I was driving back roads north of Memphis last Saturday, up around Shelby Forest, which, it turned out, was closed due to the COVID-19 situation. The locals, however, didn't seem to be much worried about it.
At a country gas station/convenience store where I stopped, it could have been April 2019. There was no difference in behavior among the patrons, no evidence whatsoever that the disease that is consuming most of the country's attention even existed. Six bikers sat at a picnic table eating sandwiches and chips. People stood in line inside, and came and went from the pumps to the store with casual indifference to the six-feet-apart warning. A couple of them looked sideways at the weirdo wearing a mask and wiping down the handle at the gas pump. I smiled at them, but they couldn't see it.
Maybe they're onto something. Maybe the sneaky virus doesn't pose as much of a danger to country folks who already live separated from their neighbors, who gather only at convenience stores on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. It seemed to be a bet most of them were making.
It's a point of view echoed by Rush Limbaugh and numerous other, er, conservatives, who contend that the economy is being closed down to ruin Donald Trump's chances of re-election. They say that the disease threat is being exaggerated and that the "leftists" are all in on it, especially the media. According to Rush and the president's other cheerleaders, those of us in the media are apparently so intent on bringing down the president, we're willing to destroy our own businesses — and the businesses of all our advertisers — to spite the president. Logic!
Logical or not, it's a sentiment that's gaining momentum in the White House, as the president looks to "reopen the country" as soon as possible. Since the president didn't "shut down" the country — governors and other local officials did — there is some confusion as to how exactly he'd open it up.
Trump said Monday at his daily briefing that, as president, his "authority is total." When it was pointed out by a reporter that it's actually the governors who have the power to decide when to open up their states, Trump fumed and turned red and insulted the reporter. The next day, he tweeted something about "Mutiny on the Bounty" and suggested the "Democratic governors" were mutineers who should remember they "need so much from the Captain." Meaning, I suppose, that Trump will continue using federal aid for the fight against coronavirus as a political weapon, just as he has been for weeks. People are dying because the president doesn't like the level of "respect" he gets from certain governors. History will not be kind to Captain Trump.
So, what happens when Trump gets antsy and decides to unilaterally declare the country "open for business" on, say May 15th? If past is prologue, most GOP governors will supinely follow the president's lead and declare that their states — Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, to name a few — are magically out of danger and ready to roll. Everything's back to normal!
Governors who think science and medical expertise are more important markers for public safety than ideology or obeisance to the president will likely move more cautiously, hoping to avoid a resurgence of the disease in their state.
This will "open up America" in an entirely new way. A great Darwinian experiment will ensue, as Americans divide into two camps: those who believe in the president and who will gleefully return to normal activities, and those who think he's a fool and who will keep wearing masks and distancing until scientists and medical experts say to do otherwise. Masks will become the progressive version of the MAGA hat, the mark of a socialist wussy who doesn't believe in Trump.
My clever friend (and former Memphis magazine editor) Ed Weathers proposed this week that when Trump reopens the economy, he should hold large rallies in swing states and shake lots of hands, just to prove how right he is. For the record, I think this is a brilliant plan and I hope someone suggests it to The Donald.
So which side will turn out to be right? It should be easy to keep score. If Trump is correct and the disease just "goes away," the maskers will look like sissies. If, on the other hand, the scientists of the world are correct, those of us who believed them will have the last laugh.