But either way, it seems that the president is tired of worrying about the pandemic, and wants to focus all his efforts on the economy.
As appalling a dereliction of duty as it may be, the political calculation isn’t hard to understand. The election is six months away, and Trump knows that in the midst of a depression there’s almost no chance he could be reelected even if it weren’t for the fact that by that time a couple hundred thousand Americans may be dead because of his bungling.
And right now we’re in the midst of the worst economic catastrophe any of us has ever seen. According to ADP, private payrolls were cut by an astonishing 20 million in April alone. Even under the best of circumstances, by November the American economy will be only partway to crawling its way out of the hole we’ve fallen into.
So what is Trump planning to do? Put on a show.
It’ll be a show about a great American economic comeback, and Trump will be the star. It will involve a running series of photo ops and media events, buttressed by fantastical lies and deception. And nobody is more practiced at it than him.
That’s because he has been down this road before. In the early 2000s, after a couple of casino bankruptcies and other business failures, Trump’s fortune had collapsed, almost no bank would lend to him, and he was hugely in debt. How did he bring himself back? He got an offer to star in a reality TV show.
“The Apprentice” saved him, not only providing him a stream of direct income but giving him incalculably valuable PR. What’s relevant for our current moment is the way it covered Trump’s shabby reality in a layer of gold leaf, and in doing so revived him. Here’s how the New Yorker described it:
“The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth — a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” [editor Jonathan] Braun told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”
The TV producers used all their skills, and it worked, reinforcing for Trump a principle on which he had built his career: If you’re relentless enough, you can create a false image that eventually turns into reality, or at least something close. Tell everyone you’re the very embodiment of wealth and success, and you can con people into giving you so much money that you actually become wealthy and successful.
The analogy with the economy as a whole isn’t completely absurd. “Confidence” has a real-world effect: If people believe the economy will be better tomorrow than it is today, they’ll be more likely to spend and invest, which helps improve the economy.
So Trump is now saying that before the pandemic he delivered the greatest economy the world had ever seen (itself a ridiculous lie), and he’ll do it again. How is he going to do that?
It’s not going to be with a repeat of his prior economic policies, which basically came down to cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations, slashing regulations on things such as environmental protection and worker safety, and launching a destructive trade war with China. In fact, don’t be surprised if there are little or no significant policy moves at all on the administration’s part.
What Trump does is PR. So that’s what he’ll do.
He’ll visit factories carefully chosen with MAGA hat-wearing CEOs who will play their part and thank him profusely for getting America back on its feet. He’ll hold events at the White House where he can sit inside a truck and honk the horn like a real big boy. He’ll tout the progress of the stock market. He’ll have rallies again — so many rallies — where he’ll say that no one has ever seen such an amazing comeback, it’s fantastic, it’s incredible, world leaders are calling me to say how impressed they are. He’ll remind us that the pandemic was the fault of China and Democratic governors and Barack Obama, but he brought prosperity back.
Every Republican will repeat the message: America suffered a blow, but Trump has saved us and now everything is great again.
The fact that by November the economy will almost certainly not be great will not be part of the show. Just as today Trump is utterly incapable of feeling or communicating empathy for those who have lost family and friends to the coronavirus, he will have no time for the unemployed, the bankrupt, the fearful or the uncertain. Only Trump-haters could dwell on that, he’ll say. The truth is that we’re in paradise, thanks to me.
Can this show actually persuade people to ignore the reality of their own lives and communities? One would hope not, but you never know. Given his own experience, Trump is probably sure that it will. And it’s about all he has left.