Donald Trump strode into office in 2016 with a mission and a mandate. The mission was to become a champion for those who were being overlooked by the establishment. The mandate was to overturn the “swamp” and make real changes. Hillary Clinton infamously termed those who backed Trump a “basket of deplorables.” The term became emblematic of both the disdain shown by Hillary and the status of Trump’s base as underdogs. Populism is defined as the revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites. Those ordinary people elected someone who was unlike them in many ways, but who they believed had the political will and administrative experience to make the changes they desired. Trump was elected to improve the lives of those who voted for him. We can never know whether Hillary would have improved things for this group, but we can assess Trump’s presidency. Four years later, are the “deplorables” better off?
First, what were the problemshat the “deplorables” faced? One problem that Trump identified is the willingness of elites to ignore the downsides of global trade. While global trade has on the whole benefitted society, there are some who have been harmed, especially by the outsourcing of jobs to other countries. Charles Murray documented a related problem in his book Coming Apart. He showed, through a variety of metrics, how American society is divided between two groups. For one, the American dream is still alive and well; for the other, it is increasingly out of reach. Economic opportunity is clouded by the breakup of family life, employment opportunity, trust, and faith practice. Donald Trump’s administration was elected to solve these problems.
The economic evidence is decidedly mixed. First off, a disclaimer, “presidents are one small piece of the public policy picture” and do not control the economy. Discussion around presidents and the economy is often smoke and mirrors. Most of the effect a president has on the economy is long-term, through things such as regulation and spending. In the short term, median income grew $5,003 between the period of January 2017 to July 2019. Yet the massive unemployment and economic hardship wrought by the pandemic erased many of those gains. How much is President Trump responsible for wage growth or the economic hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic? He is partly responsible in both cases, but most of the factors were beyond his control. The result is that employment opportunity has not substantially improved over his presidency.
Yet Trump’s economic policy will also have effects into the future, both positive and negative. On the one hand, the deregulatory measures he has taken will make it easier for small businesses to grow and for individuals to engage in entrepreneurial behavior. This deregulation may not be exciting, but goes a long way in boosting the economy. On the other hand, the trade war Trump engaged the country in has been harmful to U.S. consumers. Tariffs are essentially a tax on consumers, because importers will pass on the costs of the tariffs to those who buy their products. Poorer consumers are hit hardest when the cost of living rises. Tariffs are also sticky, meaning they are harder to remove than to implement. Implementing a tariff almost always results in retaliation by the other nation, but removing a tariff does not necessarily result in similar measures. The harmful tariffs that Trump has enacted will last for years.
Perhaps Trump’s supporters are better off culturally. Trump ran partially as a champion for conservative social causes. Although his supporters did not believe Trump was like them, they saw him as someone who could protect them. In a speech in Iowa, he said, “Christianity will have power. If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.” Conservatives will point to the three solidly conservative Supreme Court justices that he has appointed as evidence that the strategy has worked. The hope is that these judges will rein in the judicial activism of the last 50 years in exchange for an originalist judicial philosophy. Yet Trump’s style and methods has created a backlash against religious conservatives. The backlash could result in the opposite of what they had hoped.
Returning to the question, are the “deplorables,” the group that Donald Trump set out to help, better off now than they were in 2016? The core problems that drove people to vote for Trump still remain; he has not made concrete progress on the main issues that drove his election. Economically, the gains are ephemeral. Any short-term gains were quickly negated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of what Trump has done to increase prosperity in the long run, such as deregulation, will be offset by his damaging policies on tariffs. Culturally, there have been some gains, but the backlash he has created could impede future progress. While Trump did identify real problems in his administration, he does not have a good report card of alleviating those problems.