For three years, Donald Trump led a charmed life. He faced only one major crisis that he didn’t generate himself — Hurricane Maria — and although his botched response contributed to a tragedy that killed thousands of U.S. citizens, the deaths took place off camera, allowing him to deny that anything bad had happened.
Now, however, we face a much bigger crisis with the coronavirus. And Trump’s response has been worse than even his harshest critics could have imagined. He has treated a dire threat as a public relations problem, combining denial with frantic blame-shifting.
His administration has failed to deliver the most basic prerequisite of pandemic response, widespread testing to track the disease’s spread. He has failed to implement recommendations of public health experts, instead imposing pointless travel bans on foreigners when all indications are that the disease is already well established in the United States.
And his response to the economic fallout has veered between complacency and hysteria, with a strong admixture of cronyism.
It’s something of a mystery why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, normally a highly competent agency, has utterly failed to provide resources for widespread coronavirus testing during the pandemic’s crucial early stages. But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the incompetence is related to politics, perhaps to Trump’s desire to play down the threat.
According to Reuters, the Trump administration has ordered health agencies to treat all coronavirus deliberations as classified. This makes no sense and is indeed destructive in terms of public policy, but it makes perfect sense if the administration doesn’t want the public to know how its actions are endangering American lives.
In any case, it’s clear what we should be doing now that there must already be thousands of cases all across the United States. We need to slow the disease’s spread by creating “social distance” — banning large gatherings, encouraging those who can to work from home — and quarantining hot spots. This may or may not be enough to prevent tens of millions from getting sick, but even spreading out the pandemic over time would help prevent it from overloading the health care system, greatly reducing the number of deaths.
But there was almost none of this in Trump’s speech; he’s still acting as if this is a threat foreigners are bringing to America.
And when it comes to the economy, Trump seems to fluctuate day to day — even hour to hour — between assertions that everything is fine and demands for enormous, ill-conceived stimulus.
His big idea for the economy is a complete payroll tax holiday. According to Bloomberg News, he told Republican senators that he wanted the holiday to extend “through the November election so that taxes don’t go back up before voters decide whether to return him to office.” That is, he apparently said the quiet part out loud.
This would be an enormous move. Payroll taxes are 5.9% of GDP; by comparison, the Obama stimulus of 2009-2010 peaked at about 2.5% of GDP. Yet it would be very poorly targeted: big breaks for well-paid workers, nothing for the unemployed or those without paid sick leave.
Why do it this way? After all, if the goal is to put money in people’s hands, why not just send out checks? Apparently Republicans can’t conceive of an economic policy that doesn’t take the form of tax cuts.
Trump also reportedly wants to provide aid to specific industries, including oil and shale — a continuation of his administration’s efforts to subsidize fossil fuels.
Democrats, by contrast, have proposed a package that would actually address the needs of the moment: free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave, expanded unemployment benefits and an increase in federal matching funds for Medicaid programs, which would both help states meet the demands of the crisis and sustain overall spending by relieving the pressure on state budgets.
Notice, by the way, that these measures would help the economy in an election year and therefore arguably help Trump politically. But Democrats are willing to do the right thing anyway — a stark contrast to the behavior of Republicans after the 2008 financial crisis, when they offered scorched-earth opposition to anything that might mitigate the damage.
The White House, however, is having none of it, with an official accusing Democrats of pushing a “radical left agenda.” I guess sick leave equals socialism, even in a pandemic.
So what’s going on? What we’re seeing here is a meltdown — not just a meltdown of the markets but a meltdown of Trump’s mind. When bad things happen, there are only three things he knows how to do: insist that things are great and his policies are perfect, cut taxes, and throw money at his cronies.
Now he’s faced with a crisis where none of these standbys will work, where he actually needs to cooperate with Nancy Pelosi to avoid catastrophe. What we saw in Wednesday’s speech was that he’s completely incapable of rising to the occasion. We needed to see a leader; what we saw was an incompetent, delusional blowhard.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.