Unfortunately, the main outlines of this piece remain as valid now as they were then. The only differences are that the list of daily outrages perpetrated by Donald Trump has grown far lengthier and that the American people will be coping with the resulting destruction for at least some time no matter who they elect President this week.
Thousands of articles have been published over these last several months, attempting to assess the unprecedented nature of the current American crisis. To call this a “recession” understates its complexity and, consequently, its peril to every American citizen.
A New Term for Our National Emergency
We need a new word coinage that will encompass this in all its dimensions, and assign responsibility for its creation and perpetuation. That phrase is The Great Trumpression:
*In its economic severity, the term lies between a recession and depression. Earlier this year, the U.S. unemployment rate had climbed to 14.7%, a level not seen since the Great Depression. Even its current rate of 7.9% is well above pre-pandemic levels. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter remain the preeminent symbols of Presidential haplessness in the face of high joblessness, but Trump enjoys a dubious “distinction” possessed by neither of these two unfortunates: he has thrust 12.6 million unemployed Americans into a disease-ravaged environment, where it is more difficult to interview with or gain the attention of potential employers, and where his administration has been itching for the Supreme Court to rule against the Affordable Health Care Act (ACA) that so many depend on.
*The term also involves suppression of dissenters and even bearers of bad news. Put aside voter suppression (an effort that Trump has been pursuing energetically, as noted by Eric Levitz of New York Magazine). Forget about tolerating Democrats, the press or late-night comics: Trump can’t even abide opposition or even mild internal criticism from fellow Republicans. Last fall, even with high approval ratings for Trump among registered Republicans, state GOP officials canceled primaries in which Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh and William Weld were set to run. They did not dare the remotest possibility that voters could register adverse opinions, or that the President who could send them federal funds might retaliate for not doing their wishes. They surely feared an early-morning Twitter assault. This President hinted in a debate four years ago that he could attack Sen. Rand Paul for his looks, tweeted that Ted Cruz’s dad may have had something to do with JFK’s assassination, fired Attorney-General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Robert Mueller investigation, then ridiculed him enough to turn a majority of GOP voters against him in a race to re-join the Senate. This is also a President who, as soon as the impeachment inquiry was over, fired accuser Col. Alexander Vindman and his brother Yevgeny from their jobs with the National Security Council. (Even Bill Clinton waited till the closing days of his Presidency to sack Linda Tripp for her role in instigating the Lewinsky investigation.) To his everlasting shame, Trump has not only gleefully hinted that he will sack Anthony Fauci after Election Day but has whipped up animosity so extreme that this immunologist, honored by past administrations of both parties, now requires a security detail. But, at last, that suppression may have finally come home to roost. In keeping the lid on eight weeks of coronavirus reports from early to mid-summer, Trump’s aides ensured that COVID-19 would spike just as voters would be going to the polls, with the administration’s denials and sorry performance fresh in their minds.
*It implies repression of marginalized groups at home and abetting autocrats abroad. Trump’s use of federal military force to crack down on protests against police brutality—not just constitutionally dubious but hypocritical, given the conservative movement’s longtime extolling of states’ authority—diverts attention from his failure to mitigate the pandemic. This sham show of strength is being used against a group disproportionately affected by the health crisis and the economic downturn. Trump’s “playbook”—encouraging far-right nationalists and scoffing at COVID-19—has been followed by fellow aspiring international authoritarians, notably Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who, in styling himself the “Trump of the South,” initially scoffed at masks, then, when the pandemic worsened, imitated the U.S. President in advocating tirelessly for hydroxychloroquine.
*It facilitates the proper assigning of responsibility for the twin pandemic-economic collapse. Ten years ago, Republicans fell over themselves calling the ACA “Obamacare.” However one might feel about the nickname, it focused voters’ attention on who should be credited or blamed for sweeping legislation that would alter how Americans received medical care. A similar need for accountability would be met by assigning Trump’s name to the current crisis. Earlier this year, National Catholic Reporter contributor Michael Sean Winters suggested the term “Trump tents” in case the military erected MASH tents in parking lots to handle hospitals pushed to capacity by COVID-19. That event may yet come to pass, but “Trumpression” will certainly in the meantime convey what has been going on since March—and what will likely continue to happen in the new year, even with a change of Presidents.
