Both Republicans and Democrats are wrong about Trump.

Republicans believe that Trump’s done great things for America, whereas Democrats think he’s been a disaster for the country. Trump is the worst president in American history, but his impact has been surprisingly small. This story helps us to understand why:

“Why don’t we let this wash over the country?” Trump asked, a question others told the Post the president has raised repeatedly in the Oval Office. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, realized with surprise that Trump was serious, the Post reported. 

“Mr. President,” Fauci responded, according to the Post. “Many people would die.”

Trump’s public comments during that time also indicate he was considering such a scenario to get the economy moving again — despite the toll. He said repeatedly that the “cure cannot be worse than the problem itself,” implying that saving lives could be less important than saving the economy. He has claimed without evidence that more people would die from a weak economy than from a pandemic.

Trump would gladly sacrifice the lives of a million Americans if it could help him get re-elected, and thus boost his ego. That much is obvious. And it’s also clear that Trump’s herd immunity approach would be a disaster, leading to the needless deaths of many Americans. But Trump’s not in charge, so this strategy was never going to be tried.

Many people conflate social distancing with government-mandated lockdowns. In fact, the two concepts are quite different. Even if the federal government and all state governments had gone along with Trump, there’s no way the private sector would have cooperated.

Given the severity of the epidemic, social distancing was inevitable, and that means the deepest depression since the 1930s was inevitable. Indeed even if the lockdown is removed on May 1; many firms have made it clear they have no intention of going back to business as usual.

So when people tell me that the one million deaths figure is nonsense, and that nowhere near that number would die in the absence of a government mandated lockdown, my response is “of course”. But that’s because people don’t want to die, and would practice social distancing on their own. So that doesn’t help Trump to avoid an economic depression.

On the other hand, if Trump could use his powers of persuasion to magically convince Americans not to social distance then we could avoid a depression, but we really would have an enormous number of deaths. There’s no easy solution here, given that we failed to take the crisis seriously early on, in the way that Taiwan, Iceland, South Korea and others took it seriously.

In the past, Trumpistas have asked me how I could possibly believe that Trump is the worst president in American history, given that the country was doing so well. In response, I often claim that presidents explain only about 3% of outcomes, and the other 97% is due to other factors.

My response now would be, “What do you mean the country is doing well; we have tens of millions of Americans losing their jobs?” To that, the Trumpistas might reply, “But Trump had nothing to do with that!”

Exactly my point. I’m glad we finally all agree.

PS. And don’t say the earlier gains were due to Trump and the recent loses were bad luck. We all know that most of the 2017 rebound in manufacturing was supplying capital goods to a fracking industry that rebounded for reasons having nothing to do with Trump. It’s fine to use the “bad luck” argument with coronavirus, but not if you don’t acknowledge the earlier good luck he had.



22 Responses to “Both Republicans and Democrats are wrong about Trump.”

  1. Gravatar of bill bill
    16. April 2020 at 14:40

    Could the 2017 rebound be tied to our 2020 deal to raise oil prices? Just kidding.

  2. Gravatar of JG JG
    16. April 2020 at 15:33

    As a utilitarian I guess Scott would let perish 1M Americans in order to save 1.1M lives. Ergo I don’t see Scott’s act of omission as a virtue just as I would not perceive Trump’s act of omission (as described above) as a virtue. and it has nothing to do with consequences or motive – the act of omission in and of itself that purposely causes the loss of life of 1M innocent people.

  3. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    16. April 2020 at 15:39

    For once, I agree (almost) completely.

    worst president in American history

    Well here comes the “quibble”. Your argument sounds like a straw man attack.

    I think one point was rather that Trump is not even the worst personality that ever ruled. On the contrary, the “racism” of this person was quite normal, if not more extreme, just a few decades ago. The low level of education might be more of an outlier, but the question arises here how important education really is. The personality disorders are most interesting, but here again there are also other “interesting” Presidents.

    And of course there are always killings and wars. The President can decide a few things after all, mostly in the field of foreign policy, and even order killings, just think of how Obama killed Osama, and Trump the secret leader of Iran.

    These are actions which the President can influence directly, nearly as he pleases, and at this point, one of the most important arguments has always been that Trump did NOT lead the US into an unjust war, unlike Bush and others. So the point still stands: No, not really the worst US President ever.

