“I think you are a very bad man,” said Dorothy. “Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man, but I’m a very bad Wizard, I must admit.” Most phenomena in American politics are clarified by L. Frank Baum’s century-old children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, including the Trump presidency.
The trouble is that soon-to-be-former-president Donald Trump cannot admit that he is a very bad wizard. COVID-19 killed his re-election – the pandemic itself, and his often stupefying refusal to acknowledge the deadly seriousness of the situation. In all innocence, Trump told writer Bob Woodward why he told the country not to worry:
The fact is I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country and I don’t want people to be frightened, I don’t want to create panic, as you say. And certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence, we want to show strength, we want to show strength as a nation, and that’s what I‘ve done and we’ve done very well by any standards… It’s been an amazing job that we’ve done.
That isn’t an aberration; on the contrary, making beleaguered Americans feel better about themselves was Trump’s success secret from the outset. The postwar generation of Americans, the so-called Baby Boomers now approaching or past retirement age, think that the national motto, E Pluribus Unum, translates as “Something for nothing.” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra ignored the long-term causes of America’s decline, and instead directed the voters’ rage against China and illegal immigrants. To his credit, he sounded an optimistic note, which the 2020 pandemic drowned out.
China is guilty of all sorts of misbehavior, including large-scale intellectual property theft, to be sure. But Asia’s economic success stems from the same source as the success of Asian-Americans, who comprise just 5% of the US high-school population but 22% of the Ivy League student population – despite systemic efforts to keep them out of the Ivy League. Americans refuse to believe that Asians might surpass them. That is the worst and most pernicious form of racism now prevalent in the United States because it receives official reinforcement.
COVID-19 encountered a hollowed-out US industrial base that couldn’t even manufacture enough protective gear, let alone enough test kits, as well as a shambles of a public health system that broke down in internal bickering and finger-pointing. I hear horror stories from public health officials about the performance of federal and state agencies. Trump’s brand of spin ultimately made things worse.
Now the national mood is the ugliest I’ve ever seen. A very large number of Americans believe Trump was cheated out of an election victory, that the COVID-19 lockdowns were deliberately designed to undermine Trump and impose dictatorial controls. A third or so believe that Chinese scientists deliberately weaponized the virus. Only 29% of Republicans think that Biden “rightfully won” the election. They believed that Donald Trump had come to lift America out of its misery and that wicked forces in the Establishment and the Chinese Communist Party combined to stop him.
We have had rage and polarization in America before, but never paranoia on a grand scale. Americans never believed in a Dolchstosslegende, a stab-in-the-back myth – until now. The trouble is that even paranoids have real enemies. Trump’s enemies bear the brunt of guilt for the ugly national mood. Congressional Democrats, the major news media, and elements of the US security services conspired to concoct a “Russia collusion” story with the intent of driving him from office after the Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump over a trivial incident with Ukraine. When evidence emerged that Joe Biden’s son Hunter may have been paid off by corrupt Ukrainian energy interests, published in the 1801-founded New York Post, Facebook and Twitter prevent recirculation of the story. Fifty former top intelligence officials signed a statement declaring that the report was Russian propaganda. I deplored this in a November essay, “The Treason of the Spooks.”
This sort of stab in the back was no myth. There is an Establishment, and there is a Deep State, and it determined to overturn the result of a popular election by nefarious means. Ordinary Americans watched this in fear and horror. Who can blame them if their imaginations have run wild?
What I hear from otherwise rational Americans frightens me. As an experiment, I posted the following note on Facebook: “Asking for a friend: Does anyone out there still believe that COVID-19 is an Establishment hoax? Daily fatalities and hospitalizations are at a record.” This innocuous note drew over 300 responses, of which 90% affirmed that the virus story was indeed part of an Establishment conspiracy. Some samples:
“How you count matters… does no one die of heart attacks or the flu anymore? Looks like Swing state ballots and the CDC are the fraudulent election workers.”
“Fake news using covid to take away our freedom….dont let the fake news make you crap in your pants being terrified of covid.”
“The CDC said that over 130,000 deaths were said to be covid although they were not. CDC said those deaths were from cancer stage 4, heart attacks, strokes, old age, but not covid.”
“This is pure BS. Covid is the pneumonia being ignored so people die and they can call it covid.”
“Spanish influenza killed 40 times as many people when the earth’s population was one fifth of what it is now. So thus far, COVID-10 hasn’t been even 1% as lethal as S. Flu.”
“The records are False. People normally dying of all sort if diseases are reported as Covid related.”
“I still believe it is a hoax. I do not even believe any of the stats of cases etc we are being fed. How naive can people be?”
“It’s not a hoax, but to put a nation in hysteria and destroy livelihoods over something that is no where near the death rate of a true epidemic is obviously political.”
“Not a hoax, but the decision to DECIMATE small business and put people out of work represents extreme cowardice at the best, and profound corruption at the worst. I will be blocking you later. I don’t want any cowards on my friends list.”
“Man made, designed to kill old and sick people, released by China.”
There were hundreds more lunatic pronouncements like these, to which I responded:
“In my view, the story of the year, and perhaps the decade, is that North Asia (China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan) suppressed the pandemic and is now booming, while we’re still chasing our tails. I emphasize that this is an Asian phenomenon; democracies like Taiwan and South Korea performed even better than China. The Asians used lockdowns when necessary, but well-organized ones, with electronic contact tracing and targeted forensic testing. We haven’t yet lost to China, but we lost a major civilizational battle. Why? We are hollowed out. We don’t have the industrial or medical infrastructure or the organization to handle a crisis like this. Trump said the right things about rebuilding US industry but at the end of his administration our dependence on China is greater than ever, and our trade deficit with China is at or near the all-time record. I hoped he would do better in a second term, but there won’t be one. No level of government handled this competently.”
