April 20, 2020

There was a moment in President Herbert Hoover’s term when it began to seem as if he could do nothing right. When he was elected in 1928 with 58.2% of the vote to his opponent’s 40.8%, Americans thought their prosperity was inexhaustible, and they credited Hoover and his Republican Party for that prosperity. Then the stock market crashed in 1929 and sparked the Great Depression. At first, people hoped Hoover could handle the crisis. But he couldn’t, and his party lectured that the government needed to reassure investors rather than help ordinary people. Americans turned on Hoover. Eventually, they claimed that dogs instinctively disliked him and flowers wilted when he walked by. By the end of his term, people blamed him for everything, even things outside his control.

The story of how the tide turned against Hoover came to mind today, as one story after another skewered President Trump.

There were three big stories during the day. The first was the lockdown protests around the country, which appear to have been orchestrated by Trump supporters to mobilize key right-wing groups. Their goal is not to defend the president, but to make it look like Democrats are unpopular—a key distinction showing just how weak a hand Trump’s campaign thinks he currently holds.

We knew the Michigan protests were organized by groups largely funded by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s family, and that the activist groups FreedomWorks was behind others. Today we learned that five of the largest Facebook groups protesting restrictions were set up by Chris, Ben, Aaron, and Matthew Dorr, four brothers whose pro-gun and anti-abortion Facebook groups bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The brothers not only solicit donations and memberships in their enterprises, but also harvest emails and user data. Minnesota’s Senate Republican Caucus called them “scammers.” Ben Dorr says claims that his work is a scam is “fake news” and that he will continue doing what he does.

Despite being pushed by personalities on the Fox News Channel, and despite the president’s encouragement, the protests have not been well attended. Most Americans do not feel safe ending physical distancing until there is enough testing to identify and shut down hot spots before they spread, and we are still woefully short of tests. A recent poll shows that 60% of Americans oppose the protests, while only 22% support them. Even Republicans oppose the protests, 47% to 36%. Only 25% of Americans agree with Trump’s tweets calling for people to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, all states with Democratic governors.

Another story today got more traction than the protests. The clamor over the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is growing, as it appears much of the money went to large corporations rather than the small businesses it was supposed to help. A company based in California has already filed a class-action lawsuit against the Wells Fargo bank charging it with prioritizing businesses applying for large amounts rather than processing them on a first-come, first-served basis, as the government established was the correct procedure.

Restaurant and hotel chains did particularly well in the program, and Shake Shack, which is worth more than $1.5 billion, is returning the $10 million it received. Its founder and CEO both said they had no idea the program would run out of money and understood why people were upset. “If this act were written for small businesses,” they wrote in an online letter, “how is it possible that so many independent restaurants whose employees needed just as much help were unable to receive funding?”

Although it was money not allocated through the PPP, almost $8.7 million in federal aid for coronavirus relief will go to Harvard despite its $40 billion endowment. Harvard says its endowment is largely restricted in the way it can be used, and that the coronavirus has caused “substantial costs” to colleges and universities.

Taken together, these stories of the coronavirus relief package reinforce that people think Trump’s government is protecting the wealthy at the expense of ordinary Americans. The letter from the heads of Shake Shack shows a keen sense of which way the wind is blowing.

A third big story was the dramatic collapse of the price of oil. The worldwide economic shutdown has killed the demand for oil, while a production war between Saudi Arabia and Russia has flooded the market. Today, briefly, the price of oil futures went into the negative numbers, an astonishing and unprecedented event that bodes ill in the short term for the U.S. economy. Although the oil markets have been almost entirely outside of Trump’s control, this price crash reflected badly on him because he had publicized as a personal victory an April 12 agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia, along with other oil producing nations, that was supposed to prop up the price of oil and save American jobs.

Obviously, it did neither, but I thought of Hoover and his wilting flowers when Bob McNally, the head of the Rapidan Energy Group, tweeted that nothing like this price collapse has ever happened before, not even in the Depression or the early years of the Civil War, the lowest points for petroleum before this. Since the first commercial oil well in the United States was drilled in 1859, and the Civil War began in 1861, it seems a bit of a stretch to hang that crisis around Trump’s neck.

Apparently, I am not alone in thinking that people are turning against the president. After the day's three big stories, tonight, just after 10:00 pm, Trump tweeted: “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” It is not clear that such an Executive Order would be either legal or possible, but that’s not the point: immigration restriction is the key issue that has always rallied Trump’s base to him. That he has thrown this into the mix late in the night in the midst of a pandemic that is collapsing the economy suggests he is worried that his supporters are sliding away.

It also suggests that, as pressure mounts, he will continue to test the boundaries of his power.

Finally, news broke late tonight that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is gravely ill after surgery on April 12 to address cardiovascular issues brought on by “excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork,” according to an online newspaper based in South Korea. He has missed a number of important public events, but it is entirely possible that this information is wrong, according to experts. It is simply too hard to get information out of North Korea to know for sure.

—-

You can sign up for this free newsletter at heathercoxrichardson.substack.com

—-

Notes:

Protests: https://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/seeing-the-open-the-economy-protests-in-their-proper-light

Dorrs: https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/conservative-activist-family-behind-grassroots-anti-quarantine-facebook-events-n1188021

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/04/19/pro-gun-activists-using-facebook-groups-push-anti-quarantine-protests/

poll: https://news.yahoo.com/yahoo-news-you-gov-coronavirus-poll-most-americans-reject-antilockdown-protests-124259347.html

oil prices: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/20/oil-barrel-below-zero/

Wells Fargo lawsuit: https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/04/19/wells-fargo-lawsuit-small-business-ppp-loans/5162801002/

Harvard: https://www.newsweek.com/harvard-40-billion-endowment-will-receive-87-million-federal-aid-coronavirus-relief-1498366

Oil prices and Trump victory: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/02/us/politics/trump-russia-saudi-arabia-oil.html

Executive Order: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/04/20/coronavirus-latest-news/

Kim Jong Un: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/20/politics/kim-jong-un-north-korea/index.html