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Political indigestion

There’s an old gag that goes something like this:

“What’s worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm?”

“I don’t know. What?”

“Finding half a worm!”

For millions of Americans, the last three years of Donald Trump’s presidency felt like they had taken a bite and found that worm. Unfortunately, as we’ve witnessed his performance during the coronavirus outbreak, we can see that they’ve only been right by half.

Trump’s venality, mean-spiritedness and incompetence prior to the outbreak has been on full display. But, despite fears of catastrophic events in some quarters, there had been no major crises, and those who voiced warnings of imminent doom were seen as alarmists. Many thought that the country could withstand the temporary damage to institutions and norms of behavior, and simply move on after his departure.

That was the prevailing sentiment … until now. Trump’s behavior during the last month or so has illustrated how his lack of leadership, and an obsession with his own image and political standing at the expense of the public good, can result in a crisis spiraling out of control.

Throughout the period during the spread of the coronavirus, Trump’s primary barometer of well-being has been the U.S. stock market, his lifeline to a second term in office. He has done, and is doing, everything within his power to prop it up. As a result, in the face of a public health crisis, he has engaged in magical thinking — with a strong dose of self-congratulatory rhetoric which has little basis in reality — rather than measured caution and credible reassurance. For well over a month he had minimized the threat of contagion and the seriousness of contracting the virus. He maintained that “we have it under control” and that it would miraculously go away with the onset of spring, despite warnings to the contrary by health care professionals in his own administration. His happy talk persisted through early March, alternately characterizing the concern about the disease as a hoax, falsely blaming the Obama administration, and claiming that fear of contagion was a scare tactic orchestrated by the Democrats and the media to undermine him.

These baseless claims were accompanied by an abysmal lack of urgency and a bungled effort to create an effective diagnostic test to determine whether individuals had contracted the virus. The impact of that failing cannot be overstated. Without testing, it has not only been impossible to determine the extent of the virus’ spread; it has sown fear and uncertainty in many parts of the country. The knock-on effect of that fear and uncertainty has been reflected in the chaos of the stock market. Since early March, the market has dropped approximately 20%, and around $3 trillion in value has been destroyed. (So much for, “Yeah, he’s a jerk, but look at my 401(k)”.)

In addition to the immediate effects of the Trump administration’s mismanagement, the crisis has revealed just how short-sighted and self-serving its economic policies have been. The tax law of 2017 and the relentless pressure to keep interest rates low have had some short-term beneficial effects, especially for corporations and wealthy Americans. However, they not only have exploded a national debt that will be laid at the feet of future generations; they have exhausted the options generally used by government to deal with financial crises like the present one. Any fiscal stimulus to alleviate financial pressures are certain to further and dangerously increase the national debt. And Trump’s obsession with low interest rates to boost the stock market has left the Federal Reserve with precious little room for any meaningful monetary measures. Facing a possible recession, Trump’s policies have essentially exhausted anti-recessionary resources on short-term (and quickly evaporating) stock market gains.

Finally, the inept handling of the crisis has crowded out attention to other issues that would generally be front-page news. North Korea continues to test missiles while evading sanctions. A desperate Iran has passed a key threshold in its ability fuel a nuclear device. And a questionable “peace treaty” with the Taliban has been negotiated. In addition to not including the Afghan government as a party to the agreement, it requires the release of 5,000 prisoners who have ties to various Middle East terrorist groups. Any one of these developments would dominate the news and require close scrutiny and evaluation if we were not in the throes of a public health crisis and financial chaos.

In November, the electorate will be faced with whether they want another bite of that apple. To those who choose to take that bite, bon appetit.

William Gole lives in Lake Placid.

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