The smoke-and-mirrors executive actions Trump signed this weekend are but the latest example. They don’t actually do anything concrete to help the millions of Americans thrown out of work by the pandemic, with the one exception of extending the moratorium on repayment of student loans, which is a good thing. Beyond that, Trump didn’t really forestall an expected wave of evictions; he just mandated a study of the issue. Trump didn’t really extend the $600-a-week federal supplement to unemployment benefits; he cut it to $300 and demanded that the states, which are basically broke, pony up an additional $100.
But Trump’s deferral of employee payroll tax collection for the rest of the year, for workers making less than $104,000 — which probably is within his power as president — does real damage, all of it gratuitous. It takes away hundreds of billions of dollars from Social Security. And, of course, it helps precisely no one who is unemployed, since to pay payroll taxes one has to be on a payroll.
This mess can eventually be cleaned up by Congress, whose work is hampered by the fact that the putative author of “Trump: The Art of the Deal” obviously has no idea how to negotiate an agreement — and refuses even to sit across the table from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), upon whom any deal depends. A Biden presidency would fix this dysfunction, though progress would be inhibited if Republicans retain control of the Senate.
Much worse is Trump’s botched handling of the covid-19 pandemic. Just look at the devastation and disgrace the United States has suffered. Other industrialized nations listened to their medical experts, shut down their economies comprehensively to drive infection rates to near zero, and then cautiously reopened. They have done so in fits and starts, with some setbacks and new closures, but most have been able to keep the virus at bay.
But here, in the nation that Ronald Reagan called a “shining city on a hill,” infection rates in most regions remain out of control. Europe has imposed a travel ban against Americans, who are deemed too likely to spark new outbreaks of disease. The developed world must see us as one of those “shithole countries” that Trump famously disdained.
With our schools now opening willy-nilly, without a national strategy in place or even in the works, there is no chance that the novel coronavirus will simply “go away,” as Trump fantasizes. So Biden’s first and biggest challenge, if he wins, may be to take the decisive and effective action against covid-19 that Trump has neglected. Biden would inherit not just a continuing economic crisis but, perhaps, a worsening health crisis as well.
He would also be left with a social crisis. Cities across the nation are still rocked by the Black Lives Matter protests over police violence and systemic racism. A police shooting in Chicago — which police have said was return fire toward a protester who shot at officers — sparked widespread damage and looting Sunday along the city’s glittering downtown Magnificent Mile. There were tense weekend protests in flash points such as Portland, Ore., and Louisville, as well as in smaller cities such as Asheville, N.C., and Stamford, Conn.
A president who put the well-being of the nation above politics would have sought to lead and guide the fractious national conversation we are having about race. Instead, Trump has made the moment into a confrontation between advocates of “LAW & ORDER” and demonstrators whom he calls “Marxists” and “anarchists.”
The federal government, through the Justice Department, could be aiding the process of police reform. Instead, through the Department of Homeland Security, it sent unidentified officers in unmarked vans to sweep up protesters in Portland and threatens other cities with similar treatment.
None of the harm that Trump has done to the nation will automatically repair itself if Biden wins. The incoming administration would have to deal with acute crisis on top of acute crisis.
The only worse prospect is the unthinkable: Trump wins. After four more years of disfigurement, would we even recognize ourselves?