Trump Branding in Reverse
Another delicious aspect of this neologism is that it inverts Trump’s hideous branding practices. For nearly four decades, users of Trump properties had to stomach seeing his name in big letters and bright lights, no matter the extent of his involvement, all to satisfy his colossal egotism (a practice only recently receding as the name loses its allure). Now, with “Trumpression,” that megalomania will be properly checked.
Throughout his real estate career, Trump sought every opportunity to seize credit but avoid blame. He was everywhere when The Art of the Deal trumpeted him (falsely) as a great businessman, but was saved from a total collapse of his businesses because of cash infusions from his father.
The pattern continued into his Presidency. When disasters occurred on the watch of other Presidents (e.g., John F. Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs, Jimmy Carter with the failed hostage mission), they appeared before the public and accepted responsibility.
In contrast, Trump said, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for virus testing delays in March when they could have made a material difference, just as, a few weeks later, he said he “can’t imagine why” there could have been a spike in hotline calls about disinfectants after he suggested injecting them to treat COVID-19.
He complains at rallies about media that cry “COVID, COVID, COVID,” even as his campaign requests that attendees sign statements absolving the President of any liability in case they contract the disease at venues in which most attendees disdain mask wearing or social distancing.
The term “Trumpression” assures that this slide away from responsibility ends. For weeks early in the crisis, he conducted daily press briefings—colossal wastes of time surpassed in fatuity only by the interminable anti-capitalist harangues of Fidel Castro at the height of his power. These rambling, content-free, propaganda exercises falsely reassured his followers that the boastful empty suit now occupying the Oval Office was acting like a true President.
In fact, it was governors who were seizing the initiative. They took the risks of lost revenues, lawsuits from businessmen, Fox News harangues, and—in the case of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer—crazed libertarians’ kidnapping plots; he took the bows for the one tangible result of those stiff measures: preventing COVID-related deaths and caseloads from rising even higher. By refusing to lead a federal response to the coronavirus, he let them take the rap for the failures that were his own doing.
The term “Trumpression” puts an end to this charade. It will indicate concisely to future students of American history the identity of the principal National Insecurity President. For contemporary voters, the tag signals that clown time is over.
COVID’s ‘Wartime President’ Surrenders, Without a Shot Fired
Back in his spring five o’clock follies, the onetime Candidate Bone Spur said that he had in fact felt at times like a “wartime president.” How rich!
Too bad he doesn’t seem to have studied the Civil War, or else he might have learned how Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman used a version of their old chief Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” at the start of the war—till they came along, applied inadequately by prior Union commanders—to coordinate efforts simultaneously across several regions to bring down the Confederacy.
Instead, the struggle to contain COVID was hampered by Trump’s haphazard, half-hearted strategy of letting states fend for themselves, even to the point where they were competing for scarce medical supplies. Later, he even threatened withdrawal of aid from states like Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan whose governors criticized the federal approach.
Trump projects onto opponents the faults of himself or his opportunistic toadies—in this case, the evisceration of attempts to prepare a strategy to fight future pandemics. He laid the groundwork for the fumbled federal response by cutting the number of staffers who could identify health problems in China and by reducing funding for the Centers for Disease Control.
Subsequently, by refusing to take COVID-19 seriously and flashing contradictory signals about the need for wearing masks, he not only undercut pandemic preparation procedures by the Democratic predecessor he has loathed for possessing the intelligence and class that he lacked, but even earlier foundational efforts by the Republican George W. Bush. (“If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare,” Dubya said—as far back as 2005.)
Trump couldn’t be bothered to learn any more than the rudimentary facts about COVID-19, so he put others in charge of dealing with it. But who was it? Not the scientists or doctors who studied the disease’s transmission and who should have been involved. No, it was Mike Pence and Jared Kushner. Even then, he couldn’t decide which one would have ultimate authority.
