Is the economy Donald Trump’s best argument for his 2020 campaign (a campaign that has, incidentally, been running nonstop since his shocking non-majority upset in 2016)? To hear his supporters repeating his boasts, one would think that the U.S. economy has been fantastic ever since he took office and that only the most recent economic turmoil would be cause for even a bit of concern (and is, in any event, surely someone else’s fault).
In Part One of this two-part column, I pointed out that even the not-yet-obviously-recession-ready economy that Trump bragged about was not actually all that good. Yes, it has a few top-line numbers that—out of context—mislead many people into thinking that things are going well. But the underlying facts show that the economy has been anything but robust for the vast majority of Americans.
It is also true that the economy’s strengths and weaknesses during Trump’s time in office have simply carried over from Barack Obama’s presidency. While Obama’s supporters can rightly give him credit for helping to prevent a full-on economic collapse in 2009, there really is nothing in the subsequent years under Obama or Trump that provides an excuse for much crowing about the economy.
Growth is still low. Wages still lag. Inequality is still at record levels. Health care is still out of reach for many, and financial ruin due to a medical emergency remains a threat even to those lucky enough to have what currently passes for adequate health insurance. Young people are drowning in debt. Women are still discriminated against in the workplace. Nonwhite Americans face economic challenges that white Americans do not (along with a surge of Trump-inspired bigotry), and even white Americans themselves—other than the super-rich—are not sharing in much of the supposedly booming economy.
Even worse for Trump and his cultists, the job growth numbers that he has been touting—which had been tailing off in any event and did not show the rebirth of manufacturing that he claimed—have now been revised significantly downward, on the order of a half-million jobs. That means that the estimated 210,000-per-month rate of job growth for the twelve months through the end of March of this year was actually only 170,000, almost a twenty percent reduction from the previous estimate and lower than any of the last six years of Obama’s presidency.
Mind you, Trump’s penchant for conspiracy theories allows his followers to believe that the downward revision represents an effort by “deep state” bureaucrats to harm him. Rather than being the simple result of more and better data being collected to correct what are always explicitly acknowledged as estimates subject to revision, these new numbers must surely be part of an effort by bureaucrats at the Bureau of Economic Analysis to harm Trump. Right?
After all, Trump is now in panic mode about the possibility of a recession (and was panicking even before the data revision dimmed “his” job numbers). Rather than admitting that his incompetent and bungling economic strategies have brought us to the brink of an end to the modest Obama expansion, he claims that even the American press is in on an effort to talk the economy into a recession.
Trump continues to be historically unpopular, which is why it is odd to see even fierce anti-Trump pundits write articles with headlines like “Trump may be a lot more vulnerable than you think.” But why would anything not already think that he is incredibly vulnerable? He loses in polls to all of the top Democrats, and those polls were taken before the latest worries about the economy emerged and before the Democrats rally behind their eventual nominee.
Republicans will, of course, say that any Democratic nominee is a socialist/communist/Satanist hater of America, because that is what they always say and because they have no actual arguments for their own highly unpopular positions. Those cries of lefty treason, however, have lost their bite due to overuse—and, frankly, because they are baseless slander.
Short of epic levels of Russian interference and voter suppression (both real possibilities that Trump encourages, of course), therefore, all of the real-world evidence leads to a simple conclusion: he will lose and lose decisively.
As I promised in Part One of this column, however, I think it is important to think carefully about the pro-Trump argument that says that nothing matters other than the supposedly strong economy. How much must a person devalue every other issue to think that even an economy that—unlike the one in the real world—lives up to Trump’s hype would justify an abandonment of human decency? It is truly depressing.
The “But the Economy!” Defense of Trump Is Even Worse Than Other Defenses
In Part One, I quoted two Trump supporters (one who commented on one of my recent columns on Dorf on Law, while the other managed to get his ramblings into The New York Times as a letter to the editors), both of whom falsely claimed that the economy is a spectacular success under Trump (along with other factual misstatements). Both claimed that this supposed success alone is reason to vote for Trump next year, no matter what horrible things he is also responsible for.
To be clear, this is a different category of pro-Trump argument than the standard “But tax cuts!” and “But judges!” wailing from conservatives who sold out their supposed principles to back Trump. These are people who, unlike the vast majority of voters, believe to their core that stroke-the-rich tax cuts are always a dandy idea, and they do not object at all to having the courts packed with judges who are not just conservative but radical reactionaries in the mold of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
The but-taxes and but-judges mantras, after all, are merely part of an intramural argument among conservatives who have split over the question of whether selling out one’s principles in exchange for some key hyper-conservative results is enough to justify all of Trump’s views and actions that are abominations even from those conservatives’ own standpoint.
