisions and failing to pay any real price for failure.

Do not be fooled by their smooth phrasing: many in our leadership class are now acting out of cowardice and fear. They do not have a plan. They do not know what to do. They are treading water, playing politics, and hemming and hawing behind the scenes. This is a political nightmare for them: in one direction, they will be blamed for the spread of death and sickness; in the other, economic collapse and societal unrest.

Risk aversion and the bureaucratic mindset, which hides behind defensible “metrics,” is the hallmark of our modern professions. Lawyers counsel clients to take the deal, pay the fine, and settle rather than fight the charges. Professors hide behind rankings and the checkmarks of ideology and identity politics rather than simply demanding truth and excellence from themselves and their colleagues. The medical field—and the bureaucratic mindset in general—is no different.

Nor is it the job of the 79-year-old Anthony Fauci, who has been Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, and others in his field to take the whole political picture into account. His recommendations are no doubt based solely on his long-since hardened approach to his field and what he considers his professional responsibility.

If anything, avoiding risk makes most sense when lives are on the line. Human life is more valuable than the GDP—period. The GDP exists to serve human life, which is why is why we care about it. But the question at hand is not a matter of direct, stark tradeoffs with economic numbers stacked against death and sickness numbers on sheets of neatly lined paper. That’s not how life works.

Big decisions are hard because they are risky—and their outcomes will be messy regardless of what is decided.

The Right Decision

All “sides” arguing right now use models and numbers as they wish. Many are understandably questioning the expert consensus and opinion that undergirds the lockdowns. Who’s right and who’s wrong about a virus we still know little about is not going to be determined anytime soon. But while we still don’t know a hell of a lot, our economic and political system is running out of time before even more serious tailspins become inevitable.

The decisions facing our president and governors are difficult because they are political. They require a synthesis of expert analysis (which is often in dispute and uncertain) and a balancing of options and their respective tradeoffs (which are often unknown). They require a kind of foresight about the future that no modeling can even consider, never mind answer. Expertise can inform this kind of decision-making, but it can’t of itself resolve anything.

It’s not that data and modeling can’t be useful tools. They are. But they are rarely determinative. There are momentous political decisions in the broad sense of politics—encompassing economics, health and safety, etc.—that need to be made right now. Our leadership class, mired as they are in outdated thinking and their own self-styled “expertise,” can’t handle it. Consider how they’ve waffled, treating Americans with condescension when they lied about the efficacy of masks before they required many of us to wear them—or else.

We don’t believe in statesmanship anymore, really. We don’t know what that is. But “data-driven decision making” can’t substitute for it, or evade politics in broadest sense. Science cannot make political decisions. Data cannot make political decisions. The precautionary principle cannot make political decisions. Forgetting prudence, or practical wisdom, does not obviate our need for it. Without being able to name and describe it, we argue about tools like modeling and manipulate numbers and throw them at each other.

In short, we don’t really understand the kind of thing a political decision is. And yet, of course, politics is still required of us.

The Future Ahead

There isn’t an obvious a slam-dunk interpretation of all the numbers or a perfect course forward. The truth is we don’t really know what will happen, and we have to act without knowing. The statesman has to do his best to chart that course without a map.

The virus is not going to go away, and yet at some point soon we must return to work. As we do so, wherever we do so, the virus will flare up again in various regions. The media will use this as an attempt to fiercely attack the President and Republican governors. Meanwhile, many blue states will be tested in the coming months, potentially exposing severe problems in their infrastructure and management.

And in between now and then, establishment-leaning economic solutions will be proposed and adopted that fail to address the deep structural problems of our top-heavy, debt-ridden economy and fail to adequately bridge the economic gaps that are growing far wider and deeper than anyone wants to publicly admit.

What we need instead is a plan to reopen America and selectively close areas in which the virus arises again. This will require testing and coordination while limiting over-reaching surveillance and travel bans. At the same time, we must bring businesses which are currently based overseas back to America and restructure the economy on a more solid foundation.

At first, we will likely try variations on old solutions from the past with familiar endorsements from the leaders we know. As pressure increases, necessity and ambition will drive both the Right and Left toward more radical measures seeking to restructure America in the virus’s wake. As unsavory as it may be, crises never go to waste. Leaders harness fortuna.

Trump

Those with eyes to see must think harder and further than the attempt in Washington, D.C. to merely “go back to normal” and strain to continue more of the same. We must think more radically about a healthier, stronger political, economic, and cultural order in the longer term. And we must begin to act toward that goal by quickly proposing and implementing strong but practical solutions.

Most of those with new and bold ideas—or, at least, those able to say them out loud—are outside the established order.  And many of those with the ability to implement such ideas are in the private sector. It remains to be seen if the elites we have will be replaced with those we deserve.

For a pressing example, consider what Eric Weinstein, managing director of Thiel Capital, recently dubbed “The Wuhan Hypothesis: the political incorrectness and social justice penalties for entertaining a travel ban with China largely determined who” was prescient and brave enough to call for one early. Those who did so “had either already paid an extreme social penalty” and were “divorced from social norms” or were positioned strongly enough not to be “destroyed by false charges of racism.”

The great exception on the national scene is President Donald Trump, who is not bound by calcified ideological frameworks. Contrary to his flailing critics, the president has been proven right about borders, China, trade, and globalism. He is the only one who now can—and eventually will, because he must—look for and implement foundational policies that lead America past the pandemic crisis and political paralysis into a new century of greatness.

Governor Gavin Newsom was recently asked “what key metric” he would use to determine when to reopen California. The next day, he gave six general areas in which metrics would guide the state, saying “this phase is one where science, where public health, not politics, must be the guide.” Governor Newsom is a political man, and he knows that what he at one point called “imperfect science” alone cannot decide these questions. He has won the approval of many with his words, but the result of his unfolding approach remains to be seen.

On Good Friday, Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason asked the President about how he would decide when to open things up; “Can you say, sir, what metrics you will use to make that decision?” It is a telling question, in line with the fallacies of our time. Trump said he would first listen to the “greatest minds” he could find—not just in medicine but also “the business of politics and reason.” And he added what should be obvious: “Will there be risks? There’s always going to be a risk.”

Ultimately the decisions our President and our respective governors make will come down to a political judgment, with all that entails, for good and ill. As the President said on Good Friday:

“The metrics [are] right here. [Points to head] That’s my metrics. That’s all I can do. I can listen to 35 people. At the end, I got to make a decision.”

He’s right.

is Vice President of Education at the Claremont Institute and Editor of The American Mind. He directs Claremont’s annual fellowships and heads our initiative for a new center to support graduate level scholarship.

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