Don't like this economy? OK, just wait for Trump and the GOP to ruin it

Authoritarians always screw up the economy — come to think of it, GOP presidents have done that for decades

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published May 4, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

You’re unhappy with this economy? OK, that’s your right. But you should seriously consider whether you want the available alternative.

Last November, I wrote what I thought was a modest commentary about how the Biden economy was doing remarkably well, at least by most standard macroeconomic measures, and much of the corporate media wasn’t reporting about it. Job numbers were historically high, unemployment low and the U.S. had done the best of all G-7 economies in bringing down inflation resulting from the worst pandemic years.

I was careful to note that my wife and I, and members of our daughters’ generation, were still feeling economic pain around the cost of food and housing, and that many younger people felt they could not get their lives started due to student debt and high housing prices. 

I got considerable grief from readers for that one, but I stand by what I wrote about the Biden administration’s active economic moves and a renewed focus on industrial policy to accomplish goals that simply cannot be left to “the marketplace.” Leaving infrastructure work to the marketplace is how America wound up with so many embarrassing airports, shaky bridges and poky, increasingly dangerous trains. There are things we must do together.

As I wrote at the time, Biden’s manufacturing plan invests in rural areas and will transform local economies:

He’s the first president in many decades to stand with organized labor and support its fight for better wages and benefits. He continues to work on alleviating the crushing student debt that limits so many young adults’ lives. He has taken on Big Pharma, moving to lower prescription drug prices and health care costs for older Americans. He is working to stop the junk fees hidden in so many transactions. He rejoined the Paris climate accords and has done far more to address that crisis than any previous president.

The general economic news has only improved since then, including strong jobs numbers for March and April. As Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg writes, the U.S economy typically does much better when a Democrat is in the White House. Biden’s record of more than 15 million new jobs amounts to eight times as many as were created under the last three Republican presidents combined. Although inflation for consumer goods rose slightly in March, which is not good news for anyone, the Federal Reserve has done a good job in carefully bringing inflation down after the supply-chain disruptions and supermarket price hikes of the pandemic. Remember the corporate media braying endlessly about the coming recession? Well, it never came.

So here we are: The macroeconomic indicators look great, but your household budget may remain a struggle. Gas prices keep rising, but that's largely the result of decisions made in Saudi Arabia and Russia, well beyond the Biden administration’s control. 

But here’s what I wasn’t thinking about enough when I wrote that earlier commentary: People in this country are kept unsettled and economically stressed by living with a threadbare social safety net, one relentlessly under attack by Republicans. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, as a frightening number of Americans do, there is no room for higher food, housing or fuel costs. Long before either Biden or Trump occupied the White House, living costs were rapidly outpacing rising incomes. That’s a global issue, but for a wealthy nation, we have a startling amount of homelessness, partly because of the high cost of housing and partly because of that paltry social safety net.

Still, if Americans actually paid attention to how other countries are dealing with inflation, for example, they might feel a lot better about the Biden economy. For that matter, if Americans were better versed in the writings and actions of our founders, they might understand that they believed in a strong central government and sometimes held surprisingly progressive ideas about how to manage an economy.

Biden’s record of 15 million new jobs is eight times as many as under the last three Republican presidents combined. Remember the media braying endlessly about the coming recession? Well, it never came.

The economic benefits of the massive Infrastructure Bill and the strategic CHIPS Act are just now beginning to be realized, with much of the funding specifically targeted to help create jobs in rural areas of so-called red states. (The White House has an interactive map explaining all the efforts across the country.)

Those economic benefits are twofold: the immediate well-paying jobs and then, down the line, the new or rebuilt roads, bridges, airports, public transit, waterway infrastructure, broadband internet and microchip factories that will serve us for decades.

Biden’s support for unions may have influenced the historic vote to unionize at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which comes after two previous failures. That was the first time workers at a foreign-owned auto plant in the American South had voted to join a union, even after six Republican governors spoke out against the campaign. 

Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan, one of the unsung heroes of the Biden team, is working to keep monopolistic companies from harming consumers and workers through price-fixing schemes, non-compete agreements and other underhanded tactics. If you didn’t catch Khan on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart recently, it's well worth your time.