Trump attacks his own national security experts? He will do anything to win the affection of brutal dictators? He normalizes behavior that all conservatives previously claimed was anathema to their beliefs? Most conservatives said, “No problem, as long as rich people and corporations get tax cuts and we install a generation of to-the-right-of-Clarence-Thomas judges.” A few other conservatives held firm and said that Trump was bad for conservatism on other grounds.
The but-the-economy argument, however, is not invoked in an argument among people who had already embraced the rightward lurch of the Republican Party—a lurch so extreme that it includes direct efforts to take away food and health care from poor American children (efforts that Trump, of course, supports). At this point, even their supposed deity Ronald Reagan’s views and policies would be derided as squishy socialism.
What Would Non-Conservatives Have to Give Up to Be Persuaded By the But-the-Economy Defense of Trump?
Given that Republicans’ views on virtually every issue are stunningly unpopular, and given that Trump has embraced so many of those views as his own and is personally repellent to boot, pro-Trump forces believe that constant reference to a not-actually-strong economy will win the votes of those who are not in the Trump cult in the first place. The moral bankruptcy of that strategy, however, is truly jaw-dropping.
One might imagine that Trump and his supporters would at least try to mount a defense of him on other grounds, but even Trump has said that people who hate him should vote for him to prevent economic damage. In fact, he recently said to the crowd at one of his Orwellian rallies: “You have no choice but to vote for me, because your 401(k), everything is going to be down the tubes.” He then went all in: “Whether you love me or hate me, you have got to vote for me.”
And why might people hate him? The Trump supporter who wrote the letter to the editors of The Times that I mentioned above was quite blunt about it:
Is he boorish? Yes. Is he a wheeler-dealer? Yes. Can he be rude and impolitic? Yes. Progressives are enthralled more with having a pleasing personality than making significant gains for the American people. . . . Sometimes you need a bulldog to cut through the baloney and get things done . . . .
As I have already argued, he is not “making significant gains for the American people” on the economy, at least not for the non-rich ones. And he is “getting things done” in a very bad way on everything else.
It is not merely his personal behavior—insulting everyone, using the power of his office to wheel and deal on behalf of his company and family rather than the American people—that is at issue, although having a person in office who thinks nothing of lying about paying off women with whom he has cheated on his third wife might give a lot of voters pause.
No, the morally bankrupt aspect of the but-the-economy claim is that none of Trump’s other policy decisions are supposed to matter. Even if you are troubled by Trump’s open religious and racial bigotry in banning Muslims from entering the country; even if you are heartbroken at the idea that he would call desperate people who are using legal means to apply to enter the country as refugees “an invasion” as he tries to send them back to dangerous lives; even if you find the separation of parents from their children and the caging of children in grotesque detention facilities to be a sickening denial of all that America should stand for; even in the face of all of that, if you are misinformed enough to think that the economy is doing well, you should forget about everything else and “vote the economy.”
But maybe you are not that kind of person. Do you—along with huge majorities of Americans—oppose reductions in abortion access up to and including no-exception bans on abortion, which would deny women control over their bodies even in cases of rape and incest? Are you scared about the surge of hate crimes against Americans and others who do not look like a stereotypical 1950s family? Do you think that children should not live in a world with active-shooter drills in elementary schools? Do you think that maybe the President should not default to calling black people stupid and women nasty?
If any of those issues bother you at all, just think of the moral calculus that the but-the-economy defense of Trump asks you to accept. How many mass shootings is one-tenth of a percent of unemployment worth? Which fundamental rights are we willing to give up in order to cheer a stock market rally? How much must we close our eyes to the consequences of climate change to be pleased with corporate earnings reports or an extra percentage point of interest on our 401(k)s—so pleased that nothing else matters?
It has become commonplace even for nonpartisan commentators to say that the economy is Trump’s best hope for reelection. In a way, that is the ultimate example of faint praise, because if this economy is his best argument, one can only laugh at how bad the other arguments are.
But it is even worse than that. In the name of an illusory economic boom, Trump and his supporters—a group that includes, we must remember, virtually every elected Republican—would have us sell the soul of the United States of America. Luckily, most Americans still believe that it is not for sale.