What Trump Backers Really Want From the Economy

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Republican National Convention: Day Two
Don't ask him for "gifts and privilege."Photo: Alex Wong

To hear it at the beginning of Tuesday night — the night the Republican National Convention devoted to the economy, the night dubbed “Make America Work Again” — the United States is in great shape.

During the delegate count, representatives bigged up and bragged about their home states as they pushed Donald J. Trump to victory. There was, as always, plenty of boastful local errata: Maryland, “home to the oldest state capitol in continuous use,” and so on. But above all, they boasted about their thriving, strong, local economies — thanks, naturally, to Grand Old Party governors and legislators and voters. Utah proclaimed itself the “number one state for economic growth.” Tennessee boasted that it was “top five in jobs growth and number one in auto manufacturing." Texas announced itself the “greatest job-creating state in the country” and the “12th largest economy on the planet.” North Carolina staked itself out as “one of the fastest-growing state economies.” And Florida? “Florida is a paradise,” its party chair beamed.

Yet, when talk turned to the whole country — and thus to the national economy — Republicans were mostly mum. Chris Christie, for instance, spent his long, animated speech running a mock trial of Hillary Clinton as the crowd cheered, “Guilty!” and “Lock her up!” And, when Republican leaders did talk about the economy, they implied that somehow all these strong, growing states added up to a hellscape scarcely removed from the recession and hobbled by idiotic tax-and-spend Democrats.

I don’t see the American dream like I did when I was starting out,” said Andy Wist of Standard Waterproofing, a small business and Trump supporter. “All I see is too many people out of work, too many jobs shifted overseas, and too many politicians who don’t care. It’s a mess.” Here’s how Speaker of the House Paul Ryan put it: “There is a reason people in our country are disappointed and restless,” he said. “If opportunity seems like it’s been slipping away, that’s because it has. And liberal progressive ideas have done exactly nothing to help.”

In short: State economies are great! The national economy is not worth talking about right now! It is also terrible!

I suppose that I should, by this late date, expect such contradictory nonsense and cognitive dissonance from Republicans. This is the party that has nominated someone promising to, for instance, slash taxes and not slash tax revenue, all while paying off of the national debt in a mere decade or so.

Still, there does seem to be some sense to pulling out of the economic nonsense on display on Tuesday night. First off, Republicans are clearly exaggerating their case about the state of the national economy because — of course — the recovery does feel so precarious to so many families. (It’s a point Hillary Clinton herself makes all the time!) Last month, payrolls increased by a healthy 287,000 positions and the unemployment rate remained below 5 percent. But wages have been disappointing, and the rebound from the recession was slow.

Second, and more importantly, throughout this election and on Tuesday night, the Trump campaign’s portrayal of national economic decline serves as an imperfect-yet-potent synonym for the racial and cultural anxiety that has so motivated Trump voters.

A “large tide” of foreign workers are suppressing American wages, Trump Jr. warned on Tuesday night. And our schools, which are supposed to be engines of mobility? They’re like “Soviet-era department stores,” and we need the free market and parental choice to fix them. Ryan, in describing how to solve our putative economic quagmire, invoked the ghost of Saint Reagan: With Trump, the governor would be “not the distributor of gifts and privilege” — read: a way to take from you and give to less deserving others — “but the protector of our liberties.”

Republican leaders thought their base wanted limited government and balanced budgets. They thought they might want Rubio or Bush. This convention shows — so, so clearly — that what those voters wanted this time around was nativism, racism, and nationalism. What they wanted was Trump.