The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump cannot alter reality by ignoring it

People wait in line at a YMCA in Boston on Thursday to pick up meals and care kits distributed by the City of Boston's Office of Neighborhood Services. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)
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Children learn object permanence — the concept that an object continues to exist even when you are not watching or otherwise sensing it — at a very young age. President Trump, however, seems to function with the assumption that if he does not acknowledge something, it ceases to exist, and hence cannot be harmful to him. In normal times, such conduct is weird; now, it is entirely untenable, and leaves Trump with no defenses against disagreeable facts.

Consider the horrific milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths. Before issuing a brief tweet on Thursday, Trump had not acknowledged the toll (other than a couple of attempts to insist the death toll would have been higher had he not performed so perfectly). The Post reported, “His public schedule this week contains no special commemoration, no moment of silence, no collective sharing of grief.”

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If he does not talk about it, will people not know the coronavirus has killed more Americans than the Vietnam and Korean wars combined? Failed foreign policy judgments other presidents have made (e.g., the Iraq War cost about 4,600 U.S. military lives) pale in comparison to Trump’s debacle. Soon we will pass the approximately 116,000 Americans killed in World War I (many of which, ironically, died of the Spanish flu). Trump can shut his eyes, create enumerable distractions and tout his own conduct, but he deludes himself — and reveals himself to be utterly without empathy — by minimizing the milestone.

Much of Trump’s response to the pandemic — insisting in February that 15 cases would become zero, refusing to prepare for the pandemic for fear of spooking the markets, etc. — exemplifies Trump’s refusal to grapple with reality. Having successfully bamboozled his base and most of Congress, he has come to believe he can control everyone else’s perception of reality. There is nothing like 100,000 dead to prove him wrong.

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Trump’s attempt to govern by sticking his fingers in his ears continues unabated, for it is the only strategy available to someone entirely incompetent and overwhelmed by the job. Some 2.1 million more Americans filed for unemployment insurance, bringing the total to about 40 million people. It is a staggering figure: About 1 in 4 American workers have lost their job.

The Federal Reserve, virtually every respectable economist and politicians on both sides of the aisle realize we are experiencing not a short-term blip but an economic catastrophe, the results of which will be felt for years. The Federal Reserve reported in its “Beige Book”:

Consumer spending fell further as mandated closures of retail establishments remained largely in place during most of the survey period. Declines were especially severe in the leisure and hospitality sector, with very little activity at travel and tourism businesses. Auto sales were substantially lower than a year ago, although several Districts noted recent improvement. A majority of Districts reported sharp drops in manufacturing activity, and production was notably weak in auto, aerospace, and energy-related plants. Residential home sales plunged due in part to fewer new listings and to restrictions on home showings in many areas. Construction activity also fell as new projects failed to materialize in many Districts. Commercial real estate contacts mentioned that a large number of retail tenants had deferred or missed rent payments. Bankers reported strong demand for PPP loans. Agricultural conditions worsened, with several Districts reporting reduced production capacity at meat-processing plants due to closures and social distancing measures. Energy activity plummeted as firms announced oil well closures, which led to historically low levels of active drilling rigs. Although many contacts expressed hope that overall activity would pick-up as businesses reopened, the outlook remained highly uncertain and most contacts were pessimistic about the potential pace of recovery.

The White House response? Refuse to issue its regular economic projection, an extraordinary step. The Post reports:

The White House is supposed to unveil a federal budget proposal every February and then typically provides a “mid-session review” in July or August with updated projections on economic trends such as unemployment, inflation and economic growth.
Budget experts said they were not aware of any previous White House opting against providing forecasts in this “mid-session review” document in any other year since at least the 1970s.

Will the employers, employees, investors, workers and consumers not realize how bad things are if the White House does not release its report? Of course not. But its failure to do so should set off alarm bells that this crew cannot address reality. Unwilling to let on how bad things are, and will continue to be, the White House has decided once more to snap its fingers and wish away the bad news. The administration’s excuse — things are so uncertain! — is risible. (“Budget experts say there is no reason the White House would be unable to release its own economic projections. The Congressional Budget Office, for instance, updated its economic projections in both April and May as the coronavirus rippled through the U.S. economy.”)

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As fruitless as it is counterproductive, Trump’s refusal to grapple with reality does not alter reality. Even a small child knows that.

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