In the weeks since a historically contagious virus began spreading through American bodies — and shredding U.S. equities — the president has worked tirelessly to keep his constituents misinformed and underprepared. Donald Trump has repeatedly assured the public that the novel coronavirus was contained, that the risk to them was low, and that it was a great time to buy stocks (even as public health and financial experts insisted that none of those things were true). Over the past 72 hours, as thousands of Americans came under quarantine and global markets tumbled, the commander-in-chief demanded to know why coronavirus was causing such a stir when “37,000 Americans died from the common Flu” last year and yet “nothing is shut down”; congratulated Fox & Friends for earning higher ratings than “Morning Joke”; and retweeted a meme referencing the QAnon far-right conspiracy theory.
Trump’s efforts to downplay the severity of the burgeoning public-health crisis were ostensibly motivated by a desire to prioritize portfolio values over human lives: Better to forgo mitigation efforts that could limit fatalities than take heavy-handed measures that might spook investors. But a pandemic isn’t a high crime or misdemeanor; Sean Hannity and Senate Republicans can’t propagandize the coronavirus out of existence. So the strategy backfired. As former vice-president of the Blackstone Group Sian Kian wrote for Politico this week, “Part of the market’s analysis is its confidence, or lack thereof, in the government’s ability to manage the crisis — to step in forcefully, stay ahead of the crisis, and guide us back out. When it comes to government response, investors are looking for signs that Washington understands the threat and is taking rapid and competent steps to fight it.”
On Monday afternoon, Trump finally served up such a sign. In unscheduled remarks to the press, the president promised to present the nation with an economic plan for combating coronavirus-induced disruptions, one that would include a payroll tax cut, aid to distressed airline and hospitality industries, and paid leave for workers who contract the virus. Trump offered no details about this plan. And for a simple reason — the plan does not exist:
[I]nside the administration, some officials were stunned by Trump’s claim Monday that he would hold a press conference Tuesday to announce an economic plan. “That was news to everyone on the inside,” one official said.
The actual details of any plan remain up in the air. “It’s not there right now,” an official said. “A lot of details need to be worked out.”
Nevertheless, on Tuesday morning, the Dow Jones and S&P 500 rode the soft bigotry of low expectations to a nearly 3 percent opening gain, after suffering their biggest single-day drops since 2008 the day before.
Alas, investors renewed faith in the U.S. government proved either too fragile to be sustained, or too insufficient to offset mounting economic dread. By midday, the Dow had forfeited a 945-point gain and is now down more than 100 points on the day.
Trump’s vague outline is not an object of consensus within the West Wing, let alone on Capitol Hill. The president’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said Friday that stimulus packages have “never really worked in the past” (which is not true). Meanwhile, some congressional Republicans have reportedly been resisting the idea of a stimulus — let alone one composed of tax cuts that disproportionately benefit working people instead of plutocrats, as a payroll tax holiday would. Although the GOP’s ranks are heavily populated by ruthless fiscal cynics (who preach austerity when Democrats are in power and endless tax cuts and Pentagon budget increases when a Republican’s at the wheel), there do appear to be some deficit-hawk true believers in their midst.
Congressional Democrats, for their part, are preparing their own plan for responding to the crisis, one that would include free coronavirus testing, paid leave for workers sidelined by the epidemic, and an expansion of unemployment insurance.