Trump can’t guide us through the coronavirus pandemic, but conservatism can help

Trump is too small a man for this big a job. Sober, rational and compassionate conservative principles will be important to navigate these unchartered waters.

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President Donald Trump participates in a Fox News Virtual Town Hall on March 24, 2020.

President Donald Trump participates in a Fox News Virtual Town Hall on March 24, 2020.

Doug Mills/Pool/Sipa USA

While many state governors are stepping up to meet the continuing challenges of coronavirus in unprecedented ways, our federal government continues to let us down.

At the White House, we know the president took too long to act, dismissed the seriousness of the pandemic in the earliest days, spread misleading information about test availability and drug treatments at press briefings, and used those briefings to blame everyone from former President Obama to the media for his own leadership failures.

He has publicly contradicted and diminished his own medical experts, belittled governors for demanding more assistance, smirked at the hardship of political rivals, and personally and viciously attacked journalists.

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Donald Trump has, in a word, been a disaster. He is too small a man for this big a job.

Over in Congress, the picture isn’t much prettier. While Americans are out of work, running out of money and afraid for their lives and livelihood, lawmakers squabble over procedure and petty politics. Republicans want a stimulus package to include a nearly $450 billion slush fund for the Treasury Department and President Trump to hand out to ailing firms of their choosing.

Democrats have larded up a stimulus bill with galling pet projects for solar and wind energy and Big Labor, while allocating so-called “emergency” funding to everyone from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to Howard University and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Congress, too, is letting Americans down in an urgent time of need.

Philosophical debates over big and small government, free-market economics and even the meaning of compassion are bouncing around in the ether as we try to get a hold on what is happening and what to do about it.

Conservatism can and should provide a guide.

Over the past four years, the Trump era has muted conservatism’s influence in Republican politics. Principles and policies conservatives have long held dear have been bastardized and repackaged by Trump, leaving real conservatism floating like the jetsam of a shipwreck.

Now more than ever, its usefulness will become clear, not only as a check on the far left, but more importantly as a check on Trump Republicans.

In the wake of coronavirus, some truly terrible, illiberal and life-threatening ideas have emerged from various corners. From the Department of Justice, a request for Congress to ask chief judges to detain arrested citizens indefinitely without trial during emergencies such as this one. Conservatives in the Republican Congress, like Rep. Justin Amash and Sen. Mike Lee, pushed back.

As Republicans from the president to Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to Larry Kudlow suggest we must make “tradeoffs” to reopen the economy sooner than medical experts are recommending — tradeoffs that could put as much as 2.5% of the population, or about 8 million Americans, at risk of dying — conservatives must stand up for life and against this kind of morbid social engineering.

Likewise, the president refuses to use the levers the federal government has, including the Defense Production Act, and tells state governments, essentially, to figure it out for themselves. “You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo barked at FEMA Tuesday. “What are we going to do with 400 ventilators when we need 30,000?”

It must be up to small-government conservatives to urge bigger government in a time of crisis. Federalism is an important political model for self-governance, but not when states can’t get surgical masks and hospital gowns. If there’s ever a time to feed the beast instead of starve it, it is now.

Innovation will come from both the public and private sector, and while Bernie Sanders and other progressives are slamming “CEOs,” conservatives must stand up for large corporations who can shoulder the most sacrifice — corporations like Walmart, which is hiring 150,000 new workers, and Amazon, which is hiring 100,000. Floating zero-interest loans to companies hit hardest will be an important step in our economic recovery.

Though Trump may wish to relegate philosophical conservatism to irrelevance in favor of his own cartoon Republicanism — and has largely succeeded, thus far — sober, rational and compassionate conservative principles will be important as we try as a country to navigate these unchartered waters. We’ll be living with the decisions we make today long after Trump is out of office.

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp: Unfiltered” on CNN.

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