“Yeah, the schools should be opened. Schools should be opened. Kids want to go to school. You’re losing a lot of lives by keeping things closed.” — President Donald Trump, July 13.
For decades Republicans have preached the gospel of “local control” of schools; the idea that the local school board — the homemakers, the local real estate guy, the small business owner — are the people who should have ultimate say about educating our kids. But like almost every other conviction of bedrock conservatism, local control is no longer, to borrow a word from the Nixon era, operative.
You know what else is inoperative: competence.
President Donald Trump and the collection of inept D-list flunkies who surround the president — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos comes to mind — have spent the last three weeks threatening governors, teachers, parents and common sense. Trump even said he’d withhold money from states refusing to open schools, a hollow threat he cannot possibly fulfill, but one in keeping with this administration’s mendacity. Significant amounts of federal education aid go to the poorest schools and to help children with particular learning needs.
The bullying and demanding from Washington, D.C., isn’t based on any serious concern about how schools might operate in the midst of a still accelerating pandemic, but it is based on Trump’s need to manufacture the optics of “a return to normal” that is only happening between the ears of the “very stable genius.”
As columnist Rex Huppke put it in the Chicago Tribune: “You brats are going to listen to me and to your president, Donald J. Trump, and you’re going to march your little rear ends off to school come fall. I don’t care if you have to wade through 5 feet of coronavirus to get there, you’re going!”
Yet, the people most affected — parents, teachers, school cafeteria staff, among others — seem impervious to this Trumpian logic.
“I have yet to see any data where there are appreciable numbers of people who say, ‘Yes, I want my kids back in school,’ ” says Glen Bolger, a veteran Republican pollster, in an interview with the New York Times. “They want their kids back in school, but not right now. I think safety is taking priority over education.”
Or as Kristi Wilson, the superintendent of a small district in Arizona, told the Washington Post: “Although the administration can apparently absorb the 150,000 COVID deaths without care or consequence, we do not have the luxury of even losing one.”
It might have been wise to devote the last couple of months to strengthening distance learning and helping parents prepare for a school year without kids in school buildings. What we got instead is the persistent incompetence and quackery of the Trump administration and the frightened conservative politicians who dare not offend the man who acts like he has all the answers but possesses none of them.
While the president lamented Dr. Anthony Fauci’s high poll numbers compared to his — “but nobody likes me,” Trump whined, while wondering if it had something to do with his personality — he again touted hydroxychloroquine, the drug the Food and Drug Administration says has no proven effectiveness against the coronavirus. We won’t go into the quack doctor Trump cited who “made videos saying that doctors make medicine using DNA from aliens and that they’re trying to create a vaccine to make you immune from becoming religious.”
Trump-era magical thinking has positioned the United States, with only 5 percent of the world’s population but with a quarter of all the world’s cases and vastly more deaths than any other country, as a case study of failure when it comes to controlling the virus.
The squandering of precious time from late March to mid-May, when organizing a national strategy to test, trace and isolate cases could have been done but wasn’t, will be this administration’s deadly legacy. The spreading of quack theories about unproven drugs and phony treatment while making wearing a mask an ideological litmus test is the final proof of the abject failure of Republican efforts to lead and govern.
The GOP has given up on fighting the illness. It’s just too hard for them to handle, a position Idaho Gov. Brad Little summed up perfectly last week when he was asked if his state’s schools would reopen. “I think the answer is, it depends,” Little said.
The governor or his counterparts in Florida, Texas or Arizona might have said: “You know, the answer for very many schools is no. We must recognize that the disease is out of control, spreading uncontrollably and we must redouble our efforts to fight it. One step is to end the magical thinking that suggests we should put teachers and children and the grandparents of school children at real risk by too quickly going back to in-person schooling. We have more work to do before we can do that.”
Something like that would have been an honest and indeed helpful answer, allowing parents and teachers to plan and prepare. But instead of the functional equivalent of “we will fight on the beaches ... we shall never surrender” to the virus we get “it depends.”
“This collapse of a major political party as a moral governing force is unlike anything we have seen in modern American politics,” longtime Republican consultant Stuart Stevens wrote recently. He compared the collapse of the party, its abandonment of expertise and common sense and its embrace of a reality television star, to the demise of the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union. In short, what the party says it is bears no resemblance to what it actually is.
The disconnect between what Republican leaders tell their constituents about issues such as wearing a mask and opening school and the relentless, unbending reality of the pandemic is simply not sustainable. The terrible logic of the virus is going to win every time and the way the incompetents continue to handle it signals that we are on track to never put it behind us.
Ask yourself this logical question: If, as a result of a still little understood disease that will almost certainly claim thousands more American lives between now and Labor Day, your local school board, your health district and your State Board of Education are reduced to meeting by Zoom to consider reopening the schools, is it really such a great idea to reopen the schools?
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.