Trump's Transactional Obsession with Money Has Killed Thousands of Americans

Politics Features Donald Trump
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Trump's Transactional Obsession with Money Has Killed Thousands of Americans

Thursday morning, Donald Trump, in the middle of a full-on psychological break, tweeted as a statement of that that “3000 people didn’t die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico.” In the follow-up to that wretchedness, he blamed Democrats for inventing that number “to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico.”

First, even though the president is a heartless, egomaniacal lunatic, the east coast probably doesn’t have to worry about a fleet and muscular response to Hurricane Florence. But that number (the denial of which is perhaps Trump’s most sick lie to date) came not from Democrats, but from research by the George Washington University School of Public Health. Third, though, what’s with the billions of dollars? That he raised? You’ll remember Trump blamed Puerto Rico for his own failure, citing the island’s debt as a reason the U.S. should limit its assistance to the territory. He then blamed their debt on their laziness, because in addition to his cruelty he’s also an inveterate racist.

And even if you put aside the fact that it simply isn’t true that he raised billions for Maria — and please think about that, because it’s a totally insane thing to say — it’s clear that the only thing Trump values is dollars. This is different from being simply transactional, which can be any kind of give-and-take. No, dollars are the only thing, literally, that Trump places value on. It’s the only way he has of measuring the world.

This is, obviously, a psychological illness and mental deficiency for a person. For a country, though, it’s suicidal.

How to Solve a Problem Like Maria

Trump obviously has a long history of measuring success in dollars. He lies constantly about his personal wealth, and the wealth of other people and entities he associates himself with. He’s brought this to the presidency, and though we might not be aware of it, we see it all the time, from Maria to tariffs to NATO to troops.

There might be a few reasons for this obsession: His brain can’t handle a complex system of values; dollars are cold and abstract, so there’s no risk of human connection or pain; the erroneous belief that money alone equals status; and the simplistic sophistry of a might-makes-right philosophy, that the line between right and wrong falls on the same line as between rich and poor. Hell, money doesn’t even make might. Just ask Dan Snyder.

Look at Trump’s response to Maria. While the island foundered, Trump tweeted that Puerto Rico was in “deep trouble” because of not just a devastated infrastructure and electrical grid, but because of “massive debt”: The Puerto Rican government, he said, owed “billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks, which, sadly, must be dealt with.” Those tweets came several days after Maria hit, and were his first about Puerto Rico — a U.S. territory; Puerto Ricans are American citizens — since Trump assured them, as the hurricane made landfall, that “we are with you.” By that time, Puerto Rico’s people were living in desperation and darkness, and, as the GWU study just evidenced, they were dying.

How can a president, in the face of death and devastation, express reluctance to help his own people because they owed money? This negligence trickled down and crippled our response, now evident in those abhorrent statistics.

But even Trump’s transactional standards don’t hold up here. Only weeks after Maria struck did Trump begrudgingly ask Congress for a $4.9 billion loan to help with recovery, and that was only after he proposed wiping Puerto Rico’s debt — an idea that Trump’s Director of the OMB Mick Mulvaney summarily dismissed. By the time Trump went to Congress, official estimates placed the damage from Maria on the low end at ten times the amount he requested, and at the high end up to $90 billion. The damage from Hurricane Harvey, by contrast, was estimated at the high end to be $75 billion, and Trump asked Congress for $15 billion.

Trump also donated $1 million of his own money to Harvey relief.

The human cost of those two storms, of course, was dramatically different. Trump, though, didn’t care about Puerto Ricans then, and he doesn’t now. He attacked the mayor of San Juan on Twitter, paid the island a visit, chucked some paper towels, and turned his back. While they scrambled to return basic functionality to the island, he called them lazy. And he recently attacked the mayor again on Twitter, and after the publication of the report of thousands of deaths, he gave himself an A+. Now he’s congratulating himself on the response not for the humanitarian effort, but because he “raised” billions of dollars. (“Raised” here means he asked congress for a loan, which massive disaster responses necessarily entail from any president.)

The president lacks the basic emotional and moral equipment to understand what people are, and that led directly to the greatest tragedy of his presidency, and one of the greatest American tragedies in decades.


