the national interest

What Will Trump Campaign On If There’s a Recession?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Library of Congress (shantytown); Getty Images

The healthy state of the recovery forms the backbone of President Trump’s public message. It is his all-purpose proof of success, and even a defense of his high crimes and misdemeanors. (“You can’t impeach a president for creating the best economy in our country’s history,” he proclaimed.)

But Friday morning’s disappointing jobs number adds to a growing list of warning signs that the economy might be heading into recession. JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs have both cut their growth forecasts. Just what kind of campaign will Trump run if the recovery ends on his watch?

Traditional presidential polling suggests the answer is, it doesn’t matter. Even with the benefit of a healthy economy, Trump has miserable approval ratings and an, at best, even chance of reelection. The healthy recovery is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for his reelection. Remove the healthy economy, and he’s toast.

On the other hand, Trump has defied history in a lot of ways. One of those is how perceptions of the economy have weighed on the public. Historically, presidential approval is highly susceptible to economic conditions. One of Trump’s greatest political successes has been his ability to influence (with the help of Fox News and other partisan media) how his supporters gauge the economy. Trump convinced people the economy had gone from the disaster he had painted on the campaign trail to historic prosperity, and that he did it basically overnight:

The history of presidential approval ratings is mostly formed during an era when most voters received their news from independent media. In such an atmosphere, they would form views of the economy somewhat independent of partisanship. Trump has shown that he and his allied media apparatus can shape those beliefs, reversing the chain of causality: Rather than assessments of the economy forming opinions on the president, opinions on the president form assessments of the economy.

So denial might be the first possible Trump response to a recession. Presidents in the past have tried talking up the economy and scolding reporters for emphasizing the negative. Trump — who, during his last campaign, assailed job numbers as a hoax manufactured by a bureaucratic conspiracy — might take this tactic to new lengths. You could imagine him touring factories that are still open, Fox News regularly featuring patriotic Americans who still have jobs and can’t figure out why the lying mainstream media is pretending the economy is bad, and so on.

Second, Trump could blame the Federal Reserve. He has already assailed the Federal Reserve for the fact growth is not even better. “If we didn’t have somebody that would raise interest rates and do quantitative tightening, we would have been at over 4 instead of a 3.1,” Trump complained in March.

Trump appointed Powell himself, though this hasn’t stopped him from publicly attacking other Trump-nominated figures who disappoint him.

Third, Trump could blame the Democrats. This, too, is an idea he has already previewed. Trump routinely attacks the opposition for conducting oversight of his misconduct, a function he presents as mutually exclusive from passing legislation. Democrats, according to Trump, are forsaking a new infrastructure bill and other wonderful reforms because they have failed to close down the House Oversight Committee. Trump could ramp up this idea, too.

Obviously, it would be logically inconsistent for Trump to insist the economy is great while also attacking the Fed and Democrats for making the economy terrible. But Trump’s supporters are demonstrably immune to contradiction, which is why he is able to toggle between hailing the Mueller report as vindication and denouncing it as a pack of lies. Sean Hannity denounced Nancy Pelosi for privately telling fellow Democrats Trump might end up in prison after leaving office. “She wants a political opponent locked up in prison? That happens in banana republics — beyond despicable behavior,” raged the Fox News host. It is fair to assume Trump will have little difficulty keeping a straight face while making claims the state of the economy that do not hold together.

Finally, Trump can ramp up the culture war. The culture war is an endlessly morphing narrative on the right tying together foreign threats (immigrants or terrorists) with snooty domestic liberal elites. It can incorporate social changes, like gay marriage, or penny-ante scandals, like Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Trump’s campaign is certain to lean on traditional culture-war messaging in its broad contours. A healthy economy would sustain this messaging, but if the economy is bad, he might simply try to blot the whole thing out.

Republicans have used a version of this gambit. George W. Bush ran a campaign in 2000 that conceded the strength of the economy on the watch of a Democratic president, but insisted that the moral imperative was to strike a symbolic blow against the ethical stain of a philandering president. Obviously, the specifics of Trump’s message vis-à-vis infidelity and lying would be a bit different than Bush’s, but the general idea of getting half the country to ignore the state of the economy is a trick he might try to replicate.

Would any or all of these methods work? I wouldn’t bet on it. But what we think of as the rules have not always applied to Trump in the past.

What Will Trump Campaign On If There’s a Recession?