I had a slightly different reaction watching Donald Trump’s address last night than everyone else. I didn’t think it was a complete disaster. I guess my expectations have been lowered over the years such that the mere act of him successfully reading more than five consecutive sentences off the TelePrompTer seems a triumph worthy of some combination of Churchill and Olivier. And, I thought, Well, he’s actually trying.
Then, after it was over, it struck me that that—the fact that he was in fact trying—was exactly the problem. He was trying, and that was the best he could do. This wasn’t the usual flatulent bluster aimed squarely at the fellas at the stupid end of the bar at Moe’s. He didn’t blame Cryin’ Chuck or Nervous Nancy or Christopher Steele or the “deep state,” although he’s still Trump and he couldn’t help himself, he had to call it a “foreign virus.” But this was his attempt at serious leadership.
And all he did was raise more questions than he answered and, of course, pepper in a few stupid lies and smears.
The questions started the instant he finished. Why exempt the U.K. and Ireland? You had to listen really closely to hear the justification—that the Schengen-zone EU nations hadn’t imposed restrictions on travel from China, while apparently the U.K. and Ireland have, which he left unsaid. Trump also misspoke about the ban applying to goods and cargo; it does not.
So that was the sloppy writing/bad editing part. A pretty crucial own-goal for the highest-stakes address of his presidency, but at least not a lie. That came when he insisted that the risk for most Americans was “very, very low.”
Trump spoke those words, let’s remember, on the same evening that Americans were learning that the NCAA tournament will proceed without attendees, that the NBA is doing that one better and suspending the season, and that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had it. The operative fact about Hanks contracting it is not that he is beloved by America but that he has a fortune larger than the GDP of some countries, and if a man that rich who enjoys the attendant layers of protection from quotidian society and can send a plane to fetch a specialist from anywhere in the world the instant he needs one is susceptible, then you’d damn well better believe we’re all susceptible. This was also the same night that experts were putting out word that 70 million to 150 million Americans may well contract the virus, which is a quarter to a half of the population. Look around you at the faces the next time you’re on a bus or a subway or in a big-box store and imagine that.
This was Trump’s attempt to be reassuring, to be leaderly. It was at best ham-handed and at worst as cynical as his Izvestia propagandists on Fox News and talk-radio claiming that the “deep state” is using the coronavirus to hurt the economy in an election year (Sean Hannity) or that the virus was basically like the flu (Rush Limbaugh).
And Trump being Trump, he quickly downshifted out of his scripted 11-minute attempt at leader mode and went back to throwing spitballs on Twitter, this morning going after Nancy Pelosi for her alleged hypocrisy on a proposed payroll-tax cut, because she backed such a cut during the Great Recession while Obama was president and opposes one now.
This, too, is a lie, or at least a deliberate obfuscation. In 2010, the government pared back the payroll tax by 2 percent (it reduced what workers paid into Social Security from the regular 6.2 percent of wages to 4.2 percent). Trump, according to what Larry Kudlow was telling reporters Tuesday afternoon, wants to eliminate the payroll tax entirely. And not for a little while, but maybe permanently.
This is insanity. Doing so would destroy Social Security and Medicare, which are financed by the payroll tax (I trust you’re paying attention here, Biden campaign). Even a temporary total elimination of the tax, through the end of the year for example, would cost north of $700 billion. A reporter tried twice on Tuesday to ask Kudlow how he planned to replace that. Because even by Washington standards, that’s real money. Oh, Kudlow mused, “I think over time, we’ll make it up with much greater economic growth.”
This brings us to the meat and potatoes of the situation, which is what is Congress prepared to do? The steps Trump announced in his address may be fine, but it seems likely that time is going to prove them to be completely inadequate.
Take any institution or fixture of American life and imagine the economic consequences of people just staying home. For the NBA, that’s not just players and coaches, but the people who sell souvenirs and hot dogs. For universities and colleges, it’s untold numbers of support staff who’ll be told not to report to work. The armies of cleaning crews in our office buildings who might soon be told to stay home at least part of the time, putting their already marginal incomes at risk. This could require trillions of dollars in government investment.
You know how they say that everyone finds religion in a foxhole? Well, here’s Tomasky’s corollary: In an economic crisis, everybody becomes a Keynesian eventually. When the country’s back is up against the wall, even right-wing Republicans finally submit to the obvious reality that the government has to do something. They’re not there yet. But if they don’t get there, they’re going to be guilty of letting the economy collapse in the name of free-market ideology (it won’t be the first time they did that, but it will likely be the worst).
And Trump and the Republicans and their propagandists downplay the risk and blame foreigners. I don’t wish this calamity on our nation, obviously, but if ever a president met the crisis he deserved, it’s Trump and the “Caronavirus,” as he rendered it early on.
It’s also the crisis the Republican Party deserves. The war-on-science party, the party of climate denial and the 5,000-year-old planet (“Young Earth” science, they named it!), and Terri-Schiavo-might-wake-up-any-minute-now, has had this coming to it for a long time.
Ideally one day, our health-care professionals will develop the vaccine. America saves the world. But as Dr. Fauci has told us, that will take a year or more. In the meantime, we should all hope the real-life suffering is as minimal as possible—and the political suffering as maximal as possible for the president who wouldn’t know a fact if it grabbed him by the jowls and the party that’s spent years saying science is for ninnies.