President Donald Trump wants to draft every American to go to war.
Encouraging the public to transition out of isolation and into the world, the president is increasingly deploying battlefield rhetoric in asking everyday Americans to confront a raging coronavirus pandemic that has already infected 1.3 million people in the U.S. and killed more than 80,000 — and this week clawed its way into the inner circle of his White House.
“The people of our country should think of themselves as warriors,” he said during a recent visit to a face mask plant in Arizona. “Our country has to open.”
A day later, reporters at the White House asked the president whether the new moniker was his way of telling the American people to swallow the fact that reopening the economy will result in more Covid-19 cases — and therefore more deaths.
“So I called these people warriors,” he responded, gesturing to nurses gathered behind him. “And I’m actually calling now … the nation warriors. We have to be warriors. We can’t keep our country closed down for years. And we have to do something.”
Trump has already dubbed himself a “wartime president,” invoking the language of military conflict as he confronts a “strong” and “tough” opponent — “the invisible enemy.”
But the past week marked a more deliberate messaging strategy as the White House shifted its efforts toward resuscitating a sputtering economy with the president’s own battle for reelection less than six months away.
Along with conscripting Americans as soldiers in the reopening effort, this week was also the first time Trump publicly compared the pandemic directly to two of the most notable national tragedies in modern American history.
“This is really the worst attack we’ve ever had. This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center. There’s never been an attack like this,” he said at the White House on Wednesday. The comment immediately prompted questions about whether he viewed the outbreak, which has triggered conspiracy theories tied to its origin in China, as a deliberate act of war.
“I view it as a — well, I view the invisible enemy as a war. I don’t like how it got here because it could have been stopped,” he asserted later, correctly pointing out that the novel coronavirus has killed many times the number of Americans in either of the historical attacks.
Invoking war as a metaphor is a natural impulse for leaders in a crisis, even if doing so might not be the right fit for the current moment, said James J. Kimble, a Seton Hall University professor who studies war rhetoric.
“Almost any time there’s a national emergency of one sort or another … World War II is going to crop up. 9/11 starts to come up, too,” he said. “It’s sort of this existing cultural narrative — not really based so much on fact anymore, just a useful analogy.”
Those allusions by the president, he said, call forth a sense of urgency that general battlefield language might not, underscoring the notion that the outbreak was the kind of “surprise attack” that in America has often given birth to a sense of unity afterward.
But the approach goes only so far in extending the label across the American public. “Where he’s going with it?” Kimble said. “OK, I’m a warrior. What does that mean?”
The wider American public is just the latest group Trump has drafted into battle. The designation has gradually broadened in scope as the crisis progressed.
In March, the White House constantly hailed the health care “warriors” on the front lines of the virus, as Trump described them in news briefings “running” into hospitals as though they were soldiers running into the line of fire.
Later he expanded it to include other front-line workers, including truck drivers and grocery store workers — “such incredible bravery” — and touted the progress of a “unified national effort.”
It’s a tactic Trump has employed before in his presidency, with two other groups he asked to endure hardships on his behalf when he found himself in politically treacherous waters.
Earlier this year, when Washington was consumed with impeachment proceedings against the president, Trump repeatedly praised the Republican “warriors” in Congress who stood by his side.
Before that, he dubbed the nation’s battered farmers as warriors in his trade disputes with China, urging them to soldier through the financial hammering caused by retaliatory tariffs.
The same week he adopted the label of a “wartime president” was when he began to refer to the coronavirus as an “invisible enemy,” a description he’s used on a near-daily basis ever since.
That pivot came after weeks of criticism that Trump was not taking the virus seriously enough — just a week earlier he was still suggesting it would miraculously disappear — and questions about the White House’s fumbling of early testing efforts and the national lack of critical medical supplies.
While the nation’s testing capabilities are still not where experts say it needs to be for the economy to reopen, the Trump administration has significantly scaled up test production.
Social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home initiatives, meanwhile, have had the intended effect of flattening the curve of infections, preventing the strain on hospital resources that had been feared.
But the latest shift conveys a different kind of sacrifice, asking everyday Americans to literally put themselves in harm’s way, as a member of the military would.
The White House has sought to counter the grim implication of Trump’s new label. In a news briefing, his top spokeswoman offered a different take on the president’s “warrior” pronouncements.
“The notion that the American people are warriors — they're warriors because they've stayed home. They're warriors because they've social distanced,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Wednesday, applauding Americans who’d made “really hard sacrifices” and arguing “it's because of you that we're at this place where we can reopen the country.”
Asked about the discrepancy between her reading of the warrior moniker and the president’s, McEnany maintained there was no daylight.
“We're saying the exact same thing. The president says they're warriors to reopen, because guess what? In order to get to reopening, you have to social distance,” she replied.
The return to war rhetoric comes as the coronavirus crisis strips away some of Trump’s chief arguments for reelection.
The president frequently references the strength of the economy heading into the pandemic. But his campaign’s efforts to paint Trump as the sole figure who can restore the nation to its former prosperity are drowned out by devastating jobs reports like the one that came out Friday showing more than 20 million jobs lost in a single month.
And it’s becoming harder for Trump to paint Democrats, including his presumptive rival Joe Biden, as Big Government socialists — a line of attack the president has used often — while he's signing into law trillions of dollars worth of industry bailouts, showering the public with checks and running up the federal debt at a pace far faster than his predecessor did.
There are signs that the initial turn to dubbing Trump a “wartime president” paid off, with a short-lived bump in his approval rating in the wake of his decision to first invoke the Defense Production Act, deploy military hospital ships to hard-hit areas and use the Army Corps of Engineers to build field hospitals.
Historically, American voters often have been reluctant to kick presidents out of office in the middle of a national crisis. And adopting war metaphors in the fight against coronavirus may afford Trump some political cover for floating unproven cures for the disease or urging Americans to return to work before meeting certain public health benchmarks or before the necessary testing and contact-tracing mechanisms are in place.
But the unique nature of the coronavirus crisis could restrain the power of that rhetoric to sustain the president politically.
The abstract nature of the pandemic means there’s less distinction between solders on the home front and the battle front as the economy reopens. And the undefined, scattershot nature of what the White House is asking Americans to do is complicated further by a patchwork of restrictions and reopening plans from state to state.
Throughout the national mobilization during World War II, a comparison the White House has often cited, civilians could buy war bonds, organize scrap metal drives or plant victory gardens. “There was a pretty definable list of actions,” Kimble said.
But orders to stay home or pleas to patronize small businesses to help them stay afloat are less easily defined.
A pitfall of wartime rhetoric is usually “it’s a metaphor that has a destination built in,” Kimble said, unlike the current crisis, in which health experts have warned that it might not be possible for a complete return to normal until the development of a vaccine.
“Maybe it’s just intended to give us hope,” he said.