Can Governor Abbott Help Texas Escape Trump's COVID-19 Containment Failure?

As Texans pondered their Thanksgiving plans last week after national public health officials advised Americans to drastically trim down their plans for holiday gatherings (like don’t have them), Governor Greg Abbott held his first public briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic in months from afflicted Lubbock. The oft-quoted, central message wasn’t focused at all on the looming holiday:

It is important for everybody in the state to know that statewide, we’re not gonna have another shutdown. There's an overestimation of exactly what a shutdown will achieve, and there's a misunderstanding about what a shutdown will not achieve.

If the syntax in that last couplet is just one “mis” away from George W. Bush-level word salad, the political message is pure red meat: The Governor will not be shutting down the state even though public health officials assure us that the pandemic is home for the holidays. 

The Governor’s determination to resort to denial and double-negatives couldn’t come at a worse time. As Thanksgiving week begins, the inevitable holiday travel stories on cable news seem eerily familiar given the objective situation at the moment. Texans and Americans have started travelling all across the country even though they face the bleakest point yet in our collective inability to contain the coronavirus. With daily cases surging far beyond last summer’s peak, implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, the Governor’s call to persevere and trust the efficacy of a strategy that is already demonstrably failing is sure to result in more of the same.

Governor Abbott’s rejection of efforts by local officials in El Paso to enact protocols meant to protect their constituents in response to the state’s current surge is consistent with his approach to date. But his unwillingness to implement a course correction as case counts surge past summer high marks conveys the embrace of a Trumpian avoidance of being criticized (again) for adjusting to a situation either beyond his control, or even worse, made more severe by his previous policy choices. As The Texas Tribune’s Patrick Sviteck and Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff write:

On June 26, Texas was reporting 5,102 people had been hospitalized due to the coronavirus, breaking a new record for the state. The positivity rate — the portion of tests that come back positive — had hovered above Gov. Greg Abbott’s “warning flag” level of 10% for more than a week.

Abbott swept into action. For a second time in months, the Republican governor shut down bars and rolled back restaurant capacity. Six days later, he took arguably his most drastic action yet, announcing a statewide mask mandate.

This week, more than 7,400 Texans are hospitalized for COVID-19, and the positivity rate has exceeded 10% for over three weeks.

But the governor’s strategy as the state heads into the holidays is to stay the course, relying on a 2-month-old blueprint to claw back reopenings regionally based on hospitalizations.

To be fair, the “2-month-old blueprint” that Svitek and Rosenzwieg-Ziff mention would roll back business capacity in response to those thresholds at a regional level — in other words, greater restrictions will automatically kick-in, on a regional basis, as the data warrant it. It also requires certain actions by local officials, though Abbott’s consistency in assisting in the enforcement of, or enforcing his own enforcement mechanisms appear mixed.

While Abbott’s statement is consistent with his blueprint, in that shutdowns would likely be implemented on a regional rather than a statewide basis, the timing of returning to the public stage to deliver a “hold the line,” status quo message on the pandemic front seems off – especially when the status quo is moving in the wrong direction, and set to accelerate in that direction because of the holiday. Trumpeting the availability of limited amounts of a COVID-19 treatment for those already infected while reiterating his refusal to do more, even as the state sees surging case counts, all on the eve of what is normally one of the biggest travel seasons in the year, conveys a blitheness to the disaster that feels like a hangover from an earlier phase of the pandemic.

The Governor’s tacking on fighting the pandemic has always been marked by efforts to navigate both national and state politics as well as, to be fair, an attempt to manage a crisis largely unlike the other state emergencies in which he enjoyed good grades for his response. But this time, the national and state politics are linked in a way that a regionally devastating Hurricane does not. At the pandemic’s outset, the Governor was clearly wary of publicly responding to the virus in any way that might be taken by the thin-skinned president as even remotely critical of the White House’s denial-based approach. This seemed in part an effort to avoid direct retaliation by the president, but also to prevent piling on by the elements in his party who followed the president’s lead on all fronts – denying the reality of the pandemic, behaving accordingly, and berating those who don’t share their views.

Trump’s pose on the virus clearly took with his followers in Texas. Asked in October University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling whether it was more important to control the spread of the virus, even if it hurt the economy, or more important to help the economy, even if it hurt efforts to control the spread of the virus, a majority of Republicans, 66%, prioritized the economy over the virus, compared with only 7% of Democrats. This distinction was a big one in this year’s election, with Donald Trump winning 84% of those voters who said that the economy was the most important issue in deciding their vote choice from among a list including the coronavirus pandemic, racial inequality, crime and safety, and health care policy — a group that made up 40% of the Texas electorate according to exit polling.

