Surprise! Still No Economic Relief from Washington

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

With tens of millions unemployed, inevitable eviction merely postponed for a few months and low-wage jobs and small businesses drying up like the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque, you’d think the federal government could negotiate some help for stranded Americans. Democrats had a bill ready back in May. But it just sat on Mitch McConnell’s desk till the last minute, when government aid ran out. Then the GOP said no. That’s called negotiating – in some, demented quarters. Anyway, the Dems halved their price-tag. The GOP said no again. Trump passed a bunch of legally questionable executive orders – most of which did little to help desperate Americans. Meanwhile the Biden campaign idiotically indicated it might not repeal the odious Trump tax cut for billionaires, if Biden wins.

Then in early September, GOP senators proposed an even stingier bill than they had previously. It died an ignominious death. On September 15, a bipartisan group of 50 legislators promised a $1.5 trillion stimulus. Afterward, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House would stay in session through the election to get a stimulus deal. In a sane world, these moves would bring GOP leadership back to the bargaining table. But so far, prospects for that are poor.

Amid this dysfunction loomed the very real prospect of a government shutdown. But someone must have told Trump that would collapse his shaky reelection chances, because on September 5th Pence announced that the white house and congress had agreed to avoid a shutdown. No pandemic relief, however. CNBC quoted Pence at the time: “Now we can focus just on another relief bill, and we’re continuing to do that in good faith.” Well, that was novel. I’m all for good faith, especially since not doing a freakin’ thing since May smacked of, um, bad faith. But Pence’s remarks came before the talks collapsed. Hopefully he’ll put that good faith to work by urging his white house colleagues to continue bargaining. Maybe in addition somebody should tell the Trump campaign that if they really want an October surprise, stop rushing a vaccine, which only makes people skeptical of it, and sign a bill that puts money in the pockets of the over 30 million unemployed. Rent forgiveness might really boost Trump’s sagging popularity, too.

But Republicans in congress apparently have their own agenda. It may not be the Trump re-election campaign agenda, which might logically embrace help for desperate Americans in exchange for their vote, but the GOP has an agenda, all right – it’s the Tea Party agenda, which is by no means limited to congress, being ably represented in the white house by chief of staff Mark Meadows. If you thought the Tea Party went away sometime after the 2016 election, think again. The Tea Party philosophy percolates through a substantial horde of congressmen, and they have no intention of spending money on dispossessed Americans – no matter how badly Trump wants those votes, no matter how many times Democrats yield in their negotiations.

Radical right-wingers have once again taken the federal government hostage. This, of course, has happened before. They did so in 1994 with the Contract for America and earlier, when the Reagan regime came to power. But rarely have they barricaded the doors to government power in such parlous times: a pandemic that his killed roughly 200,000 Americans; the worst unemployment and homelessness since the Great Depression. As of July 24, 30 million were collecting jobless benefits, while millions more, unemployed, have no lifeline. Homeless tent cities bloom in cities across the nation. And states teeter on the brink of insolvency, laying off thousands of government workers.

Through it all, our Tea Party hostage-takers want more tax cuts and deregulation. Suicidally currying favor with them, Trump threatens to defund social security. So their agenda stands naked before us, stripped of its lies about freedom and limited government. Because what it’s really about is freedom for corporations, lavishly funded by the state, to plunder the captive American people and, indeed, the world’s people. Government is not limited, when it prints money to boost the stock market and hands out billions of dollars to rich, publicly-traded companies that are busy throwing tens of millions of people out of work. That’s the only freedom the GOP-Tea Party stands for – the freedom to fire, the freedom to starve.

In the face of a catastrophic economic collapse, the GOP says, make it worse. Impose austerity. Let them eat cake. The Dems are not much better, having showered rich corporations with handouts in the last stimulus. But at least they have a plan. The GOP just allows economic chaos to engulf the country and says an extra $600 per week for the unemployed makes people lazy. The last time a stubborn, dunderheaded GOP pol insisted on parroting such nonsense in the face of brutal economic reality, he was swept out of office. His name was Herbert Hoover.

There are three differences between Trump and Hoover. Trump faces a pandemic, Hoover did not. Trump has gimmicks to prop up the stock market, Hoover did not. And, though he does not control it, Trump has access to the most successful propaganda machine in the history of humanity. Hoover did not.

Trump has failed to contain Covid-19. That’s because he treated it like a political adversary, instead of a virus. He ranted, raved and tweeted about hoaxes, Democrats and diseases disappearing, and the virus just shrugged and went on killing people – approximately 200,000 of them. The pandemic also strangled the economy, but Trump appears to think that doesn’t matter if the stock market stays afloat. Unfortunately for him, the one percent of the ultra-rich who benefit from him propping up the market is only that – one percent. The vast majority of American voters get nothing from the stock market’s insane soar. In fact, they resent it.

Lastly, the American propaganda machine. It lies constantly about everything, from the need to keep our troops in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, to the supposed aggressions of China, to the impossibility of ever enacting Medicare for All. You would think, during this plague, which has caused at least 30 million unemployed people to lose their health insurance, just as they fall ill with an incurable disease, that Medicare for All would be a shoo-in. But no. It is rarely even mentioned in the media. It is the elephant in the room, but the great American propaganda machine has pulled off the remarkable parlor trick of making it the invisible elephant in the room.

Our elites loathe Medicare for All. Our oligarchs, our think tankers, our TV news celebrities, our newspaper columnists, Trump, the GOP, the Democrats, the all-powerful health corporations and the chamber of commerce detest the idea of people getting affordable health care. They have entombed Medicare for All in a crypt of silence. This is an impressive feat. Indeed, if this all-American propaganda machine had been up and running in the 1930s, we would probably never have had a New Deal. But that’s why it was cobbled together in the first place – to ensure we never have a New Deal again, in short, to guarantee that tens of millions of dispossessed Americans stay that way.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.