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The Signal this week: Increasingly, the coronavirus, or COVID-19, as it is now officially called, is looking like the sort of unexpected, black swan event that scrambles all existing expectations for months, possibly years.
Unemployment is currently low, but last week the stock market got a serious case of the jitters as it became clear just how much global supply chains and international travel are being disrupted. Other key indicators, measuring business activity and the risks associated with holding short-term versus long-term government debt, also began flashing red. This week’s trading opened in Asia with a run on the markets, and the cycle of fear-driven selling is likely to dominate trading in the United States as well.
Japan’s economy has already begun a severe contraction; Europe’s looks set to follow. In China, consumer spending on big-purchase items is down this month—by north of 90 percent for cars. South Korea is now in emergency mode. So is Iran. With one country after another locking down borders, cutting off transit routes, and prohibiting the docking of container ships from hot-zone regions, it could be only a matter of time before economic growth grinds to a halt in the United States.
As recently as January it was considered a given that Trump would be heading into the election riding a wave of economic good news. But he could actually be facing a global public-health calamity and economic crisis. If so, February and March of 2020 may come to be seen by economic historians as somewhat similar to October 1929, when the wheels came off and the global economy collapsed.
How will the administration respond to this, given the hollowing out of the professional bureaucracies and the purging of appointees who aren’t deemed sufficiently enthusiastic about Trump? If recent developments are any indication, not well. Trump is busy cleaning house post-impeachment, with top officials under orders to fire anyone who questions his leadership, and with cabinet secretaries and department heads now being told the White House will choose their deputies.
Trump’s national security team is woefully unprepared for a pandemic. Since 2017, the administration has left a series of top public health and epidemic control jobs unfilled, despite repeated warnings by public health experts that this was tempting fate. Senator Angus King has introduced legislation in an attempt to remedy this deficiency, but there’s no sign the administration is heeding the calls. What matters to this president is not professional competence but sycophantic loyalty. And since Trump has said the outbreak will end with the coming of spring, it’s unlikely his officials will stand up to him and say otherwise.
If the crisis does indeed spiral out of control, expect more xenophobic, immigrant-bashing responses. Trump is already bottling up immigrants, many of them desperately ill and in need of specialized medical treatment, south of the US-Mexico border. He’s already blaming immigrants for any and every societal woe. He’s already running an election campaign that openly panders to racial and ethnic prejudices.
If pandemic conditions set in, these trends could intensify. If he is robbed of the ability to crow about the economy, Trump will lash out even more aggressively against foreigners. In times of fear and panic, such messages all too often resonate.
Progressives need to hone their responses to these changing conditions. If they don’t, the Black Swan moment could swamp them.