The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Yes, Donald Trump is to blame for this depression

President Trump delivers remarks in the White House Rose Garden during Monday's press briefing on coronavirus testing. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In an interview with Maria Bartiromo that was comically sycophantic even by Fox News standards (“Where does this resilience come from, that you keep getting things done in the face of all of this?” she asked at one point), President Trump made clear Thursday that though we might be in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, anyone looking to place responsibility should look elsewhere:

BARTIROMO: We’ve got 33 million people filing for unemployment, we’ve got 20 percent—
TRUMP: Nobody blames me for that.

Trump is at least partially correct. There has been a somewhat understandable reluctance to blame him for the horrific economic situation, given that because of the coronavirus we were forced to put the economy in a kind of suspended animation. It’s reinforced by the fact that Trump only reluctantly supported the stay-at-home orders imposed by states, and almost immediately began complaining that they had gone too far and we should resume normal economic activity.

Especially when so many are using the misleading formulation that we can either save lives or reopen the economy, and Trump is an advocate of the latter (and seems to have moved on from trying at all to control the pandemic), it can make it seem like he’s not responsible for our economic hardship.

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But he is. In fact, this depression is absolutely Trump’s fault. He made a series of disastrous decisions that led us to this point, and other countries that have had far different experiences illustrate what might have happened if we had a president who wasn’t so utterly incompetent.

The story as Trump would tell it goes like this: Everything was great with the economy until this virus came from China and upended everything, then we shut down commerce, and that’s why we now have 36 million unemployed people. The only point in this story where Trump himself has any agency is when he forbade non-Americans from traveling to and from China (though Americans could still go back and forth, and did), which he portrays as a stroke of unparalleled genius that prevented untold numbers of deaths.

Among the things that story leaves out is the original sin of Trump’s failure: The fact that we lost two months when we could have been preparing for the pandemic that would inevitably arrive in the United States. Though Trump was repeatedly warned by people inside and outside his administration beginning in early January that a pandemic was on its way, he continued to dismiss the threat, praise the Chinese government for its response and insist that there was nothing to worry about.

Though the economic effects were not yet being felt on a wide scale, it was this failure to act that made the national lockdown almost inevitable. Then Trump exacerbated the problem with his chaotic and bumbling efforts to create a coordinated national response. Incredibly, it’s now mid-May and we still don’t have a national testing and tracing strategy to contain the pandemic.

What’s more, when we wound up with little choice but to shut down much of the economy — because of the administration’s incompetence — Trump resisted every effort to use government’s power to mitigate the impact. We’ve gone through round after round of stimulus negotiations in which Democrats plead for more spending on testing, more help for the unemployed, more help for families, more help for small businesses, more assistance to states to keep their budgets from imploding — and Trump and congressional Republicans resist.

The result has been a series of measures that have been inadequate to the challenge, which is why we keep having to come back to do more.

Despite what Trump would like us to believe, this depression was not inevitable.

Just look at other countries that have been more effective in combating the virus and dealing with the economic fallout. No one is unscathed, and there has been economic damage everywhere. But where leaders acted quickly and made smart choices, the situation has been far better.

South Korea saw its first case of covid-19 on the same day we did, Jan. 20. But its government acted quickly with an aggressive program of testing and tracing to contain the spread. The result is that, as of this writing, we have nearly 85,000 deaths, while South Korea has just 260.

Like us, South Korea is facing economic challenges stemming from the pandemic. But its unemployment rate in April was 3.8 percent.

To take another example, Germany has been hit harder than many places by the virus. The Germans have recorded a few less than 8,000 deaths — a lot, but still only about a third as many as the United States on a per capita basis. But because Germany had a system in place in which the government covers payrolls in an emergency, its unemployment rate is only 5.8 percent, while ours heads past 20 percent.

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Nobody is saying we could have emerged from this pandemic with no one dying and no economic impact. There are some countries that have more deaths per capita than we do. And there are many situations in which the president gets blamed for economic conditions that aren’t his fault.

But this isn’t one of them. This economic cataclysm didn’t have to happen, and it wouldn’t have if Trump wasn’t so shortsighted, so ignorant, so inept and so unwilling to believe what experts were telling him. He put us in this hole that will now be so terribly hard to claw our way out of. It’s past time we started giving him the blame he deserves.

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