WASHINGTON — Even as signs of an economic slowdown due to his trade war mount, President Donald Trump has a new message for Americans: If you don’t reelect me, you and the whole country will go broke.
“If we don’t win in 2020, everything that we have done – seriously, though ― everything that we have done, your 401(k)s, they are going to crash. The whole thing, it’s going to come down like a stack of cards,” Trump told a North Carolina rally audience last month.
In New Hampshire last week, he went even further: “You have no choice but to vote for me because your 401(k)s? Down the tubes. Everything is going to be down the tubes.”
While presidents have typically spun their economic stories in the best possible light and presidential hopefuls have long promised big improvements if they win, Trump appears to the first president or candidate in modern times to claim that the nation will fall into depression should he not win.
“Really? Other presidents haven’t said things this president is saying? I’m shocked,” laughed Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as the late Arizona Sen. John McCain’s economic adviser during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Jared Bernstein, who advised Barack Obama in that election and became then-Vice President Joe Biden’s top economic adviser afterward, said that even with an actual financial crisis looming, neither candidate in 2008 claimed the other would crash the economy.
“They sound like the ravings of a pretty pathological guy,” Bernstein said of Trump’s assertions. “The pace at which the crazy is coming seems to really be increasing.”
Neither the White House nor the Trump campaign responded to requests for any economic data or analysis that backed up Trump’s assertions.
Trump defenders downplayed his words, claiming that all politicians exaggerate. “That’s Trump being Trump,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative activist whom Trump briefly considered appointing to the Federal Reserve Board. “Trump likes to talk in superlatives.”
Moore said he agreed that some of the Democratic presidential candidates would be bad for stock market investors, but declined to defend Trump’s claim that they would “crash” the markets and the economy should they win in November 2020.
Trump’s new claims expand on assertions he has been making since he won the presidency in 2016: that had Democrat Hillary Clinton won, the markets would have tanked, and that, under Obama, the economy had been headed “in the wrong direction.”
Even that was incorrect, said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Markit.
“To say that the economy was going to hell in a handbasket, that’s just not true. The economy was in pretty good shape,” Behravesh said, adding that one could easily make the argument that Trump losing in 2020 would be better for the economy than him winning, given the erratic and impulsive manner with which he has handled trade policy. “If he were no longer in the picture, a lot of that uncertainty would go away. That would actually help growth.”
Indeed, despite Trump’s claims in remarks and tweets almost daily that the economy is in great shape thanks to his policies, indications of a possible recession have been increasing as the “sugar high” of the 2017 tax cuts wears off at the same time that Trump’s trade war is starting to hurt more and more American businesses.
The U.S. manufacturing sector has declined for two straight quarters now, leading to a contraction in business investment in the three months that ended June 30. As a whole, the U.S. economy grew by only 2.1% that quarter — a figure that Republicans, including Trump, called anemic when it happened under Obama.
Analysts are expecting a significant slowdown in car sales in the coming months, at least partially because Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs made parts more expensive. Canned food giant Del Monte, meanwhile, announced Thursday that it would lay off 800 workers and close two plants because of increasing food and metal costs, again attributable to Trump’s trade war.
Even a company that Trump’s tariffs were specifically designed to benefit, U.S. Steel, announced this month that it is idling a factory in Michigan and laying off 200 workers due to declining prices.
On top of all this, American farmers are suffering their worst years in decades because of retaliatory tariffs imposed by China on U.S. soybeans, pork and other products. Farm income is half of what it was six years ago, with some of the Chinese market possibly lost forever, as buyers there find new suppliers in Russia, Brazil and elsewhere.
“I don’t know if he has early stage dementia, but he does have early stage fascism." Anthony Scaramucci
Holtz-Eakin, who said he generally supports Trump’s tax cuts and rollback of business regulations, said the rest of the Trump economic plan is a mess. “The trade stuff is a disaster. His immigration policy is a nightmare,” he said.
Bernstein said the general agreement among economists that Trump’s trade war is behind many of the warning signs now flashing means Trump will have a hard time evading blame should things get worse. “If what’s going on now morphs into a downturn, it will have Trump’s fingerprints all over it.”
He added that he expects Trump’s language to get even more extreme. “Every time I hear Trump nowadays, I’m reminded that a wounded tiger is a dangerous tiger.”
To long-time Trump associate Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s assertions are not merely wrong or even “crazy,” but rather should be seen as something much darker.
“I don’t know if he has early stage dementia, but he does have early stage fascism,” said the financier who was famously fired after 11 days as White House communications director. “That’s classic cult-like demagoguery. The president’s currency is fear, and he transacts on fear.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a fascism expert and a history professor at New York University, underscored that Trump’s claims about calamity echo dictators from the past century. “It was definitely what Mussolini said: Only he could save them,” she said, referring to the WWII-era Italian dictator. “Trump warning that everything is going downhill is just a continuation of the scare tactics he’s used since his 2016 campaign. It’s also a sad attempt to make himself seem indispensable to voters. ‘Without me, there will be chaos’ is the message.”