But, oddly, the White House has expressed practically no interest in supercharging the economic engine that could drive the president to victory. With no pressure from the top, Senate Republicans rejected the HEROES Act, the multitrillion-dollar stimulus package that Democrats passed in the House, and countered with a stingy—or “skinny”—stimulus that did not include another round of checks for taxpayers or state and local government aid.
What in the world is Trump thinking? I don’t ask the question rhetorically. I desperately want to know, as I cannot imagine why an incumbent president, without any ideological commitment to government restraint, facing imminent judgment over the struggling economy, would lose interest in stimulating it.
According to several conversations with Republicans, the answer is that the president is stuck in a Pollyannaish fantasy of his own making.
On the campaign trail and in his television ads, Trump proclaims that a great and historic economic recovery is afoot. The notion that the economy is sick enough to require a trillion-dollar booster shot is in direct tension with the claim that it’s thriving. So, the theory goes, Trump is unwilling to advocate for stimulus, because he doesn’t want to acknowledge that the economy is broken in the first place.
Trump’s approach to the enfeebled pandemic economy resembles that of a certain cartoon dog sipping coffee in a burning room. It’s the “This Is Fine” style of American politics. Surrounded by evidence of a crisis, Trump seems content to make up promises about a fictionalized economy rather than take action to fix the real thing.
Meanwhile, the people around Trump aren’t urging him to reject this faulty logic. Some of them are simply afraid of objecting to a leader with a taste for punishing his intraparty rivals. But the GOP, as a group, has also convinced itself that more stimulus is unnecessary. Republicans are more dubious about Keynesianism than Democrats, even though they stood by quietly as deficits mounted under Trump before the plague hit. The GOP largely prefers targeted social insurance over the broad-based stimulus of mailing checks to hundreds of millions of American households. They don’t believe that states and local governments need a huge bailout. They’re reluctant to top off unemployment-insurance checks with hundreds of dollars in pandemic bonuses.
The generous interpretation is that Republicans believe the economy will rebound without federal assistance; the critical one is that, just as Trump is delusional about economic realities, the GOP is delusional about economic policy. The Great Recession demonstrated clearly that without emergency support after sharp recessions, state and local governments lay off workers, whose unemployment delays the overall recovery. But the GOP, refusing to learn from the experience of past economic conflagrations, is clasping anachronistic ideas about economics with both hands. In other words: “This Is Fine.”