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Why Democrats Must Make Trump Economy Key Issue in 2020

Recently Republican Congressman Sean Duffy from Wisconsin, in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, framed the looming prospect of Donald Trump’s impeachment as ridiculous.

His reason? The economy is supposedly booming. He told Hayes, “They have higher wages, lower unemployment. We’re killing it in Wisconsin. You want to impeach that guy?”

Hayes, of course, challenged Duffy by pointing out that the performance of the economy and whether or not Trump committed impeachable offenses are independent matters, that a booming economy does not excuse the commission of high crimes and misdemeanors.

As independent as these issues might be, however, Democrats need to be careful not to buy into the myth that Trump has created a high-functioning economy. It simply isn’t true. The economy is, in fact, hurting rather than helping most Americans, despite indicators that measure economic performance, as I’ve argued elsewhere in the pages of PoliticusUsa, in ways that really bear no relation to how the majority of Americans are actually faring in the Trump economy.

Democrats tend to pivot to issues of morality and criminality, just as Republicans divert attention to Trump’s putative economic successes. Democrats exercise this pivot at their own risk and ignore a key opportunity for political analysis and education of the American public by letting this erroneous narrative of Trump’s economy go unchecked.

Take Duffy’s claim that “We’re killing it in Wisconsin.”

What the Republicans and Trump are killing in Wisconsin is the American farmer.

Trump’s tariffs are devastating American farmers. The trade wars Trump has instigated has not only led to the lowest incomes American farmers have experienced in years but also caused a record number of bankruptcies for Midwest dairy farms. Over the past two years 1,200 dairy farms have stopped producing milk and another 212 have simply disappeared. These effects have been especially felt in Wisconsin.

Democrats would benefit from highlighting—and understanding themselves—how out of touch Trump and the Republicans are when it comes to the economy and how ordinary Americans are suffering extraordinarily.

And how about the fact that Trump just took $16 billion of taxpayers’ money to bailout farmers from the crisis he created. I’m confident many Americans could think of a better way to spend that $16 billion, if Trump’s mismanagement of the economy had not destroyed the global market relations for farmers.

And yet, a great deal of common wisdom being forwarded on all sides is that the supposedly strong economic numbers bode well for Trump’s re-election; and that if he were to focus in a more disciplined way on the successful economy and not distract Americans with his petulant and petty tweets, his chances for re-election would be heightened.

After Trump’s recent rally in Florida in which he played to his base by recycling the hate speech of his 2016 campaign, railing against illegal immigrants, calling for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton, and so on, Ronald Brownstein observed in The Atlantic, “Trump attempted to pump up his base by acting in exactly the manner that pushes away so many voters who are content with the economy but disenchanted with his behavior.”

Brownstein himself recycled the hackneyed story of “It’s the economy, stupid,” writing, “Given the low unemployment, strong stock market, and steady growth in total economic output the country is experiencing, some election-forecasting models, specifically those that emphasize the economy’s performance, predict an easy reelection in 2020 for Trump.”

And yet an astounding percentage of those working in the wealthiest nation on earth live on the edge. One third of all workers make less than $12 per hour and 42% make less than $15 per hour. A third of the population has no savings, and another third has less than a $1,000 in savings, leaving little to no wiggle room for any unexpected expense, such as medical expense or routine car repair. Fourteen percent of Americans live in poverty, as reported by Forbes, a publication far from being a liberal rag.

We must not see Trump’s lack of moral compass as distinct from his economic policies.

He has been waging an immoral assault on America’s middle and working classes.

Take his tax cuts. Companies like AT&T, Wells Fargo, and General Motors lobbied for them, promising to re-invest their tax savings in their workers and companies to the benefit off the nation as a whole. And yet all of these companies have engaged in massive layoffs or plant closings. AT&T has eliminated over 23,000 jobs since the tax cuts went into effect, despite receiving a $21 billion windfall from the tax cuts with the prospect of cashing in an additional $3 billion annually in tax savings. In November 2018, GM announced it would be closing five plants, eliminating 14,000 jobs in communities across Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, while buying back $10 billion in stock and earning a net profit of $8 billion on which the company paid no federal tax. Wells Fargo did raise the minimum wage of its employees, though the tax savings for the company were 47 times larger than the cost of that pay raise to the company; and the company announced its plans in September 2018 to eliminate 26,000 jobs, at the same time that it has raised health insurance costs for its employees.

The International Monetary Fund recently issued a study declaring once and for all what many of us already knew, that trickle-down economics was a bad joke. The study highlighted that economic policies that boosted the earnings of the top 20 percent did not help the economy overall but that boosting conditions for bottom 20% provided a substantial stimulus.

Democrats need to tell this story of the economy and economic policy—because it’s true.

If we define economic success by current conditions, we’re all in trouble. Americans will continue to suffer.

While Trump’s immorality is rampant, Democrats must recognize it extends to his economic policies, including his attacks on healthcare, higher education funding, and environmental destruction, all of which hit Americans in the pocketbook and keep the majority living in economic precarity.

Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.

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