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Help the economy7%40%66%
Control the virus86%47%21%
Don't know/No opinion7%13%14%

Even though Trump is now on the way out, the political considerations of Texas’ leadership still reflect the lame duck president who failed to honestly confront the American people with the realities of the pandemic and its consequences. Trump may be leaving, but the blithe attitudes toward the pandemic he has cultivated among the most inflamed of his GOP bannerman have been spliced into the same impulses that elected officials use to animate conservative voters regardless of who holds the White House: An aversion (in most circumstances) to strong government interventions along with a commitment (in most instances) to individual liberty, even at the expense of the collective good.

Setting aside for the moment, the inconsistency of the application of these precepts among, say, aging white Social Security and Medicare subscribers and Blue Lives Matters supporters in the GOP base, COVID-19 denialism has infected conservative discourse with almost the same virulence that the real thing exhibits among humans. It has taken no time for conservatives to see a tyrannical conspiracy using an over-hyped threat as an excuse to suppress freedom and institute socialism when what they are really looking at are necessarily scaled efforts to combat a public health emergency. And weird and disconcerting as the fringes of these beliefs are, the president and his enablers, including virtually all ranking Texas Republicans, have facilitated their spread into the bloodstream of a growing chunk of the electorate. You don’t have to be sporting a QAnon bumper sticker on your SUV to give COVID-19 an eyeroll. It’s a red pill that goes down easy in a red state.

Lest the ideology get too abstract, we make recourse yet again to three polls worth of UT polling data that underlines the attitudes that Abbott increasingly appears forced to play to as the very concrete threats posed by the winter holidays loom. In almost any measure of either attitudes or reported behavior in response to the pandemic, as a group, the most conservative Texans became more skeptical of the seriousness of the virus, and less concerned about the safety of their public behavior. This was all manifest as the slope of the current flare-up was beginning in early october.

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Living normally, coming and going as usual10%24%41%
Still leaving my residence, but being careful when I do38%43%41%
Only leaving my residence when I absolutely have to50%30%18%
Not leaving home2%2%1%

Thus Texans are stuck in a boat captained by a Governor taking navigation advice from those who refuse to believe in icebergs. But the headlines and the visuals coming out of places like El Paso – like footage of temporary morgues being loaded by misdemeanor inmates impressed to handle the growing number of bodies – may get hard to deny. Still, the administration stays on course: Attorney General Ken Paxton continues to fight the El Paso County commissioner over his attempts to contain the virus in his county, even as the Governor holds his press conference in the stricken but more politically accommodating confines of Lubbock. 

The mounting numbers appearing nightly on local newscasts across the state are even more discordant with both this denialism and Abbott’s more mild but almost equally destructive gradualism. The case counts and death tallies have been rising inexorably as Fall has progressed, with the latter mitigated only by some improvements in treatment learned through the grim experience of the Spring. Many may have become numb to these numbers, and in general, large numbers are difficult for people to contextualize. But the images, whether of figures in jailhouse garb shepherding bodies into trailers or the steep line of an exponential increase in cases, become harder and harder to deny. Conspiracy girded by obeisance to a tragically fallen leader remains a last, desperate, irrational recourse.

And yet Governor Abbott continues to stay the course. Touting the arrival of a new coronavirus treatment as he reassured whoever is still listening that he won’t shut the state down, he implicitly reminded Texans that the strategy, at this point, is to suffer through the virus until a vaccine can be distributed — and explicitly reminded them that the economy come first.  Despite the potential problem this strategy poses given public skepticism over the safety of a rushed vaccine, and demonstrated uncertainty about whether they would take one once available. 

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Don't know/No opinion21%

It would be ironic were it not so laden with assured tragedy that Abbott appears to believe he is boxed in to pursuing a version of the strategy that failed Trump. One might wonder if Trump would have won those closely contested battleground states, or at least some of them, had he stayed on a consistent message of keeping the economy running as safely as possible until a vaccine is produced, rather than half-heartedly hinting at this message one day only to contradict it the next with his now tragicomic “round the corner” rants and other assorted indignities. Whatever might have been, Trump probably didn’t have it in him anyway. Abbott’s history shows him to be more effective and, in hi own way, more politically flexible,  But Trump’s effect on Texas Republicans and Abbott’s acquiescence to him for the last four years leaves him less room to maneuver now that all Texans, whatever their party or ideology, really need a new approach, whether they recognize it or not. Trump will soon be gone, while the virus remains.  Widespread imitiation of Trump's denial and belief in his fake assurances remain, too. Both make it harder for Abbott, and for many of the Texans now relying on him, to change course.