Donald Trump’s Perfect Storm

L. Ian MacDonald

March 11, 2020

The coronavirus already had the world on edge when the stock market crashed on Monday because of a race to the bottom on oil prices between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The Saudis wanted to cut production among Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to keep prices up in a world economy struck by COVID-19, while the non-OPEC Russians refused.

Which set off a price war the Saudis, who can produce 10 million barrels of oil a day, couldn’t lose. No way. As a result, the prices of American and Canadian crude collapsed when markets opened Monday.

West Texas Intermediate grade plummeted 25 percent, off $10 in a single session, closing at $31. Western Canadian Select plunged 39 percent to close under US$16.

On the stock market, the Dow suffered its worst numbers day in history, losing over 2,000 points or 7 percent in one day, while in Canada the TSX was down more than 1,600 points, or 10 percent, its worst day in 33 years.

The Dow recovered half that loss on Tuesday, gaining back more than 1,150 points, while Toronto was up over 444 points. But worldwide losses are measured in the trillions of dollars in the few weeks since the coronavirus, having paralyzed China, became a spreading global health and economic menace.

And since it came ashore in America, more than 30 persons have died in the U.S. while over 1,000 have been diagnosed, with a single death and more than 70 cases in Canada.

And in governance terms, all this happened with a minority government in Canada and the U.S. coming to the end of the presidential primary season, which Tuesday night left Joe Biden within clinching distance of the Democratic nomination to oppose Donald Trump for the White House.

For Trump, the COVID-19 crisis and the stock crash couldn’t have happened at a worse moment, or on less favourable political terms.

Americans measure presidents primarily on two issues—the economy and moral leadership.

On both counts, this has been a terrible week for Trump.

As long as the stock market was booming, he could take credit for it, with the Dow closing in on 30,000, to the benefit of nearly everyone invested in the market and not just the 1 percent. Job creation has been at record highs, usually in six figures per month. Unemployment of just 3.5 percent in January was the lowest in half a century. At the beginning of 2020, Trump’s approval rating was moving into the 50s.

But then came the new coronavirus.

In a situation that urgently called for crisis management, Trump evidently regarded the killer virus as no worse than a bad case of the flu.

“Last year, 37 thousand Americans died from the common flu,” Trump tweeted. “Nothing is shut down. Life and the economy go on.”

At that point, he went on, “there are 546 cases of coronavirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that.”

Franklin Roosevelt wouldn’t have said that. At the bottom of the Great Recession, in his inaugural address in 1933, he famously said: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Not John F. Kennedy, who called a nation to conquer space in a single moment at Rice University in 1962: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Not Ronald Reagan, who stood on a Normandy cliff in June 1984 and spoke to the men who had stormed them 40 years earlier on D-Day. “These are the boys of Pointe-du-Hoc,” he said. “These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

And these were the American presidents who defined the imperatives of leadership in their time.

In our own time, Trump has failed in two vital qualities of presidential leadership. Joe Biden has put it in three words: “decency and dignity.”

So, Trump is losing on the stock market, he’s losing in crisis management, and he’s losing on character.

A Quinnipiac poll on Monday was quite eloquent on these attributes in the choice between Biden and Trump. On crisis management, Biden led Trump 56-40. On honesty, Biden’s positives led Trump’s 51-33. On caring for the average American, Biden led again, 59-43. These are known as attitudinals, and Biden owns them against Trump.

And after winning big on Super Tuesday II, Biden will be the nominee of a Democratic party that was sorely divided through most of the primary campaign, until he broke out in South Carolina, and then last week when he won 10 out of 14 Super Tuesday states.

And Biden will be leading a party of Democrats united against Trump, determined to be rid of him, and inviting moderate Republicans to join them.

This is not a ballot question. It’s a ballot answer.

L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy