The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is one of Trump’s biggest and most insulting lies yet

President Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The new economic report paints a picture of truly extraordinary economic carnage. In April, a stunning 20 million jobs disappeared into the abyss of the coronavirus crisis, and unemployment soared to 14.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s the highest since the Great Depression.

Which means the presidential race will be not just about who can better return the country to normalcy amid the virus’s continuing rampage. It will also be about who can better rebuild the economy and protect millions of Americans suffering through the worst economic calamity in nearly a century.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

President Trump’s campaign has already telegraphed its argument along these lines. And at its core is one of Trump’s biggest and most insulting lies yet.

The claim is that, having once created the most spectacular economy in the known universe, he will now do so a second time.

“We built the greatest economy the world has ever seen,” Trump intones in a major new ad campaign. “And we’re going to do it again.” That ad heralds “the greatest comeback story,” which in truth signals an extraordinarily audacious and propagandistic rewriting of recent history.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Some pundits claim Trump will not be blamed for the economy, because the circumstances are so extraordinary. That’s dubious, but even if it were true, it’s too narrow a way to look at the coming argument, which will also center on who would best rebuild.

And Trump is in a terrible position to wage that argument.

By trying to reassign seats in the White House briefing room, the Trump administration is attempting to stifle real journalism, says media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP/The Washington Post)

Lies, lies, lies

First, the whole foundation of his central claim on this score rests on a series of ridiculous lies.

Trump didn’t build the pre-coronavirus economy he hails as his own. He inherited its major trends. This is true by just about every major metric, such as job growth and the decline in the unemployment rate, both of which had been steady during the Obama years and carried over into Trump’s presidency.

Trump, of course, regularly claims he inherited a smoldering landscape of economic wreckage and turned it into a spectacular, glittering success. But it may now become harder to get away with this nonsense. Presidents tend to be seen through the prism of current conditions, and it’s plausible voters could come to see Trump’s status quo as an epic horror show in comparison with the end of the Obama years.

Indeed, Trump’s own allies hint at this possibility. The chief strategist of a leading pro-Trump super PAC recently revealed to McClatchy that their internal polling shows that Joe Biden’s most positive attribute is that he’s seen as “President Obama’s guy.”

While that strategist presented this as evidence that Biden is a blank slate that can be redefined by Trump’s fearsome propaganda, in reality it suggests Biden may be able to capitalize on that positive association in the coming economic argument.

Biden recently signaled what this might look like in an interview with Michael Grunwald, recounting in highly personal terms his efforts in securing the stimulus that helped pull the country out of the Great Recession, and calling for a much bigger stimulus to come.

There are of course legitimate criticisms of the size of the Obama-Biden stimulus. But here’s the bottom line: It is just true that the very pre-coronavirus economic trends Trump himself holds up as a reflection of his own brilliance are a carryover from the Obama presidency. And Biden had a major role in that.

It’s clear Bidenworld believes embracing the Obama economic record is a winner, as this new ad from the pro-Biden super PAC illustrates:

Meanwhile, Trump might be in a better position to argue that he will rebuild our economy if he hadn’t thrown away whatever “economic populist” cred he once enjoyed. His massive corporate tax cut lavished most of its benefits on the wealthy while doing little for working people. He and Republicans are still trying to gut the Affordable Care Act’s health-care protections for millions.

Trump’s clever plan was to ride the good economy he largely inherited. He would use his magical lying powers to falsify the Obama economy and transform his inheritance into the result of his policies, thus obscuring their truly plutocratic nature.

That has suddenly become a lot harder to pull off.

A uniquely awful crisis

The crisis is so vast that it places new pressures on Biden, too. It calls for a much more ambitious social democratic agenda and argument. That includes breaking the tie between employment and health insurance. And as Geoff Mann puts it, the moment also calls for a truly transformative appreciation of the deep precarity endured by working people even in the pre-coronavirus era, as well as their centrality to our everyday well-being.

The crisis is also unprecedented in that our economy has been deliberately placed into deep freeze. So Trump could preside over a recovery as rapid as our implosion. But many observers are skeptical. Binyamin Appelbaum aptly notes that the economy’s major stakeholders are “wandering around behaving like a chicken that hasn’t had time to process the loss of its head.”

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

Still, Trump’s best hope now is to exploit that very uniqueness. He just told “Fox & Friends” that “we had the strongest economy in the history of the world,” and “we had to close it, which is artificial.”

But Trump cannot lie away the fact that he helped make this crisis far worse than it otherwise had to be. He squandered weeks and weeks in which the novel coronavirus could have been contained, ultimately leading to a far more stringent economic lockdown.

And that economy was not even his creation to begin with. This is a deeply insulting set of lies, and no one should pretend otherwise.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Republicans now want us to embrace mass death

Greg Sargent: As Trump presides over an epic disaster, Senate Republicans see little to criticize

The Post’s View: Trump is ignoring his former covid-19 strategy. The consequences could be tragic.

Catherine Rampell: The White House’s coronavirus cure is even more magical than we could have imagined

Jennifer Rubin: We are asking the wrong question about reopening