    Bush I find worse, and maybe even Obama, but I would rather have Bush or Obama as personal friends than Trump, that’s obvious. Both seem very nice in private, while Trump, well, let’s not get into that. An insane asylum would be the right neighborhood for him. He seems like a crazy villain straight out of Gotham City.

  4. Gravatar of Todd Ramsey Todd Ramsey
    16. April 2020 at 16:45

    Worse than George W. Bush? No.

    STARTED a war in a foreign country, for the first time in U.S. history. Had no end game plan for that war, allowing that country to fall into civil war, keeping our troops there for a decade and destabilizing the Middle East.

    His greatest damage, however, was that he proclaimed to be a fiscal conservative while rapidly increasing federal spending, which he had substantial control over: Republicans held both houses of Congress from 2001-2003.

    As a result, Democrats and liberals point to the W presidency and say, “see, conservative fiscal policies don’t work”. But actually, Bush and the Republicans were profligate spenders and fiscal conservatism was never tried.

    And that’s why George W,. Bush is the worst President ever.

  5. Gravatar of Todd Ramsey Todd Ramsey
    16. April 2020 at 16:49

    Edit: Republicans had control of both houses from 2003-2007.

  6. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    16. April 2020 at 16:51

    Sorry if I’m being obtuse but are you now saying the deepest depression since the 1930s is already upon us?
    I’m trying to reconcile this line:

    Given the severity of the epidemic, social distancing was inevitable, and that means the deepest depression since the 1930s was inevitable.


  7. Gravatar of Matthias Görgens Matthias Görgens
    16. April 2020 at 19:38

    Aren’t you a bit too harsh on Trump?

    He’s not the worst American president in terms of results by any means. Not for lack of trying, but lack of getting anything done.

    He hasn’t even started a single war yet.

  8. Gravatar of BC BC
    16. April 2020 at 23:32

    “Given the severity of the epidemic, social distancing was inevitable, and that means the deepest depression since the 1930s was inevitable.”

    Not obvious to me that individuals and firms wouldn’t have found ways to maintain 6-ft separation without completely shutting down all “non-essential” businesses. Maybe, some restaurants could have stayed open with a third as much dining capacity combined with multiple seatings (lunch at 11am, noon, and 1pm instead of all at noon) and rigorous cleaning, or outdoor dining. Maybe, it would have turned out that it would have been more valuable for some non-healthcare workers that couldn’t avoid coming into close contact with people to wear PPE to avoid infection and spreading, relieving the burden on the healthcare system, instead of reserving all PPE for healthcare workers. Maybe, businesses would have used temperature testing effectively. The private sector could have deployed countless localized measures, each matched to distributed and localized circumstances.

    I’m fairly certain that individuals and firms would have used much more *targeted* distancing measures, for example, not worrying about boaters in the middle of a huge lake or people mowing lawns. There probably would have been significant economic impact during a period of adjustment, but not necessarily a depression. But, because the measures would have been specifically targeted to achieve specific purposes, we wouldn’t even be talking about when to “open the economy” backup. Instead, we would just have evolving localized measures matched to evolving localized circumstances, something that governments’ central planning is incapable of.

  9. Gravatar of BC BC
    16. April 2020 at 23:40

    “We all know that most of the 2017 rebound in manufacturing was supplying capital goods to a fracking industry that rebounded for reasons having nothing to do with Trump.”

    To be fair, there are some politicians that would have, if given the chance, shut down fracking and thus missed out on that rebound. So, Trump should get some credit for not being Elizabeth Warren. Since government’s largest effect is to get in the way — not the only effect, but the largest — we should give politicians credit for not doing harm.

  10. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    17. April 2020 at 00:07


    1. Agree about people distancing themselves with or without government direction. Most people and companies I know where miles ahead of the government in planning for and reacting to Covid.

    2. There is always a balance between cost and benefit, but with the media hype nobody dares admit this in the case of Covid 19.

