As July ended, the Department of Commerce announced that the economy had contracted by nearly a third; the Department of Labor reported that 1.43 million Americans had lost their jobs. And shortly after those announcements, the Senate adjourned for a long weekend. Over the course of that weekend at the start of August, the enhanced unemployment benefits Congress created in March to soften the economic blow of the Covid-19 pandemic expired. Thirty million people lost their $600 weekly benefits.
It came at the midpoint of two weeks of failed negotiations over how best to continue economic relief efforts. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were in the midst of contentious talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Notably absent from the negotiations were the president of the United States, Donald Trump, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. The two most powerful political figures in the country, two men whose rise to power define our political epoch, had nothing to contribute to a negotiation about what the government should do in response to a crisis.
These aren’t just the two most powerful people in Washington; they’re the two most powerful, conservative American politicians in more than a decade. They represent the pinnacle of conservative power, and they excused themselves from the room for the most consequential negotiations of the president’s term so far, only to watch those negotiations fall apart completely.
McConnell, for his part, seems resigned to playing no major role in the process largely because his Senate majority includes lots of people who are not up for reelection this year and who are congenitally opposed to the prospect of the government helping anyone. It might be different if he had his own opinions on the matter, but he, too, is largely uninterested in using the power of the Senate to do anything besides confirming judges who will stop future Senates from imposing regulations and taxes on the industries and plutocrats that have acted as his patrons.
Nor is it particularly surprising that President Trump has not been directly involved in the negotiations. It’s not simply that he doesn’t understand policy; he understands the broad outlines, grasping intuitively that politics is about apportioning rewards and punishments to various groups. It’s that he doesn’t understand which policies he is supposed to favor as an ostensibly conservative Republican president. That is why he hired Meadows, whose job, whether Meadows understands it in these terms or not, is to sabotage Trump politically and prevent a betrayal of conservative principles.
The sticking point in the negotiations, besides the overall price tag, was apparently that the White House (meaning Meadows) refused to budge on aid to state and local governments; in other words, the White House wants to see crushing, pointless austerity cuts across the entire nation at the level of government where the effects of austerity will be clearest to middle- and working-class Americans.
This makes some amount of sense in terms of the conservative project, but it makes very little sense in terms of the political prospects of President Donald Trump. He has no personal allegiance to conservative fiscal policy. Surprisingly for a rich guy, he has never been particularly interested in dingbat rightwing economics. (A money launderer, for example, doesn’t care what the top marginal tax rate is; he cares about how rigorously money laundering is being investigated and punished.) Perhaps 20 years ago, he would have been canny enough to realize that bailing out the states would benefit him politically, just as he still had enough wits to figure out that signing “Donald Trump” on stimulus checks was good politics regardless of the budgetary math.
But the Donald Trump we have is the one who believes meaningless or imaginary executive orders will substitute for congressional action for the same reason that he believed Covid-19 would go away on its own. As he understands it, the important thing is that he was seen on television promising relief. The idea that people might notice if that relief never came, or was inadequate when it did, is as foreign to him as the idea that people might notice that their neighbors or parents had died of Covid-19 even if none of them could get a test to confirm the diagnosis.
Everyone who has passed through this White House has noticed this stark detachment from the principle of cause-and-effect, and most developed strategies to work around it. Throughout Trump’s tenure, the people who truly figured out how to “manage” him weren’t the generals or intelligence community lifers or nonpartisan civil servants; they were Tea Party congressmen, who treated him as little more than a stupid vehicle for their incredibly unpopular agenda. Early in his term, it was Mick Mulvaney’s job to ensure that Trumpism adhered to the gospel of movement conservatism, no matter how damaging it was to Trump’s political brand. Now, Mark Meadows is the person in charge of ensuring that Mnuchin—who has no principles beyond a traditional American rich guy’s belief in the American government’s responsibility to the S&P 500—doesn’t get to yes.
The things we need are simple: Enhanced unemployment was more effectively administered than other programs intended to pause the economy for the sake of a lockdown, and the need for it is not going away any time soon. State and local governments face budgetary craters in large part because there has simply been no federal program to defeat Covid-19; they need money. Struggling homeowners need mortgage relief, and renters need to pay rent. A functional government would have taken what was working in May and simply extended it. It should have been easy: Unlike containing the virus, containing the economic fallout only requires cutting checks, one of the few things our dysfunctional government is still able to do. But now, even that one task has turned out to be too hard. Almost no one in Washington has any experience working in a functional government. Most of the Senate has only experienced legislative paralysis and gridlock.
It took a massive stock market panic to win Americans the most generous social welfare policy enacted in many years. It took fathomless ineptitude on the part of the president and blithe disinterest on the part of his most powerful congressional ally to lose it, along with the hope that additional help will be on the way any time soon.