Opinion

Trump shows up too late to his presidency

Trump's stimulus demand demonstrates what he should have been doing all along

Like Auda abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia, Donald Trump is a river to his people. As congressional leadership in both parties prepares for the Christmas holiday, the president is insisting that the 6,000-page mess of a relief bill passed just before midnight on Monday should be amended. In keeping with his previous demands, Trump is insisting that Americans should receive stimulus checks in the amount of $2,000 rather than the $600 stipulated in the legislation.

This demand, which flies in the face of his own party's reluctance to include direct payments of any kind in their relief efforts, is as good a reminder as any of the fundamental themes of this bizarre presidency. As usual, Trump understands that the American people are disgusted by the miserliness of congressional Republicans, who are willing to cut taxes for the world's wealthiest corporations during an economic boom but reluctant to increase the deficit at a time when the unemployment rate is still nearly double what it was at the beginning of the year.

It is still too early to say whether Trump will succeed in forcing the hands of his enemies in Congress, Republican and Democrat alike. (There is no reason to think that if he vetoes the current bill stimulus efforts will not simply be put on hold until he leaves the White House next month.) But simply by virtue of having attempted it, he has shown his true colors. Trump has not destroyed the GOP economic consensus, but he has shown it for what it really is: a fantasy as far removed from the hard realities of governing as the fantasy of a world without work common among young would-be progressives.

In ways that we are still reluctant to discuss, he has broken from that consensus. Never mind his suspension of student loan interest payments. Trump's eviction moratorium, imposed unilaterally via executive order, is one of the most sweeping uses of executive power in modern American history. And unlike T.A.R.P. and similar interventions made by his immediate predecessors, the moratorium was intended to benefit ordinary Americans and to do so directly, not by means of some hypothetical trickle-down process. Goodness knows how many votes it ended up costing him with the property developers one might have envisioned as among his most reliable constituencies.

This is exactly why it is difficult to see Trump on his own terms as anything but a failure. Here is a president who might have created the largest jobs program in American history, spending trillions of dollars to give people meaningful work building new parks and bridges and airports, and given us a de facto single-payer health-care system by raising the eligibility threshold for Medicaid and allowing middle-class households to opt out of their employer's coverage. Instead his economic legacy will end up being more or less synonymous with Paul Ryan's.

What prevented Trump from becoming the transformative president he might have been? The indifference, and at times outright hostility, of Republicans and the cynicism of Democrats cannot be overstated, but it is hard not to think that his poor choice of advisers and his own inattention to detail have been his undoing. Unlike remaking our trade relations with China or restoring American manufacturing to its post-war glory, the size of stimulus checks is reasonably straightforward. It involves two numbers, and the bigger one is better. Which is exactly why he is zeroing in on it.

Trump's last stand, made in the waning days of his presidency when he has nothing whatsoever to lose, reminds us that his political instincts are second to none. The Scrooge-like tendency he has intermittently opposed will almost certainly outlast him and maintain a hold on the Republican Party for the foreseeable future. But intellectually it is exhausted. Trump has shown us that for all time.

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