LONDON — It was in the winter of 1962, on a short weekend trip from Mexico City to San Francisco, that I first came across a novel written by a former World War II pilot.
The novel follows Captain John Yossarian, a B-25 United States Air Force bombardier stationed on the Italian island of Pianosa, as he struggles to complete the requisite number of missions required for discharge. Every time he gets close, the number gets raised.
Desperate to stop flying, Captain Yossarian pretends to be insane. But he’s thwarted by a diabolical military regulation: To be grounded for insanity, a pilot must ask to be grounded. But by asking, the pilot inadvertently demonstrates his sanity — after all, what rightminded person wouldn’t want to stop flying such dangerous missions?
It’s this regulation that gave the book its iconic name: Catch-22. As President Trump ramps up his reelection campaign amidst the battle against COVID-19, he should consider picking up a copy.
The coronavirus pandemic has presented Mr. Trump with a Catch-22 of his own: to win in November, he needs the U.S. economy to go up. But when it does, so will the virus. This spike will produce a second wave of infections, most likely, in the fall. Many older people won’t risk going out to vote for Trump. So, he will lose. No matter how he responds, it is the virus — not Joe Biden — that will be the President’s undoing.
It’s an electoral bind that would have been unimaginable even a few short months ago. Last November, a majority of American voters expected the president to be reelected. An analysis by Moody’s Analytics predicted that President Trump would cruise to an easy victory thanks to record-high stock market gains and record-low unemployment. As recently as February, six in ten Americans reported they were economically better off than they were at the beginning of Mr. Trump’s term — a strong tailwind for his 2020 campaign.
President Trump’s political strategy banked on the boost. As long as Americans’ pocketbooks were protected, the country would vote for continuity.
But then the virus struck and the president stumbled. In January, February, and March, Mr. Trump met the emerging COVID crisis using a familiar political playbook. First, he denied, claiming in January that because he made the bold choice to ban flights from China, the U.S. had “pretty much shut [the virus] down coming in from China.” Then, he downplayed, calling the pandemic a “hoax” while assuring the American people that the virus would “miraculously” go away. Finally, when it was clear that the pandemic would grind the country to a halt, he deflected, saying, in response to a question about the testing shortage, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
As the virus worsened, the long-hot American economy hit an ice wall. To help control the spread of COVID-19, millions of businesses were forced to close their doors and hundreds of millions of Americans were ordered to shelter in place. The impact has been crushing. The job gains of an entire decade have been wiped out in a single month, and the unemployment rate has climbed higher than it reached during the Great Depression. In the final quarter of 2019, real gross domestic product (GDP) grew a modest 2.1 percent. In the first quarter of 2020, it dropped almost five percent, with no clear end in sight.
Since 1900, every incumbent president running for reelection during an economic downturn has lost. Unless he’s able to magically pull the economy out of its tailspin, Trump 2020 will suffer the same fate as Presidents William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Which brings us back to President Trump’s Catch-22. The president basically has two options for responding to the pandemic: He can push American businesses and workers to resume normal activities months before health experts recommend. Or, he can follow the safer, measured, but painfully slow reopening guidelines laid out by leading public health experts, including those in his own administration. Neither choice is good for his electoral chances.
If President Trump pushes the country to reopen, the economy would temporarily rally, but more people would get sick, and he likely loses. If he pushes to keep the country closed, the economy stays weak and he likely loses. Captain Yossarian would recognize the bind.
With the election fewer than six months away, the president and the Republican Party are testing strategies for escaping the COVID-19 Catch-22. First, as he has done so many times before, President Trump is trying to blunt the political pain of what a majority of Americans see as his failure by asserting that it was, in fact, a smashing success. During a press conference in late March, Mr. Trump assured the American people that holding the death toll between 100,000 and 200,000 would be a sign that “we all together have done a very good job.” A month and a half later, as states across the country still struggled to bring the pandemic under control, the president struck a similar note, boldly claiming “We have met the moment and we have prevailed.” The previous week, the number of Americans who had died from the virus in just a few months surpassed the number of American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War.
The Trump campaign has also returned to the maxim that guided its 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton — if voters don’t like you as their candidate, just make them dislike the other candidate more. During the coronavirus crisis, the president has called former Vice President Biden “corrupt,” “crazy,” and “a sleepy guy in the basement of a house” (while sheltering in place, Biden has appeared in interviews and at online campaign events from the basement of this home in Wilmington, Delaware).
Finally, the reelection campaign believes it can convince voters that because President Trump “rebuilt the economy once, he can do so again.”
Democrats, on the other hand, will hammer the message that this virus crisis wasn’t inevitable — that while the virus’s arrival in the U.S. was unavoidable, its uncontrolled spread was not. They’ll say that had the president taken quick and decisive action to secure critical medical supplies, promote social distancing, and build up testing infrastructures, cases of infection and deaths would have been much lower. They will argue that the Obama Administration left him both a playbook and a pandemic team to fight back, and he either ignored or eliminated them. They will focus relentlessly on the cost of this crisis, in lives lost and livelihoods ruined. They will argue that only through the leadership of Vice President Joe Biden — who, they’ll say, helped lead the U.S. through the Great Recession, the collapse of the auto and housing industries, and the scare of the Swine Flu and Ebola scares — will America get back on course.
But this isn’t about Joe Biden, who, I believe, never would have beaten Donald Trump had the economy stayed strong. That’s why, ultimately, neither Republican nor Democrat messaging efforts will make much of a difference. President Trump’s 2020 Catch-22 is that COVID-19 is in the electoral driver’s seat.
Faced with his own Catch-22 in author Joseph Heller’s classic novel, Captain John Yossarian, tired of fighting, decides to go AWOL. He runs out of camp, away from the terrible paradoxes of war and toward the beautiful simplicity of civilian life.
There’s a pretty good chance that come November, American voters will feel the same way. The only problem is there is nowhere for them to run.