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If Trump Responded to the Coronavirus Like FDR

It's not cynical to seize the moment.
President Trump Makes Statement On Vaccine Development

The coronavirus pandemic has cost America tens of thousands of lives, 100,000 small businesses, and trillions of dollars of lost wealth. It has also consumed a considerable amount of President Trump’s political capital. The administration lost control of the narrative that they had taken proactive steps to solve the crisis. Daily hours-long press conferences became headline news for the President’s battles with the press and conflicting information. More than a few opportunities passed during the crisis to fundamentally remake the country in a way that would have benefitted the working class and his voters.

It may sound crass to talk about using a crisis to push through any sort of political agenda, but that is what leaders on both sides of the political aisle have done for over a century. President Franklin Roosevelt saw an opportunity during the Great Depression, and he went so far as threatening to pack the Supreme Court to impose his will. Likewise, George W. Bush vastly expanded the scope of federal government surveillance after 9/11. During the present crisis, Nancy Pelosi and Democratic governors have used the coronavirus as an excuse to empty prisons and strengthen private-sector unions.

The same would have been possible for the President if there was a coherent vision within his administration. In an alternative reality, where Trump’s administration was staffed with nationalists and populists who believed in the message of his 2016 campaign, rather than the current constellation of FreedomWorks, Bush Administration, and Heritage Foundation alumni, the White House could have delivered a series of substantial victories for working-class Americans.

When news broke on December 31st that the coronavirus was infecting an untold number of Chinese citizens, the Trump administration offered to send CDC health experts to Wuhan. They took steps to nip the spread of the virus in the bud, but the Chinese Communist Party deliberately misled the world. By January 20th, when the World Health Organization finally confirmed that the disease was being spread by human-to-human transmission, precious time had already been lost. The first confirmed case in the United States was the next day.

None of this was President Trump’s fault, and he made the correct call on January 31st to suspend travel to and from China. However, in the aftermath of that decision, the Trump Administration should have outlined a vision for the country.

Initially, the Trump Administration could have pressed the governors to outline a plan to protect senior citizens in assisted living facilities, since they were the most vulnerable group in the country, and utilized the Defense Production Act at a much earlier stage to have manufacturers in the U.S. make masks and build ventilators. These steps alone would have saved thousands of lives and stopped the media from breathlessly carrying the stories of medical supply shortages.

When the country was forced to shut down as outbreaks blossomed in New York, Detroit, and New Orleans, the Trump Administration should have used it as an opportunity to fundamentally restructure our economy. 

First, the President should have come out with a broad freeze on all work visas, with the sole exception being visas that dealt with our food supply. President Trump has halted some visas, but the suspension is not nearly broad enough to make a lasting impact, as companies continue to outsource jobs to cheaper foreign labor.

Next, the freeze should have been coupled with a provision in the stimulus package to offer billions of dollars to training programs for Americans out of work in low-wage jobs, allowing them to learn new skills during the quarantine. This system of retraining was pioneered by Germany during the 2008 financial crisis and laid the groundwork for the country’s successful rebound as the engine of Europe over the past decade. Training programs would’ve been especially useful for hourly workers who have felt the brunt of the economic downturn. While they can file for unemployment, many have only seen their hours reduced and therefore do not qualify for assistance.

When Congress started spending trillions of dollars stimulating the economy, Trump should have pushed a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan on the condition that it be used to rebuild the industrial Midwest. A major reason why manufacturing cannot return to states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin is because their roads, airports, and railways are decades behind states like Texas and California. Investing in those states would have benefited him politically, created thousands of temporary jobs in the construction field, and would have driven demand for oil, steel, and other supplies in adjacent industries.

Finally, when the virus was controlled, Trump could have focused on moving manufacturing out of China and back to the United States. With new infrastructure and a better-trained workforce, many of those jobs businesses could have relocated to the Midwest, bringing quality jobs where they are needed most. 

This may not be the perfect plan to deal with all the problems raised by the coronavirus, but it lays out policy goals with a greater vision of how to give economic opportunity for working-class Americans. After decades of being on the losing end of globalization, Trump could use this time when Americans are hyper critical of immigration and China to reverse decades of decay for Middle America.

Ryan Girdusky is the author of They’re Not Listening: How the Elites Created the National Populist Revolution. He is a contributing editor to TAC and a host of Right Now.