Amy Coney Barrett delivers remarks in the Rose Garden of the White House, Sept. 26, 2020.
Photo by Shealah Craighead, courtesy the White House.
As President Trump becomes better acquainted with SARS-CoV-2 in the nation’s most prominent COVID-19 hot spot – the White House – the recklessness of some recent administration decisions is hardly open to dispute.
What is debatable, however, is whether there can be such a thing as calculated recklessness. The president seems both to believe in it and to practice it with near-religious fervor.
As of Monday afternoon, at least a dozen people who are close to the president or to his campaign had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, as did the president himself last Thursday. Not all of them attended the Sept. 26 Rose Garden ceremony to introduce Amy Coney Barrett as Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee; presidential adviser Hope Hicks was not in that group, nor was Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. But most were either at their West Wing jobs that afternoon or in the densely packed, mostly unmasked crowd seated on the lawn. Several journalists who covered the event have also reportedly since tested positive.
Life is an exercise in balancing perceived risks against expected rewards. By many objective measures, humans do a pretty poor job of it. A perfectly rational alien from the planet Vulcan might marvel that we risk broken hearts by falling in love or, more prosaically, that we risk worse by smoking cigarettes or buying large quantities of lottery tickets. We are also bad at judging relative risk. Many of the same people who gamble in lotteries or casinos, where statistically they are likely to lose, would reject an offer to risk $1,000 with a 50-50 chance of getting $5,000 in return, even though such a proposition has much better odds.
We are particularly bad at weighing risks and benefits when the numbers get unusually large (think of the advertising for mega-jumbo lottery prizes) or unusually small, such as the chance of catching and then dying from COVID-19 in a public outdoor setting during a pandemic. Of course, the risk in the latter situation is much more complicated than in the former. An individual’s risk of dying from COVID-19 varies greatly depending on the individual, and there are additional risks beyond that person’s own death. COVID-19 can be a profoundly unpleasant experience, and its long-term consequences are unknown, even if the patient survives in the short term. Also, an individual with COVID-19 may not develop serious symptoms at all, but could inadvertently pass the disease on to an unknowable number of people who will get much sicker.
So when we looked at the pictures from that Rose Garden event on Sept. 26, some of us wondered at the time – and many have wondered since – what the people in them could have been thinking. In those photos, attendees are sitting close together, and in some cases hugging or shaking hands. Putting so many people in such close proximity for such an extended period of time, mostly without masks or other barriers, was an obvious risk. Everyone had been tested at some point, but a negative test result does not preclude the ability to spread the virus. There are false negatives and negatives that arise before virus levels become detectable in someone who is asymptomatic. Being outdoors reduces risk, but does not eliminate it. And the event included at least some activity indoors, the extent of which is not publicly known.
It was reckless. Even if you are a committed conservative who is delighted with Trump’s choice of Supreme Court nominee – or perhaps especially if you fall into that category – you should want to see that nominee confirmed, not paraded in front of a live studio audience. Trump could have just as easily introduced Barrett in front of cameras inside the White House, without the crowd. Instead, two GOP senators whose votes may be critical to Barrett’s confirmation if Johnson proves unable to participate (Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina) have since tested positive. Odds are they will recover in time for a potential confirmation vote, but was it worth taking the avoidable risk that they do not?
Someone, almost certainly someone named Trump, concluded that it was. Many of his legion of critics will dismiss this choice as stubborn ignorance or unmedicated madness. I highly doubt it was either. There is calculation behind Trump’s recklessness, whether at the Rose Garden, or in his in-person campaign rallies, or even in his entourage’s reluctance to follow mask-wearing rules in settings like the first presidential debate. In that last case, by the way, I think the proceedings should have stopped until those without masks either complied with the rules or left the room.
The calculation probably worked something like this: First, Trump believes the best thing for America is Trump. Therefore, winning the election is the highest priority, not only because Trump believes he should always win, but because winning will allow him to keep on making America great, as he would put it. To Trump, Barrett’s nomination is a major achievement in that process, but not the only one, or the last one.
Trump knows he is trailing in the polls, not just overall but by a modest margin in states he needs to win. He likely calls the polls “fake” as a sort of shorthand. That shorthand contains a crucial element of truth: In a poll, the turnout rate is 100%. Everyone polled has “voted” in that poll. Pollsters account for nonresponses by polling more people. They try to adjust for electoral turnout by increasingly focusing on “likely” voters, mostly basing that assessment on who has voted in the past.
But being a likely voter is not the same as actually voting. Trump won in 2016, in fact, largely because he attracted some less-likely voters to the polls in the Rust Belt states he won by a narrow margin. He won’t win reelection by persuading most Americans, even in swing states, to vote for him. He knows this. If he wins, it will be because his likely and less-likely voters turn out for him. His best advantage is an enthusiasm gap between himself and his opponent.
Seen in that light, introducing Barrett in the Rose Garden was an exercise in calculated recklessness. It was a campaign event broadcast in real time to a national audience that was paying unusually close attention. It was a reminder to conservatives who are otherwise turned off by nearly everything Trump says that they approve of most of what he actually does. It also reminded them that a lot of what he does will survive his presidency. The event gave him the chance to talk directly to America on television, and to let his nominee talk as well, without the real-time filter of a generally hostile media. The unmasked audience was a cast of extras, sending a message that it is morning in Trump’s America.
In that sense, the Rose Garden ceremony was a campaign rally with, perhaps, better hors d’oeuvres than usual. Yes, it was reckless. On some level, every adult in attendance had to have realized that. But it was a group exercise in calculated recklessness. If they had to do it over again, my guess is that they would.