Sure, the Federal Government is Failing. What if That’s The Point?

Criticisms of the federal response to COVID19 have focused on the lack of material support as well as the messaging. Material support– in the form of providing things like N95 respirators and ventilators to desperately under-resourced hospitals, many of which were operating at capacity before the pandemic hit- has been lacking. Testing kits have been in extremely limited supply. It’s very difficult to even get tested. Communications– mostly from the White House- have ranged from disingenuous to outright untruthful. People are even dying as a result of this messaging, directly or indirectly.

What if that is the point?

GOVERNMENT DYSFUNCTION, A PRELUDE TO COVID19

The Trump Administration has made it abundantly clear that it isn’t concerned with the federal government running like a well-oiled machine. Rex Tillerson- and Mike Pompeo since Tillerson’s departure- have eviscerated the State Department. Federal morale has plummeted. Is this in an attempt to reduce the size of the federal government? As a friend of a friend recently said to me: “I’m more socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. That’s why I voted for him.”

But under his regime, the federal government hasn’t become more effective. Nor has it shrunk. Trump ballooned the deficit and the national debt. He has cut successful and even revenue-neutral programs. Others have been left to founder from understaffing– or a lack of direction from the revolving door in the executive branch.

Response, or lack thereof, to COVID19 is perhaps the crowning achievement. Trump downplayed the pandemic for weeks. He called it the “[democrats’] latest hoax” in late February. As it spread, he said it would go away. China mapped the genome of the virus in early January and published this information, and his administration did nothing. His administration then turned down the opportunity to use a WHO-developed test, which it could have had millions of by late February. His defenders note that he restricted travel from China in January. But restricting travel in a thoroughly interconnected economy is largely irrelevant.

In numerous public critiques and lawsuits invoking the emoluments clause of the United States Constitution, critics of the presidency claim that the executive is using the office for personal gain. Whether this is true seems indisputable. Whether it is unconstitutional is another question.

USING GOVERNMENT FOR PERSONAL GAIN?

I’m not qualified to speculate as to exactly why he has done all of this. The likely conclusion to Trump’s coziness with corporate interests is that he wants to empower them– a.k.a. himself and his family. The President has already commandeered millions in taxpayer dollars to be spent at his properties– $16.1 million directly, according to a ProPublica investigation. Doubling the Mar-A-Lago fee was another example of exploiting the presidency for personal gain. And remember that mysterious options trade that netted someone $3.5 billion in profits overnight in minutes following a Trump tweet?

Observers have also pointed out that his demands that Jerome Powell, who steers an ostensibly independent entity, lower interest rates– would actually save him millions of dollars for real estate borrowing.

But COVID19 isn’t the same as bank loans.

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President Donald Trump speaks to Bill Hemmer of Fox News in the Rose Garden at the White House yesterday, March 24, 2020. The virtual town hall included a number of gaffes by the President, in which he downplayed the seriousness of COVID19, misstating its mortality rate, and suggested that American Christians should be able to attend church on Easter Sunday. (CNN)

OR JUST– PETTY?

Maybe it’s just personal. The President confirmed his intentions in a virtual town hall meeting broadcast on Fox News, a network increasingly seen as his propaganda platform rather than a credible media outlet. In that town hall, he said of providing aid to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been a frequent critic, “it’s a two way street. They have to treat us well, too.” New York has been hit especially hard. FEMA claims to have sent several hundred ventilators to the city. Cuomo says they need tens of thousands.

Activating the Defense Production Act– but not using it. Lying about who is doing what and when. Lying about things he said he didn’t say– but did say.

These backtracks and denials are not new. But the presidency for Mr. Trump is not just about using the presidency for personal gain. It’s also about attaining the ultimate bully pulpit. As such, everyone can be a victim of “The Apprentice.” It appears we’re all apprentices these days, learning a lot about how utterly dangerous pathological narcissism is– and how American democracy and federalism work, or don’t.

It just so happens that a pandemic is a thoroughly unfortunate time to realize the danger of a cult of personality. And quite tragic that the lives of millions of Americans are threatened by the herd mentality of his supporters to believe everything and anything he says, even when he contradicts himself, his platform, or his own experts.

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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