Perhaps we will look back at the 2020 election and conclude that Donald Trump, who was always going to be Donald Trump, never had a chance to beat an opponent who led him in virtually every poll over a year. But if there was a path for Trump to scratch out a reelection victory despite himself, it would have paradoxically been opened by the appearance of the coronavirus. He forfeited this opportunity to rescue his presidency, and the fault lies primarily with the dogma of his party.
The pandemic, while a social and economic crisis, presented a political opportunity. Governors across the country and leaders across the world saw enormous approval ratings spikes as voters rallied around them much like they did George W. Bush following 9/11. Trump had squandered one of his great advantages as a candidate, his heterodox economic rhetoric, to govern as a conventional Paul Ryan Republican, but the coronavirus gave him a chance to reclaim his populist identity. Had the president embraced a combination of firm public-health measures and overwhelming fiscal response, he might have built up enough political capital to overcome the accumulated three years of political toxins.
Instead, he goes into the end of the campaign having given up on any response to either the pandemic or the economic crisis. Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’s blunt retort, “We are not going to control the pandemic,” was not a gaffe but an accurate depiction of the administration’s line, which Trump himself expressed with characteristic crudeness. “COVID, COVID, COVID,” like the refrain “Russia, Russia Russia,” is Trump’s shorthand for dismissing a story as a hoax by the media that his followers should ignore:
The administration’s line on the coronavirus can be summarized as follows: It has been overblown by the media, we have turned the corner, there’s nothing that can be done about it, and the solution is to brush it off and go on with our lives. All these lines eerily track Herbert Hoover’s infamous response to the Great Depression.
Trump’s inexhaustible supply of character failings has called to mind a long procession of historical villains and cautionary tales: George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush. But as the pandemic swells into a terrifying new autumn spike, the historical echo of Hoover may be especially applicable. Hoover, like Trump, was elected on the basis of his image as a can-do businessman (which in Hoover’s case, unlike Trump’s, was genuine). Ultimately, Hoover’s presidency collapsed in the face of a depression whose severity and duration he refused to acknowledge.
When a delegation came to the White House to plea for action in June 1930, Hoover waved them off: “Gentlemen, you have come 60 days too late. The depression is over.” He dismissed reports of hunger and deprivation as fake news, instead repeating rumors he had picked up as fact. “The hobos,” he claimed at one point, “are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day.” After grudgingly supporting a series of half-measures, Hoover retreated to his conviction that the main crisis was a lack of confidence in the economy, and the solution was to maintain the fiscal soundness of the monetary supply and the federal budget.
Trump has echoed this delusional response with his claims that the virus was under control, it would all go away, and that the news media was trying to panic the public into overreacting when calm and confidence should have been the order of the day. And while this impulse did follow his lifelong tendency toward pathological optimism, it also tracks an important vein of right-wing ideology.
From the outset of the crisis, numerous conservative intellectuals waved off the pandemic as overblown. Various oddball home-brew epidemiological theories circulated to justify this impulse. The esteemed right-wing law professor Richard Epstein estimated no more than 500 Americans would die, a figure embraced by administration officials. After fitful gestures toward following the advice of his public-health officials, Trump eventually sidelined them and put his pandemic response in the hands of Scott Atlas, another conservative movement apparatchik with no expertise in epidemiology. It is a grim historic joke that Atlas, like Epstein, is a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution.
The right-wing denialist impulse grew out of a combination of embedded distrust for expertise — the most prominent virus deniers were also professional climate-science deniers — and an almost religious faith in the free market. In theory, of course, there’s nothing that would prevent a capitalist from accepting the reality of a deadly virus. In reality, many libertarians instinctively suspected the pandemic was an excuse for extending government control.
Their denialism ran along well-worn grooves. If the problem required government action, it must be overblown and the proposed government response must also be useless. Archconservative Senator Ron Johnson asked, “Why do we think we actually can stop the progression of a contagious disease?” Asked about mandating mask usage by 60 Minutes, Mike Pence replied, “We trust the American people” to make their own decisions, using a line conservatives have deployed for a wide array of issues. Requiring masks may be extremely cheap and highly conducive to restoring economic activity and preventing shutdowns, but it also implies an unacceptable need for collective action.
The same ideological impulse seems to have killed off any chance of passing another fiscal stimulus. In the spring, conservatives swallowed their ideological misgivings and accepted a large spending bill as a necessary evil justified by the one-time emergency necessitated by stay-at-home orders. But over the summer, they reverted to ideological form.
Trump’s inability to make a deal to inject trillions of dollars into the economy might be his most baffling act of self-harm. The House passed a $3 trillion bill last May. He couldn’t close the deal. And while Trump’s instincts militated toward spending the cash, his party’s opposition kept tugging him in the opposite direction. One day he would demand a huge deal, the next day he would declare it was all a “bailout” for irresponsible Democratic governors and mayors.
The force that kept tugging Trump back on side was the Republican right’s fervent opposition to Keynesian economics. Right-wing dogma rejects the notion that a failure of demand is a problem that can be solved by government spending. Markets are self-correcting. Any economic problem can only be caused by excessive taxes and regulation.
The Republican opposition to stimulus is almost completely dismissed by academic economists and macroeconomic forecasters in the private sector. Virtually anybody who has real money at stake in projecting the economy’s future believes that a big deficit spending bill will jack up growth. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, a bastion of supply-side economics, has insisted the stock market’s belief in stimulus is completely irrational. When stocks dropped on news that fiscal relief talks had stalled a month ago, the Journal claimed “Wall Street has become Pavlovian on the issue of so-called stimulus cash.” Two weeks later, it dismissed the macroeconomics field as hopelessly biased: “Everyone knows most economists at today’s big financial institutions have a Keynesian bias that posits consumer demand and government spending as the main drivers of growth.”
Think about how ideologically addled you have to be to believe not only that all the academic economists are wrong, but also that the entire macroeconomic forecasting field is wrong. The Journal is supposed to believe in the rationality of markets, and yet it argues the markets are completely unable to make even crude forecasts about the direction of economic policy. Markets, in the Journal’s worldview, are perfect and rational on all things except understanding how the economy works.
Trump could have overridden his party’s anti-spending impulse and demanded they pass a big bill. Instead, he drifted along helplessly, unable to decide if he wanted a bill and stick to a position long enough to make Republicans believe he meant it. Ultimately, he is riding into November with the supplies-die wing firmly in control.
If Trump’s polling deficit holds, his party will blame his erratic and undisciplined personal behavior. And that did play a large role in creating his deficit. But it is also true that Trump had the chance to revive his campaign by seizing hold of the chance to use the powers of the presidency to advance the public good. Instead, he sacrificed himself on the Hooverite altar of laissez-faire.