Will Voters Believe Trump's Economic Bluster?

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Trump boards Air Force One en route to Washington on July 29, 2018, after visiting Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Absurd hyperbole has gotten Donald Trump this far, and he's not going to give it up now. Or to put it another way, "People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you," as the president once told his then-lackey Billy Bush. So when the economy experienced a quarter of strong GDP growth of 4.1 percent, we knew exactly what Trump would say: This is the greatest thing that has ever happened, it's because I'm such a genius, and it will go on forever.

I could go through all the absurd things he has said about his current economic record, like the idea that the number of jobs created since he was elected is so spectacular that it was "unthinkable if you go back to the campaign" (actually, jobs were created at a faster pace in Barack Obama's second term). But what may be most interesting is the way Trump and his aides are now insisting that whatever good things are happening now will keep happening, uninterrupted, into the future.

This is not the way normal administrations talk, for a simple reason: They know that things like GDP growth bounce around from quarter to quarter, and if you're too triumphal about a single quarter's number, there's a good chance you'll look stupid when the next quarter comes and the picture looks very different.

But perhaps Trump knows something other administrations didn't: There really is no accountability. You don't have to worry too much about your words coming back to haunt you, because if you're insistent enough, you can roll right over any difficult questions that might arise.

It's still shocking to hear what Trump and his people are saying about this quarterly GDP report. "This is a boom that will be sustainable, frankly as far as the eye can see," said economic adviser Larry Kudlow. "I don't think this is a one- or two-year phenomenon," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. "I think we definitely are in a period of four or five sustained—four or five years of sustained 3 percent growth at least." Pretty much any economist would tell you that's an utterly insane prediction—not just that growth will stay that high without any downturns for the next five years, but that you could possibly know whether it will. But when Mnuchin's boss is saying that maybe he can get growth up to 8 percent or 9 percent, why not predict whatever you want?

The truth, of course, is the GDP bounces around a great deal—for instance, in the first quarter of 2014, the economy contracted by 1 percent, but in the second quarter of that year it grew by 5.1 percent, an enormous swing. That was just one of four quarters during Obama's presidency that were stronger than what Trump calls "the greatest economy in the HISTORY of America and the best time EVER to look for a job!" Obama wouldn't have made such an outlandish claim, not only because he wasn't a shameless liar, but also because he knew that he'd likely be proven wrong sooner or later.

So what's going to happen three months from now, if the next GDP report comes out and it shows much more modest growth? Trump and his people aren't going to say, "Gee, I guess we were wrong. This is more complicated than we thought."

They'll surely describe any less-encouraging results as nothing but an anomaly. Maybe they'll even keep touting the 2018 Q1 report as the thing we should keep paying attention to, just as whenever he's feeling insecure, Trump starts to drone on about his extraordinary Electoral College victory.

But Republicans know that when it comes to economic predictions, you don't have to worry too much about accountability. All they have to do is look at their long record on tax cuts. Every time they propose one, they say that we don't have to worry about the cost because the cuts will cause such an explosion of economic activity that tax revenues will actually rise. It never happens, yet they keep making the claim anyway. We saw it during the debate over the tax cut they passed last year: They said over and over again that the cuts would pay for themselves, without a hint of shame. And of course it hasn't happened; next year the deficit is slated to top $1 trillion.

But as we know, only Democrats are supposed to worry about the deficit. That's why when they propose a major policy initiative, they're expected to pay for every dime—and they usually do, as they did with the Affordable Care Act. When they advocate for new ambitious programs like universal health coverage or tuition-free college, the first question they're asked is, "How are you going to pay for it?" The answers they give are pilloried if they aren't sufficiently detailed and practical.

This is not a question Republicans usually get asked, and if they are, they swat it away without a hint of concern. There's nothing to worry about, they say—this war will be over quickly, the tax cuts will pay for themselves, it'll all work out.

Nevertheless, if you're looking for some reason to think that the truth actually matters, you can find it. Contrary to what Republicans believed would happen, last year's tax cut has proven so unpopular that Republican members of Congress have all but abandoned using it as an argument for why they should be re-elected. It turns out people just aren't seeing it in their paychecks, almost as if the hundreds of billions of dollars Republicans gave to corporations somehow failed to trickle down to ordinary workers. Imagine that.

There's plenty to be happy about in the economy right now, especially low unemployment. But there are more fundamental problems, like wage growth that is about the same rate as inflation, leaving people with no real gains. The (largely successful) Republican war on unions has made the American workplace crueler and more capricious, while health-care costs continue to rise. All of which is to say, despite low unemployment and solid growth (for now), this is hardly the greatest economy in the country's history, and voters know it. All the bluster the Trump administration can muster won't change that.

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