It’s Midnight in America

33 years ago, Ronald Reagan was elected President in large part because of his TV ad, “It’s morning in America:” “It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.”  For many Americans, the inauguration of Donald Trump foretells a period of darkness, “It’s midnight in America.”

Here on the Left Coast, where Trump got roughly one-third of the vote, the prevailing emotion is depression.  My homies are split on what’s worse: the fact that lying bully Trump is President or that he got 63 million votes.

Nonetheless, there is ray of hope in the darkness.  Trump is uniquely vulnerable by virtue of his personality and the nature of his appeal. Our challenge is taking advantage of this vulnerability.

Personality.  Thousands of pages have been written analyzing Trump’s personality.  He’s a narcissistic who lacks impulse control and lashes out at those who challenge him.  And he’s a pathological liar.  Nonetheless, Trump’s vulnerability is that he is a con man.  Time and again, in his business and personal life, he has proposed a grandiose solution and then produced something totally inadequate.  (For example, Trump University.)

Program.  Trump has made many promises about what he’ll do as President.  His “plans” can be factored into three groups.  Promises he made to the oligarchs — such as Robert Mercer and Charles Koch — who pulled him across the finish line.  He’s promised to reduce their taxes and roll back government regulations.  It’s likely Trump will deliver on these promises but they will not impact the average Trump voter.

Trump has also made foreign policy promises, the most prominent of which was to cozy up to Russia.  Trump will try to do this — it’s a big objective of his closest foreign policy adviser, Mike Flynn.  But Trump’s foreign policy plans will run into huge opposition from the Senate.  Whatever happens, it won’t impact the average Trump voter.  (Unless, of course, if Trump takes us to war, which he’s certainly capable of.)

Finally, Trump has made a series of domestic policy promises, the most prominent of which feature jobs.  This is what Trump voters care about and where he is most vulnerable.

Trump won the election because his supporters believed that an outsider could shake up the status quo and bring economic prosperity to America’s have-nots.  Trump’s jobs “program” has three components: spur employment by reducing taxes and regulations, threaten corporations who plan to move jobs out of the country, and institute a massive infrastructure program.

In his election night speech, Trump talked about his trillion dollar infrastructure initiative: “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.  We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.  And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

What Trump has suggested is similar to the program that President Obama proposed after the initial recovery from the great recession.  Obama wanted a massive infrastructure-based jobs program financed by taxing corporations and the wealthy.  (Hillary Clinton proposed something similar.)  Congressional Republicans squashed it.

Trump has proposed a similar infrastructure-based jobs program but with a different method of financing: “The American Infrastructure Act leverages public-private partnerships and private investments through tax incentives to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over the next ten years.”  For example, in Trump’s plan, America would finance new highways by giving construction companies tax incentives up front and, after the highway was completed, letting the builder charge tolls.

Trump’s jobs initiative faces two obstacles.  First, congressional Republicans are unlikely to approve the taxes required to fund a trillion dollar program and less likely to approve an unfunded initiative.  Second, Trump doesn’t understand the nature of America’s unemployment problem.

In his January 11th news conference, Trump claimed that 96 million Americans are unemployed; a typical misstatement.  96 million adult Americans are not in the labor force mostly because they are retired, sick, going to school, or running a household.  Only 7.4 million are officially unemployed (4.6 percent).  However, another 7.6 million are not fully employed because they are involuntarily working part time or “marginally attached to the workforce” — such as “discouraged” workers who have quite looking for employment.  Thus 15 million Americans are unsatisfactorily employed — a rate of 9.4 percent.

But the plight of these workers is not easily remedied. Some, like coal miners, worked in industries where the jobs have disappeared because the industry has been depleted.  Economic forces have determined that coal is yesterday’s fuel source.  Thirty years ago there were 175,000 coal miners; today there are less than 50,000.

The larger problem is that Trump assumes he can make good-paying manufacturing jobs reappear.   However, there’s compelling evidence that these jobs, for a variety of reasons — such as advances in robotics, aren’t coming back. (http://www.technologyreview.com/s/602869/manufacturing-jobs-arent-coming-back/)  Writing in 538 (http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/manufacturing-jobs-are-never-coming-back/), Ben Casselman observed, “Like it or not, the U.S. is now a service-based economy. It’s time candidates started talking about making that economy work for workers, rather than pining for one that’s never coming back.”  But Trump is extremely unlikely to tackle the structural changes that would make the current economy “work for workers.”

Trump’s jobs plan is a con.  What he’s proposed won’t get America working again; it won’t magically conjure up 15 million meaningful jobs.

Trump’s obvious con job is the one ray of light shining on an otherwise black scenario.