A new report in the New York Times documents an emerging pattern: Trump is increasingly explaining away warning signs of a potential recession by resorting to lurid conspiracy theories. Trump claims the Federal Reserve is working against him. He also says the “Fake News Media” is fabricating recession fears — and exaggerating the damage of Trump’s trade war with China, a key driver of those fears — to cloud his reelection chances.
What we’re seeing here should be understood as panic. The Times reports this on Trump’s private ventings to advisers:
Mr. Trump has been agitated in discussions of the economy, and by the news media’s reporting of warnings of a possible recession. He has said forces that do not want him to win have been overstating the damage his trade war has caused, according to people who have spoken with him.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that Trump privately worries the economy might hurt him next year, and that Trump’s advisers are urging him to dial down the trade war with China, fearing that it’s damaging the economic outlook.
This isn’t Trump’s public posture at all. To explain away the harm from the trade war with China, Trump’s basic claim has been that China is bearing the full brunt of the damage.
For instance, Trump falsely says China pays his tariffs — supporting his narrative that he’s shaking down China for money it stole from us. His top trade adviser says the tariffs’ costs aren’t falling on Americans.
But studies show otherwise. And Trump himself implicitly conceded as much by delaying his latest tariffs out of fears of higher prices for U.S. consumers during Christmas season.
Meanwhile, Trump’s efforts to downplay the trade war’s carnage at home — which his advisers are also gamely echoing — are also undermined by the niggling fact that his own administration has secured billions and billions of dollars in aid to farmers harmed by China’s retaliations.
More broadly, Trump has hand-waved away recession worries in a manner that’s unintentionally revealing. Asked Sunday about those fears, Trump said: “Our consumers are rich. I gave a tremendous tax cut, and they’re loaded up with money.”
This is remarkable. Trump’s economic agenda represents a fusion of populist and nationalist trade hostilities with a full-on embrace of conventional GOP plutocracy — huge attempted cuts to the safety net and a massive corporate tax cut that showered most of its benefits on the very top earners, completely betraying his campaign posture.
On both these fronts, Trump’s economic agenda has failed to deliver for workers. The tax cut didn’t produce its promised explosion of job-creating investments. As Paul Krugman notes, it produced a “sugar high” of stimulus, but growth has reverted to pre-stimulus rates.
And while it’s true that consumers are spending, the idea that Trump’s tax plan was primarily a “tremendous” tax cut for ordinary American consumers that left them “rich,” as Trump now claims, is laughable.
Meanwhile, the trade war wreckage continues to mount, damaging Trump’s own constituencies and, now, helping to threaten a possible recession.
Yet Trump is trying to minimize the mounting signs of failure in the one area where he actually attempted some form of economic populist nationalist agenda — albeit wrongheadedly — by pointing, in hilariously misleading fashion, to the area where he actually embraced plutocracy.
The failures of Trumponomics
In a good piece, economics writer Neil Irwin points out that the gathering threat of a recession is being driven in part by the fact that corporate investment is “softening” because Trump’s trade wars are feeding uncertainty about business decision making. Yet Trump’s tax cut was supposed to fuel that investment.
As Irwin points out, recessions can happen when a core assumption about our future is undermined. In this case, it’s the idea that the world will “become more stable and interconnected over time,” and that trade and diplomatic relationships “can be counted upon.” Trump is helping undermine that assumption, and a freezing up of business investment could be the emerging result.
Trump isn’t the only factor undermining that assumption. Others include the weakening of the Chinese and European economies (which also has something to do with Trump’s trade wars). And it’s certainly possible that our economy can contain this damage.
But the bottom line is that Trump’s “America First” nationalism is looming as an economically destructive factor to a far greater extent than Trump’s plutocratic tax cut is acting as an economic positive (though it did produce lots of stock buybacks).
The story Trump told was that he would end the selling out of workers by “elites,” by shaking down China and other countries, forcing them to revamp trade deals that were robbing workers blind. Meanwhile, his tax cut would put tons of cash in workers’ pockets and fuel an explosion of trickle-down investment.
But the former is threatening disaster. And the latter did a lot more for those hated elites than it has done for working people.
Trump is still telling that same story. It’s certainly possible that this story might work among just enough Rust Belt voters to drive an electoral college win amid an even bigger popular-vote loss this time. But it’s clear that Trump himself fears his story is at serious risk of failing him.