The upshot? Two adjectives this WWE aficionado loves to apply to others but never himself: “Pathetic” and “weak.” The nation once admired by the rest of the world for its scientific advances muffed the opportunity to lead the international campaign against the greatest medical threat of our time. “Promises kept”? Not by the President who continually said the disease would go away by summer, then that America was “rounding the corner” in dealing with it.
This is what the GOP let themselves in for when they acquitted Trump on all impeachment charges: a resentful, self-pitying Fox watcher and Twitter practitioner who went AWOL against COVID-19. If historian Barbara Tuchman were alive today, she would surely want to add this as a chapter to The March of Folly.
The Lasting Residue of the COVID Nightmare
In the beginning, Trump insisted that the coronavirus would eventually “wash away.” Not only did that never happen, but the casualties have only mounted. Each repetition or variation of that phrase makes him sound more like Herbert Hoover claiming in the Great Depression that “Prosperity is just around the corner.”
Hoover, at least, only thought that restarting production was simply a matter of injecting confidence into the American economy. Trump, we now know from tape recordings released by Bob Woodward, knew as far back as February that "this is deadly stuff."
His claims to the contrary since then have been an attempt to dance around the judgment of voters, just as he managed, from the 1980s to 2000s, to evade bankers’ attempt to claw back the millions he owed them. (Witness his repeated assertions over the last few weeks that a vaccine would be available by Election Day—a date that even spokesmen now shamefacedly agree was “kind of an arbitrary deadline.”)
Trump has been sure that COVID will be gone, “like a dream.” I think the more exact noun is “nightmare,” with scenes not easily forgotten when we awake to the brighter tomorrow he claims desperately will come any day now. (Even his own brush with the disease has left him unchastened about spreading misinformation.)
The danger is that, before then, it will leave a lasting residue on American civic, commercial and even private life. Even before a single state government had ordered a lockdown, many Americans were already withdrawing from going to offices, attending trade shows, using public transportation, eating in enclosed restaurants, or shopping at malls for fear of contradicting a disease that even then was growing exponentially.
Look around now and the danger has spread. It’s more than just the downtowns of blue cities and suburbs that feature gaping holes. Now, states that initially thought their lower population density and Republican voting base would somehow magically save them are experiencing infection spikes and strained health-care capacity. And it is all because Trump feared how the damage to the economy would affect his reelection hopes.
Ironic, isn’t it, that America’s greatest germaphobe forfeited the chance to rally his countrymen against COVID-19—and now risks not only defeat at the polls but a mortal threat to the multinational business portfolio he never divested himself of?
Uniquely in the annals of Presidential leadership, Trump has demonstrated how impaired moral character and intellectual laziness can combine to produce monumental managerial disaster.
I have no doubt that history will judge this Great Trumpression harshly. That will be so whether a victorious Trump immediately fires dissenters like Fauci or a losing Trump orders the destruction of papers and electronic files that would document his mismanagement and crimes.
What I fear is that somehow, the President will win re-election, and go on to lead America to an even worse catastrophe over the next four years—because each time in his life that Trump has been enabled, he goes on to incur a greater risk and experience a graver crisis of his own creation.
It's not like even some Republicans didn’t foresee what he might do—or undo. Jeb Bush called him appropriately “the chaos candidate” during the 2016 primaries. Then, in July 2019—not only before COVID-19, but even the impeachment battle—conservative columnist George F. Will warned, in an interview on MSNBC, of the lasting damage wrought by Trump to the functioning of government, the civility of political discourse, and the solidity of truth:
“You can't unring the bells. You can't unsay what he is saying. And it's amazing to me…how fast something could go from unthinkable to thinkable to action. And it doesn't seem to me it's going to be easy to just snap back as though this didn't happen. It happened, and he got away with it, and he became president, and there will be emulators.”
The most ardent of Trump’s followers have wanted to “own the liberals,” but, by handing him a second term, they will share ownership in the wreck of the world’s greatest economy and the deterioration of the proud leader of democracy on earth.