Cartoon by Mike Luckovich
As the numbers of dead and unemployed grow, Trump looks and sounds smaller
The Guardian: The trump card of Donald Trump was always going to be the economy. If it wasn’t the job market, it was the stock market. You could read it every day in his endless, mindless tweeting or the oh-so-subtle briefings of his campaign aides. November was going to be all about the economy, stupid.
Having ripped off so much of Ronald Reagan’s 1980s paraphernalia – including the slogan he now claims to have invented himself – Trump was all set to ask the voters the same question that Reagan posed just before his own re-election: are you better off than you were four years ago?
For an astonishingly large number of Americans, their answer is a deafeningly loud no. For almost everyone else, the answer is soon to be no.
This week’s unemployment numbers have taken the same rocket-ship trajectory as the number of coronavirus cases. Last week it was a record 3.3 million new claims; this week it doubled to another 6.65 million new claims. That’s almost 10 million newly unemployed Americans: more than the previous 10 months combined.
Experts already believe that the unemployment rate has jumped from historic lows of 3.5% to numbers we haven’t seen since the Great Depression of around 17%. You don’t need to be an expert to know we have yet to reach peak pain.
We can argue about what number represents the greatest suffering in this pandemic: the number of the victims or the unemployed. Each one of the people affected – by the virus and by the virus-led recession – is more important to consider than the fate of one man watching cable television in the White House.
But we also need to talk about the carnival barker who played a businessman on reality TV for a few years. Because we have never seen someone more ill-suited for leadership at a time of crisis. The history books tell us about Herbert Hoover’s failures to intervene to stop the Great Depression. They tell us about James Buchanan’s support for slavery and his failure to head off the secession of the slave states.
Still, Trump stands alone: an incredibly shrinking man who looks and sounds smaller as the numbers of dead and unemployed grow ever larger. Even George W Bush’s epically disastrous war in Iraq pales into insignificance. More Americans have died from this pandemic than in Bush’s war of choice: more than 6,000 dead at the most recent count.
Before the revisionists try too hard to make us forget, Trump’s leadership as the virus spread was as loud as a red cap perched on an orange combover. He abolished the pandemic group inside his own national security council, set aside the pandemic playbook left by his predecessor, and proposed cutting the CDC’s funding at the very moment the pandemic was taking hold. He spent February pretending like the pandemic was a hoax or would disappear, and spent March telling governors to fend for themselves.
So how did he respond to the worst weekly unemployment claims in American history? By changing the subject to the oil industry, suggesting that the Saudis and Russians might just be cutting production. As he bizarrely tweeted to a shell-shocked nation, “If it happens, will be GREAT for the oil & gas industry.”
Only this sociopath of a president could imagine that what’s good for the oil industry is good for the souls of 10 million newly unemployed Americans.
Later in the day, at his so-called press briefing, he said he knew “better than anybody” what people were suffering in the restaurant business. His cure is to allow corporations to make their restaurant expenses deductible from their taxes. If only people were going to work and having boozy business lunches, this might just be an idea worth throwing in the trash can. Instead, it’s yet another presidential brain fart.
“We’ve learned so much, so much, that we really have a chance to be bigger and better and stronger,” he concluded, treating the epic disasters of the pandemic and recession as just one more lesson in his on-the-job training course.
Sadly Trump’s capacity to learn is far smaller than the economy’s capacity to shed jobs. So we have stimulus cash designed to help people through the worst of the pandemic arriving not this month, or next, or the one after that. Some people won’t receive the help until September, according to internal documents from the Internal Revenue Service.
How could we face such a botched preparation for a pandemic and such a botched response to a recession? Look no further than our botcher-in-chief, who decided to write to the Democratic leader in the Senate yesterday as if the only crisis that mattered was the one that threatened his ego.
Trump’s spat with Chuck Schumer began, appropriately enough, with the New York senator appearing on cable news. Demonstrating the full scope of his leadership skills, Trump wrote a letter that ran the gamut of his emotions from infantile to childish.
“If you spent less time on your ridiculous impeachment hoax, which went haplessly on forever and ended up going nowhere (except increasing my poll numbers),” he wrote, “and instead focused on helping the people of New York, then New York would not have been so completely unprepared for the ‘invisible enemy.’”
When it comes to haplessly going on forever, Trump may be something of an expert. It makes up for his lack of expertise in preparing for the invisible enemy that everyone but Trump could actually see coming.
Now the man who could not prepare for one pandemic disaster is even less prepared for the economic disaster unfolding at the same time.
How do countries differ in their response to the coronavirus economic crisis?
Back in the late stages of the 2008 election, in the middle of the financial collapse, then-candidate Barack Obama was stunned to hear the economists’ projections of 10% unemployment. “We’ll have riots on the streets if that happens,” one of his closest aides said in disbelief at the time. For his part, Obama joked darkly in private that maybe it would be better to lose the election after all.
Unemployment peaked at 10% a full year later. That was the single biggest factor in the Republican (and Tea Party) resurgence in Congress in 2010, effectively ending Obama’s legislative power just two years into his presidency.
Today, as unemployment approaches twice that rate, Trump is already trailing Biden in the three battleground states that narrowly won him the presidency four years ago: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Those states just happen to be where the spike in unemployment claims is among the highest in the country.
It won’t be long before Biden’s aides wonder what country they will face next January. November’s election could be just the start of their troubles.
Richard Wolffe is a Guardian US columnist