Members Only | August 16, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

When Republicans Stop Believing

A recession would mean the president's lies no longer work.

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Donald Trump is concerned about the economy turning sour before the election. He should be. Very. Ten-year Treasury bonds are now yielding less than two-year bonds. That doesn’t happen in good times when 10-year T-notes are yielding more. This “inverted yield curve,” as it’s called, means what should be right-side up is upside down. When that happens, a recession could be on us within a year or so. 

But I think we should be mindful of what Trump is really worried about. He’s not worried about the real impact a recession would have on real people. He’s worried about the effectiveness of his lies. Of course, all incumbents worry about economic factors beyond their control affecting reelection prospects. But more than any other president, Trump cares about appearances in toto. Maintaining appearances is maintaining “unreality,” to use Jason Stanley’s term. If the economy contracts, bye-bye unreality. And bye-bye unreality could mean bye-bye President Donald Trump. 

If the economy contracts, bye-bye unreality. Bye-bye unreality could mean bye-bye Trump. 

Remember: actual policies don’t matter to this president. If they actually mattered, he wouldn’t prosecute a foolish trade war with China. If policies actually mattered, he’d recognize the suffering he’s causing farmers, and stop. But the trade war was never about outcomes. Its outcomes, therefore, don’t matter. The trade war is and always has been about appearances, specifically the appearance of getting tough on “globalists.” 

Even when it’s clear that tariffs are boxing farmers out of the world’s largest food market, Trump can lie and deny. He continues saying that China is paying the US Treasury when in fact US consumers are paying more to Chinese importers for Chinese goods. That US farmers continue to support him politically only launders his lies. And trade wars are messy enough that the president can do what he’s best at. When he doesn’t like the message, he never rethinks, because rethinking would mean acting responsibly. When he doesn’t like the message, Trump kills the messenger.

When he can’t kill the messenger, he looks for a scapegoat. As I said, he can’t and won’t be responsible for his own policies, and he can’t and won’t be responsible for his own policies because actual policies don’t matter to him. He’s already blamed Jerome Powell for slowing economic growth though the Federal Reserve chairman has made money as cheap as it’s ever been. If a recession hits, Powell won’t be able to do much to counteract it, because interest rates are already at or close to zero. That’s fine for the president, though. Policies don’t matter. Powell’s future impotence would give Trump all the more reason to blame him, thus maintaining his “unreality.”

But there are only so many scapegoats. Depending on a recession’s severity, most of the people are going to look to Trump as someone with solutions or someone to blame. It’s debatable whether Republicans vote for their economic interests, but we do know Trump’s approval rating was never as low as it was during the government shutdown earlier this year. The president dug a hole but kept on digging on until in the end popular recognition that the shutdown was his fault forced him to quit. It was then that Trump’s “unreality” stopped working for him. It was then that he lost. 

We normally think of presidents and the economy in plain political terms. When times are good, people praise the president (whoever it is). When times are bad, people blame him. I think this is good enough but we’re missing something if we stop there.

Trump wouldn’t be in trouble only because of a recession. Republican voters, which are his only supporters right now, may not vote according to their economic interests. (As I said, farmers say they still support him.) Trump would be in big trouble, however, if the recession damaged his credibility among Republicans, a reputation built not on outcomes, which don’t matter, but on “unreality.” A recession would end his lies.

That could be the end of Trump.

—John Stoehr

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

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