    3. Johnson (the first) was much worse than Trump

    4. Lowering taxes, appointing conservative judges, and cutting regulation seems like a pretty good thing to me.

    5. I think you’re cherry picking your countries to fit the narrative. Nobody mentions Japan. Had the first Covid case outside of China, virtually no testing, virtually no distancing until a week ago. Lowest mortality rate by far of any cold climate country. Half of Korea. One tenth of Iceland. Only Taiwan was better and the average temp there is close to 70 in February.

    6. Nobody did a great job. Governments never do a great job at anything, but if you compare mortality for the U.S. to other cold climate non-BCG vaccinated countries, the U.S. has done better than most.

    7. When this is over, we’ll discover that only three things really mattered: climate, BCG vaccinations, and travel restrictions, and the only thing that government controls is the last one. In this respect, I think Trump gets some credit because he was early and did it in the face of vehement opposition from the media, the Democratic party and the intelligentsia.

    8. And BTW, the reason Taiwan did so well is because on top of the BCG vaccinations and favorable temperatures, they too were very, very early in banning Chinese travelers.

    6. As was Vietnam, which sits on China’s doorstep, has 95 million people mostly living in dirty dense urban centers, has done 1/5th of the testing of Korea or the U.S., but which, has had zero Covid deaths. Zero.

    It would be nice if someone actually looked at the numbers

  11. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    17. April 2020 at 04:54

    dtoh, do we know how many Americans actually have the BCG vaccine? I know it was never mandatory in the US but I brought up the BCG theory with someone in their 60s the other day and he said that most people his age had it. Maybe he was mistaken but I can’t find any statistics from Googling.

    Also, Taiwan actually only banned Chinese travel on February 6, a couple days after the US did: I think the bans on Chinese travel had little to no impact on spread because all the cases in China were concentrated in Wuhan, and travel from Wuhan was already banned by the Chinese government.

  12. Gravatar of derek derek
    17. April 2020 at 05:03


    But we just saw Democrats reject Warren/Sanders fairly soundly; heck, they even voted for Hilary Clinton of all people over Sanders! Despite the attention that the farther left wing’s policies receive from coastal media centers and Twitter, mainstream Democrats do not want them, and the policies of Warren/Sanders are not really a good counterfactual to those of Trump. We probably would have got the 2017 fracking boom under almost any plausible candidate. The only thing Trump can really claim as his own is the corporate tax cut of 2017, but I am pretty sure that this one is fully offset by the China trade war.

  13. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    17. April 2020 at 05:15

    This essay is representative of the home or the epicenter of THE BAD BLOG—-but I still get sucked in. Readers, we (certainly I do) all know people who, regardless of any actions by Trump, or “whataboutism” about other pols, believe exactly what Scott believes——and he is Not trolling —-he is sincere. So persuading him to think differently is a fool’s errand.

    Away from Trump, however, his 3% number is a joke. I know all presidents have less power than they think but 3% is not even perceptible. I would love Scott to give us heuristic (obviously we cannot have real math models) outline that provides any evidence for his 3% theory.

    As it relates to oil, yes Obama was not as opposed by action as he was opposed by words, but Trump did have a “whatever it takes” attitude about oil production —-which Obama clearly did not

    And like Scott, I too have looked back in history to see how our economy and markets have performed under various combos of GOP and Dem control—-and it is hard to distinguish the difference. There really is no meaningful difference.

    But if Presidents don’t matter, does Congress matter? Do State politics matter? Do regulations matter? Does the constitution matter? Does radical left politics matter? Did the Lindbergh movement matter?

    This is Scott’s bad blog. He cannot begin to say why America has become what it has anymore than the average aware person—-probably less so.

    So—-we all love to argue about politics—-even as we know as individuals our input feels lost in the wind.

    Still, I will disagree with Scott——Trump, so far, is a “good” president, net. And his impact has been very strong.

    Now with Virus—he has to adapt to win. I prefer him greatly over “the weekend at Bernies” candidate,

  14. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    17. April 2020 at 08:13

    I’ve read that BCG is a non-factor in Covid survival rates.

    There is no evidence that the Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine (BCG) protects people against infection with COVID-19 virus. Two clinical trials addressing this question are underway, and WHO will evaluate the evidence when it is available. In the absence of evidence, WHO does not recommend BCG vaccination for the prevention of COVID-19.

