On a Sunday morning in 1971, Americans woke up to discover that all prices and wages in the nation had been frozen. If eggs were selling at 50 cents at the local grocery, they would stay at 50 cents right up until December. It didn’t matter if there were raises due the following week—no one was getting a raise until the end of the year. The same thing applied to service fees, or to costs like rent. For an extraordinary period of 90 days, both costs and incomes in the United States were nailed down.
The economic lockdown came from an executive order signed by President Richard Nixon. Going into that August weekend, no one knew that presidents had the power to do what Nixon had just done. In a day, he didn’t just respond to concerns over inflation and unemployment by placing the nation in an economic lockdown, he also smashed an economic agreement dating back to World War II and created overnight the system still used to trade currencies today. The success of Nixon’s actions is still debated today. What can’t be debated is that Nixon took action—unlike Donald Trump.
In the months leading up to Nixon’s extraordinary executive order, the Bretton Woods system established in 1944 had been unraveling. The value of the dollar was falling, and it wasn’t even clear how the dollar should be valued, especially with other nations already breaking away from the gold-connected constraints of Bretton Woods. At the same time, both inflation and unemployment in the United States were hovering around 6%, and there were real concerns that the nation could face the kind of devaluation/inflationary spirals that had doomed the economies of many nations in the past. Still, exactly what should be done was unclear.
Nixon’s response was similar to the “brakes” that have since been put in place on a falling stock market. Rather than try to deal with everything at once, he put the economics of the nation on a three-month hold, “flattening the curve” of inflation and locking down the status quo on the domestic front while the government dealt with the international crisis.
Considering that Gerald Ford would soon be sporting a W.I.N. button (“Whip Inflation Now”), the results of Nixon’s actions were clearly a long way from perfect. The results of the Nixon Shock definitely contributed to the “stagflation” period of the 1970s and generated echos that affected the 2008 fiscal crisis. But the actions taken that August show the massive power and flexibility available to the presidency. For good or ill, and no matter what some framers may have intended, the United States has an extremely top-down system. In an emergency, the president has access to almost unlimited funds, unlimited authority, unlimited options.
On the other hand, governors of states have nothing like this level of authority and, no matter how dire the circumstance, they have no bottomless well of dollars to tap. In several states, the office of governor is weak by design. In others, Republicans in the state legislature have kneecapped the office to prevent Democratic governors from doing anything decisive. In no circumstance does a governor have more than a tiny sliver of the authority held inside the White House. For America’s county administrators, mayors, and other local officials, the constraints are much greater, and the authority infinitely reduced. Even the mayors of the largest cities in the nation are tertiary figures whose roles are generally more a combination of custodial tasks and inspirational speeches.
All of this makes it painfully frustrating that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday morning to complain about the “inexplicable passivity and weakness of local leaders in our country” when it comes to dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Everything about this is so inverted that it appears to be coming through a funhouse mirror.
Local leaders, often at the level of city and county health departments, have established testing centers, case management, and contact tracing. They’ve done so because these things have not been established by Donald Trump, who didn’t want to “manage testing in some parking lot.” The millions of tests that Trump brags about haven’t been administrated by Trump or by federal authorities, because Trump completely failed to establish the absolutely necessary federal system of testing and tracing that has been put in place by every nation that has successfully addressed this pandemic.
Local leaders, right down to local school boards, have had the responsibility of establishing social distancing regulations and deciding what conditions make it safe to open public buildings, allow public gatherings, or support sending kids back to schools. They’ve had to do this because Donald Trump has utterly failed to provide the nation with a single set of regulations that provide clarity and consistency across the country.
Local leaders, often mayors, have been left to set mandates for the most effective single step that can be taken outside a stay-at-home order: Mandating the wearing of masks. Or at least, local officials have tried, because in many states Republican governors have overruled even this most sensible response, undercutting local authorities and reinforcing the confusion generated by Donald Trump’s refusal to wear a mask.
What lives have been saved in the United States have been saved by local officials. Those officials have shouldered the burden of testing that Donald Trump dropped. Local officials have taken up the efforts at case tracing that Donald Trump refused. Local officials have made the tough decisions on schools, libraries, and services that Donald Trump ignored. Local officials have tried to save their citizens through mandating the wearing of masks, when they haven’t been thwarted in even this simple action.
Donald Trump has demonstrated that he is the weakest man ever to sit down in the Oval Office. That weakness is enabled by men like Mitch McConnell, who point fingers at the only ones taking action so Trump can go back to watching his television and tweeting lies.