This attracted more hostile responses.
It’s hard to make sense of the American national mood without appreciating how profoundly Trump touched the nerves of the population.
When he ran for office in 2016, US real median household income was exactly where it had been in 1998. This generation of Americans was the first since the Great Depression to feel no improvement in their circumstances of life. This measure rose sharply during the Trump presidency until the pandemic struck.
Trump deserves a great deal of credit for this improvement, and certainly would have won re-election except for COVID-19. His 2017 corporate tax cut was flawed. As Robert Atkinson of the Institute for Information Technology and Innovation points out, the plan cut incentives for capital expenditures to fund a lower corporate tax rate, which encouraged big companies to buy back their stock rather than invest in new equipment. For the first time since 2008, US corporations returned more money to shareholders in the form of share buybacks than they spent on CapEx.
Still, the Trump tax cut sparked an employment boom. Trump may have been the candidate of small business, abhorred in corporate boardrooms, but employment data from the payroll firm Automatic Data Processing show that employment at big companies grew fastest. In a tight labor market where certain skills were hard to find, larger companies had the advantage in recruitment. As the chart makes clear, the fastest rate of change in employment was in companies with 500 or more employees.
As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich remarked at the time, Trump fought the battle he could win with the army he had. The Republican Congress then led by Paul Ryan would countenance a conventional Republican tax cut, and that is what Trump pushed through. It’s unfair to dismiss the tax cut impact as a “sugar high.” Entrepreneurs take risks when they believe the government is sympathetic rather than hostile. It’s also unfair to blame Trump for his deficiencies; as an outsider detested by the mainstream of his own party, Trump had to work with what Congressional leaders would countenance.
Trump ran on a promise of manufacturing renewal, but investment in nondefense capital goods (excluding aircraft) remained at the depressed levels of 2016 as of the start of 2020, before the COVID-19 recession hit.
Trump’s biggest policy blunder was the China trade war. US industrial production fell during 2019, before the COVID recession, in part because the tariffs increased the cost of semi-finished goods from China.
Worst of all, Trump missed an historic opportunity to declare a “Sputnik moment” – a national epiphany about China’s challenge to American technological preeminence – and rally the country around a Kennedy-style Moonshot or a Reagan-style Strategic Defense Initiative.
Precisely as Trump told Woodward, he’s a cheerleader. In the Frank Baum book, the Wizard solves the problems of Dorothy’s preposterous companions – a Scarecrow with no brain, a Tin Woodsman with no heart, and a Cowardly Lion – by giving them, respectively, a diploma, a heart-shaped pocket-watch, and a testimonial. The message is as American as baseball and buncombe: Just believe in yourself. Baum laughed at the Wizard, of course, and Trump shows no capacity of any kind for self-examination, much less self-deprecating humor.
Trump was the best that America could come up with at the moment. In reality, America imports its Wizard, including real wizards like the Hungarian-Jewish scientists who built the atom bomb (and who in the person of Edward Teller persuaded Ronald Reagan to pursue strategic defense). It also imports fake wizards, for example, Henry Kissinger, whom I qualified in a recent essay as “Klemens von Metternich – as played by Groucho Marx.”
The sad fact is that the US economy is 70% consumption, against an OECD average of 60%. We don’t invest in future productivity; we borrow and we consume. That is America’s problem, and Trump did nothing to correct it. Someone needs to tell Americans that there’s a difference between winning and feeling good while we’re losing. If America wants to remain the world’s preeminent power, it needs to teach high school students Calculus in 10th grade and subsidize engineering majors instead of resentment studies. It needs a tax system that encourages US tech companies to make hardware as well as software. And it needs a lot of qualified immigrants from China and India to build new industries while we wait for the long-term impact of education reforms.
Why won’t any politician stand up and say this? Probably because no-one will believe it’s possible. A political scientist of my acquaintance, Clifford Angell Bates, posted this comment on my recent report of Chinese breakthroughs in 5G broadband: “I think we need to take John von Neumann’s recommendation that he gave regarding what should be done to [the] Soviets,” that is, a preemptive nuclear attack. Why not just improve America and compete with China? I posted back.
Prof. Bates replied: “Sorry… given the declining IQ of the American population due to dysgenetic behavior of large parts of the American population and the failure of our schools to educate the young to produce the necessary skillset to pull it off, any thought of trying to repeat what Reagan was able to do is very, very unlikely. The odds of being able to reform our education system are as unlikely [as] someone winning [the lottery] Powerball – heck no, winning 10 Powerballs. Why so low? Because of the political interests that make the public education system the clusterf*** it is. Also, China unlike the Soviet Union is wholly integrated into the global economic system and is working at the same level as we are. No, we f*** up in 1988-89 when [we] did not clamp down and cutting them off… Now we have the devil to pay… I prefer not to be ruled by them… so I think what Neumann recommends needs to be taken seriously if one wishes not to face the dismal future of slavery under a Chinese hegemonic despotism.”
Prof. Bates was letting off steam, to be sure; given the opportunity to press the button and start a nuclear war with China, I suspect he would demur. But his bad mood is indicative: This is an America that eagerly believed the happy stories that Donald Trump told about it but doesn’t really believe in itself. It will alternate between rage and despondency for the foreseeable future.