The central provisions of the CARES act were designed to allow businesses and workers to weather widespread economic shutdown orders, but only for so long. The bill expands unemployment benefits substantially, but only through July 31. It provides most adults $1,200 a piece, and more for their children, but only one time.
Perhaps most perversely, it created a program designed to issue forgivable loans (essentially grants) to small business owners who retain their employees, but dramatically underfunded it. This decision pit truly independent businesses against larger companies (with their teams of lawyers) in a zero-sum scramble to secure their subsistence before the cash ran out, which it did almost right away. Congress has responded by refunding the program with another inadequate infusion of money, which is also expected to run out quickly.
These decisions have deepened the sense of disquiet pervading the country about what American life, and our individual lives, will look like when the danger of coronavirus has passed. They have also fostered a less-widespread sense of dread that the country’s political leaders and other elites will reprise the roles they played over a decade ago, when they turned the financial crisis of 2008 into a protracted economic calamity. Worse, they appear in some cases to want history to repeat itself.
Fortunately, steering the country on to a wiser course toward a brighter future wouldn’t take an act of god, just a firmer commitment to avoiding the errors of the past. But the similarities between then and now are eerie and the key decision makers have shown no indication that they see what’s coming and intend to avoid it.
The most uncanny echo of the late aughts is the orchestration by well-heeled right-wing donors of small anti-government, anti-lockdown protests, populated in large part by a hodgepodge of militants, conspiracy theorists, and neo-Confederates in state capitals across the country. The Tea Party movement began the same way, before it exploded into a mass uprising and a Republican revival—fueled by a priceless deluge of free media—just two years after the GOP left the country in shambles. But what makes this parallel truly alarming has less to do with the anti-lockdown protests per se than with the breathless way the national press, and in some cases the very same reporters, have chosen to cover it. They have treated these gatherings once again as the tip of the spear of a vast conservative insurrection, as if oblivious to polls showing overwhelming majorities of Americans, including Republicans, support their states’ social-distancing guidelines. The Tea Party was fringe, too, before this kind of treatment. The snowball effect is real, and it can happen again
Other parallels here are imperfect. It’s unsurprising that moneyed pro-Trump forces hope to get the band back together before the 2020 election, to buoy Trump through a tough election. But the actual Tea Party didn’t really blossom into a movement until after Republicans had been swept out of power, making its anti-government activism a more natural fit for the times than it would be today, with Trump in the White House. They have compensated for this awkwardness by organizing their protests in blue-state capitals, as if the jackboot of big government resides in Sacramento, Lansing, Harrisburg, and other small cities, rather than in Washington, DC. The Tea Party likewise presented itself not as the reactionary, xenophobic movement it was, but as an organic rebellion against soaring levels of federal debt. Many Tea Party protesters even rendered the word “TEA” in all caps as an acronym for “Taxed Enough Already.” The anti-lockdown protesters would make further mockery of themselves by protesting federal debt as it mushrooms under Trump’s watch, particularly if they did so at the doorstep of state governments.
But their activities can and will be repurposed should Joe Biden win the election.
Since the coronavirus crisis began, a faction of the liberal intelligentsia has been pleading with Democrats to insist, among other things, that the rescue provisions in bills like the CARES Act be open-ended, designed to span administrations and to wind down only when the economic crisis has passed. A framework like this would better match the public’s growing distress and the economic headwinds the country faces, but it would also, critically, serve as a hedge against the near-certainty that Republicans will begin sabotaging the recovery the moment Trump loses, just as they did in 2009, after Barack Obama became president.
The fact that Republicans crafted these provisions to be so temporary spoke at some level to their longer-term intentions. If Trump wins, they can keep the money flowing; if Trump loses, the programs will expire on their own. But the signs that they are hedging in preparation to begin demanding austerity should Trump lose have only grown louder. In just the past week, prominent Republicans—all of whom voted for Trump’s multi-trillion dollar corporate tax cut, and have happily joined bipartisan efforts to support the economy through the early days of the pandemic—have begun pretending to care about deficits again. Most ominously, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who orchestrated the smash-and-grab, pro-donor economic policy of the Trump years, now darkly warns that the national debt is “a matter of genuine concern.” He told right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt that he’d rather not do anything further to make the states that have born the brunt of the pandemic whole, calling the idea a “blue state bailout,” and suggesting they file for bankruptcy instead. Rescue Trump’s hotels? Sure. The state of New York? Not so fast.
States should, of course, not have to fire thousands of teachers and police officers and firefighters, or let their roads crumble, because Trump let a virus spread undetected throughout the country. But as we learned in 2009 and 2010—the last time Republicans hung states out to dry—the knock-on effects of making states balance their budgets after the feds have destroyed the economy is to deepen the recession and dampen the recovery, extending human misery for years and years. Perhaps McConnell won’t allow that to happen on Trump’s watch, but he would stop at nothing to mire the economy in quicksand should partisan control of the White House switch hands. And he’ll have a rent-a-protest movement ready to agitate for that outcome in January 2021 should Biden become president.
Here, too, the national press plays handmaid to Republicans’ opportunism, passing along their concern trolling about deficits and debt uncritically, and making mountains out of molehill sized stories about the budget. All of this reportage cuts against (and thus ignores) a large and growing economic consensus that Washington’s conventional wisdom about national finance is nonsense.
Against this backdrop, it’s depressingly easy to imagine Trump losing in November, only for the national celebration of his defeat to be cut short by disingenuous belt-tightening demands that strangle economic growth and make it impossible for Democrats to govern.
That’s what makes it so frustrating to watch Democrats take no steps to pre-empt Republicans before it’s too late. Throwing open the recovery measures now, while Trump needs more stimulus, would make it impossible for Republicans to smother yet another recovery early next year. They could feign outrage about deficits all they wanted—the recovery programs would chug along.
But the easiest and most satisfying way to do this would be for leading Democrats to just say they refuse to play patsy again.
Biden will eventually be tempted to throw Republicans’ fiscal vandalism back in their faces, and remind voters that this is an established pattern of GOP governance. It’s an easy and effective political hit, but it also runs the risk of validating the bullshit premise underlying fake-deficit hysteria: that the debt must be urgently addressed. After all, if it’s a problem that Republicans, once again, blew up the debt, shouldn’t a responsible party make a priority of balancing the books? The only way to square the circle is make clear at the outset that if deficit reduction is to be a priority, it will be coming out of the collective hide of Trump and his loyalists. The country’s fiscal and economic situation is the consequence of the richest, greediest people in the country taking a gamble on empowering an incompetent crook who promised to make them richer, and they—not workers or pensioners or poor people—will be the ones who pay for the devastating consequences of their actions.
The alternative, where Democrats, in their loyal opposition, sleepwalk right back into the same trap that damaged their party and the country so severely the last time Republicans wrecked everything, would be too much to bear. Trump has bragged that his shady tax-avoidance strategies “make me smart.” He has also made a practice in life of siphoning cash out of his businesses until they collapse, leaving his creditors stranded. Imagine how smart he’ll feel if—after years of treating the presidency as a tool of personal aggrandizement, destroying the ship of state in the process—he yanks his opponents loyally throwing him lifeline after lifeline into the water, and they drown in the wreckage.