We see this same mentality in his severely misguided tariff policy. Trump seems to genuinely believe that foreign countries pay us more when we put tariffs on their products. He sees this as the U.S. making money, which is to him a win. The opposite is true: Tariffs tax Americans who buy those imports, as a means to divert our spending from imports to domestic products. Tariffs might help change trade deficits, but they don’t do it by making us any money. They limit the amount of money we spend on one thing and shift the rest elsewhere.

That of course is transactional. Trump didn’t take the human cost into consideration—the livelihoods of Americans who soon won’t be able to afford these products, the livelihoods of Americans who depend on cheap imported products to make their living, and the livelihoods of people whose exports will get hit by reciprocal tariffs from other countries. Trump’s tariffs have already put people out of work, and they threaten heartland farms. Trump cannot understand anything beyond the bottom line of a balance sheet, therefore he can’t prepare for anything or even imagine the ripples of consequences of his decision. In pursuit of evening out that balance sheet (again, not even making dollars), he once again hurt his own people. This will in turn hurt our economy (consumer spending is driving growth, and higher prices will discourage that), and it will force our largest and most important trading partners to look elsewhere. This will contribute to China’s rise and shift the balance of power globally.

All in the name of making money that, given the complexity of the global economic system, we weren’t really losing in the first place.

And on top of that he exploded the deficit in the name of giving corporations more money.


Trump misleadingly says NATO countries aren’t paying their dues. He’s even suggested they owe us this money.

First, there are no NATO dues. There’s only the requirement that member countries eventually spend 2% of their GDP on their own military. That becomes a domestic issue, because those governments must convince their own legislatures (and citizens) to invest more in their military, and in many countries that’s a hard sell. The U.S. doesn’t directly fund NATO, of course, but we carry the lion’s share because we spend more on our military than any country in the world. By far: in 2017, we accounted for 35% of total global military spending.

Though more countries need to start pulling their weight, Trump has made corrosive threats to abandon the alliance because of the balance sheet. This, too, will have long-term human costs in the event of military conflict in the future. It also frays our friendships: The first time the military assistance pact of the NATO charter was invoked was in support of the U.S. after 9/11. We get what we put in, and without the help of our allies, we’ll have to send more of our soldiers into danger. Without international support we’ll lack the moral authority to carry out military action. Trump, in search of superficial and spurious fiduciary justice, is cannibalizing his own country.

Speaking of the troops, U.S. military leadership had to convince Trump not to pull our military out of South Korea, a commitment he thought was too expensive. Our presence in South Korea obviously hedges against North Korean aggression and reassures our ally we’ve got their back. It also checks China’s regional advance. Trump also tried to use the price argument to sell us on his promise to North Korea that we would stop military exercises in the region. Those exercises, of course, cost almost nothing. And the human cost of pulling American troops from South Korea could be unthinkable. He sees Afghanistan the same way, and has been entertaining the idea of contracting that war out to an Erik Prince mercenary operation, a disastrous idea that Trump likes in part, so he says, because it will save money.

Bottom Line

We can see Trump’s obsession with money in pretty much every political aspect of his life: in his gloating about the stock market, GDP, and jobs. He misses the human mark here, too: The stock market rewards an infinitesimal cross-section of Americans, most of them wealthy; GDP similarly rewards disproportionately the richest Americans and largest companies; and though the unemployment rate is down, so are wages — Trump doesn’t seem to even know about underemployment. Median incomes are up, but white Americans have benefited the most, whereas the poorest Americans are disproportionately minority groups.

Look, Trump obsesses over money because it gives him a reliable way to detach himself from reality while maintaining the appearance of being connected to it. Numbers and the dollars they represent mean nothing. The intrinsic meaning and value of money can’t exist in numeric form — money’s value lies only in what we do with it. We have a deficit in large part because Americans like using our money to buy things we need or enjoy. We’ve developed a debt system so we can help our neighbors when they need it, without letting a financial transaction hang up progress. Trump failed in Maria because he fails to understand people.

This is what you get when you run a country like a business. Money isn’t everything. And compared to the preventable deaths of thousands of Americans, it isn’t much at all.

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