To answer that question, we have to begin by acknowledging that when Trump ran for president and told the country that the economy was not doing as well as Democrats would have liked them to believe, he had a point, even if he made that point with a bunch of bizarre lies and conspiracy theories about government economists making up data. The problem is that the most widely disseminated statistics are about jobs — the number of jobs created and the unemployment rate — while that’s only a small part of the economy as people experience it. So even though the unemployment rate just before the 2016 election was only 4.9 percent, there was still plenty of room to convince people that things could be a lot better.
That’s because the mere fact that you have a job doesn’t necessarily mean everything is great. At one time in America, it did — at least it was much more likely to. In many places, you’d be able to walk out of high school and into a job that had a good salary, good benefits and a reasonable amount of security. It was the loss of those kinds of jobs — with those salaries and benefits negotiated by strong unions — that devastated so many of the communities where Trump’s message resonated.
In 2016, as today (with the unemployment rate at 4 percent), most anyone can get some kind of job, but if you don’t have high-level skills and education it’s much more likely to be a job in, say, a Walmart. That means lower wages, fewer benefits, no job security and working conditions that make you feel like a replaceable cog.
And even as unemployment has been dropping for a few years now, wages haven’t grown in the way you’d expect in a tight labor market. Inflation is ticking up again, eating up almost all the gains.
So when Trump says you’ve never had it so good, is anyone going to believe him? Some Republicans certainly will; we’ve known for decades that people’s partisan loyalties color whether they think the economy is doing well. But the single biggest economic initiative of his presidency has been a failure.
I speak, of course, of the tax cut bill Republicans passed last year, which gave huge breaks to corporations and the wealthy. Republicans insisted (as they always do) that those cuts would cause an explosion of economic growth that would bring prosperity trickling down to all. And of course, they were wrong. Just as liberals predicted, corporations took their cuts and put them into record stock buybacks, not higher wages and more good-paying jobs. We now have the lowest corporate taxes as a proportion of gross domestic product in the developed world. How’s that working out for Joe Lunchbucket?
For one thing, he’s not that high on the tax cut itself. Polls have shown that most Americans don’t think it boosted their paychecks, and don’t think the cut was a good idea.
Then there’s Trump’s new trade war, which may have appeal in some quarters as a symbolic effort to stick it to foreigners, but is likely to damage the economy and do particular harm to some of Trump’s most ardent supporters.
To return to our basic question, Trump got elected in part because many Americans decided that low unemployment isn’t enough. The deeper things, such as their wages, their opportunities, or the way they’re treated at work, still needed fixing. And he has set about to make all those problems worse.
He has tried to weaken collective bargaining as part of the GOP’s long war on unions, ensuring that workers have less power on the job, not to mention lower wages and stingier benefits. He has attempted to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, which guarantees Americans at least some measure of health security. He has sought to undermine worker safety protections. In recent decades the American workplace has gotten crueler and meaner, and Trump plainly wants it to be even more so.
Now let’s be clear: It’s great that unemployment is as low as it is. If Trump wants to tout that as a success, he can go ahead, even if he had nothing to do with it. But if he wants to convince people that “the economy” is the best it’s ever been, he’s going to have a much harder time.