    Also, this article by the research chair of Epidemiology and Global Health at McGill University gives a summary of the BCG claims:

  15. Gravatar of myb6 myb6
    17. April 2020 at 08:14

    I didn’t think I’d see a post where our illustrious host would go so easy on Trump! But yes, you’ve been very consistent on this point of presidential influence.

    Questions: at a totally conjectural ballpark level, how much of the economic damage do you think could’ve been avoided by a better health response, and how much of the bungled response is on Trump individually? I’m having trouble bc it’s a matter of so many “firebreaks” failing it’s not clear how to apportion across the different firebreaks.

  16. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    17. April 2020 at 08:40

    The 2017 rebound was…just kidding. But seriously, I am uncomfortable calling Trump the worst president in history when we can so easily compare him to W Bush. W Bush cheered on an obviously dysfunctional economy to get re-elected. A few months ago Drudge linked to a memoir by the “sorority CIA agent” who alleged Bush officials were pressuring CIA agents to find information linking Saddam to 9/11 in the aftermath of 9/11!?! I have also read Cheney was pressuring CIA officials to use enhanced interrogation to elicit false confessions tying Saddam to 9/11. Here is the quote and link to sorority CIA agent.

    Meanwhile, in the months after 9/11, Walder says, the White House was only interested in intelligence that linked al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. The problem? There wasn’t any.

    “The whole thing felt like a nutty fun-house game,” she recalls. “No matter what we reported to the administration, they turned it around, turned it inside out, and spat it back out with some non-truth.”

  17. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    17. April 2020 at 11:18

    Don’t confuse absence of evidence with evidence of absence.

    BCG is an interesting theory that should be tested.

    We just don’t know if it’s a factor or not. There are interesting retrospective comparative studies that indicate that it might be a factor, so the next step is to test it prospectively.

    What one can already guess is that the influence will not be super strong, that’s true. Nevertheless it would be interesting if the severity of the disease or the mortality (or other factors) would be reduced by “just” 10-20%. It’s well worth it when you have so many cases and a pandemic.

  18. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. April 2020 at 11:41

    Carl, That post was discussing what monetary policy could do once the shutdowns ended–addressing a demand shortfall. It can’t magically open businesses.

    dtoh, Strongly disagree on the travel restrictions. The ban on travel from China may have been correct, but it had virtually zero effect. (Wuhan was already closed by that time.) We’d be in the same place today either way. Community transmission is the overwhelming problem, not foreigners. Travel bans help places that have domestic transmission under control.

    Recent trends in Europe seem to undercut the TB vaccine theory. Italy no longer stands out; lots of other places are approaching their levels of mortality. Not saying it’s not a factor, I just doubt it’s a big factor.

    Testing and masks and social distancing are the keys. Look at Washington state, if you doubt the effect of social distancing.

    Mark, As usual, you are correct.

    Michael, So you don’t think it was the rise in global oil prices that revived fracking? Must everything be about Trump? And if everything is about Trump, why isn’t he to blame for 20 million people losing jobs?

    myb6, Trump’s been very bad, but honestly things would not be much different under Hillary. Maybe 3% different.

  19. Gravatar of Bob OBrien Bob OBrien
    17. April 2020 at 17:45

    “We all know that most of the 2017 rebound in manufacturing was supplying capital goods to a fracking industry that rebounded for reasons having nothing to do with Trump.”

    If the dems had won the 2016 election they would have shut down fracking. The rebound was not due to what Trump did but due to what his election prevented the dems from doing!!

  20. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    17. April 2020 at 19:29

    OBrien, fracking is regulated at the state level so Obama was powerless to stop it and Hillary would have been powerless to stop it. Believe it or not Hillary was a big promoter of fracking for Europe but unfortunately Putin’s anti-fracking disinformation campaign won the day in Europe so it was banned. So Americans like Cuomo and Warren are Putin stooges for promoting anti fracking disinformation.

  21. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    18. April 2020 at 07:43

    “Why don’t we let this wash over the country?” is a question, not a position. You have zero executive understanding.

    George Bush was this century. Hail fellow well met and all that. I’d grab a beer with that guy.

  22. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    18. April 2020 at 08:00

    Donohugh, W Bush and Trump and Bill Clinton are all famous teetotalers.

Leave a Reply