Members Only | June 14, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Is Trump Vulnerable to a Recession?

For his base, the economy may matter less than racism.

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If the economy crashes, the president is done. That’s something I heard Tuesday during a civics program I co-hosted here in New Haven. I’ve heard it before, many times before, so many times that it seems people think it’s indisputably true.

“Any economic downturn before the election would all but doom his already precarious prospects,” wrote Josh Kraushaar, National Journal’s political editor.

I get why.

Donald Trump has never been popular despite the economy humming along. It seems logical that if a recession hits, the bottom of his meager support will fall out.

The same logic applies to tariffs.

The president keeps playing chicken with our trading partners, threatening to send farms and firms into insolvency. Surely, the thinking goes, he’s going to hemorrhage support in states that voted for him and that are being hit hardest by tariffs.

That may be assuming a lot.

I don’t know if the link between economics and the presidency is going to make a difference in 2020. I do know the link used to make or break incumbent presidents. I also think we’d do well to pay more attention to what’s happening now and less to what happened in the past. Let’s avoid assuming anything’s true until it’s true.

Let’s avoid assuming anything’s true until it’s true.

For one thing, this is a different kind of Republican Party from what it was in the 1980s when the current economic gestalt first formed. During that era, a president’s popularity was knitted to how well the economy was performing. Then it changed.

During Barack Obama’s tenure, while the economy was picking up pace after the worst panic in 80 years, polls found Republicans felt the economy was terrible. Why would most Republicans say that when the economy was demonstrably improving?

That polling was the context for thousands of stories about “economic anxiety,” particularly in the Midwest. That context seemed to explain why white working class voters chose Trump in 2016 after choosing Obama in 2012. That context seemed, moreover, to explain Trump’s appeal among such voters. His “populism” wasn’t rooted in white bigotry, as liberals had alleged, but instead economic self-interest. Lastly, Republican opinion about the economy seemed to reinforce the idea that elites in Washington and the political press were out of touch with the “real America.”

Despite liberal complaints, “economic anxiety” seemed plausible—up to the moment when polling showed a huge spike in Republican confidence in the national economy. The economy had not changed drastically between Election Day and Inauguration Day. Yet Republicans told Gallup their confidence was suddenly improved.

This tells us a few things.

One, that all the talk about “economic anxiety” was problematic. Turns out white “working class” voters for Trump earned middle class incomes. Two, that the way Republicans feel has a disproportionate impact on the national discourse. Third, it suggests a decoupling of the presidential politics from the real economy. Real economic conditions used to have real impact. Recessions hurt Presidents Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush. They helped candidates Bill Clinton and Obama.

What happened to break the old link?

G. Elliott Morris has argued that voters no longer care about the economy like they used to. Why? Because of plain-old partisanship. In The Economist, Morris said:

One explanation is that partisanship now colours Americans’ reading of the economy, as it colours their views on many other things. Polling on behalf of The Economist by YouGov shows that Republicans are four times as optimistic as Democrats about the state of the stock market, which Mr Trump often cheers on. Liberals complain about high housing costs and low wage growth—never mind that wages are growing more strongly now than towards the end of Mr Obama’s term (my italics).

Stephen Morgan said the economy still matters, but the framing has shifted. The focus now, the Johns Hopkins sociologist wrote in Bloomberg, is less on unemployment and growth and more on wages and inequality. “Trump has a plan,” Morgan said.

So far, he has managed to talk tough on immigration and start a trade war without destabilizing the economy. Democrats need to spend more energy on figuring out how to do better. Vacuous statements about new green jobs and the economy of the future were not persuasive in 2016, and they won’t be in 2020, either.

Both views are missing something: race. Or political racism to be exact.

It’s one thing to say partisanship decoupled the economy from the presidency starting in 2008. It’s another to say that’s when America elected its first black president. A coincidence? Let’s not be daft. It could be that a majority of Republicans thought the economy was terrible because they viewed it through a racist (in other words, “partisan”) lens. That would explain why, as the economy was improving, Republican optimism cratered during the Obama years and spiked before Trump took office.

Morgan, for his part, assumes race is irrelevant to Obama-Trump voters. He says Democratic candidates should, therefore, set a middle course to reclaim them. “Voters whose support is determined strongly by racial attitudes chose their parties long ago. The voters who are up for grabs are those who do not vote based on racial matters, and that is why they backed Obama in 2012 before shifting to Trump in 2016.”

That’s an amazing assumption.

First, because it’s naive. Second, because voting for a black candidate in 2008 does not mean you are not racist though that’s plausible. Equally plausible, however, is that it means there were incentives strong enough to overcome one’s racism. In 2012, when the economy was still stumbling, those incentives might have been economic.

If the economy crashes, the president is done. It has the ring of truth to it.

It could be the opposite, though.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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