The other day, in a piece about the depth of current economic travails, Neil Irwin of the New York Times made this observation:

When the crisis we now know as the Great Depression began in 1929, President Herbert Hoover started with denial, then tried blaming other countries, then argued that there was nothing the government could really do to contain the damage.

Which raises a question. Isn’t that cycle — which I’d like to label the “three stages of Hooverism” — in some respects similar to what we’re passing through right now?

On the coronavirus crisis, Trump spent the early weeks denying the scale of the problem, a stance that included propping up China’s claims that the coronavirus had been contained. Then, when it became too overwhelming to downplay, he executed what Politico called a “pivot” to blaming China for it.

And in the last couple months — despite a brief flirtation with marshaling a massive federal response — he has lapsed into indifference, treating the problem as if it has been solved (or is unsolvable) because admitting reality would be worse for him. Despite cases rising in 20 states, Trump’s task force is winding down.

“Few people believe that the U.S. is doing all it can to contain the virus,” write Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer. "No federal official has shared a plan for preventing transmission among states that have outbreaks of varying intensity.”

I checked in with Eric Rauchway, author of a history of Hoover’s clash with Franklin D. Roosevelt, to discuss the parallels. (Rauchway had floated those three Hoover stages in Irwin’s piece.)

As Rauchway told me, Hoover started out by saying, “there is nothing about the crisis that is necessarily unusual." That’s the stance that Trump obviously adopted.

But as Rauchway notes, very early on, just after the stock market crash, that wasn’t a crazy position for Hoover to take, whereas “Trump has less of an excuse,” because “pandemics are not perfectly ordinary.”

A year or two into the crisis, however, Hoover “should have changed his mind,” Rauchway says. “But instead, he said, ‘This is a problem that’s created by foreign forces.’”

This came amid rising protectionism after World War I and the foreign retaliation it provoked. So as Rauchway notes, Hoover wasn’t wrong about this being a problem, but “it wasn’t enough to account for the Great Depression.”

Similarly, on the coronavirus, China did suppress the truth for a time. But just as Hoover did, Trump tried to deflect too much blame onto China’s failures, which cannot excuse the fact that Trump also failed to act for weeks to contain the virus here, leading to a lost month in which the coronavirus rampaged out of control.

Then came the final phase, in which Hoover’s “way of addressing the Great Depression was to say there’s nothing we can do about it anyway,” Rauchway says, though some unemployment relief was pushed on Hoover by congressional Democrats who won the 1930 elections.

And just as Hoover said the states had to be the ones to act, Rauchway notes, Trump did something very similar, largely leaving states desperate for equipment to primarily fend for themselves. Now, as the federal government stands down, cases are rising.

It’s true that Trump and Republicans agreed to expansive federal action to combat the economic crisis precipitated by lockdowns needed to fight the spread of the coronavirus. But now Trump and Republicans appear hostile to another round of aggressive stimulus, while Democrats say it’s urgently necessary.

In that, Trump and Republicans appear driven by ideology (like Hoover), and by a belief that more federal action will discourage people from rushing back to work in pandemic conditions, which will impede their spin that we’re roaring back. That spin is based on last month’s jobs gains, which still left us nearly 20 million jobs in the hole.

Which brings us to yet another parallel between the two eras, in what’s going to happen now.

“The mass of Americans is likely to suffer a lot more than folks at the top of the economic and social pyramid,” Rauchway said.

All of this is surely not what Trump meant when he said this:

Will the fourth stage of Hooverism (he was defeated in 1932) now transpire? Joe Biden has sent some signals that he grasps the scale of what we face and that he’d attempt an ambitious FDR-scale presidency.

But the question of whether Biden will make good on that vow — and whether he has what it takes to dispatch Trump to Hoover’s fate — only Biden can settle.

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