For most of the summer, Trump has been playing a dangerous game with the public’s perception of the coronavirus pandemic. In April, after the lockdown was imposed to contain the outbreak, he actively fomented protests of the lockdown measures across the country and antagonized governors who advocated for strict adherence to the emerging consensus regarding wearing masks and social distancing as the scientific community struggled to discern the way forward through the growing crisis. The president has been so thorough in his rejection of rational scientific methodologies that he has done his best to undermine the country’s top scientific officers. He went so far as to admit in a press conference in May that he was taking the widely unproven treatment hydroxychloroquine in the mistaken belief that it was a preventative measure against catching the disease. Trump continued to flaunt mask-wearing rules well into June, going so far as to avoid wearing them even as several White House staffers came down with the disease. He eventually relented and began wearing masks sporadically in mid-June, but his commitment to this new course of action has proved as inconsistent as his commitment to many of his other positions on the virus.
The situation has only deteriorated since the bizarre Mount Rushmore charade on July 4th, shortly before the virus resumed its breakneck pace, this time in hitherto quiet areas of the county. However, even while Trump continues to sow discord in public about safety measures and scientific findings about disease treatments, he has endeavored to project, if not wild confidence, then at least unbridled optimism that a vaccine will be developed and brought to market before the election in November. This is not necessarily a completely unattainable goal, but let’s be realistic – bringing a vaccine to market before the election would be in the same category of achievement as landing on the moon was in 1967. For the leading drug manufacturers to successfully develop and test a vaccine to prove that it is safe enough and effective enough to be brought to market according to the FDA and international safety standards that all pharmaceutical companies are held to would effectively be a moonshot. The point is not that it can’t be done – it can. Rather, so much can go wrong, and so much is yet unknown about the variables such an endeavor must account for that to promise success as the probable outcome, let alone ground a president’s election strategy on the success of such an outcome, is foolhardy even in the most optimistic scenarios of American electoral politics. Except that we did land on the moon, one might say. Still, the national response to the first 6 months of the pandemic inspires little reason to embrace the kind of optimistic rhetoric that gripped the country in the era of the space race.
But the foolishness of hoping for a vaccine before the election does not even touch on the true reason why such an outcome would not save Trump. It is hard to put a finger on it, but there is a pervasive feeling among the electorate that recent geopolitical developments – namely, the coronavirus pandemic and the moment of rarified solidarity during the first weeks of the lockdown when progressive ideas like UBI and universal healthcare became obvious necessities, which coincided with the worst economic downturn since the Great Recession, and then the fracturing of that weak solidarity soon after as the Black Lives Matters took the world by storm – has so fundamentally discredited the Trumpian project and the wider Republican worldview that a vaccine would not only not be enough to save Trump at the polls, but would also contribute to the moral and political drift of the global right-wing by showing once again how willing they are to talk out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to rational action.
To dig deeper, the observation that Trump is missing is simply this: the American people can tell that something about the way in which the Republican party, and by extension the global right-wing, has framed the political dynamics of the post-2008 world is deeply flawed. Hint: it has something to do with the fact that Republicans were willing to pass a $4 Trillion stimulus bill and then another stimulus bill on its heals a few months later after having spent years railing against Democratic overspending, going so far as to shut down the government while Obama was president over a budget dispute.
Consider for a moment the consequences of this momentous development in world history for monetary theory: the payout has falsified the doomsday scenarios envisioned by conservative fiscal hawks of the pre-2008 world who fretted about what might happen if the national debt went above "such and such" a level. Their worries never came true. The so-called householder analogy has proven to be false. All of the hand wringing about the national debt was for naught as demonstrated by the advent of quantitative easing, in which central banks purchased open market financial assets instead of lowering interest rates in order to put more dollars into the global economy and, therefore, provided lenders a larger money supply and more borrowing power in offering loans to businesses and the housing market. That turned out to be a politically advantageous idea in the long term for freeing presidents from needing to kowtow to the powerful bond market, and not at all the short term fix that Bernanke thought it would be in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. To put it simply, after 2008, the wider global economy discovered that national debt has no natural limit and that with quantitative easing, central banks can fund much more ambitious economic projects than they ever had been willing to before, like the historic $4 Trillion stimulus payments made in the wake of the lockdown in March for the purposes of propping up the US and world economy. In proving that such drastic funding of economic projects is possible, the global rightwing, of which Trump is just a part, more or less disproved their own thesis that progressive political and economic programs, like the Green New Deal and Medicare For All, are in principle too expensive to fund. Liberals and right-wingers have pestered progressives for the past 5 years with the following question regarding Medicare For All: “How are you going to pay for that?” Republicans in the Senate just proved exactly how. The same goes for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal: for all its flaws, something like it is possible to do. Doing so is just a matter of having a plan, the political will, and the open-mindedness to tear down obsolete monetary theories.