Khan does an outstanding job of taking apart Republicans’ insincere claims about fixing the economy and supporting the working class when she explains how complex the task of protecting workers and consumers is, and how badly the FTC is outgunned by the big corporations aligned with Republicans.  

So, as everybody knows — to borrow Trump’s favorite rhetorical device — the notion that Republicans do better with the economy is a worthless statement clause, one might say, in the GOP’s continuing contract on America, one that has duped people for decades by merely employing the propagandist’s trick of repetition.

But since we have more or less been promised an authoritarian economy if Trump prevails in this fall’s election, how well do those work? 

Not too well, especially if we’re talking about authoritarian governments that were formerly democracies. Such economies tend to be heavily based on one or two commodities, as with Russia, whose main exports are petroleum and, I’m pretty sure, corruption. Authoritarian governments tend to manage their economies about as poorly as Republicans have in the modern era, which makes perfect sense when you consider that Republicans are not moved by expertise or evidence but by ideology, such as the thoroughly discredited idea that tax cuts for the wealthy will somehow “trickle down” to benefit the average Jane and Joe. And Republicans' fallback argument that they are better with the annual deficit or the national debt is just silly. They have made both things dramatically worse, and mostly decry the national debt so they can further slash the social safety net.

Populist autocrats have their own notions about how to run an economy, and those tend to diverge, often wildly, from what less ideological experts would do. As Max Fisher wrote in the New York Times about the economic woes of Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, these strongmen are not so strong on economics: 

They are unusually prone to creating this sort of crisis, unusually inhibited from fixing it and unusually slow to recover. They have, on average, higher rates of inflation and more artificially undervalued currencies. Their central banks are less independent, making them less capable of intervening.

Over the decades, Donald Trump has drummed into his fans’ minds the idea that he is a great businessman. By all accounts — and from every shred of evidence we have seen over the past four decades — he’s anything but. He is certainly a profligate money-burner who keeps being propped up by shady foreign banksshadowy individuals and organizations and billionaire supporters. (Remember how Donald Trump Jr. bragged that the Trump Organization saw a lot of money pouring in from Russia?) He’s so inept at business that even his casino “empire” went under — in no small measure because he used it (as he did the presidency) to enrich himself. When Trump created a “university” and a purported charitable foundation, both were shut down and cost him millions in fines. Recently, the stock for his social media company has reportedly done so poorly that he may resort to flooding the market with more shares, screwing over the hardcore fans who jumped in with their hard-earned money to support the initial offering.

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That’s the “strongman” MAGA believers want in charge of the economy? As Salon’s Amanda Marcotte notes, “Trump supporters mistake petulance for strength.”

Several years back, I wondered whether businessmen had any business being president. The answer I was able to glean was, pretty much no. 

This particular failed businessman (but world-class conman grifter and propagandist) who’s been hawking flag-embossed golden sneakers and Trump-branded Bibles and who attempted in multiple ways to overturn the last free and fair presidential election, which he still denies he lost, and who currently faces 88 felony charges, now proclaims himself immune from the rule of law and ready to be America’s first dictator.

Authoritarian economies tend to be heavily based on one or two commodities, as with Russia, whose main exports are petroleum and, I’m pretty sure, corruption.

He appears ready to follow the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, which calls for replacing expert civil servants with a legion of loyalist lackeys, ditching climate science, imprisoning or expelling immigrants who are crucial to the economy, cutting taxes further and reducing Social Security and Medicaid benefits, forcing a misogynistic theocracy on a nation founded on the separation of church and state, and turning our back on historical allies around the world. Oh and, first and foremost, getting revenge on all of Trump’s enemies.

Does anyone actually think that living in that kind of country under that kind of leader would make his or her life better?

Some will claim they were doing better economically under Trump — but that’s only true in the sense that inflation was much lower, around the Federal Reserve target of 2 percent, before the pandemic hit. Trump himself seems aware, after his own fashion, that things have improved greatly under Biden. After all, he has openly wished for the U.S. economy to crash before the November election. When confronted with evidence of how well the Biden economy is doing, Trump has tried to claim that, somehow or other, it’s still his economy. Isn’t that the best compliment a political opponent can give you?

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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Authoritarianism Commentary Democrats Donald Trump Economy Elections Inflation Joe Biden Republicans