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Trump’s Coronavirus Task Farce

Councils, work groups, and advisory boards are planning the future of the country. No one is doing much about the present.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

It has been about three weeks since Donald Trump announced that his official task force on reopening the economy had been upgraded to—or perhaps superseded by—an advisory committee of America’s Top 200 Economic Minds. They represented all facets of society and potential sources of expertise, from the commissioners of the major sports leagues to the head of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka (who, it turned out, had not been notified that he was a member of the committee in advance of the announcement).

Since then, the committee—the Great American Economic Revival Recovery Groups, according to the White House press release—has earned a Wikipedia page, and around 40,000 Americans have died of confirmed cases of Covid-19. (The actual number is probably much higher than 40,000.)

The point of the council was not to prevent those deaths but to give Trump an excuse to go on television and announce that his advisers were coming up with a plan for how to jump-start the engine of economic prosperity once the administration got the pandemic under control. Three weeks on, the administration is full speed ahead on broadcasting the message of Imminent Economic Revival; it has done approximately nothing about that first step, getting the pandemic under control.

That may be what Trump’s “coronavirus task force” was supposed to be working on. That is the one led by Vice President Mike Pence, featuring government health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx. Trump planned to shut it down, it was reported earlier this week, seemingly because he’d grown bored with it, but then he changed his mind after Maggie Haberman reported on his decision.

It remains unclear what the coronavirus task force has been doing, exactly, besides attending the press conferences that the president has grown bored of. They haven’t created any sort of national testing and tracing program, though they have devoted some energy to acting as if they had. (The White House unveiled an eight-part national testing strategy just last week. Seven of the eight parts were already labeled as completed, and the eighth amounted to asking the states to design, fund, and implement mass testing programs themselves.)

The administration’s actual plan for responding to the crisis became a little clearer this week when the press obtained a draft of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report based on modeling done by a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, who estimated that thousands upon thousands of daily deaths would ensue once states began the “reopening” scenarios they are currently discussing. Some commentators suggested the White House had leaked the report to game expectations, so that any death toll would appear to be a success compared to the worst-case projections laid out in the CDC’s report. But now that the administration has released economic adviser Kevin Hassett’s “cubic” projection of coronavirus fatalities, suggesting that all the deaths would stop in a few weeks, mainly on account of a preset Excel graph function, it seems safe to put to rest any suspicion that the White House is playing a more complex game. It simply isn’t doing anything, seemingly because it isn’t sure how to do anything. In that sense, the story hasn’t changed since the task forces were first announced. The point was less to do difficult tasks than to assure everyone that someone was working on those tasks. The thing the White House wants you to know—the point of the task forces, councils, and Recovery Groups—is that its top people are on it. Unfortunately, that may be true.

Like a toddler, Trump doesn’t just learn about the world from the television, he also repeats actions he sees performed on television. One thing a politician does when facing a problem is convene a task force. A task force is mainly made up of people from outside the current administration, or the government in general, because you can’t expect people within an administration to solve problems—if they could, the thinking goes, they wouldn’t have gone into civil service or run for office in the first place.

Trump is far from the only politician currently relying on a list of names or assembly of serious-looking people to make it appear as though he has the situation under control. Just about every elected executive at every level of American politics currently has not one but several concurrently running task forces. California gets Tim Cook and Janet Yellen; Texas calls theirs a “strike force”; the mayors of Boston and New York have task forces for the inequality that the virus has revealed and often exacerbated; and Dubois has put its “County Task Force” to work creating a packet full of helpful reopening suggestions for the businesses of Ferdinand, Huntingburg, and Jasper, Indiana.

The thing the task forces have in common is that they tend to include very few people who have had to live with the decisions made by the sort of executives and CEOs placed on these panels. The economic task forces, like this one for Massachusetts, include CEOs and mayors but no workers. New York’s task force for reopening schools is supposed to include parents and teachers, but before the state education department had named even a single member, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his state has engaged in a “partnership” with a private foundation to reimagine the entire schooling experience. And in Arizona, the experts working on modeling the spread of the disease were asked to cut it out lest their work interfere with the task forces devoted to getting everyone back to work.

A proper task force is about half made up of people you’ve heard of for, say, owning the Mets, and half people you’ve very purposefully not heard of. New York’s economic task force includes James Dolan, the hapless Knicks owner who really should not be in charge of anything important, and the president of Blackstone Group, who really shouldn’t be in charge of anything important, either, but for the opposite reasons. (One is a perennial loser at a game with purely emotional stakes, the other a perennial winner at a much more serious game.)

The first category, the people you’ve hopefully heard of, is there to reassure you; the second, the ones you probably haven’t heard of, are there to run things—not run things in the “design and institute a comprehensive and effective response to the virus” sense, but in the sense of making sure that, when this is all over, everything is still set up to benefit the people who were doing very well before the pandemic. In normal times, private equity leeches like Blackstone’s Bill Mulrow slither in and out of government; the magic of the task force is that they can work directly on state affairs without having to order new business cards.

But ensuring the endurance of our unequal economic arrangements still does require that the government produce a baseline level of functioning society. Workers need to be at work, and not in the hospital. Consumers need to be at the movie theater, and not at home. Far from asking the government to get out of the way, the free market depends on the government to create the conditions under which it can function. But, as was apparent already by March, we no longer have much of a government: We have the Federal Reserve, the troops, and the task forces.

The task force is the perfect model of governance for our time, because it is made up of people who assign tasks to other people, wait for them to finish, and then assume that somehow, they got it done themselves. It depends on our modern cult of executive worship, which takes the fact that certain people have the power to make people below them carry out their orders and turns it into an innate ability to Get Things Done. Under this model, Ken Langone or someone similarly imbued with entrepreneurial pixie dust can simply order the economy to turn back on, and the people who carry out his orders will make it happen. But the ability to coerce a precarious meatpacking worker to return to his plant to ensure that no potential Trump voters ever have to see a bare meat display at Kroger is not competence: It is simply economic power. Economic power is no substitute for state capacity. And if the situation gets as bad as that disowned CDC projection claims it could, that power could be sorely tested.