The Washington Post
As most everyone knows by now, economists are increasingly worried that not just the United States but the world might be heading toward a recession. It’s going to happen sooner or later; the Great Recession bottomed out in early 2010, a full 9 1/2 years ago, which is an unusually long time to go between contractions.
It always bears repeating that presidents get more credit than they deserve when the economy is good and more blame than they deserve when the economy is bad. That doesn’t mean federal policy has no effect at all; it’s just that when faced with the swings of the business cycle, or a crash caused by Wall Street deciding to create a housing bubble with hundreds of billions of dollars in crappy loans, there’s only so much they can do. They can nudge the economy in the right direction or mitigate the damage of a recession, but they can’t single-handedly decide whether we’re in boom or bust.
Unlike in the past, however, Donald Trump is now president, so the equation changes. Now, everything good that happens in the economy is his doing alone, and everything bad that happens is the fault of someone who is trying to undermine him.
And with the possibility of an economic downturn growing, Trump and his allies are already preparing the ground to argue that, if it happens, it’s someone else’s fault. So who is Trump going to blame? Let’s run down some suspects:
- The Federal Reserve and Chairman Jerome Powell
The fact that Trump nominated Powell to lead the Fed was itself unusual, given that Powell had experience in macroeconomic policy and was reasonably well-respected, rather than being a relative of Trump or someone who had worked in the sales department of Mar-a-Lago. But for months, Trump has complained that Powell and the Fed have not cut interest rates to give the economy a sorely needed boost, despite the fact that Trump also claims the economy is better than it has ever been. This, for instance, is bonkers:
“The Federal Reserve loves watching our manufacturers struggle with their exports to the benefit of other parts of the world,” Trump tweeted. “Has anyone looked at what almost all other countries are doing to take advantage of the good old USA? Our Fed has been calling it wrong for too long!”
As recession fears have grown, Trump has become increasingly agitated with Powell. When the Fed chairman referred to Trump’s trade war as a “turbulent” situation during a speech last week (while offering reassurance that the Fed would keep working to sustain the expansion), Trump reacted by tweeting, “My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powell or Chairman Xi?”
The administration’s trade war is, in fact, a disaster, raising prices for American consumers, costing those who export to China (especially farmers) huge amounts of money, and failing to create the domestic manufacturing jobs Trump promised. In fact, the trade war makes a recession more likely, but if it doesn’t end, Trump will surely find a way to say both that it was a great idea in the first place and that the Chinese are trying to destroy us.
- The Democrats
Now that the opposition party controls the House, Trump will surely allege that its dastardly obstructionism has stymied the glorious economic policies he would otherwise be passing through Congress. The fact that Trump actually has no economic legislation he would be passing were it not for Democrats will not be mentioned.
- Barack Obama
Trump has displayed a pathological insecurity when it comes to comparisons with Obama. The former president was everything Trump is not: intelligent, thoughtful, controlled, eloquent, sophisticated and possessed of a particular quality - class - that Trump cannot buy no matter how many gold-plated toilets he installs in his penthouse or how many wives he dumps for younger models.
Trump has blamed Obama for everything from his own policy of family separations at the border, to Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election on his behalf, to President Vladimir Putin seizing Crimea, to Turkey’s recent decision to buy an air-defense system from Russia, to school shootings, to leaks out of Trump’s own White House, to his decision to cancel a trip to London, to the fact that Trump doesn’t like how the air conditioning in the White House works. Does anyone seriously doubt that if we slip into a recession Trump will find a way to say it was Obama’s fault?
- The media
This has already begun. As Matt Gertz of Media Matters details, two weeks ago, Trump gave Fox News its marching orders by tweeting, “The Fake News Media is doing everything they can to crash the economy because they think that will be bad for me and my re-election.” Since then, Fox News has been relentlessly pushing the line that journalists are indeed attempting to destroy the economy by reporting on warning signs of a coming recession.
Trump even claimed that, at the Group of Seven summit, the other leaders kept asking him, “Mr. President, why does the American media hate your Country so much? Why are they rooting for it to fail?”
When facing an economic downturn, most presidents say things like: Times are tough, and I understand what you’re going through, but I’ll do everything I can to make it better and, together, we’ll get through this.
That is not a message Trump is capable of delivering.
Instead, he’ll look for villains to blame, and find them in the places he always does. The biggest mistake would be to think anyone will actually believe him.