No one knows why the president all of a sudden Tuesday put the kibosh on stimulus talks. Maybe it’s the meds Donald Trump is on. Maybe he’s crazy. Maybe he’s stupid. Maybe he’s bad at politics. Maybe he’s going to take the country down with him. Maybe, as the wags on Twitter often say, it’s a combination of all the above.
One thing’s for sure, everyone’s puzzled. The Washington press corps is expressing bemusement openly. Axios’ Jonathan Swan said that, “I truly don’t understand this, and nor do a number of people who advise the president. It’s like he’s trying to lose.”
NBC News’ Capitol Hill correspondent Kasie Hunt said that, “I will never understand how a president who has time and time again demonstrated that he acts first in his own self interest is refusing to accept an offer to spend $2.2 trillion boosting the economy weeks before facing voters in his reelection bid. It makes no sense.”
The Hill’s Krystal Ball is not a serious journalist but instead a terrible pundit. Even so, she got this much right when she said the Democrats “literally wanted to help Trump give out money to millions of Americans just before the election and he said no.”
Jacob T. Levy is a professor of political theory at McGill University in Montreal. He gave voice to Trump’s thinking about how to practice “the art of the deal.” “He’s telling us quite clearly what he’s doing: holding the stimulus hostage to his reelection,” Levy said. “‘Vote for me and you’ll get $1.6 trillion; don’t, and you’ll get nothing for months to come.’ I’m not saying it’s a good strategy, but it’s the kind of thing Trump thinks powerful people do in negotiations: ‘You have more to lose than I do, and I’m ready to walk away.’ The counter-party being, not the Democrats, but the whole electorate.”
I think this is close to being right. The president has demonstrated time and again the extortionist gestalt of his criminal mind. Quid pro quo is his go-to. Give me what I want and I’ll reopen the federal government. Give me what I want and I’ll give Ukraine the money it needs to fight Russia. Give me what I want and I’ll give cities and states the personal protective gear they need to fight the covid pandemic. Give me what I want or the road to a traditional peaceful transfer of power will be paved with bodies.
It doesn’t work. It never, ever works. For whatever reason, Trump has not learned people do not like being forced into deals. Every time he’s tried forcing US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into one, she’s handed his ass to him. Anyway, this gambit doesn’t explain why he’d say no to money right now, just before the election, as Kasie Hunt said, when it would most help him politically. It’s here I think we must turn to something I’ve found quite helpful in this epoch of Trump: political psychology.
First, agreeing with the Democrats would give his enemies something they want. Pelosi wants billions for cities and states facing a double dilemma. They must spend to combat the new coronavirus but they are losing revenues doing so. Trump doesn’t want to help “blue states,” because that would make him look weak. (Bear in mind he probably believes, literally, that only Democrats live in “blue states.”) More important is the president’s need for someone to blame. This is his mess. He must clean it up, or get out of the way. He won’t get out of the way, of course, but to stay in power, he must manufacture at least a cartoon image of a scapegoat. Hence, all the talk about “badly run cities” looking for a government bailout, a talking point in keeping with the GOP’s traditional dog whistling in which “cities” is a byword for “Black.” The president is willing to hurt himself politically if it takes that to hurt the Democrats in kind.
In other words, it’s masochism. This is, after all, the same president who made himself sick trying to prove the covid pandemic is nothing to worry about. His are, after all, the same supporters who deny themselves free money to pay for better health care (the Affordable Care Act, in other words), even as the pandemic rampages through their communities. Masochism is the ego state of suicide bombers, literal and political. It is a phenomenon nearly everyone understands but ignores collectively till it’s too late.
Masochism is also exploitable. Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans have been trying for three months to figure out Trump’s chances of winning reelection, and thus figure out the best use of their time before Election Day. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death answered that question, and the president has all but acquiesced. White House advisor Larry Kudlow this morning told the Post: “We’ve only got four weeks to the election, and we have a justice of the Supreme Court to get passed. It’s too close to the election—not enough time to get stuff done at this stage in the game.”
McConnell would rather not bother with a stimulus, perhaps because he’s protecting his conference from being primaried. Jonathan Bernstein said that, “Most mainstream conservatives, even those who think (along with virtually all economists) that government spending would boost the economy and therefore help Trump and his party in November, are more worried about being dismissed as sell-out RINOs by accepting a deal with” Pelosi. Or perhaps because he’s helping lay the ideological groundwork for a new Democratic administration. If they are going to resist his fiscal demands, and Joe Biden is planning to demand trillions, now’s the time to pretend the Republicans never wanted to explode the national debt. It was all Trump’s fault.
McConnell’s chore is made easier by a president willing to hurt himself if that’s what it takes to “win.” Of course, he isn’t—unless by “winning,” you mean “losing.”