Unemployed man holding "OUT OF WORK" sign (Getty/Spencer Platt)

History suggests a recession may doom Trump's re-election chances

Trump is worried that there will be a recession before the 2020 election. For once, he is right about something


Matthew Rozsa
August 24, 2019 2:00PM (UTC)

President Donald Trump is worried that there will be a recession before the 2020 election. For once, he is right about something.

"The Economy is strong and good, whereas the rest of the world is not doing so well. Despite this the Fake News Media, together with their Partner, the Democrat Party, are working overtime to convince people that we are in, or will soon be going into, a Recession," Trump tweeted on Friday in a clear attempt to assuage concerns. "They are willing to lose their wealth, or a big part of it, just for the possibility of winning the Election. But it won’t work because I always find a way to win, especially for the people!"

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It is an axiom of presidential politics that the incumbent party does well during periods of prosperity and suffers when the economy hits a downturn. Thanks to Trump's trade war and tax policies, America is almost certainly headed toward an economic recession. But, unless Democrats are smart about their PR messaging, it may not happen in time to hurt Trump's political fortunes.

To illustrate this point, take a look at the two most severe economic crashes in recent American history. When the stock market crashed in October 1929, thereby triggering the Great Depression, it hurt the incumbent Republican Party and President Herbert Hoover and enabled the election of his Democratic opponent, Franklin Roosevelt, in 1932. Yet if that recession had happened roughly one year earlier — when another Republican, Calvin Coolidge, occupied the White House — it is more likely than not that the 1928 Democratic nominee, Al Smith, would have been elected instead of Hoover.

By contrast, when the economy crashed in September 2008, it happened with just enough time to ensure that Democratic nominee Barack Obama would defeat Republican candidate John McCain.  To be fair, Obama may have won anyway due to Bush's unpopularity, but the advent of the Great Recession sealed things.

Such is the hand that Trump is being dealt right now. If his disastrous economic policies lead to a recession before Election Day 2020, the chances are that America's next president will be Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, the current three highest-polling candidates in the Democratic Party horse race.

That is not to say that the economic situation is all that will lead to the Democrats, or the Republicans, being the victors in 2020. The Democrats may run a weak candidate, as they did with Clinton in 2016, in which case they may doom themselves either way. But in the event of a close race, the economic situation may tip the scales.

So, what can the Democrats do to make sure they win, regardless of economics?

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If a recession doesn't hit before 2020, Democrats should sound the alarm so that people know that winter is coming. It's only fear-mongering if it isn't true; because the inevitable result of restrictive trade policies, corporate deregulation and massive income inequality are economic downturns (all three preceded the Great Depression and the last two triggered the Great Recession), the narrative of the upcoming election will have to be that Trump is dangerous to our prosperity. At no point can Biden, Warren, Sanders or any potential dark horse who beats them allow that to fade into the background.

If the recession hits before 2020, Trump will almost certainly place the blame at the feet of his predecessor, President Barack Obama (even though Trump only inherited a prosperous economy because of Obama's policies). He will also likely cook up conspiracy theories about how the media and liberal Democrats are somehow creating the current recession to defeat him. These ideas will no doubt be mindlessly imbibed by his base, but Democrats will need to be aggressive in making sure that they don't metastasize beyond there.

There is more. If Trump has one semi-redeeming quality, it is that he is so determined to stay in power that he is unmoored by any firm ideological doctrine. That is why, for example, he has passed billions of dollars in farm subsidies to help the farmers who have been hit by his trade war, a policy that runs athwart tradition laissez-faire conservative principles. Since poor people are likely to be angry at him, Trump may be more open to left-wing economic ideas such as providing monetary relief to the suffering than a more philosophically-oriented Republican. Democrats will need to support him if and when he leans in that direction, both to relieve those who are suffering and to illustrate that left-wing policies are more effective.

It is also likely that many other conservatives will go along with this. I recall an interview I had with Tucker Carlson in January where I quoted from President Abraham Lincoln's 1861 State of the Union message, one that may have been inspired by Communist founding father Karl Marx himself — and was without question quite left-wing in its orientation.

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[Lincoln] denounced what he described as the effort "to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government." Here's another direct quote. He said, "Labor is prior to and independent of capital ...

Exactly!

"Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration."

Lincoln said that?

In 1861.

Hold on, I'm writing this down. I hadn’t read that. OK, first, God bless you for noticing that. You are like the only person noticing that part of the script [of an editorial Carlson wrote], which to me was the essence. That's the big question, tax rates. The piece got all this attention for sexism, or someone called it racist -- I don't even know what it had to do with race, but whatever.

But the hope for me, as the guy who wrote it -- the thing that interested me the most, the thing that I was most upset about -- was the tax differential between labor and capital, and you never hear that. I literally can't remember the last time I heard someone even mention that fact.

It frustrates me because the whole point of saying it -- I'm not in charge of anything, obviously. I can't make legislation, I don't seek to. All I wanted to do was start a conversation about things that I think are important.

Nobody even mentioned what to me was the most significant point of all, which is the tax rate, which determines our behavior to a huge extent: You know, where you live, what you do, at what age you get married, where kids go to school. I mean, it is one of the three or four biggest factors in people's lives and no one ever talks about it. Do you think that's weird?

Carlson, to his credit, is cognizant of the inequities in our tax system. My suspicion is that conservatives like Carlson will also recognize, for pragmatic as well as moral reasons, that if the economy tanks under Trump, Republicans will need to put labor before capital in their policies lest they lose power in the 2020s.

The stakes here could not be higher. Trump isn't wrong for thinking that if the economy tanks, his chances of winning in 2020 will go down with it. Where he is wrong is in believing that he is a winner who wouldn't deserve to be the first president in 28 years to lose a reelection bid. If Democrats want to make that happen, they need to start preparing.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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