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Trump, the Pandemic, and the End of the Trumpian Tragedy

"Trump's idiocy is, perhaps, unsurprising. But is there no one in Trump's orbit who saw (sees) that ignoring the virus will not revive the economy?"

People wait in line as SF-Marin Food Bank hands out 1,600 food bags at a pop-up pantry at Bayview Opera House in San Francisco, Calif., on Monday, April 20, 2020. Work furloughs and layoffs created by coronavirus shelter-in-place orders are driving thousands to seek food assistance. (Scott Strazzante/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

For a long time, the GOP has pursued a political and policy agenda that makes the world worse for most of us. Donald Trump, of course, has done this with particular vigor and cruelty. The Democrats, alas, have too often been complicit (and sometimes enthusiastic) collaborators.

Generally speaking, this effort has made “sense,” in an appalling sort of way. Cutting taxes for the rich, crushing unions, scrapping environmental and work place safety regulations, ignoring climate change, subsidizing Big Oil, attacking voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security is bad for most of us. But it is good for the GOP’s rich patrons. Similarly, the racist narrative and policies that have facilitated all of this are cruel, mendacious and violent. But this narrative has rallied white voters, justified the neoliberal assault the welfare state, facilitated the re-election of Big Capital’s right-wing sycophants, and increased the incomes the rich. Appalling, but understandable.

In contrast, the Trump (et al.) approach to the Coronavirus pandemic is really quite crazy. It is idiotic, lethal, and cruel – nothing new there! But unlike the poisoning of our drinking water, the impoverishment of the working class, or mass incarceration, it is not good for the GOP or for Big Capital.

Denying the seriousness of this pandemic? Encouraging public gatherings? Encouraging people to ignore public health recommendations? Suppressing crucial data and discouraging testing? Ignoring and silencing public health experts? The consequences are as predictable as they are deadly. And – the hopes and fantasies of Trump, Larry Kudlow, and Ron DeSantis notwithstanding - it will not revitalize the economy. To the contrary! The economy cannot thrive with a lethal, highly contagious virus on the loose.

And while it might be possible to lie and deny our way through a public health catastrophe for a while, we can only pretend with a deadly pandemic for so long.

This is all cruel and idiotic. Again, nothing new there. But it is also terrible politics for Trump and the GOP. To those perplexing “swing voters” who have supported Trump even though he is “not perfect”(!), Trump finally looks like the soulless incompetent he has always been.

The economy is a disaster, and when the CARES Act’s extra-generous unemployment benefits (etc.) expire on July 31 (three months before election day) the already staggering economy will take another nosedive. Unemployment, foreclosures, evictions, food insecurity, and homelessness will soar. State and municipal budgets will be squeezed even further, as desperate demands for services continue to grow.

Trump’s idiocy is, perhaps, unsurprising. But is there no one in Trump’s orbit who saw (sees) that ignoring the virus will not revive the economy? Some collection of soulless but pragmatic “business leaders”? The Business Roundtable? The Chamber of Commerce? The Heritage Foundation?

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Several years ago, someone (Joe Scarborough, I think - a Florida Congressman before “Morning Joe”) said something like this (I’m paraphrasing): “Everyone in Florida politics knows that the best thing for an incumbent is a hurricane.” Coronavirus could have been Trump’s hurricane. Trump could have declared coronavirus a great national challenge, and posed as a determined leader. He could have pretended to feel people’s pain. He could make sure that working people and small businesses get substantial (if not ample or enduring) financial support. Pretending to not being a sociopath would have been good politics, that is, good for his re-election prospects. But this is of course beyond him. Instead, Trump has declared this pandemic a hoax, and he has devoted his energy to defending Confederate statues and police violence.

This is very likely the final act of the Trump political tragedy. That which brought him his wildly improbable, mind-fucking success - his ruthlessness, his inhumanity, his arrogant ignorance, his cruel indifference, and his childish stubbornness -- will be what does him in. Trump wants nothing more than to be re-elected, but he is characterologically and psychologically incapable of doing what is necessary to make that happen. He’s a shameless liar, but he is not always a good liar.

I remain amazed that Trump has pulled this off for so long – for three and a half years as president, and for decades as grandiose con-artist.

He is exactly as narcissistic, cruel and idiotic as he’s always been. For a long and very consequential while, that was his “genius.” Now it is his fatal flaw.

I’m aware that this isn’t over yet. And I’m aware that, somehow, after all of this, 40% of Americans “approve” of Trump. The zombie is not yet dead.

The GOP will do everything it can to suppress and mis-count the vote. And we can’t underestimate the clever and brazen ways that they might do this – purging the voter rolls, long lines in democratic districts, disappearing votes and more. But that is their only hope.

I am depressed that I find this to be a hopeful moment. The re-election of a cruel, incompetent, racist idiot seems unlikely. Woo hoo!

Tim Koechlin

Tim Koechlin

Tim Koechlin holds a PhD in economics. He is the Director of the International Studies Program at Vassar College, where he has an appointment in International Studies and Urban Studies. Professor Koechlin has taught and written about a variety of subjects including economic, political and racial inequality; globalization; macroeconomic policy, and urban political economy.

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