Paul Krugman: The nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue

(Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times) President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he departs the White House in Washington, July 29, 2020. "Trump is the kind of boss who can't do the job — and won't go away," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes.

Every worker’s nightmare is the horrible boss — everyone knows at least one — who is utterly incompetent yet refuses to step aside. Such bosses have the reverse Midas touch — everything they handle turns to crud — but they’ll pull out every stop, violate every norm, to stay in that corner office. And they damage, sometimes destroy, the institutions they’re supposed to lead.

Donald Trump is, of course, one of those bosses. Unfortunately, he’s not just a bad business executive. He is, God help us, the president. And the institution he may destroy is the United States of America.

Has any previous president failed his big test as thoroughly as Trump has these past few months? He rejected the advice of health experts and pushed for a rapid economic reopening, hoping for a boom leading into the election. He ridiculed and belittled measures that would have helped slow the spread of the coronavirus, including wearing face masks and practicing social distancing, turning what should have been common sense into a front in the culture war.

The result has been disaster both epidemiological and economic.

Over the past week, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 averaged more than 1,000 people a day, compared with just four — four! — per day in Germany. Vice President Mike Pence’s mid-June declaration that “There isn’t a coronavirus ‘second wave’ " felt like whistling in the dark even at the time; now it feels like a sick joke.

And all those extra deaths don’t seem to have bought us anything in terms of economic performance. America’s economic contraction in the first half of 2020 was almost identical to the contraction in Germany, despite our far higher death toll. And while life in Germany has in many ways returned to normal, a variety of indicators suggest that after two months of rapid job growth, the U.S. recovery is stalling in the face of a resurgent pandemic.

Wait, it gets worse. Trump, his officials and their allies in the Senate have been totally committed to the idea that the U.S. economy will experience a stunningly rapid recovery despite the wave of new infections and deaths. They bought into that view so completely that they seem incapable of taking on board the overwhelming evidence that it isn’t happening.

Just a few days ago Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economist, insisted that a so-called V-shaped recovery was still on track and that “unemployment claims and continuing claims are falling rapidly.” In fact, both are rising.

But because the Trump team insisted that a roaring recovery was coming, and refused to notice that it wasn’t happening, we’ve now stumbled into a completely gratuitous economic crisis.

Thanks to Republican inaction, millions of unemployed workers have seen their last checks from the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which was meant to sustain them through a coronavirus-ravaged economy; the virus is still raging, but their life support has been cut off.

So Trump has completely botched his job, bringing unnecessary pain to millions of Americans and unnecessary death to thousands. He may not care, but voters do. So he should be trying to turn things around, if only as a matter of political and personal self-interest.

But here’s the thing: Even if Trump were the kind of guy who could learn from his mistakes, it’s too late. If we had found ourselves in our current situation a year ago, there might still have been time for Trump to get the virus under control and turn the economy around. But the election is just around the corner.

Suppose that the numbers on deaths and jobs were to get somewhat better over the next three months. How much would that improve voters’ views of the denier in chief? How much credence would the public give, even to genuinely good news, after the false dawn this past spring? At this point Trump is simply a failed president, and everyone except his die-hard supporters knows it.

But as I said at the beginning, Trump is one of those nightmare bosses who can’t do the job but won’t step aside.

So of course he’s now talking about delaying the election. This was predictable; indeed, Joe Biden predicted it months ago, amid much mockery from pundits (none of whom, I predict, will apologize).

Now, Trump can’t do that. There will be an election on Nov. 3. But what Trump can do, if he loses, is claim that the election was stolen, that there were millions of fraudulent votes, that the results aren’t legitimate. Hey, he did that after losing the popular vote in 2016, even though he won the Electoral College.

Such antics almost surely wouldn’t let him stay in the White House, although the process of getting him out may be … interesting. But they could produce a lot of chaos and quite possibly some violence across the nation. And anyone who doesn’t think disgruntled Trump supporters would try to sabotage a Biden administration — including its efforts to deal with the pandemic — hasn’t been paying attention.

This is what happens when you put a horrible boss in charge of running the country. And nobody can say when, if ever, the damage will be repaired.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.