What does this have to do with the coronavirus and the vaccine? What Americans sense right now is a fundamental unmooring of reference points to historic events and perceived limits of acceptable political and economic risk-taking at the national level. Things are not making sense. Congress just gave millions of unemployed Americans about $2400 per month. But just about a year ago, Andrew Yang struggled to make it onto the stage at the Democratic Party’s primary debates after advocating for giving every American less than half of that. The coronavirus has done more than invade our personal lives and force us all into new fashion trends around mask-wearing. It has forced the world to accept an uncomfortable reality: that the human economy and the natural world are intimately interwoven in ways that go farther than just climate change, and which require more flexibility than fabrications based on fears like debt ceilings. The point is not that national debts couldn't come crashing down on our heads someday; the point is that they don't seem to be crashing down right now or anytime in the foreseeable future (unless, of course, the universe hits us with another curve ball sometime soon). Moreover, climate change is a vast problem, but viruses and other beasts still lurk in the wild too. Science is essential to survival in the modern world.
That then is really the impact of the coronavirus: it has thoroughly discredited the pre-2008 notions of what levels of stress the national debt can withstand, and also pushed the global capitalist economy to reckon with the very real threats of wet markets and other such non-climate-related points of interaction between the natural world and global capitalist economy. We now know the risks that go along with ignoring these threats. We are now living through a pandemic, an economic downturn, and a feeling of general uncertainty about the near term future. Every day brings some new chaotic atom of history to our awareness. In these turbulent conditions, a vaccine for the coronavirus arriving before the election will do little to restore Americans’ trust in some Trumpian nostalgic vision of a prosperous America of the past. We are in uncharted waters, historically. This is a reality that most Americans can feel, but not necessarily articulate well in words. Americans know on a gut level that, if a vaccine for the coronavirus does come to market before Election Day, which would be a historic feat of scientific and human achievement, Trump and the Republicans will claim the credit. Indeed, Trump and his gang might just go ahead and claim a vaccine is available in October a week before the election and hope to ride to victory on a sham. But this year, Americans also feel that the chaos of the Trump administration is broadly destabilizing to our civilization. If Trump and the Republicans tried to claim credit for a vaccine, they would also have to explain to the American people why, on the one hand, they were so slow to respond to the virus in the first place back in March and why, on the other hand, they have been so stubborn about funding progressive policy positions over the past 50 years that are popular with a majority of Americans, like Medicare for All, given that Trump and McConnell somehow found the political will to cough up $4 Trillion to just give away to the American public. Trump might also have to reassure voters that "everything will be fine" as a potential second wave hits and a second lockdown delivers another heavy blow to the economy before the vaccine can be scaled.
Trump, Republicans, right-wingers in general, don’t seem to understand that science has won the Idea Wars, and surprise, surprise: it turns out that, just as scientists predicted, the natural world is messing with the world economy in more ways than one. However, as many other countries are figuring out quickly: while responding to climate change requires global responsive political and economic strategies on the order of years and decades, other threats like viruses require responses on the order of months, weeks, days, and even hours. It matters that Trump took hours, days, and weeks to even acknowledge the appearance of the first cases of the coronavirus in America, let alone respond – which for all intents and purposes he has failed to do, in the sense that the lack of a coherent federal response is the main reason why the US is suffering from the pandemic as much as it is. Americans can sense that in this new world, speed matters, scientific accuracy matters, and fiscal reality matters, and Trump has already proven to us that he is slow, wrong, and risky. A vaccine before Election Day won’t change that.