The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Standard metrics won’t suffice. Here’s how to measure Trump’s failures so they register with right-wingers.

President Trump speaks during a news briefing in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Monday.
President Trump speaks during a news briefing in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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After a recent column about President Trump’s lackluster economic record, my inbox flooded with furious, incredulous emails from Trump fans. They all knew, in their gut, that their charismatic leader’s achievements — on the economy, public health or any other arena — must be the greatest ever.

Because he’d said so, after all.

Sure, 29 million Americans are claiming unemployment; at least 183,000 have died from the coronavirus; and some 20 percent of small businesses that existed pre-pandemic are closed. But no matter the statistics, no matter the citations from government agencies or private analysts, Trump followers refuse to accept that this president’s legacy might be in any way lacking. Especially compared with his predecessor!

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It seemed like any suggestion that Trump’s numbers are unusually bad, no matter how well-documented, was doomed to get written off as fake news. Then, it hit me:

Maybe what’s needed are different units for measuring the Trump administration’s failures and scandals, since the standard metrics aren’t registering. His record should be quantified in scales that a Fox News viewer might be more familiar with: not body counts or dollars, but Benghazis and Solyndras.

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For instance, sometimes pundits try to put the 183,000 covid-19 deaths in context by noting that cumulative deaths per capita in the United States are double those of Canada, quintuple those of Germany, 20 times those of Australia, 90 times those of South Korea, and so on.

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But let’s be real: Lots of Americans don’t care about international comparisons. So here’s a different way to contextualize this national trauma: The number of lives lost to covid-19 is roughly equal to the death toll of 60 9/11 attacks.

Or, if you’d prefer a more recent ghoulish reference for quantifying mortality, the coronavirus death toll is about 46,000 Benghazis. Somehow, for years, the four tragic deaths in Benghazi consumed the agenda of six GOP-controlled congressional committees and the programming of the most-watched cable news channel. But today, a deadly shock magnified by government ineptitude that has led to 46,000 times as many lives lost “is what it is.”

Similarly, perhaps we could put recent jobs changes into perspective by using much-ballyhooed, Trump-approved benchmarks.

For example, shortly after winning the presidency in 2016, Trump took credit for saving approximately 700 jobs at an Indiana plant run by Carrier. The achievement received oodles of adoring right-wing media coverage, and is still cited by acolytes as evidence of the president’s economic prowess.

Last week alone, though, 1.6 million people newly applied for unemployment benefits. That’s the equivalent of 2,300 Carrier plants.

Then there’s the alleged misuse of taxpayer funds to “pick winners and losers,” a sin right-wing media often attributed to Democrats (especially Barack Obama). There are plenty of Trump-era examples to choose from — subsidies for failing coal plants, say, or farmers harmed by Trump’s own trade wars. But let’s use as our case study the record of a single White House official, Peter Navarro, in bungled contracts related to the pandemic response.

According to congressional investigators, Navarro negotiated a contract that resulted in the government overpaying for ventilators by $500 million. (The contract was canceled Monday.) He also championed a $765 million federal loan to Eastman Kodak to transform it into a drugmaker. (The loan has since unraveled and is the subject of a securities investigation.)

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So how many taxpayer dollars was Navarro involved in wasting through these two deals alone? Measured in units that should be familiar to consumers of right-wing news, it’s roughly two Solyndras.

On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the national debt will reach about $22 trillion in the coming fiscal year. This means that, for the first time since right after World War II, the debt would eclipse the size of the overall U.S. economy. For all those fair-weather fiscal hawks who long complained of Obama’s profligacy: The debt increase under Trump during a single term is on track to surpass that under Obama across two terms.

Likewise: For each Hillary Clinton private email scandal (one), there are at least eight senior Trump officials who have reportedly used private email to conduct official business. For every Obama-era incident involving supposed retaliation against political opponents, there are literally dozens of instances of Trump trying to use the power of his office to punish perceived enemies, whether through tweets or regulatory actions. Including, this week, a likely illegal order to block federal funding from going to Democratic-led cities.

Die-hard Trump followers have long been fans of alternative math, so perhaps this mental exercise might prove useful. Or maybe they’ll finally admit that any scale of crisis, failure or scandal remains acceptable, so long as their man is in office.

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