Everyone is familiar with the garden gnome, the little ornamental figurines that look the dwarfs from children’s stories. Most people assume they originated in Germany, but they have their roots in ancient Rome. Small stone statues depicting the Greco-Roman fertility god Priapus were placed in the garden of Roman citizens. Like many Roman customs, the use of garden statues spread throughout the empire and eventually we got what we now call the garden gnome.
Of course, we use garden gnomes to keep the giraffes out of the garden. Not just any giraffes either. Normal giraffes are not a problem obviously. It is the albino miniature giraffes that attack the suburban garden. The liberal use of the garden gnomes has kept the miniature albino giraffes from terrorizing gardeners for generations. The proof of this, of course, is that we have no problem with miniature albino giraffes. In fact, it has worked so well no one has even seen one of these giraffes.
That may strike you as ridiculous, but it is something to keep in mind over the next few weeks as our leaders figure out how to unwind this virus panic. You see, a month ago they had two possible outcomes. One was the virus spread and killed a bunch of people, which would be very bad for the ruling class. The other possible outcome was a mild spread that got little notice and then it petered out. Heads they got blamed for ignoring a pandemic and tails they get no credit remaining calm about it.
That’s a bad gamble for a politician, which is probably why Tucker Carlson talked Trump into declaring total war on the virus. If all efforts were made to stop the virus, even if it craters the economy, the possibilities get much better. If the virus runs its course without much trouble and goes away like every other virus, Trump can declare war and throw himself a triumph. If the virus turns out to be the Antonine Plague, then Trump can fairly say it would have been much worse if not for his efforts.
What just happened is Trump has flipped the odds on what happens after the panic subsides this summer. In the do-nothing scenario, one outcome was neutral and one outcome was terrible. In the do-everything scenario, the outcomes are reversed. There one great outcome and one mostly neutral one. If it is the Antonine Plague, civilization collapses and none of this matters. Since the most likely outcome under all scenarios was closer to the Honk Kong Flu, this is a neutral result.
This is where the garden gnomes come into the picture. Just as we know that garden gnomes keep miniature albino giraffes from attacking our gardens, we know flattening the curb keeps this virus from becoming the Yellow Death. Anyone questioning these assertions is on the side of the miniature albino giraffes or the virus. The fact that these assertions are nonsense is beside the point. If people can be made to believe it, then these claims are true, as far anyone needs to know or care.
Now, the only way this works is if they can plausibly say they pulled out all the stops to prevent the worst pandemic in human history. If it was a bunch of talk and half-measures, they could get blamed for not doing enough. If the virus was a dud, then they would be accused of over-reacting to a minor event in order to politicize it. The only way to make the garden gnome gambit work is to go heavy on the response, regardless of the consequences. There can be no moderation.
The extreme measures also have the added benefit of swaying the public that the virus is Godzilla attacking Tokyo. This unprecedented shutdown of civic life, which is really just getting started, is the real monster of the story. At this point, you have a better chance to be struck by lightning than to know a virus victim. Even the girls on social media have not started faking infection yet. People look at the massive disruption of daily life and just assume the threat must be genuine.
Now there is one flaw with this approach. The shuttering of the country is going to come with a massive price tag. Current estimates, for example, suggest the rosy scenario for the economy is a 5% contraction in quarter one followed by a 25% contraction in quarter number two. It’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen in the second half of the year, but those are numbers that dwarf the first year of the Great Depression. Maybe after the quarantine is lifted, a massive recovery starts in the summer.
Of course, as soon as the coast is clear and the virus has been defeated, Trump throws himself a triumph and launches a new war on the depression. The people in the breadlines will not be impressed, but if the economy starts to recover in the summer, he can plausibly say the sacrifice was worth it. He can do a bunch of campaign stops at retirement homes to pose with octogenarians spared by the virus. That all sounds terribly cynical, but politics is a cynical business.
Another side benefit of this is the alarmist can claim to be vindicated. Like the people claiming their garden gnomes keep the giraffes away, the alarmists will say these extreme measures headed off an extinction event. By the end of the summer, they will be telling tales about an anthropomorphized virus that was eating men whole. Even if they hate Trump, they will celebrate him for taking their advice. The garden gnome gambit lets everyone be a hero, no matter the results.
Finally, Trump came to Washington as a chaos agent. He created chaos in the primary and the general election. His arrival in Washington set off panic among the establishment that has never subsided. This response to the virus and the ensuing panic it has caused is best suited for someone, who thrives in chaos. The garden gnome gambit is also best employed by someone, who relentlessly boasts about his achievements. Trump is now fully in control of Washington.
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