On March 23, as COVID-19 rapidly spread through communities around the world, President Donald Trump tweeted, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”
The president’s message was clear: shutting down the U.S. economy may have a more traumatic effect on American lives than the virus itself. Trump’s callous disregard for human life led many to conclude that his chances of winning a second term were over. But as social psychologists reveal, the president’s focus on the economy at the cost of concentrating on the virus itself may actually improve his chances of being reelected.
COVID-19 is highly contagious and roughly 10 times as deadly as the average flu. The virus’ high death rate explains why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and pandemic experts everywhere – have all emphasized the importance of social isolation as a means of reducing the number of people infected. By isolating ourselves from others, we allow for medical personal to treat patients while spreading out the impact on communities. Ultimately, social distancing flattens the infection curve, which allows us to save thousands, if not millions, of lives.
But with a mortality rate of just over 1 percent, COVID-19 is unlikely to directly affect most humans. As a result, the fear associated with the virus sparks a great deal of uncertainty. And as researchers from the University of Oxford reveal, when faced with uncertain threats, people are willing to roll the dice even if it means potentially harming others.
WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2020
In a 2018 study published in Nature, a team of researchers asked hundreds of people if they would stay home from work – at the cost of their own professional advancement – to avoid infecting others with the disease. Despite being hypothetically infected with a contagious virus, most participants were willing to place their co-workers in harm’s way if it maximized their own benefit.
As Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert reveals, humans are wired to deal with immediate, tangible threats like hunger and terrorism. However, we are much less adapt at gauging the serious nature of long-term threats like HIV or climate change.
Without a tangible risk, humans have a hard time taking such threats seriously. Something similar occurs in the case of pandemics, which deeply affect a relatively small group of people but have few tangible consequences for the majority.
Economic Impact of COVID-19
The social psychology of uncertainty helps explain why elected officials, like President Trump, have been so quick to focus on the high economic costs of social distancing. Leaders like Trump realize that the majority of his constituents will not be directly affected by COVID-19. But all Americans – wealthy, poor, and in between – will be impacted by the economic recession to come. And that simple fact explains the logic behind his historic gamble.
In February, the Dow Jones peaked with a record-high of 29,500 points and unemployment rates fell to a near-record low of 3.5 percent. With history on his side, President Trump quickly laid claim to the greatest economy in history. But since then, the Dow has plunged 10,000 points and unemployment applications have skyrocketed into the millions.
The economic impact of COVID-19 will be formidable for all but it will be particularly devastating for people living in rural areas, where the majority of Trump’s supporters reside. In 2016, many rural Americans turned out to vote for Donald Trump because the economic recovery from the 2008 recession had yet to reach the countryside. In 2016, increased rural turnout was enough to secure the presidency for Trump, and given the nature of the current crisis, it may well be sufficient again in 2020. Understanding this requires us to take a closer look at how Americans elect their presidents.
America’s Rural Populations
In the United States the popular vote – which Trump lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 3 million votes – is far less important than the Electoral College, which consists of 538 votes, spread out across 50 states. In presidential elections, one must collect at least 270 electoral college votes to win. However, long before elections begin, it is fairly easy to project which states will vote in favor of Democrats and which states will vote in favor of Republicans.
Both parties have safe states. California and New York, for example, always go to the Democrats, while the Midwest and the South traditionally vote for Republicans. But some states, like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, swing back and forth between parties. And while swing states shift from election to election, they have one thing in common: they all have large rural populations.
If 2020 recession were to affect rural and urban areas the same, this might not matter. But the opposite is true. The impact of the 2020 recession will affect rural America much worse than their counterparts in urban cities. As a result, the threat of economic hardship is far more tangible for rural Americans than COVID-19.
Thus, while Trump’s response to COVID-19 is reckless, mirrors authoritarian tactics, and potentially places millions of Americans at risk of infection, in the months to come his focus on the economy over the wellbeing of all Americans is likely to gain more and more traction with voters in rural swing states.
And this simple fact – regardless of the direction the economy takes = may be enough to guarantee Trump another four years in office.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.