From the standpoint of the business lobby and anti-tax activists, Donald Trump’s presidency is a rousing success. He has engineered a massive redistribution of resources toward owners of wealth using tax cuts and a series of pro-business regulations. This win for the rich is very real, and helps explain his party’s increasingly unquestioning support for his agenda, personal corruption, and frequent abuses of power.
But Trump obviously also needs to sell his achievements to people who don’t own or control businesses or very large inherited estates, claiming there are gains for them, too. Those claims — peppered throughout his State of the Union address, alternating with expressions of nationalism — are almost entirely phantasmal.
After depicting the American economy as a bleak wasteland before his election, Trump has rebranded it as a land of unimaginable prosperity, fueled by the hope inspired by his brilliant reforms. In fact, nothing has changed yet: Economic growth and job gains are running slightly behind the pace of Barack Obama’s second term. (The economy created 214,000 jobs per month in Obama’s second term, and 174,000 in Trump’s first year.) Wages have risen at approximately the same level they did in 2016. It is possible that tighter labor markets will produce faster wage gains, or that the deficit spending Trump has enacted will help short-term growth accelerate. But his rhetoric of economic success is based on absolutely no actual accomplishments.
The same can be said of the various boasts Trump made on behalf of his agenda. “We have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal,” he said. When Trump says “clean coal,” he does not use the term correctly — to refer to coal that has been burned in high-tech, carbon-capture storage facilities that do not emit pollution. (Such plants are prohibitively expensive right now.) “Clean” is simply an adjective he applies to coal because it sounds good.
It is true that Trump has enacted coal-friendly policies. But it is not true that they have worked. Coal is losing market share to fuels that actually are cleaner and cost less. Coal production and employment have barely budged, and the slight improvements they experienced in 2017 owed to temporary demand changes in overseas markets, rather than permanent domestic change that might arrest their long-term decline.
“Many car companies are now building and expanding plants in the United States — something we have not seen for decades,” Trump continued. In fact, car companies had already been building plants in the United States in recent years; by far the most important policy change for the auto industry’s fortunes was the Obama administration’s controversial decision to bail it out when it and its supply chain faced extinction in 2009.
Trump boasted the individual mandate for health insurance was gone, which it is. Then he called it “the core of disastrous Obamacare,” which it is not. The core of Obamacare is the insurance subsidies and regulations preventing insurers from charging higher prices to people with expensive medical needs. What about Trump’s repeated promises to replace Obamacare with a terrific new plan that gives everybody coverage for less money? He made no mention of this at all. He did say he has “directed [his] administration to make fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of our top priorities. Prices will come down.” However, so far, there is no plan in place to do so.
Trump spoke at slightly more length about trade, but in place of detail, he simply offered redundant promises of great deals to come:
America has also finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, our jobs, and our nation’s wealth. The era of economic surrender is over. From now on, we expect trading relationships to be fair and to be reciprocal. We will work to fix bad trade deals and negotiate new ones.
Why hasn’t he done any of these great deals yet? Trump the president in many ways resembles Trump the candidate — or, for that matter, Trump the branding magnate. He sells himself, not anything concrete. His endless superlatives take the place of any real value he could offer. Everything he says he is doing for you lies far off in the future, after the time when he can still be held accountable for failing to deliver it.