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OPINION | Coronavirus

Trump Is Actually the President We Need Right Now

Coronavirus will give him the opportunity to do what he does best: Spend gobs and gobs of money.

Donald Trump

As the corona crisis expands into both the greatest public health challenge of our age and what will surely be one of the greatest economic ones as well, leadership at the federal level has been much criticized. This past week, however, one thing became clear: Donald Trump may be exactly the president we need now.

This is not a testament to his leadership during the crisis or praise of his skills as a chief executive. His administration has not to date covered itself in glory. Homeland security experts have been rightly critical of his administration’s response on multiple fronts, ranging from failure to prepare a comprehensive testing regime to refusing to use the powers of the federal government to coordinate the state-by-state responses. He has seemed indifferent at times and less than urgent about what is needed. But last week, something shifted as the full scale of the challenge the virus presents sunk in, together with the recognition that significant loss of life is not out of the question and economic wreckage is now certain. And, now, the newly scared Trump is prepared to do what he does best: Spend gobs and gobs of money.

As most recognize, Trump was never an ideological Republican; he was an opportunistic one. He embraced the core of the Republican Party as a path to power, and the GOP slowly embraced back, especially as he created a conduit to deregulation and the appointment of Federalist Society-vetted judges. The distractions of Russia-gate and the impeachment turned him into a boogeyman for the left and a hero-by-default for the right. But at core, Trump remained in it for himself.

One thing that Trump has always been able and willing to do is spend other people’s money for his own personal gain. Some of that gain has been financial; much of it has been reputational. And if there is one thing the United States now needs more than ever at a rate barely contemplated ever before is for the federal government to spend and spend and then spend some more. Cancel everything. Bail out everyone. And Trump will lead the charge, or at least take credit for not standing in its way.

This is not meant to be facetious. From 1929 to 1933, the Hoover administration adamantly stood against bailouts and spending while the economy unraveled and unemployment soared to 25 percent. The incoming Franklin D. Roosevelt administration initially cut budget spending in the belief that a balanced budget was needed to fight the Depression. FDR quickly realized that only massive spending on an unprecedented scale could stem the damage. In 2008-09, it took months for Congress and the White House to agree to financial bailouts and then a stimulus package totaling about $800 billion that was still inadequate. Today, within a week of recognizing the crisis, Congress is working on multiple bills that amount to over $2 trillion in the form of direct checks to Americans, interest-free, forgivable loans to small businesses provided they do not fire their workers, and bailouts for decimated airline, hospitality and other industries. In addition, the Federal Reserve is utilizing its almost unlimited balance sheet to shore up banks, municipal bonds and money market funds.

Via Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Trump has been making clear to Congress, to House speaker and nemesis Nancy Pelosi and to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he wants to go even bigger and bolder, including more paid sick leave, a payroll tax holiday and student loan debt deferrals. Having dear-leadered themselves into a Trump bear hug, congressional Republicans who might otherwise balk at these measures have nowhere to go and nothing to fall back on. Having ignored ballooning deficits for the past few years, they already were on weak ground arguing for fiscal discipline, but the vestiges of their free-market ideology are no match for this current crisis.

Trump was never a budget hawk and has never touted the line that government shouldn’t spend the way most of his party has. But as president pre-corona, he was largely amenable to traditional Republican Party prescripts about cutting social spending, maintaining a robust defense budget and paring back the federal bureaucracy along with tax cuts for corporations. Post-corona, he is morphing into something rather different. He is embracing spend baby spend, and that is precisely what we need. Senator Bernie Sanders, who will not get the Democratic nomination, would have endorsed all of this. In a crisis, we are all socialists, and given that Trump never cared what he was, becoming that is painless.

Think about this: When Andrew Yang was advocating universal basic income and a check to all Americans in the bygone era of two months ago, he was dismissed as a diverting oddity whose policies existed only in policy-wonk la-la land. Sometime in the next weeks, his plans will become a reality as the government starts mailing everyone money. What was unthinkable is now happening. Student loan forgiveness was denounced as encouraging moral hazard. Now we will have at a minimum deferred payments and there is talk of a much more radical remediation. Payments to people to stay on payroll and not work during a business downturn. Check. No foreclosures in times of duress? Check. The only thing not yet being contemplated is universal health care, but when the unemployment rate soars above 10 percent on its way to 20 percent if the current measures don’t work, that will be on the table as well. And you can be sure Trump will embrace it and claim that’s what he wanted all along.

The losers here, and that is putting it mildly, are the free-market Republicans who have sold their souls to Trump and now have no principles left to stand on. They will revive their mantras about cutting spending and impending fiscal disaster at some point in the next months. But the traditional GOP argument that everything we are now doing couldn’t and shouldn’t be done will in fact be done. Trump is not an ideology; he is not a platform; he is an id that will do what it takes to survive. And for now, that means unleashing the greatest surge of government spending that the country has ever seen, even including wartime.

Should we get through this without total collapse, Trump could well find the ticket to his reelection, as he may well take credit for anything short of the apocalypse. And frankly, if we get through with an economy wounded but not destroyed, perhaps some credit will be due. But the Republican Party will be decimated ideologically. Either way, and regardless of whether our response to this virus in shutting down everything will prove more deadly to our society than the actual lethality of the disease, what we need right now is to spend more than we ever have and have ever believed possible at lightning speed. And Trump is just the man for that job.