Coronavirus is no excuse for Trump’s failing economy: A socialist viewpoint
Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a chart as he speaks to the National Association of Home Builders, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, in Miami Beach, Fla. | Evan Vucci / AP

The narrative Trump and his Republican allies have been weaving about his managing of the U.S. economy is that he had presided over, if not himself built, the strongest economy in the nation’s history and that it was only slowed by the coronavirus outbreak, which was not his fault.

He can’t be held responsible for the collapse of the economy, for the current depression, because how could anyone have predicted, much less be held responsible for, the pandemic, before which, he tells the story, “we were going in a direction like we had never seen—the most successful economy in the history of our country, the best unemployment numbers in history.”

Trump’s self-serving trumpeting is questionable from many angles, and often outright erroneous.

Importantly, assessing Trump’s failing economy provides a key opportunity to continue the conversation, invigorated in 2016 by Bernie Sanders’ campaign, with Americans about what “socialism” is and what it offers as an alternative to capitalism, which also means educating Americans about what capitalism is, what its key features are.

Before getting there, though, it is worthwhile to fact check some of Trump’s claims about the economy he has overseen, even within the context of what is possible within capitalism.

First, in terms of job creation, wage growth, and growth in the inflation-adjusted gross domestic product, and even stock performance, the economy under Obama slightly out-performed Trump’s. And, second, we have to remember, Trump inherited an economy from Obama that had already set a record for the number of consecutive months of job growth. Despite his repeated claims, Trump did not fix a broken and stagnant economy left by Obama.

Third, Trump did in fact have ample forewarning about the threat of the coronavirus and had plenty of notice to implement measures to protect American lives, and hence the economy, from the pandemic. Of course, Trump has yet to grasp the need—not to mention the humanity—of prioritizing saving and protecting American lives as a necessary condition for saving the economy. And he had ample opportunity to address and manage the pandemic responsibly and carefully, coordinating a national effort, such that the U.S. economy and overall society could be opening and returning toward a greater state of normalcy, as many other nations are doing or have done.

But all of these facts aside, the most salient, if largely unrecognized, reason the coronavirus pandemic does not hold water as an excuse for the depression he has overseen is that quite clearly Trump had not developed a strong economy, at least not one strong and resilient enough to withstand a crisis.  Wouldn’t a strong and successful economy be defined precisely by its ability to keep working for people—which means sustaining its ability to produce and distribute goods and services to meet our people’s needs—even during a challenging crisis? Shouldn’t a strong economy be able to weather a storm and shelter and protect its people?

Imagine someone saying during the last Great Recession, for example, “Well, the economy was really successful, if it weren’t for that banking meltdown and all those toxic derivatives being bundled in mortgage-backed securities.”

An economy that collapses is by definition one that has weaknesses, that is not strong enough.

And herein lies the opportunity to talk about the cyclical and increasingly frequent economic crises and contractions the nation’s people are enduring under capitalism. It is not a matter of if the economy will experience another recession, but when. These cycles are inherent in the dynamics of capitalism. This fact is historically obvious.

What we call a strong economy, our current capitalist arrangement, has never provided stability nor proven able to consistently produce and distribute goods and services to meet the needs of the nation’s people.

As a nation, we don’t have a serious comparative conversation about alternative socio-economic systems but instead only talk about “the economy” as some fixed and monolithic system about which we have no choice in organizing. Because of this, for the most part, Americans have come to accept, if not expect, increasingly frequent economic downturns that result in mass suffering and want.

We need leaders to recognize this point if we are going to have any hope of building an economy that works for people as opposed to accepting economic orders that routinely collapse during crisis, thrusting Americans into periodic and extended eras of misery. Instead, we need an economy featuring stabilizing and protective mechanisms designed precisely to hold up and continue to function to meet people’s needs even during times of crisis or stress.

Let’s be clear: Trump is one of those proverbial little pigs who preferred to play rather than do diligent work and thus carelessly built an economy out of sticks and straw instead of putting in the time, effort, and care to build a genuinely strong economy out of brick that would have been able to withstand the huffing and puffing of the big bad wolf.

The big bad wolf could come in many forms—a bank meltdown, a hurricane, a pandemic, a war, who knows?

Good leadership and sound economic policy plan and prepare for such emergencies, especially if those leaders and policies prioritize people’s lives and not just profits.

Trump promises he will re-build the economy as he did before. Let me go out on a limb and suggest that such a prospect, given what we are collectively experiencing, should not bring us comfort.

The “K-shaped recovery” we are seeing only highlights the pre-COVID economy Trump oversaw. Economists call this so-called recovery “K-shaped” because of its two distinct dimensions: the sideways upward sloping line that is part of the “K” represents the chart of the recovery for the wealthiest of Americans; those already rich are bouncing back quite well, accumulating wealth hand over fist. The downward line of the “K” represents the flat-lining chart for the other 99% of us.

The K-shaped graph simply highlights the reality of the American class system—and the reality and necessity of class struggle.

Once again, the redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom under Trump continues, as we saw with his tax cuts.

Poverty and homelessness had been increasing under Trump’s reign pre-COVID, and many of the jobs created were low-wage ones without benefits, leaving those who worked them still unable to support themselves or a family.

And worse, Trump has never recognized the need to practice the discipline of political economy, which means recognizing the way governmental structures and policies, the public sector, have always been necessary to support and govern the healthy functioning of the economy.

Had we had a robust public health infrastructure—or had Trump not destroyed the public health infrastructure—American society as a whole, and hence the economy, would have been able to respond to the pandemic much more extensively and comprehensively. Or, if we had a more robust unemployment insurance system, a healthcare system in which so many people’s insurance was not tied to employment, and so on, we would have had the ability, we would have a political economy with the ability, to meet people’s needs. These public infrastructures, which Trump has worked to erode, arguably represent elements of U.S. society that are more socialized, an important point to emphasize.

But having no skill at governing and no respect for government, Trump has failed at building a strong political economy.

Unfortunately, when the big bad wolf blows the economy down, it is we 99% who suffer, not Trump and his class. Socialists need to seize this opportunity to talk about what a strong economy that works for all looks like.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, the opinions here represent those of the author.

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Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.